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

Positive Divorce: From Blame To Forgiveness

positive divorce - the whole parent

Be warned, some of you are not going to like this next sentence.

The divorce was a good thing.

I know, I can’t say that with any information about your situation. But hear me out, and let’s see if we can work through this concept of positive divorce. This is my story.

In the beginning we got married to start a family. And two bright shining babies came along just as we had hoped and prayed for. Healthy, beautiful, undamaged.

Then the path of life had its way with us. Economic pains, emotional pains, growing pains, all stretched us to our limits. And for a while we were both strong enough to hang on, hope for better times, and keep the family together. But we broke something in the process. We had different coping mechanisms for the difficulties. Some were helpful, some were destructive.

If we move through our own recovery process, we begin to emerge from the blame and anger. We often then move into grief and loneliness.

In the latter stages of our marriage things were difficult and dark. We struggled to keep the edges from showing too much to the kids, but we had begun sleeping in different rooms and speaking only as necessary to get the job of parenting done. We were doing the best we could, given the circumstances.

And that’s the hard thing to remember. As mad as you get, as much blame as you can hurl at the other person, you have to get to the understanding that, as difficult or hard as it was for you, your partner was equally distressed and trying to cope and adapt and survive.

When survival kicks in, you’re in the final stages of the married part of the relationship. Even if you weren’t the one who asked for the divorce you were most likely looking and hoping for some release from the painful bonds. Perhaps you hoped, as I did, for the other person to change. Perhaps you just wanted to feel wanted again. Perhaps there was dysfunction to the point of concern for the wellbeing of your children.

Something happened, at some point and you both began to imagine life without your marriage. And even if you are in the throes of it now, in the anger and blame and bitterness, you will eventually grow out of that. You will pass through the stages of grief just as if someone had died. And in fact, that’s a good analogy. The marriage has died.

If you have kids, however, the relationship will last a lifetime. It’s often a bitter pill when you discover how entwined you still are years after divorce. How decisions your former spouse makes can drastically alter your life.

If we move through our own recovery process, we begin to emerge from the blame and anger. We often then move into grief and loneliness. At this stage it is common for one or both of the partners to jump back into relationship. To find someone else to fill the gaping hole. But, I would caution this enthusiasm for a bit longer. And here’s why. There is still more growing that needs to happen within you, before you are ready to attempt a new journey. Why would you want to cover over the past mistakes and repeat them with another person.

As loneliness and possibly depression is being plumed, you may often seek support in the form of counseling or therapy groups. I personally joined a divorce recovery class in my city, and spent the next 10 weeks meeting with 18 other divorced people, men and women, to discuss and map our growth out of the hole of shame and blame.

Emerging again from the emotional wreckage of divorce you may be ready to date again. And this time you hope, find ways to cope and navigate the relationship in more constructive ways. But even as we go on to date, kiss, have sex, and perhaps even marry, we still often have work to do on the hidden anger and resentment of our divorce.

How can I explain the positive side of divorce to any daughter who misses the daily connection with her dad? Or the wounded sons I see who don’t see or receive any love from their absent fathers?

In my case I felt betrayed. I was never willing to give up. I was fighting to stay in the marriage even after I learned the my wife had already seen an attorney. So I was devastated and deeply depressed when I had to agree, finally, to the divorce. And I sunk to the lowest point in my life. And I needed help.

And there was no way for me to process the divorce when I was in such a wounded place. I jumped quickly on a few dating sites, determined to jump into bed and heal my sexual emptiness. But that didn’t work out. And I’m kind of glad it wasn’t as easy as I had hoped. My heart still had a long way to go to release the obsessive compulsive desire that had been created by the last few years of my divorce, that had been rather sex-less.

Today I mark the fourth year since I walked out the door of my house, and gave primary custody of my two children to my ex-wife. And I’m just now beginning to understand how deep the forgiveness must go, for me to completely agree that the divorce was a positive event in my life. And even more so, a positive event in the lives of my kids. (Now 13 and 11.)

How can I explain the positive side of divorce to any daughter who misses the daily connection with her dad? Or the wounded sons I see who don’t see or receive any love from their absent fathers? Early in the process of divorce, it is nearly impossible to imagine a positive side to what is happening. And if the echoes of your parents divorce still haunt you, like they did me, I was certain it was the end of everything. (Much like I did when I was 5 and learned that my dad had moved out of the house.)

And here’s the grace note. You will get through it. Your children will get through it. And eventually, you will (I’m still hopeful anyway) find another “love of your life” to try and reassemble your loving relationship around.

The first step of letting go is just beginning to understand that the blame, regardless of what happened, is squarely and equally on both your shoulders. I know, again, there is no way I can know or say that about your marriage. But if you can just imagine that it is half your fault, even if you have to pretend that you believe it, you will pull out of the pity and sorrow much quicker as you release your feelings and anger at the partner who is no longer your spouse.

Positive divorce is a choice. And the process to get there requires time, insight, and often the help of professionals. But the alternative is bitterness and continued failings at love relationships as you make the same mistakes, miss the same red flags, and put up with the same behaviors that got you into divorce in the first place.

Get help. Reason things out with another person. And let go of your blame. The rest of your life you will be relating to this person, if you have kids, and your healing can go a long way towards healing everyone.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: over you, woodlywonderworks, creative commons usage

I Love You, Dad

Do you remember saying that to your father? I do.

me and my dad - i love you, dad

And tonight (by some trick of luck I have my kids a day early) my son said, as I turned out the light, “I love you, Dad.” I felt it. And for just a minute, I could imagine what I felt like when I was a kid and saying it to my dad.

There’s a big difference between my experience of my dad’s love and my son’s. My hope is that by being fully present and loving that he will grow to know he is loved deeply. I never quite got that from my dad. I never quite felt like he got me. And after my parent’s divorce when I was about 5, I never really had much time with my dad. Things were pretty serious from then on.

I make sure, on a regular basis, that my son and daughter KNOW that I get them. I dig into their games and play with them. I listen to their stories as if I was trying to discover something about them and they way they are making their strides though their young lives.

And I try and expose as much of my real life as possible as well. Last weekend, I performed with my band at a local club, and I made arrangements for them to come, even though it wasn’t my weekend. I want them to see me doing my passion AND working for a living. I want them to see me in the process of healing from this change in all our lives. I can demonstrate how I can remain loving towards their mother, even when things are different.

I let them know that I want her to be happy too. As happy as I am.

And they can see my happiness daily. Occasionally they even make remarks to let me know they see my joy. Of course, I am not shy about telling them. I am always celebrating little wins like tonight, where I greet the babysitter’s car by saying, “I get an extra night!”

As much as things have changed in their lives, my steadfast positivism has never changed. And sure, they have seen me in sad and quiet places before, they saw it even while I was still married to their mom, it’s part of MY path in life. But they can see my joy every time I engage with them. They may get tired of hearing me tell them how much I love them, or how happy I am that they are here with me, but I don’t think I can ever say it enough.

But tonight, something special happened, it came sailing back to me, out of the darkened room, unprompted. And it struck me like an arrow, a joyful arrow.

And in that split-second I was both a father and a son. And in that moment, I also felt the joy of my father’s love upon me. He might have left the planet 15 years ago, but his love is still within me. And each time I can really hear and connect with my own kids, my heart lights up with a little bit more healing of my 5-year-old self, my wounded little boy.

My son gave me a gift tonight in just offering up his affection. And in that moment I heard my dad saying the words to me, “I love you, Dad.”

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

Note: The image is of me and my oh-so-serious dad.

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A Return to Wholeness After Divorce

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I remember a discussion with my then-wife before we entered the “trying to get pregnant” phase of our sexual relationship. I felt very clear about my intentions.

“I am ready to not be the center of my own universe all the time. I’m kinda sick of my self-absorption. I think we’re both ready to have someone else come in and be the most important thing in our lives.” I was speaking of the journey of becoming parents. And of course, at that time, I was certain this journey would not be interrupted by …

Divorce.

There’s no way sugar coat it. Divorce is the single biggest event that has happened in the lives of my family, ever. As amicable as you want to make it (and we tried) things get rough, sad, hurtful, complicated, and confusing. And while we as adults can only fathom that chaos from our own perspectives, the churn in our kid’s lives will shape them forever. I know my parents divorce, and the subsequent loss of my father’s love and influence, had devastating effects on my life. I’m a survivor. I’m here to talk, write, and grow even more from the experience. But it sucked.

I had become dependant (possibly resentful) on my wife’s strengths and let a few of my habits run amok.

I got the first taste of the “whole parent” concept during the summer after I was asked to leave my own house for the last time. I took the kids, as a single dad, to the beach for a quick display of solidarity and confidence. I was actually quite broken and scared inside, but we made the most of it.

What I remember feeling, that first hour on the beach was a mix of relief and *holy crap* how am I going to do this.

On the relief side, there were going to be no debates between the parents about what should or should not be done next. None. I was devoted to “whatever you guys want.” We made some democratic decisions about when and where to eat, what to watch on the crappy tv, and how long to stay on the beach. Where my ex-wife and I would probably be negotiating and disagreeing on various aspects of the trip, the safety, the best place to eat or stay, I was autonomous for the first time, and I had no complications about what to do, or why to do it. That was the plus side.

On the *holy crap* side was…

How to get everyone sun-screened sufficiently. (We went the sunshirt route) How to do the sand and sun and sea without any nap or relief from the partner. How to take one kid back to the room to use the bathroom without taking everyone. (You can’t.) And what to talk about when the kids were immersed in the sand castle construction. (You talk with your inside voice a lot, “Is this okay? Have we been out here too long? Man, I’d rather be taking a nap right now.”)

And in that moment of pros and cons, in that epiphany on the beach with my kids happily chattering away about how deep to make the hole, I got it:

Things were going to be okay. I was going to be fine. We were going to be fine.

In the divorce, when you lose everything, what you still have is your kids. And while you are deep in recovery of your own feelings, paying attention and parenting from a place of wholeness is critical.

I could learn to take back the things I had depended on my wife for. I could toughen up with one crappy cup of coffee (rather than 2+) and no nap, and I could be awake and enthusiastic for my kids. I could grow above and beyond the hurt I was experiencing at the devastating loss of my partner, and I would be better for it.

What I got on the beach, was the concept for this chapter of my life, The Whole Parent. I had become dependant (possibly resentful) on my wife’s strengths and let a few of my habits run amok. (Napping at the beach is a luxury best afforded without kids, or with an understanding and cooperative partner who will swap supervision duties with you.) I was going to get my first aid skills tested and make sure I had the necessary gear. I was going to learn to refocus my attention on someone other than myself.

In summary I was going to become a holistic parent again. Where I had forgotten or transferred certain necessary parenting skills and kid-guidance duties to another person, I was going to reclaim them for myself and for the love of my kids.

In the divorce, when you lose everything, what you still have is your kids. And while you are deep in recovery of your own feelings, paying attention and parenting from a place of wholeness is critical. I decided I would document my sad feelings, I would client/counsel/complain about my divorce and my ex-wife AWAY from my kids. And I would stand up, at that very sunny moment on the beach, and join them in digging the biggest baddest hole we could manage. I was going to engage with them in new and more invigorated ways. I was going to listen deeper. I was going to put my own pain aside and give them hope to deal with their own pains.

I would repeat, like a mantra, anytime I was asked about the divorce, “I would always love their mother. She was a great person. And though we were no longer together we BOTH loved them very much. ”

And then the biggest part: I WOULD SHOW THEM.

Welcome to my journey at becoming a whole parent again.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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