Tag Archives: moving away from the relationship

Artists In Love, Parenting, and Divorce

WHOLE-withguitar

Preamble

Since an early age I have been able to express my love for others in a very open and direct way. And in my second marriage I learned, as things were falling apart, just how much of “that loving feeling” I was generating on my own. I thought I understood what it meant to be loved by someone, but I hadn’t really experienced it since the death of my older sister. I was manufacturing most of the warmth and connectivity in my family. Sure, I could tell my then-wife loved our kids and loved me, but it was a strained expression of love, not an open and on-going expression.

We loved our kids, that was obvious. Everything we did hinged around their wellbeing. But in that process of giving ourselves over to parenting, we pulled back from each other.

Of course, I hadn’t gotten the frame of the Love Languages yet. As I went down the dark rabbit hole of depression after the divorce I was lucky enough to join a recovery group. Over the course of ten weeks I met on Thursday nights with 15 other men and women going through the same process of letting go, rediscovering, and rebuilding. And in that class I learned a new language of communication as well. I learned about how to be in a relationship in the present moment, and let go of the expectations of what was to come. As I excavated the relationship in this group to examine what had gone wrong, a distinct picture emerged of our different creative responses and reactions to the stress of becoming parents.

Becoming Parents

See, when you have kids everything changes. Our young relationship was transformed by the mysterious and sacred event. And there was an urgent and searing love that burned away all of our doubt and differences as we came together as parents. But somehow it still wasn’t a loving relationship between us. We loved each other, but only one of us really knew how to express it.

Over the course of the next 9 years or so we drifted into more of a partnership than a loving relationship. It was not a dramatic shift, it was a gradual wearing down of our mutual adoration. I kept punching through with outpourings of love and affection, but over time the glow that was created was overwhelmed by the stress and weight of the routine of being parents. Parents who were both working hard to keep their own emotional lives together while still maintaining a warm and supportive home for our two growing children.

We loved our kids, that was obvious. Everything we did hinged around their wellbeing. But in that process of giving ourselves over to parenting, we pulled back from each other. And I’d be deluded if I tried to put the blame squarely on her shoulders. We had both wanted children. We both wanted to continue on our paths as creative adults. But we were also struggling with unmet expectations about how things would be once we achieved the goal: Two kids, a nice house, a few pets, and …

We dealt with the reality of life not quite working out the way we envisioned in different ways. She went jogging around the neighborhood. I went into my music studio. And together we negotiated our chores and kid duties. All the while we were good at celebrating our children. The milestones flew by as they moved from pre-k to “big kid school.” But while they were thriving, somehow our relationship to one another was not.

Parenting Demands a New Approach

The kids had become our relationship. And our own journeys turned inward rather than towards one another.

Little by little I began working in my studio more at night after the kids went to bed. Somewhere deep inside I believed that my craft would eventually provide for some relief from the hard times. But I was also moving away from her in ways that would only become clear much later. Our creative lives either find new outlets once we have children or we become frustrated artists. I dove into my music as a way to connect to my own inner passion and creative drive. And even as I became more energetic and hopeful, my then-wife became less so. I’m not sure if it was the lack of creative joy in her life, but I do know that’s how we met each other, full of joy and art. Our weekend routine before kids had become a series of check-ins around our studio time.

In the transformation of becoming parents we both changed. While the joy and fascination around the kids was the center of our lives all was well. The kids fulfilled some part of our creative souls in a deep way. And for a while, the children became our joint art project. But over time, they became a bit more autonomous, and the reality of the mundane set in again. Chores and bills and shuttling little friends everywhere causes additional strain that can wear on the most solid of relationships. In our transition from uber-connected-new-parents to parents-who-are-once-again-looking-for-their-own-path-in-life we lost the fascination and adoration between us. The kids had become our relationship. And our own journeys turned inward rather than towards one another.

Perhaps, I could’ve fought more for the marriage and demanded, in a masculine way, for her love and passion to return. I could’ve stood in more with the chores and tried to meet more of her demands for help. I’m sure there are things I could’ve done differently and better, but I’m not clear that my efforts to become a better husband would’ve healed the imbalance that seemed more fundamental. I’m not sure I could’ve woken up her inner artist again.

While the creative kernel continued to burn inside of me, I spent more and more time in the music studio after the kids went to sleep. There was even a good bit of my output that I fashioned into love songs and poems meant to rekindle, or at least affirm my love for this wonderful woman. Something between us had broken. She would point at my “lack of responsibility” for the reason she was angry a lot of the time. She would say the house was too dirty, or the money in the bank account was insufficient for her to relax. But somewhere in there, she had dropped her own creative song, and had begun to resent mine.

The Artist’s Journey is a Solo Path

My music became a symbol of the disconnect between us. What drew her in during our courtship, became something she fought against. My songs fell on deaf ears. My music seemed to represent for her why we didn’t have the money that would’ve allowed us to be more comfortable. But I think the real struggle was more internal for her. Her own art had transformed and thrived for a while around the birth of the kids, for a while her own internal song had not been silent. Somewhere along the path towards becoming a mom she reoriented her life exclusively around parenting.

When this played out in my marriage, my survival as an artist appeared to come (at least to my then-wife) at the expense of being a responsible father.

When the kids began to gain more momentum out and away from the two of us our closeness began to separate as well. As they grew and developed passions and interests of their own, perhaps she failed to rekindle the creative love inside herself. That was also the part of her that I fell in love with. As I was sputtering and struggling as a parent AND and as an artist, she was alone without her craft, and in some ways without me. She was focused on all the practical things. She began to see my creative endeavors as threatening rather than supportive. She wasn’t interested in the love poems I was writing. My childish creative spirit that had enraptured her early on became a symbol of my immaturity.

As artists we experience life as part of our creative path. Our outputs enhance and celebrate our ups and downs. Our creative voices can begin to get trapped under the rough business of bills, health insurance, and mortgage payments. The process of becoming parents turns up the intensity. Part of the artist’s struggle is how to continue finding time, and more importantly energy, to stay with it. Many parents drop their artistic ambitions in favor of their children’s wants and needs. When this played out in my marriage, my survival as an artist appeared to come (at least to my then-wife) at the expense of being a responsible father. The struggle became both internal (my energy and vision) and external (a threat to my marriage).

The fracture and collapse of my marriage ultimately became the emotional firestorm that uncorked my artistic voice. In my own individual struggle to survive, I found my release through writing. After the divorce, as I thrashed and fell apart during the months following my separation, I wrote to make sense of what was happening. And now, over six years later, even as the writing matures, the music and songs are beginning to come back as well.

An artist struggles through all of life’s conditions and requirements just like everyone else, but they tend to leave behind a story, or song, or image. This is my magnum opus.

My hope is that my song is not about divorce and trouble, but love and creative passion. As both of us struggled under the amazingly complex and overwhelming changes in our lives, I turned towards my craft as a way to cope, to organize my feelings and thoughts, and explore both the happy and sad parts of the journey. As the journey continues, my voice grows stronger here on the blog and in other areas of my life. As an artist, the crushing blow of the divorce stripped the band-aid off the pain I had been trying to express.

Today, my creative discipline and output has become an integrated expression of who I am. This song I sing becomes more of how I present myself in the world. My music and writing sets a creative example for my children as they pursue their dreams. I’ve shown them how it looks to recover from setbacks and disappointments.

This artistic me is the foundation of my new relationship as well. This time I am more confident and self-assured. I believe it was this confidence that allowed me to attract a mutually compassionate person to express and receive love and adoration with a similar playful and creative flair. In finding my deeper creative voice, I’ve also called in a partner who glows, and pings, and hums with her own distinct yet familiar buzz. Together we resonate and reflect back even more energy.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: on stage, kristy duff wallace, used by permission

The Trouble with Alcohol: She Likes To Drink, I Don’t

whole-drinkingcouple

A couple walks into a bar. The woman says, “Saphire Martini, dry.” The man says, “Club soda with lime, please.” [What’s the punch line?] Bartender says, “Funny, when you came in here, I thought you guys were together.”

My girlfriend likes a glass of wine while cooking dinner together. Is she an alcoholic?

I will admit right now I have a problem with alcohol. At times my life was out of control and alcohol was the problem. Of course, I wasn’t the one drinking, it was my dad. My entire family was held hostage by my father’s drinking, his anger, and his resentment. My brother too, eight years older than me, did quite a stint as an alcoholic. I’ve seen the ravages of drinking, and I’ve veered away from drinking in my life. Not because I’m afraid of having a problem, but because I’ve learned to distrust that buzzy feeling.

I realized I was tripping because of MY reaction to her drinking rather than her drinking.

It’s not that my girlfriend has a drinking problem. She likes to drink. She will admit that she’d like to drink less. And she will also tell me that her drinking is more of a habit than an addiction, and that she used to drink out of boredom or loneliness. All of this I believe to be true.

Today, however, she’s not lonely or bored. She’s saying to me that she’s happier and more confident in our relationship than she can remember being at any time in her past. And still she drinks. So… There’s something else at play here. It is my problem with drinkers? Is it her wanting to drink less and still having a couple of glasses of wine a night?

For a while I was worried about this disconnect between us. She drinks, she knows tons of wines she likes, she has some sort of romance with martinis and talks knowledgeably and sometimes longingly about drinking. This was beginning to trip me out.

Then I realized I was tripping because of MY reaction to her drinking rather than her drinking. It was my drinking problem that was causing my own fear and doubt to enter the relationship. So I talked about it. She listened. She didn’t get defensive. I didn’t try to fix or change her. I didn’t ask her to stop drinking.

I did want to understand more about what made her drink even when she was with me. Habit? Maybe, but that’s not a good reason. Loneliness or fear? Maybe when she was living in a different house half the time. But when we are together she couldn’t be lonely. So I started understanding something about her and about me. She liked to drink. And I was afraid of drinking, hers or my own. So, I was the one with the problem. Kinda.

A week ago I started re-reading some of my posts about the relationship I was looking for. And sure enough my girlfriend hits all of the WINNING traits out of the park. But there was this, in something I wrote titled Seven Signs of a Healthy Post-Split Relationship.

Alcohol or tv are not constant sources of entertainment or escape.

Okay, so that triggered my worried mind again. I was reading some of my dating after divorce material, comparing how amazing and awesome this woman was and along came this zinger. Um, oh, yeah, the drinking thing.

But I have learned not to jump to conclusions and especially not to pay too close attention to what I wrote before I met her. I also said I’d never date a woman who was not a mother. I have since taken “never” out of my vocabulary. I had to. She is amazing, and the fact that she had not given birth to children had nothing to do with our love for one another, nor her ability to adore and love my children.

It was MY fear of alcohol that was causing me trouble. And it was my hyper-vigilance against drinking that was creating the issue.

So I didn’t stew on the topic, I simply told her about the post. (She is well aware of all of my writing, so that wasn’t a surprise.)

“So I was reading back over some of my writing from a year or two ago, where I was trying to outline exactly the kind of relationship I wanted, and I came over this funny thing…”

I told her about my fear of drinking, more specifically, her drinking. “And I was amazed how perfect you are, but this objection keeps popping up in my mind. I wanted to talk about it.”

“Sure,” she said, without a hint of frustration.

“Over margaritas, of course!”

“Of course,” she joked. “Let me change clothes and we can go.”

That was a few months ago, and she’s still drinking. I’m even drinking a bit. Partially to join her, partially to allow myself to learn from her about all of her travels, wine parings, and knowledge of alcohol. She really is sort of an amateur-expert.

At the same time I had to confront my own fears, and own them. It was MY fear of alcohol that was causing me trouble. And it was my hyper-vigilance against drinking that was creating the issue. So we kept dating, she kept drinking, and I kept talking and writing about it.

This was a big reveal to me: Everyone who drinks is not an alcoholic.

Okay, so I was letting go of that idea as I was observing our relationship and interactions around alcohol. She and I exchanged some jovial banter about her drinking and I sipped the Pinot and smiled. And over time I began to see what was bothering ME about her drinking. So I told her about my theory. Here it is.

The Third Glass (Making the choice consciously.)

It’s the third glass of wine that determines if we are going to have an evening together or if you are going to head off into some other place where I can’t really reach you or relate to you. One glass to cook, one glass with dinner… and then a choice.

Towards Me (No more wine means let’s be together tonight.”

If she is happy and content, I can’t see why she would need that next glass of wine to feel happy or secure. If she knows and experiences my love as true and present, she wouldn’t want to turn away from those feelings by dipping further into the wine. And here is my own wounded boy’s idea: if she loved me she wouldn’t drink until she was intoxicated.

Away From Me (Yes please, pour me another, means I’ve had a rough day, I’m feeling tired, I’d rather go to bed early.)

It’s that third glass, metaphorically that signals an intention to move away from our closeness and conversation into some altered state. Perhaps there is a numbness or release in the intoxication for her. But unwinding with a glass of wine is different when the third glass is poured and consumed and the words begin to blend together just a bit, and her jovial attitude shifts ever so slightly towards aloof and distant.

Again, this is my reaction and my emotional response to her drinking that next glass of wine. If she chooses to drink more, I tell her, it feels like you are leaving me in some ways. I can’t share at the same level. I don’t want to get lovey dovey. And the real communication between us has to be put on hold until the morning. That’s how it feels to me, the sober one. I can’t say how it feels for you. Perhaps I am too focused, too obsessive about not drinking, and the third glass let’s you unplug not only from your stressful day, but also from my intensity and earnestness.

What I really wanted to make sure I told her, as I was discovering all this stuff about me and my reaction to drinking in general, was that I didn’t need her to stop drinking. I didn’t even need her to limit her drinking to two glasses. What I wanted from her was to observe when she made that decision *away* from our closeness and into a less approachable state.

Several things I believe to be true about dealing with someone who is buzzed. (I define this as tipsy, slurring a bit, but mostly lucid. Not drunk, but intoxicated, or impaired. In this case, by choice.)

  1. Don’t take on any serious subjects with them.
  2. Don’t talk about their drinking until the next day when they are sober. Trying to talk to someone who is drunk about drinking is a no-win situation.
  3. Make sure they are safe and comfortable. And in my case, put her to bed, lovingly, and go about my evening routine without her.
  4. Sex can be okay with a buzzed person, but if you’re not both a bit hazy it can make for some awkward moments. And for the most part, when she’s had the third glass and I have not, my desire for sex with her diminishes a bit.

So now we’ve had this talk. I’ve made up this concept of the Third Glass and she says, “I think a lot of people will really understand what you are talking about.”

When she has the third glass of wine, in my mind she is turning away from the relationship and into some self-imposed isolation or altered state.

As we move forward, I am clear with her about my limits for me. I might have a beer or a glass of wine with dinner, but that’s about it, unless we go out for margaritas. And for her the choices are a bit more complex. I’m sure I’ve caused her some stress around this, but it has to be out in the open and discussed.

When she has the third glass of wine, in my mind she is turning away from the relationship and into some self-imposed isolation or altered state. I have to let go of the outcome, and let go of my expectations, or speak up if I have a problem. [Again, please note, this is *my* frame around her drinking, not hers.] When she asks for a glass of water after dinner she is signaling that she wants to remain close for the rest of the evening. Both choices are fine. If I don’t attach my own stigma to the choice, I can allow her to take either path without guilt or shame. I can let go of my baggage and allow her to be exactly who she wants to be.

If she drinks the third glass I begin looking for what I’m going to do that evening when she’s fallen asleep. If she asks for water, my mind enters into a different set of fantasies that involve her participation. The real joy is that we’ve had this discussion. I even said I would run this post by her before I published it, so she could edit or give feedback. The last thing I want is to damage our relationship by exposing too much or causing her pain.

Last night, as I was cleaning up the dishes I looked at her with a sly grin as I held the cork above the bottle in an unspoken question. “Yes,” she said, “Put the cork in the bottle and get me a glass of water.” What that said to me was, “I’m here, I’m happy, and what are we going to do together tonight?”

Afterword: And the amazing thing is after I read this to her we were closer and even more ready to have the discussion in the moment about drinking, hers AND mine. (grin)

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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The “Third Glass” series:

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image: yes or no?, gideon, creative commons usage