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

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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

back to Positive Divorce & Co-parenting

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image: last good summer, cc 2015 john mcelhenney, creative commons usage

Moving from Parenting To Co-parenting: Joining Together In Divorce

fire of divorce - the whole parentMen do need help. And there is no doubt that divorce brings out some of the worst traits and stereotypes in both sexes, and ramps them up to extreme levels. Men who have previously been unable to access or express any anger are suddenly screaming and throwing things or acting out in way more harmful to themselves. And women, now threatened with shame and financial ruin, retreat into a more defensive and alpha-protective mode.

What happens early on is communication breaks down. Misunderstandings take place. And more hurt and anger is piled on to the flames of the fire.

Just like in first aid fire training, at this point we need to STOP. DROP. And ROLL.

STOP the escalation of the flames. Don’t respond in-kind. Step out of the hurt role you are in and DO NOT stoke the flames, for any reason.

DROP the pretense that you are hurting more than the other person. DROP the charges. DROP the battle-axe and see if there are cooperative ways to work together.

ROLL with it. Let things go. Stress is high, it’s probably not all about you, even if your ex-partner says it is. ROLL with the punches and don’t return the aggression and anger.

And then when you have a moment to pat out your own flaming clothes you can also see the flames have been reaching out and threatening your kids too. With a moment of self-awareness we can stop the fire building practices we learned in our dysfunctional past and begin working towards a healthy divorce. I know that may sound like a fantasy, new-age, term, but it’s possible.

“If you go to court she’s going to get this, so we might as well start there and see what we can do to smooth the transition for the kids.”

The system of divorce (attorneys, courts, counselors) is not set up to support a healthy separation and transition into co-parenting. But, you can ask to slow things down when the rhetoric begins to get too hot. You can explore collaborative divorce. You can be open to the idea of building the parenting plan first, and the divorce second.

And we have to be able to look at the traditional, system supported, outcomes of divorce, so that we can examine what’s working and what’s not.

NOTE: This concept of collaborative co-parenting will not be available to everyone. There may be couples where the damage and acting out has gone too far. There are still plenty of ways you can refuse to feed the fire and not give up your rights and legal position in the upcoming negotiations.

In the case of couples willing to work on the leading edge of collaborative divorce, there are plenty of ways you can make the transition into co-parent much easier. But we’ve got to talk about it together. The next men’s movement is going to include women. And the next men’s movement will be about parenting and co-parenting.

In the stereotypical divorce process, that still holds true for 85% of all divorces in my state, Texas, the woman is awarded the custodial parent role and the man is awarded a hefty child support payment. In this model, the courts see the MOM as the loving relationship and the DAD as the paycheck.

This is wrong.

The system has evolved into this cow path for the slaughter of innocent men over time. And in my case, even though we took the high road, I was offered this piece of advice, from our $200-an-hour family therapist who specialized in building cooperative parenting plans.

“If you go to court she’s going to get this, so we might as well start there and see what we can do to smooth the transition for the kids.”

This is also wrong.

In the next men’s movement both men and women will be working together to map out a healthy divorce plan, that is fair to both mom and dad. And counselors who are being paid to shepherd those willing parents-to-coparents won’t reflexively jump to the SPO and custodial non-custodial parenting plan.

It’s easy to see why this stereotype came into being. Men have traditionally been the primary breadwinner. Women have been the primary nurturing parent. And my then-wife and I worked to promote and preserve those roles in our marriage. It was OUR PLAN TOO. But it wasn’t because she was the best nurturer, or that I was the best breadwinner. It was because she was the mom and I was the dad.

Again, I don’t want it to seem that I’m rebelling against some of this tradition. I’m not. I was happy for the mother of my kids to have the time to be MOM. And for that I traded some additional time away from the home, to make more money, so that this little nuclear unit could be supported.

We chose these roles. Sure they were based on traditional and historical norms, but we agreed with some of the premise. And I willingly sacrificed some of my DAD time to make their lives more comfortable, to be able to provide the good neighborhood and good schools.

In divorce, things are different. You still want the same things for you kids. But the shift happens when this cow path (Woman – nurture, Man – money) has become regulated to the point of law.

It’s the kids who stand to lose the most from this imbalanced systemic approach. Dad is more than money.

Now, in my state, as a man, if you want something other than the SPO and non-custodial parent role, you’re going to have to fight. You’re going to have to disagree with your expensive “parenting planning” and PH.D family therapist. If you want to break out of these well-worn and court-approved legal instruments, you’re going to have to talk to the woman in this deal and work something out.

Reaching over the aisle as a man is not easy. Everything in the court system is set to drive us into the approved plan.

And allowing the negotiation to happen, must be hard for a woman, who is threatened with getting less than she could get if she just went to court. She’s got the losing proposition in this negotiation.

But it’s the kids who stand to lose the most from this imbalanced systemic approach. Dad is more than money. And mom is capable of making just as much money (let’s table the fair pay discussion for the moment) as dad. These old roles no longer fit the educated and compassionate couple. But the road to a good and healthy co-parenting plan is not a well-worn path. There are books and attorneys who will advise you along the route, but the real negotiations are going to happen between you and your soon-to-be ex.

I’d like to start the dialogue between us sooner rather than later. For myself, yes, but also for the moms and dads who will be heading down the cow path shortly. We can do better. We can help raise the conversation back to equity and fairness. Today it’s “here’s what you’re going to get if she goes to court.” That’s not a way to build a trusting negotiation, or even craft a balanced parenting plan.

We don’t have to burn the system or relationship down to the ground to get a fair deal for both parents. But we do have to open the discussion beyond the SPO and custodial mom. And, I understand, moms, you have more to lose in this discussion. But your kids have more to gain. A dad who can support himself and contribute to a healthy co-parenting plan. And a mom who’s willing to stretch, in the “best interest of the kids” to give that same dad some additional time and rights so that he can show up in the best way.

It’s a trust issue. And it’s not going to be easy. But we can make a more holistic system. We can soften the blow of divorce on the kids. And we can build stronger co-parenting relationships from respect rather than ashes.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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