Tag Archives: divorce recovery

Focusing On the Other Person is a Trap

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We are only responsible for our own happiness. Taking another person’s inventory is not beneficial for either party.

She’s still certain that I have done her some major injustice during the year or so that I was unemployed. And she’s got the big, state enforced debt to prove my fault. But it wasn’t supposed to go that way.

In recovery we learn that focusing on another person’s problems is really none of our business. We can only be responsible for our own recovery (from alcohol, sex, drugs, pornography, whatever). It’s called taking someone else’s inventory. In a marriage it begins to happen if you don’t guard against it. I think I was pretty good at looking at and working on my own shit. I think my then-wife often looked for reasons that I was the cause of her unhappiness.

Now, seven years later she’s still unhappy with me. She’s still certain that I have done her some major injustice during the year or so that I was unemployed. And she’s got the big, state enforced debt to prove my fault. But it wasn’t supposed to go that way. It’s the way the law is written, and it’s the way she chose to “enforce” it that became the issue. But had we been cooperative, or 50/50 as I asked, we would’ve cooperated and negotiated my economic hardship just as we do things like medical bills. No one expects them, but they come up. And together you deal with the issues.

When I told my ex-wife that I was going to be a bit late on one of my child support checks she got furious. I explained the situation, and the prospects for new clients. She was unfazed and threatened taking action with the attorney general’s office. The second month I still did not have an exact answer for when I could “catch up.” And after a few more threatening emails she stopped talking to me. She wouldn’t even meet with me over the Summer when school was starting up again. “When and how much?” became her standard response to any request for parenting discussion time.

We withdrew into our fighting corners. She threatened. I pleaded. I looked for new business for the company I was working for. I struggled to make my mortgage and keep the lights on. I was burning through my retirement to make child support payments and when that ran out I ran out of options. She was mad. She was mad like she had been mad when we were married. It was my fault that she was mad. I was the reason for her pain and anguish. All of it. Except we know that’s not the way anger and anguish work.

I am not responsible for my ex-wife’s happiness. The debt I owe her, money I did not make and therefore did not have to give her a portion of, is not going to make her happy.

Even at this time I could only focus on myself and my issues. I was working contract jobs for a small handful of clients but was not making money to make my mortgage and/or child support payments. My employer had lost a primary client that had kept me on the payroll. Nothing I said or did, short of delivering a check to her, was enough for her to relent or even discuss options with me. She was done and she let me know she would deliver our decree to the AG’s office by the end of the Summer. And that’s just what she did.

Now, about three years later, she is still owed this debt. The money I should’ve been making during our divorce, and the payments I should’ve been paying her, and now the debt I owe her has become a lien on my credit account. Yes, she has transformed me, a good-natured, honest, and transparent dad, into a deadbeat dad, in the eyes of the state and the credit bureaus. This new black mark on my record killed more than one job opportunity in the last few years.

This past week, when we reported to the AG’s office to reset the child support payments based on what I am actually making, she was still pissed about the money I “owe” her. I’m still her biggest problem. If I’d just pay her all the money I should’ve paid her, from money I should’ve been earning, then things would be just fine.

I tried this same kind of logic while we were married. If I could just get enough money in the bank she would relax. If I could get more of the chores done, hire a made once a week, and do the dishes every night, she would be happy. If I could get everything done and get an activity for the kids to do maybe then she’d entertain the idea of sex. Except there was usually a reason or two, an issue or two, that I had not anticipated or taken care of.

See, she was waiting for me to change. She was depending on me for some happiness that simply was not inside of her. Another person cannot make you happy. Sure, their actions can make you madder than hell, and sometimes their actions can be pleasing to you, but happiness is more of an internal thing. Happiness is a personal responsibility. That my ex-wife is still focused on me as part of her unhappiness just shows how much she still has to learn about compassion and self-improvement.

I am not responsible for my ex-wife’s happiness. The debt I owe her, money I did not make and therefore did not have to give her a portion of, is not going to make her happy. She’s not happy. She’s still unhappy about the way I’m treating her.

For me, I have moved on. I am dealing with the stress of the AG’s lien. I’m in a new relationship and feeling as happy and centered as I’ve ever been in my life. See, I know my happiness begins and ends with me and my thoughts. Even my ex-wife’s rage and antics don’t bring me down. She lost that power over me years ago when she decided to divorce me. And of course, I was learning that she never had that power to begin with. By focusing on my own issues and my own faults I am responsible for my actions. I am responsible for how I wake up each day and attack the hill with joy or anger.

I’m a happy climber. And I’m in a relationship now with another happy climber. There’s always going to be hills in life, and it is your attitude about your own work ahead that makes the difference.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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The Training and Education of a Reluctant Divorcé

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It does not matter if you are the parent who says, “I want a divorce,” or the parent who is surprised by the fracturous disclosure, your life and the lives of your children will be forever changed. You can’t walk that one back.

For me there was no mystery that we were in trouble, the admission came during couple’s therapy, but the form and bluntness of the admission was even more devastating. Something she was saying, in response to a question from the therapist gave me a hint that all was not well. I struck with some sort of defensive instinct. I asked, “Have you already been to see a lawyer?”

That second. When she blushed and nodded. That second began my training to become a divorced dad.

In many ways I went under the bus with a quiet gasp. I agreed after several sessions more that working together required both of us wanting to be married. One of us didn’t.

The separation of divorce is not horrible. The divorce may actually be better for all parties involved. It is our reaction and past-history with divorce that becomes the issue.

I cried and wailed, but mostly to my individual therapist. And mostly I was crying about my parents divorce. I did not ever want to inflict that kind of pain on my kids. And at the outset of our divorce planning I was determined not to repeat the bitter struggle that defined my 3rd grader through 8th grader experience of life. Yes, my parents divorced over a long and extended battle. But it wasn’t so much about custody. It was about money.

We didn’t have a lot of money to argue about. We had debt, which would come into play later. And we had two kids, a house, and two cars. What we had from the start, and what we continue to put at the front of any of our discussions is the “best interest of the children.” Now, this phrase may come back to haunt you, but there are ways to get over your own pain and continue to be an awesome divorced parent.

It was early on that we agreed to do our divorce cooperatively. We would focus primarily on the kids and the parenting plan. We’d get a divorce accountant to help us “run the numbers.” And we’d agree to not fight with lawyers. We got through all of those agreements pretty quickly, once I agreed that divorce was the only course of action.

I sometimes try to play the higher/lower game where I blame my ex for the divorce. “It was her idea.” But the reality is, I was just as angry and frustrated by our relationship as she was. It was my parent’s divorce and the devastating aftermath that kept me terrified of divorce.

Newsflash from the present me to the just divorcing me, “It’s actually going to get better after you divorce. It might take a while. You’re going to have to do some work on yourself. But the divorce is the best thing for your situation.”

It’s no mystery that an unhappy marriage and angry parents breeds some pretty unhappy kids. Had my parents stayed married my life would’ve looked a lot differently. And while it’s easy for me to see how their divorce distanced me from my father’s alcoholic demise, I could not understand or cope with the loss when I was 8 years old.

Things are very different now. Most of my kids friends have divorced and remarried parents. It’s not a stigma for them. It’s *us* the parents that have to get out of the way and let the separation not be a horrible, awful, most destructive thing. Let me say that again for emphasis.

The separation of divorce is not horrible. The divorce may actually be better for all parties involved. It is our reaction and past-history with divorce that becomes the issue. I had a hard time with the divorce. I hated the idea. I fought to keep things together. And in the end I fell into a depression over the loss of my 100% parenting role. All these antics and struggles I needed to go through, I suppose, to finally break down enough to let go.

In the end, divorce is about letting go. But we’re letting go of the things that don’t work. We let go of the pain that comes from being in bed with someone you love and feeling more like surfing Facebook than making love. We let go of the fantasy that we had when we started the marriage and parenting journey, where we claimed, “We will be different. We will win. We will never divorce.”

The biggest transition in my life happened when I lost my marriage. The amazing thing is, out of the other side of this wreckage that I became, I also re-emerged as a writer. The plays and novels I had been trying to write, suddenly spilled out in blog posts about divorce and parenting.

What my divorce gave me was the freedom to become who I wanted to be all along. The roles and constraints of my marriage had strapped me into a course of action that was killing me. At my high-paying corporate job I was gaining weight, developing high blood pressure, and feeling pretty crappy about life. Sure, I came home to the picket fence and the smiling kids, but the wife was not so happy, and dinner was rarely in the oven.

Thriving as an artist, even if I don’t make a penny from it, is also part of my gift and my message to my kids.

The parenting dream and the American dream and the artist’s dream are often set up in opposition. If I can’t make a living as a writer or musician, I’ve got to find ways to make a living and hope that I can keep my creative passion alive in the fragments of time I have left. And parenting was the biggest responsibility I had, and have. There is nothing more important that my kids… Wait a minute. Let’s back that one up a minute.

More important than your kids is YOU. In order to be a good parent you have to survive. Depression and soul-crushing workloads are not acceptable. And more than survive you have to show them how to thrive, even under the circumstances that seem dire and depressing. In becoming a stronger person, in showing them how I could roll with the punches and get back up as a man and a father is one of the most important lessons I can transfer to them.

Thriving as an artist, even if I don’t make a penny from it, is also part of my gift and my message to my kids. You need to know what you want. From there you can rebuild from any set back and regroup, reset, restart.

The divorce was a hard reset for me.

The gift that I was given by my then-wife’s admission, was the gift of my creative soul. If I had aligned myself towards corporate work and being the good dad with the nice house in the nice neighborhood, I might have really suffered a death. My own creative death, and ultimately the death of many unhealthy white professionals who struggle along with little joy or passion.

I had the joy and passion in spades. I had a mis-aligned marriage which generated two wonderful kids. Today I have reset myself towards a creatively fulfilling life. I hope that my children learn from my example. That even in the darkest of times we may find the answer we were looking for all along.

My divorce was also my rebirth as a writer and musician.

My new relationship came to being out of an alignment with my dreams and hopes for the future, and hers as well.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Divorce Recovery Journaling: The Life You Write Is the Life You Live

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The best revenge is living happy and seeing your family happy.

Journaling your way through your divorce is a great way to gather your thoughts, get your sh*t together, and just reset and re-gather your thoughts. Everything begins coming at you rather quickly the moment your partner says, “I’ve been to see a lawyer…”

It’s not important that you blog (as I did) but writing down your experience can really help you gain some clarity in your mind and confidence in yourself as you move forward. Some questions that are going to haunt you are:

  • Could I have done more to keep my partner interested?
  • Did I stick it out too long? Should I have spoken up sooner?
  • Have I done the right thing?
  • Will my kids hate me?
  • Am I going to be alone for the rest of my life?
  • Will I ever be happy again?
  • Am I lovable?
  • After this, how am I ever going to trust again?
  • With everything I have to do now, as a single parent, will I have time to date?
  • Do I want to date?
  • Where have all my friends gone?

Writing about these things, in the moment, as they come up, can help you gain some perspective on what happened and why. But can also give you ideas about what needs fixing in your life, and what you want to leave behind.

I would not have made the full and swift recovery had I not been processing the feelings through my writing.

In my case, I started an anonymous blog almost immediately, after my then-wife said she wanted a divorce. I knew that I would be processing a lot of anger and confusion. So I kept that blog under wraps. Even today, I’d rather my two kids (12 and 14) not stumble upon my anger letters and love poems to new and potential women in my life. But the writing was the thing. I chose to write it out loud, since I already had experience blogging for social media. And that early feedback and support came in handy for me.

You don’t have to do your divorce alone. But most of the experience of it *will* be very alone. All of the processing of the emotions will be alone. But if you journal out the feelings you can become better and quicker at identifying things like negative self-talk, toxic anger, revenge, depression, loneliness. When you can identify and label what’s going on in your heart, you can begin to heal the parts that are broken.

In my process of divorce recovery, I spent the first year confused, sad, and angry. I spent the second year hopeful, depressed, and lonely. In the third year I felt excited, sexy, and optimistic. By the fourth year of my divorce, I had launched this 100% positive single parenting blog, and come a full 360 about my divorce. I would not have made the full and swift recovery had I not been processing the feelings through my writing.

In the emotional recovery from your divorce there are a lot of aspects that you need to identify and actively manage. Here’s my short list of priorities.

Parenting – how can I show up 100% positive and real for my kids?

Self-care – how can I keep away the depression and keep moving forward on my goals and aspirations?

Cash Flow – you’re going to have a lot more bills, and you won’t have a partner to split the bill paying duties.

Health and Fitness – even when depressed you have to move and get out of the house.

Friendships – old friends need to be rekindled, and new friends need to be sought out.

Whatever you do in your emotional recovery process, however you plan to manage the rebuilding of your life, please give yourself some time alone to re-find *your* center.

Dating – how can I possibly be attractive to any one, and when would I ever be interested in letting someone into my life again.

Sex – yep, sorry to say it, sex is a fundamental need, at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy. We need it, we want it, but it’s not all that easy to get it and stay clear of potential emotional vampires.

Entertainment – You’re alone a lot. What are you going to do with yourself to stay balanced? (Read, watch movies, go out dancing, have coffee in various breakfast places around town during the week.)

Ex-partner Drama – it’s bound to happen. It happened when you were married, and now there’s less incentive to keep things cordial between the two of you. Take the time to get the care you need around this. Your ex is hurting too, but that won’t prevent them from taking a shot at you to make their pain or their guilt seem less painful.

When I began my other blog I was confused and bitter. But through the years, you can see the transformation in my writing. I wasn’t really writing for anyone but myself, but I did take heart when a reader would say, “me too” or “great job.”

Whatever you do in your emotional recovery process, however you plan to manage the rebuilding of your life, please give yourself some time alone to re-find *your* center. And you need to find your center ALONE before adding someone else into the mix.

Stick with it, your growth and recovery is the most important thing you can do for your kids, yourself, and even your ex-partner. They old saying is the best revenge is living well. Well, I’d re-frame that a bit.

The best revenge is living happy and seeing your family happy.

The life you write is the life you live.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Preparing to Disembark: Liftoff from Tranquillity Base

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We are in the final countdown to liftoff from Tranquillity Base. I used to joke that I was feeling no pain here, but that I was slightly anesthetized. This morning, my last morning in my mom’s house, I am fully awake and ready for what’s next.

The 2.5 week journey back into full-time employment has had its ups and downs. But I am very happy to report, mostly ups. A whole lot of ups.

Downs include achy butt from sitting so much in a crappy chair. (Took my exercise ball to sit on, Thursday, much better.) Constant temptation of the bowls of candy in every conference room. (Zero tolerance policy, no candy eaten yet. The pop tarts in the kitchen are a problem as well. But I’m learning about my will-power. It is strong. Zero pop tarts consumed.)

There is no sadness at what we are leaving behind, even as the new ship is bare walls and survival systems only, at this point.

Ups are still coming in daily. I’m very excited about the full-range of skills I am being asked to bring to the job. Yesterday I spent 2 hours working with InDesign on a tech spec sheet. It was fun. I came from a design background. And getting to wow my executives with their fantastic find (“you mean we don’t have to send out for these designs and wait for a week?”) I know this is giving my manager a lot of joy.

So the fuel source seems to be solid. And the first check hit the account yesterday. A good portion of it is going to the new house, but there is still a bit left over. And a few consulting jobs are popping up that can be done on the weekends, to bring in some options for furnishings.

I’ve told the kids, “We’re all going to have beds and desks and food and shelter, but we’re going to be fairly zen for the first few weeks.” They were totally cool with it. I know they are ready to liftoff from Tranquility Base. They’ve expressed their exhaustion more than their excitement about the journey ahead. But that’s cool. It’s an adult issue and not something they should be worrying about. But they are ready to spread out their things and not have to pick up all their things and straighten up each room of the house every single day.

We’re all a year older, and three years older since we embarked on our first journey. A lot has changed. And we’ve been through some great times. We’re all welcoming the next leg of the journey.

The view is everything. I can see our next year and I’m ready to stretch into it.

And while I can’t really go into it, at this juncture, I believe a co-pilot is entering the picture in a big way. Her assistance is limited to non-kid time at the moment, by the grace and power of the parenting plan, but she’s already added so much joy and energy to the flight plan, that I’m optimistic and charged up about the potential.

I am feeling no pain here, this last morning in my mom’s house. I am feeling no anxiety either. Just an openness to what IS and what is AHEAD. I am relaxed and comfortable with where I am and where I’m going. We have all done a lot of prep work to get here. There is no sadness at what we are leaving behind, even as the new ship is bare walls and survival systems only, at this point.

But the view. The view is everything. I can see our next year and I’m ready to stretch into it.

Stay tuned for next weeks episode, as the kids arrive for the first weekend of the journey.

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

Have you read the entire series? Click below for more excited episodes.

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Thriving After Divorce: 6 Lifehacks Along the Recovery Process

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I’m going to say something you’ve probably heard a lot. “I’m happier after the divorce.” It sounds trite, but I am sincerely convinced that my divorce transition made me a better dad, a better man, and more conscious and centered man. It’s been a long process for me, these last 4+ years, but with some hints, perhaps I can spare you some of the mistakes I made and help you along your individual path towards divorce recovery.

Here are my six hacks for recovering your full and loving life after divorce.

1. Get Positive.

Holding on to resentment and anger is the biggest mistake I made after the divorce. I laughed when I would get in a particularly sly jab in a text response. I reveled in her long silences after I “gave her a piece of my mind.” I set my own healing back at least a year by holding on to my high-road illusion. It was her that wanted the divorce. I was the wronged party. Um, let’s rewind that a bit, and re-examine.

Once the divorce is final and the deal has been struck, it’s time to move on and recapture *your* positive approach to life. All attention you give to your ex-partner, even in jest or mock-playfulness, is attention you are focusing on negative energy. I struggled for a few years with my own reaction to my ex’s decisions after divorce. Get this: if it doesn’t affect your kids, it is none of your business. And if it’s about your ex and you, you need to take 100% of that venting elsewhere.

Don’t get me wrong here. You will get mad and you will feel anger. But the hack here is to fundamentally understand that there is nothing else for you to work out with your ex. There are no stupid requests from your co-parent that require a stupid and angry response. Zero. I’m still actively working on this one. But I know, that my vitriolic texts or emails since the divorce have had no positive impact on our functional parenting relationship. When I smirked inside as I fired off an in-kind response I was actually shooting myself in the foot.

2. Co-parenting is all about parenting, money, and scheduling.

Outside of those three topics you should not have much to talk about. Sure, I know my wife has a boyfriend, and I hear from my daughter that he’s nice and has a huge grove of lemon tress in his back yard. That’s all I need to know.

In a divorce recovery class I heard this idea about dealing with your ex. Treat the transactions like you would in a convenience store. You are there to get a pack of gum. You don’t need to know about the clerk’s day or aspirations for life. Get in, get your business done, and leave. That’s the model for logistics and negotiations with your ex.

3. Flexibility is key.

Taking the flexible approach with your ex-partner will come in handy. I do everything I can to be flexible with my ex-wife’s scheduling requests. Even if they don’t make sense to me. Even if I don’t like them. One example, after my wife had been in a serious dating relationship for several months she requested that we switch up the parenting schedule to allow them to have the same weekends off. The arrangement actually meant that I gave up my 1-3-5 weekend plan and with it, I lost 4 – 5 double weekends a year. But it was a simple change that didn’t mean too much for my schedule. My first reaction was, “Why would I want to do anything to help her and her boyfriend.” But my next reaction and eventual response to the request was, “Sure. Let’s start next month.”

I didn’t get anything in return, but I lost very little. I could’ve been all concerned about my double weekends, or her boyfriend and their relationship. But what I focused on was my kids. If it would be easier on her it would be easier on them. You know the old phrase, “When mama’s happy, everybody’s happy.”

4. Find What You Love.

Jumping right back into the dating game is a mistake. I tried it, failed at it, and wasted at least a year haunting Meetup.com groups and “working” the online dating sites. It’s a common mistake. You WANT some reward some validation for being released and newly single. You want to sew your oats. You want to party. Everything is new and everyone is a potential date. Um… Stop.

Loving your alone time is the first step to getting to know what you love to do, with or without a partner. For me those two main activities were playing music and playing tennis. Two things my wife didn’t really join with me on. She put in a few weeks in the early days of our courtship, since it was something I loved to do, but it never caught her fancy.

Since being single again my tennis game has picked up. And one woman I dated for a few months actually played tennis. WOW. That was a thrill. I’m willing to admit I’m powerless over tennis skirts on a cute woman. I’m learning to control my urges, but tennis is a love activity for me, so why not do it with someone you love?

5. Reclaim Your Joyous Life.

“To find someone to love, you’ve got to be someone you love.” — a lyric from Nada Surf’s Concrete Bed. If you are still hurting from your divorce, or still learning to manage your alone time, or time without your kids, get some help. Give yourself time to re-center in your own life, your new alone life, before trying to add someone to the equation. You can’t find another lover, a well-matched lover, if you’ve got a love sucking wound in your chest. Take the time to heal. Get the help you need. Seek professional help if you want to accelerate the process. And then rest. If we get too focused on finding a new relationship we’re going to miss a lot of the baby steps of discovering the new relationship with ourselves, alone.

6. Be Where You Like to Be.

I’ve been working on this one a bit recently. If I were with a woman today, where would we be? Where does she shop? What kinds of activities is she into? If she’s spiritual, where does she go for her community? If she does yoga, she’s probably part of a class. If she’s a tennis player, where do single women play tennis, or can I ask one of my tennis playing women friends who they know? Your next partner is already doing the things you want to be doing. Perhaps they are in a process of rediscovery too. And you can rejoin, rekindle a spiritual practice together.

Imagine where she might be, or where you might be together, and go there. Look around. Listen. Try something else.

Overall the process of divorce recovery has taken me at least 4 years. I’ve been in my happy place for about 6 months. If you can focus on the ideas above perhaps you can find your inner buddha quicker and move along into the next chapter of your life.

I’ve had two serious relationships in that time, and I’m hopeful that the coming year will bring a more successful coupling. But I’m no longer in a hurry. I no longer consider myself “dating” or “looking for a date.” Those activities might’ve been helpful when I was determined to be in a relationship again. Today I’m not. I’m happy in my own relationship. I’m longing for a relationship with another woman, but I’m not hurting from the lack of it.

Get right with yourself before moving on to partner with another person. You’ll be much more attractive to other healthy people, and better equipped to see and avoid negative relationships.

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Resetting Your Priorities in the New Year as a Single Parent

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It’s all too easy to blame your ex-partner for things that aren’t working in your life. I know that I’d like to have the last few years back and do a couple things differently. And I know that seeing my ex refurnish the house, her house, while I’m struggling to find a house again, is painful. But guess what? It’s not her fault. Ever.

I am responsible for my own happiness. Full stop.

That’s a hard line I’ve come to rely on as I’ve been turning everything around about my life, my divorce, and my parenting. It is NEVER about her.

Taking Inventory

When we take our own inventory in life it’s a good thing. (The 12-step programs have given us fantastic resources and frameworks for digging into what’s not working in our lives.) It’s when we take someone else’s inventory that things get a bit more muddled. Their issues, desires, and failings are really none of our business. (Kid’s lives have a slightly different relationship, but we’ve even got to watch our “assessments” of our kids.) My ex-wife and her joys or lows are really none of my concern. And when I pay attention to her life [how’s she doing… wait, she’s got a new living room set… how’s her boyfriend working out…] I’m really doing both of us a disservice.

I could focus on her. I could retrace things about our marriage and divorce that could’ve, should’ve, would’ve been done better.  I could dig into my own issues and seek forgiveness… Except… That time has passed. The only forgiveness I need at this moment is from and for myself. Divorce is ultimately an individual experience. No amount of counseling, friendships, or new relationships can take us our of the sorrows, joys, and struggles of resetting every aspect of our lives. Books, blogs, therapy, friends, exercise, they all help, but the real work is done on a much deeper level.

I’ve been asked on several occasions about this blog. One friend said to me, “It’ll be great when you’re over your divorce. It seems like your still obsessed with it.” I found her statement funny at the time, but now I understand what she was getting at. She was reflecting her own issues. She was sharing about her divorce pain, not mine. Even as she was checking-in with me on some level, she was really talking about herself.

I’m well over my divorce, it’s the parenting part that I won’t ever be over. And that is where my focus has to reside. Not on her, or the divorce, but on myself and my relationship to my kids. (I know I repeat this idea, like a mantra, but I need to hear it.)

And…

And I need to continue to explore the ideas of love and trust for myself. When I pull back the covers a bit on my failed marriage, I am really seeking to understand more about myself. It’s a bit voyeuristic at times, but I’m not that interested in her or her feelings. I really have no way of knowing all the emotional swirlings that were going on in her mind as things broke down between us. I can only account for my own actions, my own feelings in the moment, and my current reflection back on *my* role in the process of loss and separation.

Sure, the pain of being divorced comes up from time to time, but it’s primarily around the loss of time with my kids. She is much less important to my life and well-being than my kids. In fact, other than taking care of my own health (mental, spiritual, and physical) there is nothing more important in my life than the care and feeling of my two kids.

My positive approach to life is how I show up for my kids. They are watching us. They are learning from our actions.

The real kicker comes when I catch myself assessing my ex-wife’s success or failure post-divorce. That type of thinking *would* indicate an obsession and inability to move on from the relationship. These type of thoughts come in minor flashes now, but they used to come in broad strokes that would re-chart the course for an entire day, when I wasn’t vigilant about rejecting them. There is no value, none, in taking someone else’s inventory. This life is not about them, it’s about me. I can be distracted by focusing on others, or circumstances outside my control, but that is a dark path that leads to depression and feelings of despair.

Get this message: I am responsible for my own happiness. Full stop.

As I began writing this blog in 2013 I knew it would not be easy to reframe all of my “work” in a positive light. However, just the act of starting the 100% positive goal began a process that transformed my own experience of live after divorce. When I started I still had resentment, I still felt like I had been wronged, I still had long periods of sadness surrounding the loss.

What emerged as I kept revisiting all of my feelings from this positive perspective is my own positivism. What I learned in the process of writing all of this “divorce” stuff was that it wasn’t about the divorce, it was about me. This blog is about my recovery of joy. Even in these hard times, I worked to see the good. As things began to get worse I doubled my efforts. The positive voice began to become my inner voice. The letting go of negativity towards my ex-wife was the biggest single step in my recovery process. And knowing that my kids were affected by all of our interactions, I saw the positive changes in their lives too.

We can’t imagine what is going on in another person’s life. We try. But we know that our projections are not real. In redirecting that inventory-centered mind on ourselves we can take charge of what we can know, what we can change. The act of writing this blog has allowed me to reclaim my own joy.

I am one of the happiest people I know. I’ve always been this way. A friend on the street a few weeks ago asked me, “Were you this happy as a kid?”

“Yes,” I said. “I’ve always been the one who shouts across the room to greet someone I care about.” I had just hailed him from 50-yards away.

“A lot of people don’t see themselves that way. A lot of kids I’m teaching these days have no sense of their inner voice. It’s as if they don’t have one. As if they don’t remember themselves as kids.”

Taking the High Road

Here’s what I know. My ex-wife has nothing to do with my happiness or success. My positive approach to life is how I show up for my kids. They are watching us. They are learning from our actions. How we deal with hard times will inform and set their own internal compass for later in life as they run into challenges. In resetting everything in my life on my own experience, I learned that my positive approach to living in the present moment was the most powerful parenting lesson I could give them.

I am someone who claims to be spiritual but not religious. To me, what this means is I take more comfort in the Serenity Pray than I do in the Lord’s Prayer. I prefer friendly company or contemplative solitude to church. And while I’m not sure how spirituality will play out in my kid’s lives, I know that I show them every day what it means to be a self-fulfilled and happy person.

I am joyous. I am alone. And I am always hopeful.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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God, grant me the serenity,
To accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things that I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

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Rebuilding Myself Into the Person I Was Before We Married

WHOLE-dinnerforone

It’s been a long road back from the divorce. And I’m not done, I know, but I think I’m out of the woods.

“You have no possible idea what life is going to be like the moment you walk out the front door of your house and declare it is no longer your house but “their mom’s house.”

Everything changes when you get married. And again when you have kids. As you adapt your life to the life of being a parent a number of hobbies and habits fall away. For me those things were playing music in a band and getting enough exercise. Now, I’m not blaming my ex-wife for those things, a lot of changes come with the territory and the new responsibilities of being a grown up. A grown up with kids, even.

THEN you lose everything. Divorce.

Dad’s sort of take divorce on the chin and we’re expected to roll with the death-blow and come back up swinging, or not swinging as it were. Once the decision is made between you and your spouse, and the divorce is in progress, a number of dramatic changes happen immediately.

  • You stop being compassionate towards your soon-to-be ex.
  • You start looking for signs of life beyond the world as you’ve know it.
  • You have to start thinking about where you might like to live as a single man.
  • You really have to start thinking about where you can afford to live, that’s not too far from your old neighborhood and your kid’s school. (Because 80% of dads will wind up with a hefty child support payment and no house.)
  • You have to address the rapidly approaching chasm of alone time and what you’re going to do with yourself.

The only part of the process of evolution that I can tell you for sure about is this: “You have no possible idea what life is going to be like the moment you walk out the front door of your house and declare it is no longer your house but “their mom’s house.” For me the shock and disorientation was extreme. My neighborhood with running trails and nearby friends, my tennis club with summer swimming pool, my music studio in the garage… All vaporized as I left the house behind.

It’s not all bad, this divorce thing, take heart. There are a number of things you get back as well.

  • Time to do whatever the hell you want.
  • An extremely reduced “getting the kids ready for school” mornings.
  • Dropping the little favors and chores you use to do for your then-wife.
  • Doing laundry whenever you feel like it. (Like when you’re out of clean shirts, for example.)
  • A limitless supply of new eligible women and willing women. (Well, at least that’s one of the things that might pass through you mind, what with all this talk of hot cougars these days.)
  • You can eat whatever you want. (No need to consider the kids diets all the time.)
  • You can drink whatever and whenever you want. (Though this could be a problem.)
  • You get to sleep all the way across the bed diagonally if you want. (This is much less fun when you are “borrowing” a twin bed at a friend’s house while you catch your bearings.
  • The entertainment agenda is up to you every single night when you’re solo. (Want to go to a movie at 10pm on a weekend, go for it.)

That’s a fairly good list of how things balance out, somewhat. Emotionally, for me, however, things didn’t go as imagined. First off, my recent employment loss took a lot longer to replace. Needless to say, I wasn’t in top form on interviews for a several months. Second, my fantasy about online dating was about as far from the reality as porn is from real life. Um, sure, there are a ton of women on Match.com right now, but they’ve ALL got issues. That’s why they’re on an online dating site in the first place.

Then comes the bigger problem: 6-nights of alone time in a row is a killer if you’re not happy or busy. When it’s “not a kids weekend” things can get pretty rough quickly, if you’re not careful. I wasn’t careful nor was I prepared for the emotional fallout of being alone.

I believe this aspect of divorce, the loneliness and longing to be with my kids, has been the hardest part of the transition for me.

Immediately upon leaving the house and starting the customary SPO (standard possession order) the dads of the world are going to get a lot less than 50% of the time with their kids. Accounting for the laughable “month in the summer” clause that tries to make up for the time imbalance, dads in general see their kids about 30% as much as the moms. It’s not fair, but that’s how the old laws were written. The phrase, “In the best interests of the children” will become very familiar, over time.

Okay, so that’s the first big hurdle. What are you going to do with yourself? And for me, I have struggled for years trying to answer that requirement with a positive attitude. And when you are recently divorced you might be missing your kids a lot more than you can imagine. Their entire lives you’ve had little playmates, companions, dependents. Suddenly, as a divorced dad, you’ve got nothing and no one to talk to. I believe this aspect of divorce, the loneliness and longing to be with my kids, has been the hardest part of the transition for me.

I’m pretty close now, however, to being the happy person I was before we got together. I’m playing music and tennis regularly. I’m waking up singing and going to be early. Alone… But early.

The main thing to remember as the divorce s-storm is heading your way is to take care of yourself. Like on the airplane when they say to put your mask on first and then your kid’s masks. That’s so you are conscious to be able to help them. Divorce is the same way. Take the time you need before jumping back into a relationship. Enjoy your freedom. Explore your alone time. Take up new hobbies if you didn’t have any before. It’s kind of like dating yourself. Get to know your happy-and-alone self before you start looking for another happily-single mate.

Before I got married and had kids and then got divorced I was a happy and highly creative person. I’m getting that back little by little these days. I’m still a ways off from my goal of getting down the same pants size, but that’s in-progress as well.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Staying Positive and Becoming Whole – OverDivorce Podcast

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John McElhenney joined us to talk about how he was able to develop a positive perspective while he was going through his divorce. John is a single dad who lives and writes in Austin, Texas. John is also the Divorce editor of The Good Men Project and is a contributing writer for the Huffington Post. During the show we talk about:

  • John’s epiphany that radically changed his thoughts about being a father in a positive way.
  • How he got clarity about making decisions during his divorce.
  • His realization about becoming a “Whole Parent” and the most important thing that he did to become one.
  • How John processed his emotions while going through his divorce so that negative thoughts wouldn’t impact his kids.
  • Learn John’s mental “Judo move” that changed his mind set about his divorce.
  • How your kids view what you are doing during your divorce and how that will impact their lives.
  • How he talked to his kids about some of the good things that came out of his divorce for him and his ex-wife.
  • John talks about how his parents’ divorce impacted him on how he was going to handle his own divorce.
  • How writing and journaling helps you get perspective on your thoughts and relieves some of the depression that comes with divorce.
  • How he was able to grieve during his divorce.
  • 3 things that John did so that he could cope with his divorce. These are techniques that John used to keep him distracted and let him have fun.

John recommends Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

Go Listen Now: The OverDivorce Podcast: The Positive Divorce by John McElhenney

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Down Is the New Up: Divorced with Children

WHOLE-stiltdance

There is no planning for divorce. Divorce sneaks up on you, and more often for men, divorce slaps you on the back and says, “Sorry, we’re done here. Get your things and give us all a break, please.”

And you step out side of your house, what was your house, for the last time and smell the morning air. There is a hint of excitement mixed in with the heat and dust of the Summer.  You know it’s over this time. You know you have given in to the request. You may still try reconciliation from time to time, but she has made her position clear.

The moment, in couples therapy, when she admitted to consulting an attorney I was caught off guard.

As a semi-conscious husband and father I knew things were hard. I knew we were struggling to keep our friendship above the fray of money-work-kids-mortgage-insurance-sex. It was all coming to a head so quickly, but I knew that our couple’s therapy was helping. I was praying that it was helping. And then it wasn’t working any more.

I had begun to risk asking for what I needed. And I was beginning to express my dissatisfaction in the marriage too. This was dangerous territory. It was usually my then-wife who was having the major issues. She was unhappy. Very unhappy. And over the course of a year, I was beginning to wear down, and I was getting unhappy too.

Where I had been able to maintain a buddhist-like detachment from the “issues” that seemed to arise daily, my hopefulness was beginning to fail. Sure, we weren’t very good friends at the moment, but we were partners and parents first, right? Well, I had begun to express my frustration with how isolated we had become. I was tired of satisfying 100% of my sexual needs alone. I was tired of being kept in a glass box. My love language was touch, and I was starving to death.

What I didn’t know was how far into the foundation her anger went. Probably the fractures that were causing her chronic anger were not all about me. Depression and anger often have roots in childhood trauma and family of origin issues. But on the surface it appeared to her that I was the problem. I was okay at holding that responsibility for a while if it meant we could work on things. But over time, I began to feel a bit beat up, I began to respond with my own dissatisfaction.

There was only one real problem with my plan. I was arguing and fighting “for” my marriage from a position of strength. I thought the relationship was hard but the marriage was solid. My then-wife, however, had begun to consider post-marriage options. The moment, in couples therapy, when she admitted to consulting an attorney I was caught off guard. My strength and resolve at fighting *for* my marriage shifted instantly to some other instinct: self-preservation. (see: super judo warrior dad)

And within a few months of that revelation, I was out of the house. We were done. And I would never have full access to my kids again. It was way to early to understand the full impact of what was happening. I was reeling in emotions, depressive thoughts, and “what the hell am I going to do now” moments. I was in survival mode.

It took a few years of hard work before I was really ready to examine my own present struggles. I was consumed with issues like how to make enough money to pay child support *and* have a place to live, how to maintain a positive outward appearance to my kids when they were with me, and how to recover enough when they were not with me to function at a reasonable level. The maelstrom of divorce rips through everything you thought you understood. Just as the love hurricane brought in your role as parents, this was another transformative event. None of us would ever be the same.

You walk out of your house and essentially out of the life you’d known and into something dark and exciting.

I have the sense that a “dad out on the street” experience is quite different from what my ex-wife and kids experienced. Their lives maintained a sense of sameness. They were in the house together most of time and it was only me that was missing. For me, I was taken out of all that I had built over 11 years of marriage, out of my house, bed, neighborhood, friendships. I was struggling to find a place to live, living with family members, and missing my kids terribly. Of course, I was missing my partner as well, but that part of the ache had been crushed in the process of divorce.

If you’re super stable and fully employed at a high-paying job, perhaps divorce wouldn’t hit so hard. But for me it was much more than logistics and schedules. For me it was a total reset. I had nothing. My things were in storage in the garage and my former life seemed to be going along just fine without me, just a few miles away. Yet I was not invited in.

I learned how to survive and thrive while being down. For several years there were no “ups” it was all struggle and high-growth curves as I learned to reset my expectations and ideas about my future. Everything had changed. And this live without my kids for 70% of the time was the new normal. I had wanted 50/50 custody but I had been overruled by the counselor and my ex. Of course that’s not what she wanted. Her mandate was to keep the kid’s lives as similar as possible, just without me.

And that’s what we did. And that’s what you learn to survive as a divorced dad. You walk out of your house and essentially out of the life you’d known and into something dark and exciting. Of course there is a liberation at that moment, the world is reopened, the possibilities are once again endless. But… You’re kids, the purpose you’d come to depend on as a driving motivation, are no longer with you. And while they are not against you, they are most often away, in the old house, living the old life, without their dad.

We did our best. We survived. And I have learned to thrive in the absence of my kids and former life. Down has become the new up, and I have become a new single dad, still committed to his kids, and in many ways, to his ex-wife as well. We are still a family, still connected, even when we’re not together.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Upward and Onward After Splitting Up

WHOLE-bikekids

Things are never going to be the same after divorce. Everyone knows this. But the feelings following the fracturing of the family unit take a while to be fully felt and dealt with. After the hurt and healing begins to take place, it’s up to the adults in the family to move upward from the ashes and into the new new life ahead. Easier said than done, I know, but here are some ideas that might help that transition.

From this side of my divorce, 4 years later, I can easily say my life is better. Not how I expected it, but better in some unexpected ways. There is loss. I miss my kids terribly when they are away, when I don’t have immediate and continuous access to them. The off-time phone calls are all very similar. “Hi.” “How are you?” “Fine.” “Anything new at school today?” “No.” “Okay. Love you.” “Love you too.”

As a divorced parent you now have time alone. What are you going to do with your new life? Who do you want to become?

It’s like a telegraph. And often it is just a few text messages at night, that carry the same words. But the message beneath the words is “I am here, I love you, and I am available for you, when you need me. Always.”

Even when you feel like you’re not getting through to them, you are. The support they feel just from your check-ins cannot be underestimated. Letting them know you love them. Making sure they hear it from you as often as they will tolerate it.

As adults, according to Brené Brown, we show our kids how to behave in difficult situations. Rather than trying to parent correctly, what we need to show our kids is how to live correctly. So as you are suffering from the damage of divorce, it is critical that you take your “work” outside the relationship with your kids. You can let them know you are working through stuff, but your issues cannot be processed with them. They are still kids. Let them remain kids and go do your adult work with other adults.

Too many times I’ve heard angry parents railing about their ex-partners in front of their kids. This is awful. There is no complaint that your kids can make better. There is no situation with your ex that they can help resolve. Keep the adult conversations and conflicts between the adults. And do your best at parenting by showing your kids how to live and forgive with compassion.

Know that your loneliness is your issue, and that it also cannot be solved by your kids. It’s not about more or less time with your kids. The loneliness is something deeper, that probably has roots in your family of origin. Sure the pain of the separation and divorce have triggered your loneliness again, but it’s not something that can be solved with or through your kids.

As a divorced parent you now have time alone. What are you going to do with your new life? Who do you want to become? What parts of yourself did you let drop in your marriage, that now have space to grow and flourish again?

I was talking to my daughter in the kitchen several months ago, processing the positive effects of the divorce with her. “There are some things that are definitely better for me,” I said. “And I know when I’m happier, I’m a better dad to you guys, as well.” She nodded. “And you know I wouldn’t have been able to play music again as much as I am, when I was still married. But now I have this time, when you guys are not with me. And I’m playing a lot of tennis again and that makes me happy too.”

It’s not that I was trying to justify or explain the divorce to her. I was trying to show her how my life has transitioned because of the divorce, and how I’ve made the most of my time. I have recovered my joyous self, and it’s important that I show up as that same joyous parent in their lives.

And part of my joy is losing the anger at their mom. Getting over the loss of time with them. Getting on with what I need to work on in my life, as a single man.

I can drop the drama from my life, completely. When drama occurs I can observe it, name it, and step away. I no longer have to live in the drama.

I have stayed pretty focused on my own healing and the well-being of my kids. I haven’t put the energy or time into finding and building a new relationship. That has been my choice. And I’ve grown a lot from allowing the loneliness to inform my soul of what things are important in my life and what things that I can drop.

I can drop the drama from my life, completely. When drama occurs I can observe it, name it, and step away. I no longer have to live in the drama. When it’s an issue with their mom I can give myself the space and time I need to respond with kindness. Again, what I am showing my kids is how to respond to all types of losses and frustrations with kindness and hopefulness.

I’m not always happy, but I’m always hopeful. And I can show both sides of that coin to my kids. They’ve seen me struggle, but they’ve always known I was strong enough to come back and keep coming back to be 100% available to them.

I’ve seen both of my kids deal with some pretty major setbacks since the divorce. And I’ve seen them roll on with calm, optimism, and their own brand of hope. They both have their own internal languages and healing patterns for coping, and the tumble of the divorce gave them some practice at dealing with things not working out. That’s a great life lesson. Things are not always going to work out. When things fall apart, it is the optimism and hope that pulls our lives back together.

Neither of my kids harbors any bitterness about the divorce. They’ve got their sadnesses, we all do. There are times when it is clear they are missing the inclusion of the entire unit. But my ex has been with her boyfriend for over 2.5 years now, and he is also a solid figure in their lives. He comes to volleyball games even when their mom can’t. I love him for that.

We’re all just doing the best we can. That my ex-wife has found new love is a wonderful thing for her, and for my kids. She deserves to be happy. And the happier she is the happier my kids are, and tangentially, the happier I am as well. We’re all still in this together, ’til death do us part.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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