Tag Archives: depression after divorce

What’s Underneath the Pain?

I’ve been working with my therapist a lot over the last few months, trying to get underneath my major complaint: overwhelming sadness and regret. Sure I am sad and anxious. Those are real feelings. But where is the anger? I have no access to my anger. And this is a problem for me. I avoid anger. I’m scared of anger. But anger is your friend.

I learned at an early age the destructive power of anger. My dad, the alcoholic, had rages that scared the crap out of everyone in my family. I was 5. I learned from then on that anger was not safe. And like my father during his sober times, I learned that anger and disappointment were best kept inside and never exposed to others. I learned dysfunction. I learned to hide my feelings. And most of all I learned to avoid conflict at all cost. I learned to lie to diffuse tense situations. Even if the lie was not in my best interest.

This plays out in my relationships like this. A girlfriend says something really mean to me. A little time later she says, “I hope that didn’t hurt you. I was just telling you how I feel.” “No,” I would lie, “It didn’t hurt me.” But in that lie I was discounting my real feelings, I was not standing up for myself, and I was accepting unacceptable behavior towards me from someone I loved.

It’s no wonder that anger is hard for me to find inside myself. I’d rather avoid anger, conflict, disagreements. But anger is also energizing. And it’s that energy I was missing in my efforts to recover from my lingering depression. And I don’t think my therapist had the tools or experience to handle what I was going through. Sure, he tried to get me to express anger towards him for failing me in my treatment. But he was also my lifeline. He was the only one I was telling most of my fears to. And flipping to anger towards him, no matter how I felt about him, was too hard. So we struggled together. But I’m afraid I could’ve used a less passive engagement. So I’m seeking new counsel.

This pain that is underneath the sadness and loneliness is something we all struggle with to varying degrees. Some people try to deal with it head on, with therapy, 12-step groups, or journaling. Some people choose to avoid or cover it up with alcohol or drugs. The first group is trying to get through the struggle. The second group is trying to mute it, escape it, forget about it. But the second group is doomed to more of the same feelings they are trying to cover up. Alcohol is a depressant. It’s not a sleeping med. It’s not a way to relax. It’s a way to forget.

In conscious healing, an individual uses all the resources available to deal with what’s going on in their lives. In my case, the cognitive therapy was unable to counteract the bad chemistry in my brain. No amount of counseling, no amount of journaling, was going to pull me out of my depression. And as the meds continued to fail, I went through long periods of hopelessness. Even in the midst of a privileged life I was thinking about killing myself. Even with two great kids and several family members who were close and close by, I was cowering in my beautiful house trying to figure out how to painlessly off myself. But it was the bad chemistry speaking. And I knew enough to laugh at my suicidal thoughts. Sure I thought about it, that’s called ideation, but I NEVER made a plan.

If you ever find yourself making a plan, call 911. Your brain is trying to kill you.

I have a lot of pain underneath my current sadness. And I have a long way to go to get more comfortable with conflict and releasing my anger in a healthy way. For now, I’m still stuffing some of my feelings, and I’m still scared about some other things that feel out of control. In fact, most of life is out of control. All we can do, all we can focus on is ourselves and our program of recovery. We cannot wait for the other person to change. We cannot cajole them into recovery. We have to let them go, to find their own way, to seek their own higher power.

Look underneath what’s bugging you. Is there anger there? More sadness? Then get some help. Write about it. Reason things out with someone else. Because until you begin to uncover what’s going on inside your head and heart, you will continuously be driven by things that don’t serve you.

Yes, I have lost everything for the second time in my life. But I still have so much to live for. And, for now, I’m as happy as I’ve ever been. I’m still digging into and talking about my anger resistance. But everything seems to be moving in the right direction in my life. I’m putting in the work on myself. I’m striving for success rather than just survival. Oh yeah, the meds kicked in a few weeks ago and it was like I was a different person. I came out of some sleepy depressive fog, and I could tell my old jovial, engaged self was back.

Take care. If there’s anything I can do to help you on your journey, let me know.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

image: sad clown, creative commons usage

 

Back to School and Summer’s End for the Single Dad

off-facebook-parent

NEWS FLASH: Back to school can hurt.

My rebirth or collapse has often happened during the first few weeks of “back to school.” Am I suffering from micro-empty next syndrome? Or am I just sad that summer has come to an end?

One thing that will never change: Parents miss their kids when they are gone. Even when they were tiny I hated to leave them. Going to work for the first 5 years was torture. (And maybe I could’ve done a better job at that, but the post 9-11 world was strange and uncertain in business as in life.)

You go from full-time parent to 31% parent. 3-of-10 school mornings will be awarded to you. Everything else, for everyone else, is pretty much status quo. Except dad isn’t around.

The other day, my son and I were driving past the pre-school where they learned to swim, and read, and begin to become separate tiny humans. Dropping them off some mornings was a sad affair, more for me than for them. After my son entered elementary school, I would still stop by with my daughter, and push her on the swings before heading to work.

“One more push, daddy,” she would yell as I was trying to tear myself away. The staff was supportive. The would frequently come and push her on the swing while I made my quiet and miserable escape.

Dad’s have a different relationship to parenting. We typically don’t get to be the “stay at home” parent. We typically feel more of the financial pressure as the bills and responsibilities become more urgent. And each morning, we’re off to work. And yes, mom deserves all the rest and recovery she can get, but it’s different. Leaving your sleeping child and wife on the bed to dress, make coffee, and head out the door, is difficult. Perhaps this was the massive transformation as a parent that occurs for the dad. Time for work. Sleepy, cuddly, baby-fest is over.

Even as the kids grew older leaving them at school felt like a loss of some sort. And this as a happily married man. Work was a nice distraction when it was engaging. When it was mechanical and dull, being at work and getting a text from your wife about the baby’s first word… Well, you miss a lot as a dad. That’s how it’s always been. That’s how it will continue to go. (Don’t talk to me about the joys of being a SAHD. I don’t want to hear it.)

Divorce is like a trial run at the empty nest experience. And dads typically get the lion’s share of the “off” time.

Today, the kids start their next cycle of school. My son enters 9th grade and accelerates up the four-year launch ramp to escape velocity. He will be gone gone.

In divorce, they were both gone gone a lot of the time. Since the divorce (Aug 2010) I’ve missed 5 of 6 back to school mornings. We cobbled some reason for me to bring my ex coffee on that first one. She was feeling magnanimous. And she was probably out of coffee or something. Since then I have not had the joy of packing, preening, and pushing them off to their first day at the start of the new semester. It’s okay. It’s what divorced dads get.

So now, today, I realize that divorce is like a trial run at the empty nest experience. And dads typically get  the lion’s share of the “off” time, and thus the majority of the “empty nest” sadness. When you are making the plans for divorce, and trying to be civil about the schedule, the gap between kid-time can be overwhelming. You go from full-time parent to 31% parent. 3-of-10 school mornings will be awarded to you. Everything else, for everyone else, is pretty much status quo. Except dad isn’t around.

I could blast my way into the first day of school mornings, but what’s the point? They have their routine. They have their process, path, and protocol for making it to school on-time. And they’ve done it 70% of the time over the last 5 years.

As I prepare for my back to school, end of summer, dip I know that I am better prepared for the eventual final departure of our kids. I just wish it hadn’t come so soon in my marriage.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

related posts:

image: promotional photo from the movie Boyhood, creative commons usage

The Fracture of Divorce: My Dad’s Hand On My Head, Forever

WHOLE-dad-daughter

Sometimes I am more struck by how much I miss my kids when they are with me, on Dad’s weekend. Divorce is a bitch. Everyone is pulled apart. And the emotional ripples continue for the rest of our lives. And while I miss them terribly when they are gone, I am often struck by my longing while they are still with me. Last night, watching a movie with my 11 year-old daughter, I was so content. When she fell asleep midway through I turned off the computer and put my hand on the top of her head before I turned off the lights.

I never imagined a time when I would not be able to put my hand on the heads of my sleeping children. You don’t think of divorce when you get married and when you begin spinning up the plans for having children. Their loss is not something you can fathom. And until you are divorced, their potential loss revolves around things like accidents and illness. And then you are divorced, either by your choice or against your choice, and you no longer have access to your children the way you imagined you would.

A non-custodial father (like the other 80% of fathers in my state of Texas) really does not have a fair or balanced schedule. The courts and the counselors will tell you it’s almost 50/50 but they are lying to you. In practice, the non-custodial Standard Possession Order (SPO) at least in my state gives me access to my kids around 1/3 of the time. The little lies come in with things like the “full-month in the summer” that are all but impossible for a working parent. So you’re going to have a lot less access to your kids. Forever.

And still there was nothing more that I could do to keep my family together. There was no drinking or infidelity, but something more difficult to troubleshoot.

That sucks. And it sucked when my parents got divorced. Even though my dad was a tyrant and a yelling, drinking, angry man, he was still my dad. There’s no substitute. And once he was gone from the family home, in my case, he was truly gone from my life. Sure, alcohol played a huge part in his retreat, and even in his death, but for all intents and purposes my mom “won” me in the divorce. My dad often offered to build me a room on top of his fancy new garage on his massive new home. But he offered, he never built it.

And I really didn’t want to live in my father’s house. He yelled. He drank. He got sloppy about boundaries and yelled at us kids a lot. And these yelling-dad memories are still etched in my mind, even though my dad left the house for the last time when I was about six. So don’t ever think your kids won’t remember the bad times. We might get over them, or act like we do, but we’ll be working some of the same issues out in therapy 30 years later. Oh well, it’s better to keep working towards a healthy mental attitude rather than collapse into the ongoing dysfunction of our parents.

And I can’t put more than a cursory framework around my ex-wife’s family of origin drama. And I should really try. We married, we had kids, we did our best, we (she) decided it was time for a change. I went along with it after fighting for a few months. One person cannot keep a marriage together. She was headed out. And with her went my access to my kids.

It’s bigger than you can imagine, this loss of time with your kids. If there was one thing that really crushed me into a depression early on it was the time alone. Truly alone. I was okay with leaving the marriage behind, the anger and unhappiness was worth escaping, but the escape left behind my true happiness, my children.

After divorce you learn how to rebuild your inner-happiness. You’ve got a lot of time for this. Because you are alone for a good portion of that time. And your kids are no longer the buoy of joy in your life. Missing my kids was the part of the divorce that nearly killed me. And how ironic that suicide seems like an option, in the lowest moments, when suicide is the ultimate ALONE. Gross. Needless to say, divorce and suicide go together often. And more often it’s the father who exits both the marriage and the physical plane of existence. Sad.

My dad didn’t kill himself, but he certainly didn’t get well either. He didn’t stop drinking. He didn’t change his lifestyle after his second or third heart attacks. There was a part of my father that wanted to die. He was alone, with a new wife, and a new adopted daughter, but he was probably missing the family and life that he trashed with his drinking and refusal to get help. And he never got help. He drank himself into oblivion every night from then on. As long as I knew my dad, as an adult, he was a drinking alcoholic. There wasn’t much room for emotions and getting reassurances or pats on the head from that father. I made a promise to myself that my kids would never know that absence.

If my plans are moveable, I will always take my time with the kids. That’s my priority. That was apparently not hers.

And still there was nothing more that I could do to keep my family together. There was no drinking or infidelity, but something more difficult to troubleshoot. Ennui, perhaps? Or just greener pastures. But certainly my then-wife’s decision to depart, or force me to depart, was in part fueled by her own parent’s horrible divorce struggles. Again, I’ll skip taking her inventory here, and let rest with the statement that her mother and father were both tortured by their divorce for years, even remarrying at least once over the years of my wife’s elementary years.

So we move along, and we do the best we can. In the non-custodial role I have attempted to pick up more time with my kids whenever possible. But even in that I’ve been less demanding than I could’ve been. In divorce you are *always* trying to compromise with your ex, so that when you might need a favor they will consider your request with a positive attitude. But even in those actions I have lost more time with my kids.

When my ex partnered up again, after about six months, she was quick to ask for an adjustment to our expertly crafted non-custodial parenting plan. She wanted to switch the schedule so that her time synced up with her new boyfriend’s schedule. At first I was belligerent. “Why would I want to make adjustments to lessen my time with my kids to accommodate your new relationships?”

I did. I gave up my 5th weekend gifts. As she asked to go “every other weekend” rather than the ordered 1st, 3rd, and 5th. And while I really struggled with why this was a good idea for me, I still, somehow wanted her to be happy. Yuk. But what I gave up was my double weekends that come around 3 – 5 times a year. She made some overture about giving me the time back, “You can ask for an extra weekend any time you need it.”

And so, even in my already compromised schedule she was asking for me to give up more time so she could be with her boyfriend. Um… Why do I care about her time with her boyfriend? I didn’t. But I did agree to her request. It’s sort of what I do. I compromise and try to avoid conflict.

As a divorced dad, or maybe as a single parent in general, you get a preview of what the empty next syndrome feels like. It hurts.

And in many ways I’m still doing this. She can be an hour late picking the kids up and I’m okay with it. Or ask for me to take the kids at the last-minute, due to some “work crisis” that seems to arrive with about the same frequency as it did when we were married. And most of the time, I take the kids when I can get them. If I don’t have plans, or if my plans are moveable, I will always take my time with the kids. That’s my priority. That was apparently not hers.

I’m not here to take her inventory, however, but to lament the loss of all the evenings with my kids, for the rest of my life. They are growing at an amazing rate. (11 and 13) And I treasure every moment with them. And I haven’t put a priority on finding a relationship. My priority has been on my kids and my own mental and physical health. I’ve struggled. But I’m strong and healthy now. Perhaps a relationship for me is in the cards over the next few years, but I will never put that desire of mine, above the care, love, and feeding of my kids.

Last night as I was resting my hand on my daughter’s head, I was so aware of all the nights I have not been with her. She exhibits the signs of missing me when we get back together. And we are making the most of our time together. My son is a bit more self-contained and advanced in his parental separation process. My daughter and I just enjoy spending time together. And as she has gotten older I have been so delighted by her stories and epiphanies. The things she is excited about, I am excited about.

In the last six months of my father’s life he went through a remission period. And due to the chemo he could no longer drink. So he sobered up, for the first time in my adult life. And when I was 21 I spent some quality weekends with my father, for only times I could remember. Other than those few months, his relationship to me was more about yelling and avoidance, rather than nurturing or pats on the head.

In the last month of his healthy period, my father asked me if I wanted to sleep in the big bed with him. We were at a condo he had purchased. It was a child like request. It was an echo of the times we had spent at the beginning our my parent’s divorce, when we would cuddle. At 21 I was unable to see the poetic moment. “No dad, I’ll see you in the morning.”

We were both hungry for more time, more head pats. And that’s a feeling I still ache with as I watch my children sleeping. Even when they are with me, the knowledge and feeling of the coming loss, just a day or so away, is painful. I don’t show them that side. I put that here. I show them the happy and healthy dad. And I let them know all the time how much I love them, and how they are still THE priority in my life.

Soon they will really be gone. See as a divorced dad, or maybe as a single parent in general, you get a preview of what the empty next syndrome feels like. It hurts. And after 5 or so days, they are back with me. We’re all making it the best we can.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

back to Positive Divorce & Co-Parenting

related posts:

image: father and daughter, peter werkman, creative commons usage

We Have So Few Chances to Feel Loved

WHOLE-redshoe

This is about my family of origin, and my willingness to try and out-grow, out-love, out-inspire, some deep wounding in the other person. I don’t look for the wounded person, but when I find them, I should run like hell. I need a whole person for my whole person.

I don’t know what I need. I don’t know what kind of woman, or what a healthy relationship really looks like. I mean, I’ve read books. I’ve imagined. I’ve written posts and poetry about it until I’ve created my own surreal ideal. But I am clear, I have no idea what I’m talking about.

And since my divorce, I’ve had ONE connection. A few relationships, but one connection that lifted all of my hopes and ideas. And from this wonderful infusion of energy and hope I constructed pyramids and offerings to the gods of love. Because there was something, some little glimmer, that really turned me on about this woman.

I guess I can say this now, because it’s gone. Her fears and objections have finally won out over my optimism, regeneration, and attempts to repair the breakups that kept happening. Okay, so that was a clue that something was not right between us. And the further I launched into “being okay” with her constantly not being okay, the more I moved away from my core truth. The flow has to go both ways.

I must’ve learned in my family of origin, as a little boy, how to repair and attempt resuscitation for bad relationships.

And how did I get fooled into thinking a woman, who had done very little “work” on herself post-divorce, was going to heal in my light of love. What a crock. The work ahead for her, is for herself alone. And unfortunately, now we both get to move on alone, and heal without the rubbing and joy that our “relationship” was causing. The joy was apparent in both of us. The chemistry was hot. The sex… Well, I’ll use discretion and not talk about that.

Coming out of a failed marriage, both partners often feel damaged and depressed. In my case, I was certain that I would never love again. Of course, that was my depression talking, but when you are Sad, you can get pretty dark. So there’s this concept, from a divorce recovery class I took, called the Healing Relationship.

I was determined not to be this woman’s healing relationship. And I worked hard to make myself as flexible as possible. To recede when she needed space. To not share the poems and inspirations I was feeling about her, so that she wouldn’t get freaked out.

But you see, the freak out was the problem. And I was not going to be able to fix it, no matter what I did, or how well I behaved. There would simply be another freak out, regardless of how it started, and we would hit the rocks.

During my failing marriage, I got very good at listening for the sirens of destruction (I had done something wrong) and looking for escape or some heroic journey to fix the problem. Both in my marriage and in this relationship, that was not the right approach. But I didn’t want to accept the warning signs I was being hit over the head with. I didn’t want to accept defeat in my marriage, and in some microcosm of the same role-relationship, I didn’t want to accept that this woman, who I was “crazy about” was going to toss me out because she was afraid.

Again, it was more than her fear. It was everything.

She was hungry for affection and love. But she recoiled from what she needed soon after she began getting it. She was overly protective of her son, but that’s what single moms do. She was/is still deeply angry at her ex, and is continuously upset by the dickish-ex he has become. And for sure, he is a dick, both to her, and their son. He has no excuse.

On the other hand, she has no excuse either. And actually, I have no excuse. I have no excuse for continuing a relationship that I could see was full of “holy shit, what’s wrong now” moments. But the chemistry was on. And I had not felt chemistry for a long, long time. I might be addicted to hot chemistry, or sex, but not getting either for years and years was a harsh form of torture, for someone like me who thrives on touch.

And we touched, but she pushed me off sometimes. And she told me constantly how we would eventually break up, and she mused occasionally about what it would be that would finally do it.

I must’ve learned in my family of origin, as a little boy, how to repair and attempt resuscitation for bad relationships. I tried and tried to keep my parents together. I excelled at school. I excelled in football and tennis. I was a childhood magician. I worked hard as the mascot or hero child to keep everyone happy. And when my parents split for the first time, because of my dad’s drinking, I was the one who brought them back together.

I had moments of hope, “wow, this is amazing, she is amazing, we could be amazing.” And then the red flag, more like a red bazooka would blow a hole in my theory of love in the time of recovery.

I’m not making this up. That’s what I was told, by my alcoholic father. And when the “try” didn’t work and my mom left for Mexico with everyone but me and my dad, I again went into hyper-performance mode to try to make things better. But there was no fixing my dad. And over the next two years he fought to win me. I think it was more about the money than me, but he liked to tell me he was doing it for me. Of course, he was drunk when he was telling me this, but that didn’t keep it from registering deeply in my 7 year-old heart.

I can’t repair a broken person. No one can. And my first “love” post-divorce was no different. And even as I bucked against the breakups, and saw the signs that this was a deeply wounded person, I was addicted to the … What?

Was I enjoying the suffering? I don’t think so. Was it familiar? Very. Did the dramatic breakups feel familiar? Yep, right out of the last 4 years of my marriage.

But she would not be healed by me or anyone else. She would only recover from her anger and sadness about her divorce, by going through it, in some sort of therapeutic setting. And I was not that path. I didn’t fantasize that I was the healer, but I DID try to be big enough to contain her thrashing against the feelings towards and against me. These feelings were more about her and her ex than anything I brought to the relationship. It’s sad to see it happening. And I was soooooo connected to her physically. But of course, that’s my obsession.

Well, ultimately the book of poems wasn’t enough. Even with the crowning poem being direct plea to her, or protestation, or warning… it’s hard to tell sometimes. But the poems were definitely me expressing MY wants and HOPES regardless of what I was seeing in her actions.

In recovery of any kind it is not for us to fix each other. The support is so that we can find our own path to fixing ourselves. And as we find ourselves in relationships with unhealthy people, it’s is our responsibility to do what is best for our health. And trying to be supportive and loving is one of those things we can do. Trying to be loving enough to get them to change, well that’s the trap right there.

So I wanted to change her. No doubt about it. I could say it with a straight face, full-well knowing that I was nuts. I wanted to blow her wide open with stability and love poems and clarity of intention. But… As the story goes, every. single. time. there is no fixing the other person. And the more we work towards or wait for them to change, the further we get from our own integrity.

The chemistry, while essential to the growth of a real relationship, is only a small portion of what is required to develop a relationship. And that’s really what I want. I want a relationship.

At the core, it is my healing that is at stake with the break up of this relationship. I felt deeply for the first time since my divorce. I had moments of hope, “wow, this is amazing, she is amazing, we could be amazing.” And then the red flag, more like a red bazooka would blow a hole in my theory of love in the time of recovery.

For someone to be loved they have to love themselves. And that loving cannot come in the form of caring for another person (a child, for example) or by going through it while IN a relationship. No, in my understanding of recovery, in general, the recovery has to take place in the individual, regardless of the support or lack of support in their surroundings.

There was simply no way I could love this woman enough. She was not mine to fix. And I knew this. I still know this. But the pain of losing a “loving feeling” is also hard. I would’ve continued to heal, retry, reset, over and over to keep the physical connection. But I was covering up the disconnection that had nothing to do with me. And that disconnection is what was my own healing that still needed work. I wanted to be loved. I wanted things to be ecstatic. And I was willing to toss my own instincts and knowledge down the tube for a while, in order to feel or not feel this sense of being loved.

I don’t believe we have a soul mate. I believe we have connections. And for me, for a connection to occur there has to be chemistry. But the chemistry, while essential to the growth of a real relationship, is only a small portion of what is required to develop a relationship. And that’s really what I want. I want a relationship. I don’t want a recovery project. I don’t want to fix someone. I want them to come to me healthy, happy, energetic, and done with a good portion of their baggage.

Well, that’s not who struck my heart with a warm glow. But that’s who I now recover from myself, as I return to working my own issues out, again. I have to walk away from my own issues in this relationship, in hopes of being a whole and ready man when the next potential shows up.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

related posts:

references:

image: put your red shoe on, albert huffstutter, creative commons usage

That Holiday Feeling After Divorce

my free weekendsI could not have negotiated a free weekend while I was married. I mean, I could’ve, but it would’ve been a real stretch for both of us. Today… Well, divorced, that’s what you get, every other weekend, depending on your parenting plan.

Now, I have to tell you, the exhilaration wears off pretty quickly when you realise all the work that comes with this new freedom. And in my case, as I struggled with depression about the loss of my kids and the loss of my primary relationship, I did not look forward to the OFF weekends.

Even today, I really do celebrate the weekends that I have my kids. But I also, relax, nap, breathe a bit easier on the weekends, like this one, that I don’t have a single other person relying on me for anything. (Okay the dog and two cats are pretty attentive every time I get near the kitchen, but that’s a different thing.)

So things like chores and obligations evaporate for the most part, or at least I am in charge of the when and how of getting them done.

And once I got my sadness worked out… Let’s just say that today, when I woke up I was so happy, and alone. I had a small breakfast and went for a long walk, left the clothes on the floor while I took a shower… I’ve even had a bowl of popcorn and a nap. And it’s only mid-day.

There are wonderful things about being single again. And on good days you can and should celebrate every one of them. On bad days you can complain (to yourself) and do the chores you need to do, even if you don’t feel like it.

Getting over divorce and on with the next chapter of your life is mostly up to you. My mental attitude frames a lot of my days. And when I’m on top of my game, I’m motivated to workout, to go out and meet people, and be a bit more gregarious. When I’m not all that enthusiastic, or if I’m exhausted by the work of the week, I have these OFF weekends to just chill.

It would’ve been hard to negotiate that while I was still married.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

+++

I welcome your comments and suggestions here.
And your participation via Facebook and Twitter.

The Divorce Ahead, Go Slow, Breathe

So, you're getting a divorceOnce my then-wife decided she was done with therapy and would rather divorce me than continue trying to “work things out,” my first reaction was to run. I was angry and I wanted to show her just how bad it would be without me. I wanted her to feel the immediate loss of her decision.

In my case the revelation came in a therapy session when I asked her, “Have you already been to see a lawyer?”

She looked ashamed and angry all in one second as she said, “Yes.”

I wanted to snap. I wanted to yell. I wanted to breakdown and jump off a bridge. I sat there and put my head in my hands. I didn’t cry. Not then. Both she and the therapist suggested that I move out and give her and the kids some time out from under the stress of the recent month.

“No way.” I regained my center of gravity. “If you’re in so much pain you can move out, or take a vacation, go visit your family.”

And over the next week I continued stating my position, “The kids are two months from finishing school. If we’re getting a divorce, fine, but there’s plenty of work to be done between now and then. And I don’t want to drop this on our kids before they are out of school.”

I girded up my armor to do battle for the health and well-being of my kids. I reaffirmed my decision to stay in the house until school was out. And I also committed to directing as much of my anger as possible to him and away from my ex-to-be.

Over the last few years I have come to understand, that though my ex-wife is who made the first move and actually asked for the divorce, I had been voicing my dissatisfaction with the current state of our relationship for several months. It was a mutual decision to be in couple’s therapy for the second time. And I have her to thank for releasing us from a situation that had become unmanageable and unrecoverable.

It’s hard to imagine having those thoughts as I was hit with the shock of emotion that unravelled over the next two months. And while both she and my therapist advised repeatedly that I was being unreasonable, I was certain that letting our kids finish 2nd and 4th grade before we adults ripped our unit into two. It was the elementary school counselor who explained to my then-wife how it would really be best if we could wait until the summer. She’d seen so many divorces devastate kids academic and social confidence.

So we agreed to be roommates. And for a few painful months we alternated between sleeping on the couch and the family bed while we continued to go through the motions of parenting our two kids. And the thing to remember is that role and those motions are the part of the relationship that never ends.

Even divorced you have to keep discussing money, healthcare, logistics from school, carpooling to sporting events. There’s no leaving the relationship with your kids and thus from the moment you understand that you are getting a divorce from their other parent, you begin to form the next phase of your relationship: co-parenting.

But it’s a bit of a journey to get there. If you rush into the fury of divorce and start slashing and burning, you’re likely to damage yourself and everyone around you. The anger will come, and you must find OTHER ways of letting it out. Rage and vindictive behaviors towards your soon-to-be-ex will ultimately backfire.

In our case I began to drop into a depression over the course of the next two months, as I neared the precipice that I was still, somehow, hoping to avoid. I vacillated between charming “of course I’ll do it’ husband to “I hate you and am going to let you see what an ass I can be” future ex. But inside I was devastated. I was becoming more and more haunted by the trauma of my parent’s divorce.

In our logical fashion my still-wife and I engaged a family therapist who specialized in helping parents set up healthy parenting plans. And we marched towards June together in our wobbly orbits. As the kids became more excited about Summer and the end-of-the-year parties, I was going to weekly meetings to divide up their lives.

After that first session, when it was revealed that my then-wife had already been to see a lawyer, I called my old men’s therapist for an emergency session. I met him at his house the next morning and upon seeing him and being hugged, I wept. And he just held me, like a father might. And as I pulled apart what I was feeling, all I could think about was how I was going to tell the kids.

And then I wanted to fight. But the fight was about my own emotional hurt and not “what was best for the kids.”

My 5 year-old emotional memory of my parent’s divorce killed most of the joy in my life at the time it happened. I was sinking into that memory and allowing myself to feel the loss and the eventual death of my father. I couldn’t imagine putting my kids, my beautiful and innocent kids, through such a horrible tragedy.

Of course, what I understood once I felt that grief was that I was nothing like my father. And this divorce would be nothing like what I experienced. And with the help of my old friend and therapist, I girded up my armor to do battle for the health and well-being of my kids. I reaffirmed my decision to stay in the house until school was out. And I also committed to directing as much of my anger as possible to him and away from my ex-to-be.

When it initially came down, I really did want to run away. And then I wanted to fight. But the fight was about my own emotional hurt and not “what was best for the kids.” The situation sucks. The divorce is going to happen. Try and slow down. Get a person and place where you can voice and process the anger, outside of the marriage, and not with the marriage counselor either, your wife doesn’t need it to be part of that process.

There will be time for anger. There will be moments when anger is the only way you can find to stand up for what you believe to be right. But the rest is up to you.

In my case, it was important for me that my kids not be blindsided while they were still in school. (That’s how my parent’s divorce was revealed to me.) And the mechanics of divorce were going to take some time, so let’s just calm down and get to work on the next steps. And once my then-wife got onboard with that idea, we weathered the next two months with very little drama, on the outside. The devastation was starting to take its toll inside me. But I wouldn’t be able to listen or feel those feelings until I made it out the other side of the process. So… On to June we sailed in our leaky family boat.

Always love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

related posts:

+++

I welcome your comments and suggestions here.
And your participation via Facebook and Twitter.