Tag Archives: divorce with kids

Having A Positive Divorce is Up To You: The Two Levels of Healing

WHOLE-fambefored

Divorce hits your life on all levels. There is no escaping the waves of disbelief mixed with relief and terror and joy. It’s a very confusing time. It’s confusing for everyone. There are two levels to healing from divorce if you’ve had children.

As you come out of the state of shock, you will need to put some parameters around your living and health.

The challenge is separating the two levels (divorce as an individual, and divorce as a parent) and addressing them independently. In my case, I got them all mixed up. I let my confusion around being alone again, bleed into my overwhelming joy at seeing my kids again after a week away. I could’ve used some better separation of the two states of being. As I wound my way through the next five years I began to understand the two flip sides of the divorce puzzle. Everything in your life has changed. Now it’s time to pick up the pieces and go for an even happier life. The process won’t be easy, but it is 100% up to you to take care of your own crap and get your life back together as you move on.

You deserve a happy life. And your happy life will inform and support your kids happy lives.

The Newly Single You

The first process is reimagining your life as a single human being. Single happiness. Refinding yourself and what you like to do, regardless of what anyone else needs or wants to do, is the first step towards finding your new cadence. It can be hard step to let go of other’s expectations and follow your desires and needs. The pull to take care of the kids, even when they are not around, is strong. But your new task is to learn to be an independent and joyful human again. Not a mom or dad. Not a partner. You have to reconnect with the single person coming to grips with all the wins and failures thus far in your life.

During the early stages of divorce you might crater a bit. I spent a lot of time binge watching tv shows and going to be early. But as you come out of the state of shock, you will need to put some parameters around your living and health. Here’s what I determined to be essential to getting my life back on track.

  1. Eat well. (less fast food, more veggies, simplify my diet)
  2. Exercise as often as you can (walking the neighborhood or local nature trail was my physical therapy)
  3. Drink plenty of water. (I never had a problem with alcohol, but I know it’s a depressant, so not good for me, personally)
  4. Get the appropriate amount of sleep. (too much and you’re woozy, not enough and you’re edgy and ragged)
  5. Entertainment is good. Laughter can be medicine. Gaming might just release your sad brain from its prison. Whatever it takes. Find joy. Find something that makes you smile.
  6. Self-care starts with ending all negative self talk. (Finding the positive things to say to yourself may be hard. But you need your inner coach to be on your team and not a tyrant or complainer. The negative complaining might be part of what we’re trying to leave behind)
  7. Whenever possible, say YES to friends and opportunities to be with other people.
  8. Reset and Restart every single day.

It doesn’t matter how much queso you ate the night before. Rejoin and recommit to your recovery and health program each morning, regardless of how you feel. Your consistency and continuous commitments can keep you heading in the right direction: UP and OUT of the pit of despair.

The seconds level of divorce recovery with kids is learning how to be a single parent.

Learning How to Be a Whole Parent Again

When you were married, when you decided to have children, when you raised your kids from mere pups, both you and your partner built a system of parenting that no longer exists. The things you might have not learned how to do, the things you distinctly recall asking your partner to take over, and the things you haven’t even thought of, all of the parenting things are now YOURS and YOURS ALONE. When you are the ON parent you have the responsibility to parent at 100%. The parts of your parenting skills that may have atrophied over time now need to be dusted off and beefed up.

Don’t detach when you have opportunities for attachment. This is a hard time for everyone. But you can demonstrate healthy behavior by engaging them in healthy activities and giving them healthy food to eat.

For me, one of those lost skills was cooking and cleaning for the family. I was fine when the kids were away. I could resort to crappy habits, fast food, popcorn for dinner, all the stuff that would be frowned upon as a parent. After divorce, there were times when I craved McDonald’s fries. I went through extended periods when I never thought about “what to cook for dinner.” All of that changed each week when my daughter and son would arrive.

I didn’t have the rhythm. I didn’t have the ideas for “what to cook.” And I was out of practice with planning ahead so we wouldn’t have to go to the grocery store every night they were with me. “Hey kids, what do we want for dinner tonight?” Getting everyone excited to go to the store is asking a lot.

When you’re alone you can let your eating and cleaning slip. But when your kids are around, you need to step up your game. I tried to tidy up the house before “my weekend.” Some weekends I was more successful than others.

The Time With the Kids

Learn again what your kids like to do. If they don’t know (and often that’s what they will say, “I don’t know.”) keep asking, keep trying new things. It might be easier to give up and let everyone watch tv or tune into their iPads/iPhones. But don’t detach when you have opportunities to stay close to them. This is a hard time for everyone. But you can demonstrate healthy behavior by engaging them in healthy activities and giving them healthy food to eat.

Take the time to be alone with each of your kids. It is easier not to talk about stuff, especially divorce. But given the time and openings, your kids may reveal some of what’s going on in their lives and what they are thinking about. By keeping a positive attitude about the divorce (“It was better for all of us. We are happier now.”) and staying engaged with them as little humans, you demonstrate for them that your love and support is unwavering. That’s key. Be consistent. Be as joyful and engaged as you can. There will be times when the screens come up for all of you. That’s okay. But try to set connection and closeness as the default relationship mode.

The Time Without the Kids

For a long time I was surviving between kid visits. I was so lost without them, and without the closeness of a primary relationship, that I isolated and got depressed. I didn’t do anything on my list of healthy activities. I didn’t return phone calls. I made it through, but I didn’t have to be so lonely about it.

Your kids are learning about life from how you behave, not how you tell them to behave. So behave honorably. Be respectful of your former partner.

The day my kids would return to me, and I became Dad again, I lit up like a different person. I knew this was not healthy. I knew that my happiness had become too entwined with theirs. And it was my task to get on with my life, get on with my fitness and wellness programs, and most importantly, get on with my own mental recovery from the divorce.

I knew I needed help and I tried a several different talky therapists before I found someone who could PUSH and NURTURE me at the same time. I didn’t need someone to cuddle me and collude with my depression and divorce sadness. I needed someone who would push me to challenge my own feelings of helplessness. That was my issue: learned helplessness. There were parts of me, when I was alone, that wanted to give up. That wanted to curl up in a tiny ball and vanish. And while it was metaphorical, the suicidal fantasies were like some angry form of giving up.

YOU ARE NOT HELPLESS. YOU ARE NOT A VICTIM.

What you do with your life, as a newly single person, that is the real challenge. Start with the health and recovery list above. Find your rhythm. Find the things that light up your soul. (See Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore) Do more of those things.

Keeping In Touch

Stay in touch with your kids as much as you can, but don’t hang on their responsiveness and involvement. It’s weird for them that you’re gone. But in my case, it was almost as if I had just gone off on an extended business trip. They stayed in the same house. They had the same routine. The main difference is I was not there. Our nightly phone calls often went like this.

“Hey, how’s it going?”

“Fine.”

“Anything you want to tell me about? Did anything cool happen at school?”

“No.”

“Okay, well, let me talk to your brother. I love you.”

“I love you too.”

At my house, on my own, everything was new. As a family unit we had to learn new routines. We had to find new processes for doing the dishes (I didn’t have a dishwasher in my first D-house.) and doing chores. Allow yourself and your kids time to adjust to things being weird and different. They are resilient. By staying positive and reaching out to them, even when they are with the other parent, you are showing them how important they are in your life. You are making sure your “I love you” is getting in there, even when you can’t say it in person.

The main thing for me, in the off times, was to make contact every night. Just to say goodnight. I rallied from dark moments each night to perk up and call them. The calls were mostly brief and unfulfilling. But that consistent contact, that “I’m here” reassurance, was important to me and to them. I was saying that while I was gone, I was not out of their lives. It’s a small thing, but it’s the best thing you’ve got. And sometimes, just the process of putting on my game voice for them would cheer me up.

Do what you need to do during your off parent days. Take care of your mental and physical health. And in the times when you have your kids, be the best parent you can be. Always looking forward. Always positive.

Your kids are learning about life from how you behave, not how you tell them to behave. So behave honorably. Be respectful of your former partner. And love them with all of your heart when they are with you. Learn to recapture your own self-love when they are not. By staying focused on both aspects of the divorce, you will have a better chance of recovering your happiness and getting on with the next chapter of your life.

Stay positive. Love your kids. Respect your ex.

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Get Into Your Divorce, Because You’ll Never Get Over It

WHOLE-tango

If you have kids with someone you’re never over your divorce. The fracture that changed everyone’s lives, is something you will be a part of forever. And while even in the most cooperative divorce things are tough, fighting against you ex is never a good idea.

I read a business book once called You Can’t Win a Fight with Your Boss. The point was, you might WIN the argument but it would be a loss for your career. So the idea was to not argue directly, but to use more indirect and subtle methods to get the results you want. Divorce is the same way. A direct confrontation is never fruitful, but you will have disagreements. And even as it might feel justified or righteous to lash out when you’ve been wronged, it’s NEVER the right idea.

I know I don’t live by this ideal all the time. And in the earlier years of my divorce I was less patient. I prided myself on my witty cutting responses. But they never solved the issue. I might’ve scored a few bitter points, but the recoil was always coming.

Your kids are the connector that keep you bound to that person forever. And while emotionally you are DONE with the other person, the new role within the divorce, the role of the co-parent, is essential.

As you move further away from your ex-partner and begin to form a new life without them, the interactions and transactions become easier. Once the heart is out of the relationship, you can deal with them like you would a cousin, or coworker. They don’t need any of your feelings, they just need to negotiate clearly and cleanly about things like school projects, dentist appointments, and what sports you’ll cover during the coming year.

You don’t get a clean break in divorce. You get your time back, and you get to coordinate your kid’s lives together for the rest of your lives. As much as you’d like to run the other way, and get the hell out of dodge, if you’ve got kids… Well, that’s not an option.

It’s not always a pleasant transaction, but the more business-like you can approach your ex-partner, the easier it will be to clear the BS and get to the parenting tasks or decisions at hand.

Often the reasons we got divorced had to do with poor communication. And as things degraded for me, our listening skills suffered greatly. I am just as guilty of this as she was. I simply did not want to hear any of her pain any more. I couldn’t hear it. And thus we both began to shut down the intimacy and connections. It was hardly noticeable at first, but as the emotional distance grew, our ability to negotiate also became strained.

So you got divorced, in part, because your communication and trust with the other person broke down. In divorce you have the same issues, the same decisions to make, and you still have your fractured communication skills. AND, now you don’t even care for the person very much. It is dangerous waters. And the littlest things can give rise to heated exchanges and escalations until both of you are back in the “dysfunctional marriage” again. This is where you DON’T want to go.

You have to do the anger and pain work outside the primary relationship. Once you get yourself healed, you can open up hear what the issue is and work to solve the problem. That’s what parenting after divorce is about: making joint decisions with as little drama as possible, and not stirring up the anger or hurt of the divorce for you or your kids.

You both have the same goals for your kids and as a team, you still have to shine and show up for them 100% of the time.

So you’re not getting “INTO” divorce, but you’re getting into co-parenting. How you deal with your ex is a good indicator as to how whole you have become. If you are still triggered into anger, or fuck-yous, you might have more work to do outside the relationship with your ex.

We’re going for a relationship with our ex that approximates going into a convenience store, you go in and take care of your transaction. You don’t really need to know about the clerk’s day or feelings. In the same way, you want to conduct business with your ex without any of the other stuff. Sometimes, for me, it’s helpful if I imagine her in a Burger King uniform, maybe with a Burger King Halloween mask on. I chuckle and release the tension and try to pay attention to the issue or decision we need to make.

So when I’m asked, “Are you over your divorce?” I suppose the real answer is, “No, I never will be.” Because your kids are the connector that keep you bound to that person forever. And while emotionally you are DONE with the other person, the new role within the divorce, the role of the co-parent, is essential.

I have heard stories of divorces going very differently, and I can’t really offer any experience around the vindictive ex, or the parent who is trying to keep the kids from having a healthy relationship with the other parent. And I know, as a man, there are a lot of stories where the men are sidelined through some dirty politics and legal shenanigans. But I did not have that experience. And I am doing everything I can to be a present dad for my kids. And being courteous to their mom is 100% part of that deal.

I’ve seen and heard the divorces where the ex rants about their asshole partner  in front of the kids. It’s awful. There is never any good reason to slam your former partner in front of the kids. Never. If it’s a legal issue, or money issue, take it to the counselors or to the court, if necessary, but do not act it out in front of your kids.

I don’t want to return to an intimate relationship with my ex-wife, but the intimacy we share in raising our kids is more important and deeper than any of our feelings of loss or anger. We have to get OVER our emotional divorce in order to get INTO healthy divorced parenting roles. There’s nothing more important. Heal yourself. Heal your relationships with your kids. And never let your ex become the enemy. You both have the same goals for your kids, and as a team you still have to shine and show up for them 100% of the time.

You can’t win a fight with your ex.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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