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The Joy of Divorce and the 3 Gifts of Breaking Up

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While we held it all together for our family, it was not all that ideal. But I was convinced that life was not ideal, and that for the comfort and future joy of my kids I would stick it out, no matter what.

As it was happening the divorce was the worst experience of my life. I was the one who wanted to work on things, but was told, “It is over.” I struggled with my own sadness and the imagined sadness that I knew my kids would experience. I tried to entice my still-wife back into the idea of staying together. I tried to bully her into realizing how bad things were going to be without me. I tried to convince her that she was wrong. I did everything I could think of to save the marriage.

Here’s the rub. The marriage was hard. Outside of the first few years of parenting (including the global crisis of 9-11) things in the relationship were not ever easy. We had very different styles of housekeeping, very different ideas about what made up a perfect weekend. And while we held it all together for our family, it was not all that ideal. But I was convinced that life was not ideal, and that for the comfort and future joy of my kids I would stick it out, no matter what.

My then-wife, on the other hand, decided for us both that “no matter what” was over. And though we said, “’til death do us part” we really didn’t mean it. She decided for us that it was over. And all the second person can do at that point is go through some of the Kubler-Ross grief stages.

But the gift of the divorce was bigger than I could imagine. Looking back, now seven years, I can say it was the most transformative event in my life. What cracked with the fracturing of my marriage was my own protective shell. The heart that was suddenly in so much pain burst forth from my chest and I started writing about it. Writing like I’d never written before. Writing, in some ways, to survive the crisis I was in. And I’m still writing.

Even alone, I was happier than I had been for the last few years of my marriage. As I began to discover the activities that gave me joy, I was able to include my kids more regularly in those activities.

The first gift divorce gives you is time and solitude. It’s painful. It was lonely. But in the hours and days of my loneliness I had to search again for the things that gave me joy. I no longer had the family group to mingle and play with, I had to find my own happiness. My alone happiness.

I wrote. I started playing my guitar more regularly. I walked the neighborhood endlessly to get into shape. I rejoined a tennis team. And I allowed the sadness and aloneness to transform me. I began to find happiness outside of being a parent. I got to discover my life’s joy in the times when I could not be with my kids. It was a moment of crisis that turned into a moment of self-discovery.

The second gift divorce gives you is the perspective on love and life. During the throes of divorce I was not able to see how this was ultimately going to be a good transformation. But as time wound on, I was able to reflect, first to myself and then to my kids, about how things were actually better now. I had a conversation with my daughter one morning before school that went like this.

“I know this divorce thing has been hard on all of us, but you do see how somethings have gotten better, right?”

She did not look convinced. “Like what?”

“Like how you and I are playing tennis together now. When I was married to your mom it was harder to find time to do stuff like that.”

“Okay…”

“And you can see how happy I am, right?”

“Yes.”

“Well, maybe it wasn’t going to get any happier with your mom. Maybe she was looking for something different. And even if I didn’t know it, maybe I was too. But now, as we’ve all gotten a little time away, can’t you see that we’re all a bit happier?”

“I guess so.”

The biggest gift of my divorce was the release to become a happier, healthier, and more loving partner to a new woman. I bring my joy and my affection, and this time, the rules of engagement are very different.

Granted, she was eight years old then, and not really processing all that I was saying. But the message was this. Even alone, I was happier than I had been for the last few years of my marriage. As I began to discover the activities that gave me joy, I was able to include my kids more regularly in those activities. About six months after that conversation I had standing tennis games with my daughter on the weekends they were with me. It was a peak moment to be on the tennis court hitting balls with someone I loved so much. I had tried to get her mom interested in tennis, but it wasn’t meant to be.

The third gift divorce gives you is the freedom to go forward in your life and find someone to love again. And, if we’re lucky, and if we’ve done our homework on what broke down in the marriage, maybe we will find someone who we can truly love and who can love us back.

The biggest gift of my divorce was the release to become a happier, healthier, and more loving partner to a new woman. I bring my joy and my affection, and this time, the rules of engagement are very different. There’s something about a post-divorce-with-kids relationship that sort of puts things in perspective. The divorce taught me how to be alone and happy. The divorce gave me two great kids that are dependent on me for love, support, and encouragement.

And then the divorce gave me the time back. The time to be myself and discover my core talents again. And this is the me that my new fiancé fell in love with. Independent. Joyous. A dedicated father. And a creative madman. And this creative whirlwind came from the trauma and transformation of my divorce. As I was losing everything I discovered a larger me, a meta man who could rise above the distortion and anger and love in spite of everything else.

What I do best in life is love. And that I have been given a gift for sharing that experience via writing and music, is one of the major wins in my life. This new lease on love is another. May you find what you were looking for. May you find the happiness that comes from within so you can share it with others. The divorce gave me back my joy and freedom and allowed me a second chance to find life-long love.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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An Amazing Thing Has Happened

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[Several amazing things have happened in my period of silence. I am excited to begin writing the story of my life and recovery again. While nothing has been posted here since February, a lot of living has taken place. I give thanks for the woman in my life. And I thank you, my readers, for your continued support and patience.]

She arrived in my life in January of this year.

In February of this year my life fell apart, due to my own emotional tides and I slipped into a depression. I did not see it coming. I was on top of the world, and boom, I was freaking the hell out. And then the most amazing thing happened. She stayed close and connected.

See, she had read this blog. She was aware of my emotional fragility and what I had written about the pain of my divorce. And she entered a relationship with me knowing these things about me. And then, even when the proverbial shit hit the fan, she leaned in rather than away from me. She recalibrated. We talked and examined what we were doing together. I talked about my depression and how it usually affected me. And again, she decided to stick around.

Now the weird thing about depression is when you are going through it, your world view gets rather myopic. You are so self-focused on what has gone, is going, and will go wrong in your life, that you miss the fact that there are a lot of people around you who are being affected by your emotional flatline. As I was questioning my life focus and my reason for being alive, I had this other person, this new person, who was also experiencing my depression with me. She might have been a bit afraid or sad that the shining prince had fallen ill. She might have run away or given reasons for “things not working out.”

She didn’t, she stayed.

When she asked what she could do for me, I said plainly, “Just be here. Stay close. Touch me.”

She did. She still is.

In my marriage, I went through a number of spills and thrills. And while she did an amazing job at staying married to me, and remaining a committed and resourceful mother, she didn’t really have much emotional comfort to offer me. I’m sure she was scared to death. Her breadwinner, and husband, now-father, had fallen ill and it was with something that couldn’t be measured very well, or medicated very well, or planned for or predicted. Though I couldn’t understand it at the time, due to my myopic narcissism, I can now see how difficult her road was with me. I honor the fantastic work she did as a parent to our two children and in keeping our boat afloat during some emotionally wracking times.

But my then wife wasn’t really all that emotionally available. Even when things were good she didn’t really express a lot of emotion. She was much more logical and calculated. We had a good mix together when things were good, emotional and logical. But when things got sparse or challenging, we often went to our respective corners and sulked.

I didn’t know about Love Languages at that time. We tried a lot of soul-searching. We did therapy together and by ourselves. We worked at it. I DO absolutely believe that she gave it everything she had. In the end, however, things became overwhelming for her, to the point of wanting to leave the marriage and pull the family apart. I still remember being at the last couple’s therapy session and us both stating our final assessment of the situation. We were ending our therapy and saying our goodbyes to our therapist and giving in to the dissolution of our marriage.

My then wife said she did not see things improving. She felt it was better that we divorce. I said, how I really felt we were at a launching point in our relationship and that we had been given this crisis as a way to express and work through all the things that had fallen apart in our marriage. I wanted to continue. She did not.

I learned that one person cannot keep a marriage together no matter how hard they try or how much they want to keep the family together. I was in agreement that things could not continue as they had been. But I was also convinced that she was still the woman I was in love with, and the marriage was stronger than our current complaints or disagreements.

But, of course, I couldn’t make her want to work it out with me.

Okay, so it wasn’t all about depression and emotional availability. We both worked hard at being in the relationship and being good parents to our two children. But along the way we fell into unhealthy coping mechanisms that drove us apart rather than together.

Today, I can say, I have been seen at my worst, by this new woman, and she has embraced me through it. And as I was thrashing in my own bile, I gained a perspective at some point that went like this. “What about her experience of this mess? She’s going through this too. I have to give some credence to her strength and love for me and step up, even for today (if that’s the best I can manage), to support her experience of this relationship and our time together.”

For a moment I was able to get out of my own self-pity and self-destruction and say, “Wait, what about her experience?”

It was a bit of zen moment. To be so deep in a depression that everything in the world seems dark, and yet to rise above it and try and take her wants and desires into consideration. It was like an out of body experience. I looked down at my sad self and at her happy (maybe shaken) self and asked, “What does she want this relationship to look like? What about *her* experience of happiness at this moment?”

And it was indeed this little fulcrum that allowed me to crack the black heavy cloak that was shrouding out all light. And adding into the equation our deep physical bond and commitment to staying close. And as I gave back to her, tried to stay open and communicative, she showed me she was not afraid. And by staying close, she affirmed her own words, “I’m going to stick around.”

I am not 100% back, but I have an ally and a lover who can take me in ON and OFF mode. What a blessing she is.

To be continued… (grin)

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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