Tag Archives: my alcoholic dad

The Fracture of Divorce: My Dad’s Hand On My Head, Forever

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Sometimes I am more struck by how much I miss my kids when they are with me, on Dad’s weekend. Divorce is a bitch. Everyone is pulled apart. And the emotional ripples continue for the rest of our lives. And while I miss them terribly when they are gone, I am often struck by my longing while they are still with me. Last night, watching a movie with my 11 year-old daughter, I was so content. When she fell asleep midway through I turned off the computer and put my hand on the top of her head before I turned off the lights.

I never imagined a time when I would not be able to put my hand on the heads of my sleeping children. You don’t think of divorce when you get married and when you begin spinning up the plans for having children. Their loss is not something you can fathom. And until you are divorced, their potential loss revolves around things like accidents and illness. And then you are divorced, either by your choice or against your choice, and you no longer have access to your children the way you imagined you would.

A non-custodial father (like the other 80% of fathers in my state of Texas) really does not have a fair or balanced schedule. The courts and the counselors will tell you it’s almost 50/50 but they are lying to you. In practice, the non-custodial Standard Possession Order (SPO) at least in my state gives me access to my kids around 1/3 of the time. The little lies come in with things like the “full-month in the summer” that are all but impossible for a working parent. So you’re going to have a lot less access to your kids. Forever.

And still there was nothing more that I could do to keep my family together. There was no drinking or infidelity, but something more difficult to troubleshoot.

That sucks. And it sucked when my parents got divorced. Even though my dad was a tyrant and a yelling, drinking, angry man, he was still my dad. There’s no substitute. And once he was gone from the family home, in my case, he was truly gone from my life. Sure, alcohol played a huge part in his retreat, and even in his death, but for all intents and purposes my mom “won” me in the divorce. My dad often offered to build me a room on top of his fancy new garage on his massive new home. But he offered, he never built it.

And I really didn’t want to live in my father’s house. He yelled. He drank. He got sloppy about boundaries and yelled at us kids a lot. And these yelling-dad memories are still etched in my mind, even though my dad left the house for the last time when I was about six. So don’t ever think your kids won’t remember the bad times. We might get over them, or act like we do, but we’ll be working some of the same issues out in therapy 30 years later. Oh well, it’s better to keep working towards a healthy mental attitude rather than collapse into the ongoing dysfunction of our parents.

And I can’t put more than a cursory framework around my ex-wife’s family of origin drama. And I should really try. We married, we had kids, we did our best, we (she) decided it was time for a change. I went along with it after fighting for a few months. One person cannot keep a marriage together. She was headed out. And with her went my access to my kids.

It’s bigger than you can imagine, this loss of time with your kids. If there was one thing that really crushed me into a depression early on it was the time alone. Truly alone. I was okay with leaving the marriage behind, the anger and unhappiness was worth escaping, but the escape left behind my true happiness, my children.

After divorce you learn how to rebuild your inner-happiness. You’ve got a lot of time for this. Because you are alone for a good portion of that time. And your kids are no longer the buoy of joy in your life. Missing my kids was the part of the divorce that nearly killed me. And how ironic that suicide seems like an option, in the lowest moments, when suicide is the ultimate ALONE. Gross. Needless to say, divorce and suicide go together often. And more often it’s the father who exits both the marriage and the physical plane of existence. Sad.

My dad didn’t kill himself, but he certainly didn’t get well either. He didn’t stop drinking. He didn’t change his lifestyle after his second or third heart attacks. There was a part of my father that wanted to die. He was alone, with a new wife, and a new adopted daughter, but he was probably missing the family and life that he trashed with his drinking and refusal to get help. And he never got help. He drank himself into oblivion every night from then on. As long as I knew my dad, as an adult, he was a drinking alcoholic. There wasn’t much room for emotions and getting reassurances or pats on the head from that father. I made a promise to myself that my kids would never know that absence.

If my plans are moveable, I will always take my time with the kids. That’s my priority. That was apparently not hers.

And still there was nothing more that I could do to keep my family together. There was no drinking or infidelity, but something more difficult to troubleshoot. Ennui, perhaps? Or just greener pastures. But certainly my then-wife’s decision to depart, or force me to depart, was in part fueled by her own parent’s horrible divorce struggles. Again, I’ll skip taking her inventory here, and let rest with the statement that her mother and father were both tortured by their divorce for years, even remarrying at least once over the years of my wife’s elementary years.

So we move along, and we do the best we can. In the non-custodial role I have attempted to pick up more time with my kids whenever possible. But even in that I’ve been less demanding than I could’ve been. In divorce you are *always* trying to compromise with your ex, so that when you might need a favor they will consider your request with a positive attitude. But even in those actions I have lost more time with my kids.

When my ex partnered up again, after about six months, she was quick to ask for an adjustment to our expertly crafted non-custodial parenting plan. She wanted to switch the schedule so that her time synced up with her new boyfriend’s schedule. At first I was belligerent. “Why would I want to make adjustments to lessen my time with my kids to accommodate your new relationships?”

I did. I gave up my 5th weekend gifts. As she asked to go “every other weekend” rather than the ordered 1st, 3rd, and 5th. And while I really struggled with why this was a good idea for me, I still, somehow wanted her to be happy. Yuk. But what I gave up was my double weekends that come around 3 – 5 times a year. She made some overture about giving me the time back, “You can ask for an extra weekend any time you need it.”

And so, even in my already compromised schedule she was asking for me to give up more time so she could be with her boyfriend. Um… Why do I care about her time with her boyfriend? I didn’t. But I did agree to her request. It’s sort of what I do. I compromise and try to avoid conflict.

As a divorced dad, or maybe as a single parent in general, you get a preview of what the empty next syndrome feels like. It hurts.

And in many ways I’m still doing this. She can be an hour late picking the kids up and I’m okay with it. Or ask for me to take the kids at the last-minute, due to some “work crisis” that seems to arrive with about the same frequency as it did when we were married. And most of the time, I take the kids when I can get them. If I don’t have plans, or if my plans are moveable, I will always take my time with the kids. That’s my priority. That was apparently not hers.

I’m not here to take her inventory, however, but to lament the loss of all the evenings with my kids, for the rest of my life. They are growing at an amazing rate. (11 and 13) And I treasure every moment with them. And I haven’t put a priority on finding a relationship. My priority has been on my kids and my own mental and physical health. I’ve struggled. But I’m strong and healthy now. Perhaps a relationship for me is in the cards over the next few years, but I will never put that desire of mine, above the care, love, and feeding of my kids.

Last night as I was resting my hand on my daughter’s head, I was so aware of all the nights I have not been with her. She exhibits the signs of missing me when we get back together. And we are making the most of our time together. My son is a bit more self-contained and advanced in his parental separation process. My daughter and I just enjoy spending time together. And as she has gotten older I have been so delighted by her stories and epiphanies. The things she is excited about, I am excited about.

In the last six months of my father’s life he went through a remission period. And due to the chemo he could no longer drink. So he sobered up, for the first time in my adult life. And when I was 21 I spent some quality weekends with my father, for only times I could remember. Other than those few months, his relationship to me was more about yelling and avoidance, rather than nurturing or pats on the head.

In the last month of his healthy period, my father asked me if I wanted to sleep in the big bed with him. We were at a condo he had purchased. It was a child like request. It was an echo of the times we had spent at the beginning our my parent’s divorce, when we would cuddle. At 21 I was unable to see the poetic moment. “No dad, I’ll see you in the morning.”

We were both hungry for more time, more head pats. And that’s a feeling I still ache with as I watch my children sleeping. Even when they are with me, the knowledge and feeling of the coming loss, just a day or so away, is painful. I don’t show them that side. I put that here. I show them the happy and healthy dad. And I let them know all the time how much I love them, and how they are still THE priority in my life.

Soon they will really be gone. See as a divorced dad, or maybe as a single parent in general, you get a preview of what the empty next syndrome feels like. It hurts. And after 5 or so days, they are back with me. We’re all making it the best we can.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

back to Positive Divorce & Co-Parenting

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image: father and daughter, peter werkman, creative commons usage

The New Dance of Anger: Men and Our Legacy (part 2)

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This is PART TWO. The first part is here:  Men and Our Anger Issues: The New Dance of Anger

  • ONE: We all learn about anger at a very young age.
  • TWO: Relationships with Dad 
  • THREE: Anger In Unhealthy Families 
  • FOUR: Old Defense Mechanisms
  • FIVE: We’ve all got anger issues.

Screen Shot 2014-07-29 at 10.54.52 AMToday as I was entering this post into the Huffington Post publishing platform I was surprised to see this result in my keyword/tag research:

What was surprising is there were no topics/tags that started with “men.” None. Zero. Wow. I mean I know HuffPo was started by Arianna, and she’s not at all anti-men… but still I do notice if you look at the “divorce” section, where most of my content gets posts, there is exactly ONE male featured blogger. All the rest are women. Okay, moving right along…

We left off yesterday, partially due to exhaustion and partially due to my own overwhelm at writing about anger. And some other stuff… So today we are going to pick it back up when we start discussing how a man (or woman) today can begin to understand their anger, and transform it into energy and change for the better.

SIX: Uncovering our own anger.

First, you have to acknowledge that you have anger, that there are things in this world that make you angry. Second, you have to let yourself feel angry. You actually have to get angry and let that frustrating energy begin to bubble up inside you. Then, at this very moment, you need to examine what you are actually angry about? It turns out that we often have “anger triggers,” things that make us start feeling angry. And if the upset is minor, that might be all we get, just a blip that says, “that sucked” and we move on. BUT… Often the trigger will connect with something else, something from our past, some unresolved issue perhaps, that is re-energized by the trigger. When we get angry at someone, for forgetting to pick up the laundry, perhaps, and we find that an hour later we are still angry at them, there might be more to the issue than the laundry. Chances are you have connected with something else in your past that needs to be examined and, if possible, released. But anger work is difficult. And if you find yourself with anger issues,  it is recommended that you do this type of discharging with a trained therapist.

SEVEN: Accepting the anger of others, and learning to respond without heating up.

The truth of the matter is that people get angry with us as well. And in the healthy display of anger, this is a good thing. By voicing their anger we get new inputs about what is pleasing or unpleasing to them. This is how we learn. However, if we are anger-adverse, someone else’s anger is very frightening. The second someone close to us bursts into anger, it can cause some of us to head for the hills, both emotionally and physically. More common, however, is the mental exit. When someone shows you their raw anger, the typical response is to shut down. To clamp down on your own internal reactions so you don’t give away your feelings. If the anger was coming from a parent, the repercussions and withdrawal responses could be ten-times more powerful. When your dad yelled at you as a child, your entire world could be consumed by fear and regret. When your boss yells at you, you might be ashamed and afraid, but hopefully you can recover enough to carry on. If the person behind you at a stop light honks and flashes the finger at you, you can take evasive action to get out of their way, and not be the target of their frustrations. Finally, if your significant other is angry at you, there are additional levels of “will I be loved” and “will I be abandoned” that come into play.

For the most part, if you are comfortable accepting the anger of others as theirs, you can weather most storms. When the anger is repetitive and relentless, over the course of several days or weeks, for example, there is probably a lot more going on that the surface triggers that keep popping up.

EIGHT: Anger in relationships.

So your relationship is a very deep connection. Any disruptions in this closeness can result in fear, anger, jealousy, rage, depression. When the anger comes out in your primary relationship, you want to pay attention and see if you can hear what the core issue is. If you are too triggered yourself by the anger of your partner, you need to ask for a timeout and get help. The worst thing you can do in a relationship is try to deal with someone’s anger by shutting down or mentally exiting the relationship. This is how affairs and ultimately divorce happen. Anger is hard. But it is essential for healing the trust between to people. If your partner gets angry about the dry cleaning, but stays angry all day, even after you’ve gone back out and retrieved the dry cleaning, there’s something else up. Go get some assistance to help you both uncover the core issues that keep causing minor triggers to become huge “relationship issues.”

NINE: Anger and our children.

We are always teaching our children, even when we think they are not watching or listening. Like little telepaths, our children are acutely aware of the signals in our relationships. They are still much closer to that empathic system that allows them to read a person’s attitude merely from tone and facial expressions. That’s how they go along as infants, before they even understood our language. So when you are your partner are having a spat, believe that your kids are absorbing all of the information they can to help in their own survival. If you or your spouse has anger issues and begins to yell and threaten, you can imagine that the impact on a young child, would be even more dramatic. They don’t have any other options, in their mind. This is their entire world, and somehow something is very wrong.

So as parents we are doubly responsible for managing our anger. And even if we think our kids are sheltered from the storms, they are tuning in much more than you can imagine. So, as you experience triggers it is important that you and your partner have healthy ways to resolve the “issue” quickly and without drama or yelling. Triggers, and even anger issues, happen. The more you can channel those away from your family and into a therapy session the better. Once you both have a handle on the major upsets the triggers are easy. But know that how you deal with the anger, is the appropriate anger response you are teaching to your children.

TEN: Healthy and Honest Anger can heal us all.

So we get angry. And our entire family is involved in the dance of anger, when someone let’s a fireball rip. What we do next is of critical importance. If everyone runs for shelter and the raging person simply gets what they want, we may be setting an example for acceptable behavior that will haunt us and our children for years to come. If, rather, we learn to share healthy anger (often expressed as a disappointment, rather than a “you did this wrong”) and we talk through the resolution, even with our children present, you can see how this healthy interaction can lead to more confidence and comfort around angry people.

It it important to learn about the dance of anger, for men and women. And it is even more critical to understand the enormous impact your dance of anger has on your children. Give them healthy examples of dealing and discharging anger, and you will give them tools to deal with their own anger and anger of others. Show them how anger can be contained, and how the loving family can remain even when anger is occasionally expressed.

In my marriage, perhaps we hid too much of the anger. My kids don’t have many healthy examples of anger negotiation. And thus, even as young middle-schoolers, their response to anger is often to shut down completely, and even cry, depending on the severity of the anger. And this is anger not directed at them at all. We’ve got some work to do, showing them what healthy anger looks and feels like. And I’m sure as they enter their teens we will have plenty of opportunities.

Please take an opportunity to leave your feedback and experiences in the comments.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

reference: The Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships

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image: rage and love, lisa widerberg, creative commons usage

Men and Our Anger Issues: The New Dance of Anger (part 1)

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I remember reading The Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships during my first marriage to a rage-enabled Basque woman. She was less than 100 lbs soaking wet, but she had the fury of only one other person I’d ever known. Cliché coming: My dad was a rageful alcoholic. When he was not drinking he could get mad. But when he was lit his rage knew no bounds. My first wife, was like that, even without drugs or alcohol.

The part I didn’t remember about the book, was the “Woman’s Guide” part. I get it. And I understand how I might have suppressed this subtitle.  But I think today, we need volume two of this great book. Let this post serve as my outline.

ONE: We all learn about anger at a very young age. Before we can understand language we are being given verbal and physical clues about what is a right thing to do and what is a wrong thing to do. For most of us lucky ones, this guidance is done without the injection of anger or physical abuse. For those less fortunate the anger in their lives, both physical and verbal, had no boundaries. There was no safety zone around the young and developing mind, no parent or guiding influence to protect our early learning systems. Physical and emotional abuse are things I know a little about. When the rage and damage enters the personal zone of sexual health and safety, I bow out. Except to know that my first wife had experienced sexual abuse as well. But that anger, came from a place of darkness I could never personally understand.

TWO: Relationships with Dad Children crave a relationship with their fathers throughout their lives. Even after the dad has died, we often seek his approval through the relationships with other “father figures.” That’s nothing new. We know this. We can even recognise when this is happening, and welcome the mentor of confidant. But the primary relationship with our actual fathers has an impact on our identity as men. Masculinity is defined by our understanding of our fathers. How they treat women (Moms, sisters, girlfriends, waitresses, etc) all form parts of our library of male-knowledge that we refer to for the rest of our lives. And this relationship to our fathers is not just about relationships with women. Our dads drive most of our understanding of how to relate to other men as well. Basically, the idea goes, a father shows his children how to make their way in the world. The mom shows the children how to love in the world.

THREE: Anger In Unhealthy Families When your father shows unhealthy boundaries and exhibits unhealthy amounts of rage, even when they are not directed at you, you begin to form coping mechanisms for how to deal with the incoming emotional assault. In the case of the pre-verbal child these coping mechanisms are deep and primal. The child within a verbally abusive home resembles the feral animal. Wounded, the animal, will cower in the corner either hoping for recovery or death. While the small child doesn’t have this exact same frame of reference, the feelings are of fear of death or some subverted understanding of how reality is supposed to be. As a child, our parents are all we know. If that universe is colored, repeatedly, by anger and verbal outbursts, we begin to believe this is how the world works.

FOUR: Old Defense Mechanisms As we grow older, we begin to uncover parts of our defense mechanisms against anger that are no longer serving us. I consider myself “conflict adverse” and this is often seen as a weakness in terms of executive leadership. I always score low on my “sense of urgency” personality scores. I keep saying, “I work hard so we don’t have to go into emergency or urgent mode,” but the test doesn’t hear reason, and I am given a lower rating as a project manager or leader. So, I know this about myself, I avoid confrontations. I avoid angering someone. In my second marriage this resulted in my letting the physical connection and closeness slip out of my relationship without a big ass fight. I should’ve fought. I should’ve been verbal. I was physical and accommodating. And in the end I allowed her lack of sexual desire to overrule my need for physical touch, sexual and, more critically for me, non-sexual. So as emerging men, we have to dig into our anger issues and find some inner resolve. We have to understand our own dance of anger, and begin to make peace with it and make adjustments so we can have healthier relationships, and healthier relationships to our own anger.

FIVE: We’ve all got anger issues. The difference is at what point our issues kick in and render us less effective at staying present (in an argument, for example) or at staying in a marriage (in the case of the angry devorcee). Staying present in the dance of anger, yours or someone else’s is critical to becoming a healthy adult. The layers and layers of armoring have to be unwelded from our hearts, and we have to be willing to feel the fear of being raged at. It is important that we learn to be angry. And it might be even more critical that we learn how to cope with someone else’s anger when it is directed straight at us.

end of part one – here is part 2: The New Dance of Anger: Men and Our Legacy (part 2)

I hope you take an opportunity to leave your feedback and experiences in the comments.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

reference: The Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships

related posts:

image: rage and love, lisa widerberg, creative commons usage