Category Archives: money

Dating Boundaries After Divorce

BFFN: best friends for now; boyfriend for now.

So when you begin “dating” a new person how quickly do you become attached? How soon do you both actively use the word “boyfriend” or “girlfriend?” As you begin to lean into a new relationship the boundaries between you can become very abstract and blurry. This lack of boundaries or inability to articulate what we need or want is the cause of many early dating failures. I recall a woman, years ago, who had given me her phone number after a stellar first date, saying, “We should just hang out sometime. Call me.”

I was so thrilled that I emailed her a few times. I connected to her phone # and sent her a few texts. I thought I was being enthusiastic. She thought I was going way to fast. “You need to slow your roll,” is how she put it. We never made it to a second date. I don’t know what boundary I crossed, or what previous dating experience had caused her to be so dramatic in her pushback.

As I am entering into some new “dating” relationships I want to get very clear about what my needs are.

  1. I don’t need a rescue.
  2. I don’t need financial support.
  3. I don’t need someone to validate me.
  4. I don’t need a support system. (see Liz Phair: Support System)
  5. I don’t need to move quickly towards defining the relationship.
  6. I’m not heading for a hookup. (When I decide to have sex, it will be because I am choosing you above all others, and I will immediately become monogamous and drop all dating profiles and apps.)
  7. My intentions are set for a long-term relationship, not a dating partner.
  8. You must be on your own path of strength and beauty.
  9. You don’t need me to support you emotionally, financially, or spiritually. (These are parts of a relationship that might evolve, but at the outset, we need to be two individual countries engaged in becoming allies and trading partners.)
  10. Your sexual energy enlivens and engages my chemistry in a way that we both enjoy.

I’m not looking for a lot. I’m looking for exactly EVERYTHING. There is no “almost” in my next relationship. And I am willing to stand in and be a good celibate man until I find her.

How you define your boundaries early in the relationship is how you will relate to each other for the duration. If you cross boundaries and violate minor issues of trust, you will break the fragile bond that is forming between the two of you, even before the first fibers of love have begun to form and enmesh.

As Brené Brown puts it in her talk on BRAVING, you develop trust and love through hundreds of tiny engagements and opportunities. You either show up or you turn away. I am showing up. My next mate must show up too. First for her own life. Is she standing in her own power, her own dream? And then as an equal, as she considers joining together and combining forces.

I want to be a better man by being with a woman who calls me to attention and accountability. Today, I am alone and doing fine. I am doing some of the hard work of healing past wounds (mine have to do with childhood trauma) and celebrating a positive self-image. As I learn about loving myself, I am readying a place in my heart to love another.

I’m not quite there yet. But I’m excited by the opportunities ahead to become someone’s BFFN. The “for now” part is critical. I can’t plan the future of my next relationship. I can only show up, be honest, and remain open. The other person has 50% of the balance in how things turn out. In the past I have tried to be bigger than my 50%, I have compensated for qualities that were lacking in the other person, I’ve sacrificed some of my must-haves. I’ve learned that being unbalanced in any way (sexually, financially, physically, spiritually) can cause problems in the future.

Let’s keep returning to the now of our relationship. Sure, let’s become girlfriend and boyfriend and then let’s see where it goes from there.

Always Love,

John McElhenney

back to Dating After Divorce

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Coaching for Single Parents – Lifecoaching Practice Announced

The amazing people at started courting me in October of 2017. I was having a tough holiday and I did not respond until the editor in chief connected with me on LinkedIn. She wanted to do an interview and profile of The Whole Parent.

A lot has changed since this article came out. Too much to fill in here, but over time you will learn how February 2018 was one of the most transformative months of my 50+ years on the planet. The transitions are still in motion, my life is still approaching hyperspeed of some sort, and many of my major life goals are revealing themselves to have answers that I did not expect and was not actively looking for. Yet, here we are.

Click to see the profile

Today the world changes for The Whole Parent, aka John McElhenney. As my life has been moving in recent years, my passion for helping and guiding single parents through the hardships of divorce, depression, recovery, addiction, and ultimately renewed belief in a future relationship, I am announcing today that my services as a single parenting coach/wingman/confidant/cheerleader are now official and I’ve got slots open.

What this means to you as a reader of The Whole Parent.

  1. My rate to you is 50% what it will be in April when the public announcement is made.
  2. After your first session with me (skype/facetime/in-person Austin, Texas) you will get a free copy of my new book, What a Single Dad Seeks, as well as lifetime and unlimited access to the upcoming community that is being built behind the Single Dad Seeks Community Website.
  3. Your first 30-minute session is free. Let’s just talk about your goals, what you’re looking for in a coach. What kind of help you need. If I’m not the best fit for you, I have a network of coaches I consult with.
  4. I’ll have the honor of talking to you about your life, your dreams. And you can ask me about my story, what I’ve written, what my experience as a single parent in the online dating world has been.
  5. I’ll email you my ebook, What Single Dads Want You To Know About Online Dating.

That’s the entire offer. First call, 30-minutes, is free. Let’s just connect. I’ll send you an electronic copy of the book and ebook just for connecting with me online. There’s no payment, no commitment. That’s as honest as I can get about what I do and how I can help you get back to your authentic strength and happiness.

I do Skype, Zoom, or FaceTime sessions for on a sliding scale… That’s it. Easy. Tell me what you want to pay in the opening email and describe your situation. I can help.




Speaking engagements and interview inquiries can be emailed to [email protected] or for quicker response, you can call and leave a message at 512-524-6684.

For review copies of John’s newest book, Single Dad Seeks: Dating Again After Divorce, send mailing info to [email protected]

This is why I do it. I’m a dad to this wonderful 15 yo girl. She makes my life worth living every day. My 17 yo son, not pictured, is also a top priority in my parenting, earning, and dating life.

Teenaged Kids? Hard to Reach or Open to New Opportunities?

My daughter is 14 and entering high school today. My son is 16 and has his own car. Trying to get them to a sit down dinner once every two weeks can be tough. They’ve got so many things going on, and things, that to them, are more important than seeing me. But it’s my opportunity to let them know there is nothing more important to me than them. And I’m forced to do a better job of expressing this as we all grow older and more independent.

Today they are going back to school. And I’m taking them Starbucks to mom’s house for the launch. It’s a fun and big event. And they roll their eyes. But they will appreciate the photos later in life.

But as teenagers, they are going through a very specific development staged: separation. They don’t need to be with me. They don’t really need me for much, my money flows through their mom into their wallets. They don’t need my home-cooked meals every other week. They are in the process of individuation. They are becoming their own little humans, with agendas and circles that don’t involve me. It’s okay. I hear they come back to you as the grow a bit older.

I’m not waiting around for them to get it. I’m making dates with both of them to do engaging things. With my daughter it’s easy, we’re playing tennis. My son is a bit more of a challenge. His girlfriend is older and is going to a local college this year. So he’s always got something he’d rather be doing. And that’s the way it should be. Dear old dad is second priority. And still I miss them.

In fact, I’ve missed more of them since they were 4 and 6 when my then wife decided for all of us that a separate future would be better for us all around. The unfortunate thing is, in divorce only one partner has to make the decision to leave and there’s not much that can be done to stop it. I’m sure we both lost a lot. But she only lost two weekends a month. She got them 100% of the rest of the time. And their relationship with their mom is much closer. It’s more complete. She’s done everything for them. I’m a little sad about this abscense. But there’s not much I could’ve done about it. I got what I got in the settlement even though I asked and fought for 50/50 parenting. She knew what she would get if we went to court, so she asked for that.

Dads do get the short end of the deal most of the time in divorce. Wives get the house, the kids, and the lion’s share of the money. Dad’s… Well, we get a hefty child-support payment and if we’re successful, we can afford a small enough place that can still hold our kids and ourselves. But it’s been a hard 7 years for me. I’m still struggling to get above the debt that has incurred while I’ve been looking for work. And that debt, owed, for sure, is now enforced by the Attorney General’s Office of the State of Texas. Woohoo. Yep, she went there. And unapologetically keeps the boot of their “enforcement” on my neck everyday. And that’s a challenge. I wake up and have to forgive her for being so mean. It’s not like I wasn’t paying her from every paycheck I got. I was, am, and will.

If you can avoid divorce and keep from destroying your life, I would advise to try to work things out. I still think I could love her. Well, not like being in a relationship again, after all that has happened, but in the divorce I did not want out. I was still the hopeful one ready to fight for my family. But you can’t fight alone. She was gone. She’d been gone for over a year.

Today as I bring coffee to my kids at my old house, I’ll have feelings of regret and feelings of pride, side by side. And I’ll see my ex-wife and wish her well. And for a few minutes we’ll be that family we could’ve been. And we’re not. And the kids are not “kids” any more. They’ve moved on. And in many ways, so have I. But in missing them now, as teenagers I have to take action to make sure I’m still a big part of their lives. It’s up to me. No one else is concerned with getting together.

Single parenting is hard. But the good thing is you get to do it 100% your own way.

Take care. If you want to talk to someone about love and single parenting, let me know.

Always Love,

John McElhenney

image: back to school, creative commons usage

The WholeParent Mission: Positive Single Parenting Year Four

Here’s the starting mission statement written back in Sept. 2013.

My unwavering and immutable mission:

1. 100% positive
2. Kids first
3. Honest feelings

I thought I would give pause and reflect, update, muse, on what’s been going on here and in my single-parenting life.

One way I’ve wavered from the original missions is the 100% positive part. I realized that not letting any of the anger, conflict, and struggles out was not painting a very accurate picture of being a single dad. So, while I try to keep the focus on myself and not others, I am sure I have let a zinger or two fly here. I think it’s more important to be real.

I do believe that my kids come first. The marriage is over, but my parenting never ends. If I can stay focused on their wellbeing I can get over any frustrations I have with their mom. I am committed to being the best dad I can be, in spite of troubles, depression, anger, flights of fancy.

And the final mission, “honest feelings” is the glue that makes this entire adventure work. I think that’s what keeps this blog going even when I’m not contributing to it. I went on a year or more hiatus from writing here and the blog was still getting 100 – 200 reads per day. That’s pretty exciting. So, it seems like my voice is resonating with some folks. I’ll do my best to continue, even in the hard times, even in the blissful times when I don’t feel like writing. Most of all I will continue to be the best single dad I can be. And if I can give you a glimpse of what my life is like, struggles and all, then I have done my best for you as well.

Keep the faith, and if you need someone to talk to, check out my coaching page.

Always Love,

John McElhenney

image:  recent pic of me, creative commons usage allowed

Responsible Separation Is Harder than it Sounds

My ex and I tried to have a low-conflict cooperative divorce. Only problem is, she got an attorney, I didn’t. As cooperative as we were, when it came time to draft the decree we left it up to her attorney to set up the fair separation of our financial and parenting duties. It wasn’t fair and balanced. It was “responsible” for sure, because we agreed not to sue each other, but I was given the SPO (standard possession order) and the child support payments, just like 80% of other men getting a divorce with children in the early 2010s.

What she was doing was going outside the marriage, and outside our therapeutic relationship with our counselor, and consulting a divorce attorney to see what she was going to get should she choose to take further action.

What my then wife did, by seeking counsel before she mentioned it to me, by consulting with an attorney to understand her options, was she loaded the deck in her favor. By the time the “idea” of divorce was broached to me, she already knew what she wanted, she knew how it would likely go down, and she was fine with the consequences of her actions. Regardless of how those actions affected my kids and me, she was prepared for her “best case scenario” and I sort of gave it to her.

Again, let’s step back and take a snapshot of the days before my then-wife let me know she’d consulted with a lawyer to understand her options.

  1. We were not happy.
  2. We were not having sex.
  3. The money coming in from my full-time job was adequate, but we’d really need to discuss both of us working to get ahead.
  4. We focused on the kids as a way to not focus on our relationship.
  5. We were both seeking support and comfort outside the marriage. (Not an affair on either side.)
  6. We were living like roommates.
  7. I was beginning to express my dissatisfaction with the status quo and asking for changes.

And while I was doing my best to be an adoring husband, the lack of intimacy was wearing on my soul and my physical joie d’vivre. We were in couple’s counseling, but it always seemed the focus was on something I’d done wrong, like not tell her about a speeding ticket I got over the summer.  We never got around to talking about the relationship, or the lack of intimacy. Always some crisis of faith, some test of my “trustworthiness” was on the line each week as we meet and attempted a joining of the hearts and minds.

There was no join to be had. The sessions were cold. She was very guarded and withdrawn. She used the word “cynical” to describe our therapy at that time. I’ve never considered it any other way, but perhaps she was using the therapy to let me down easy. Anyway, she didn’t come out and tell me, I had to grill it out of her.

“Are you telling me you’ve been to see an attorney?” I asked during our penultimate session.

“I was just gathering information.”

Actually what she was doing was going outside the marriage, and outside our therapeutic relationship with our counselor, and consulting a divorce attorney to see what she was going to get should she choose to take further action. I was stunned in the session. I was hurt. I was furious.

“How could you not bring that up in here BEFORE going to see a lawyer?”

I was lead to believe that the kids needed their mom more than me, that a mom’s love is somehow superior, or more comforting than a dad’s love.

I pounded her via email over the next few days asking her for a decision. I had been in the cuckold box long enough. This moment of truth was either a time for us to regroup and join together again, or for us to work out the details of our divorce. While I was fighting during those first few days, I believed I was fighting for my marriage. What I didn’t know at the time, is I was fighting against the divorce more than for anything. See, I wasn’t happy either.

Responsible separation in the case of Laura A. Munson meant fighting for her marriage. Fighting against her husband’s depression and mid-life crisis, and fighting FOR the relationship. She simply didn’t buy her husband’s claims of being bored in the marriage. “Nope,” she said. “That’s not good enough.”

I wish I had been stronger. I don’t know that the outcome would’ve been any different. We would probably still be divorced. But I wished I had been able to question her about her motives for breaking up our marriage. Was it greener grass she was seeking? Was she asexual because she was no longer attracted to me? Was there someone else in her life that gave her joy?

What her move did, by going to see an attorney before discussing it in therapy, or talking to me about it, was it put the divorce into action before we had a chance to really map it out. She’d already done her due diligence. She knew what to expect from the court system in Texas. And she knew, like any mom in Texas filing for divorce knew, the mom usually get’s the kids, the child support, and the house. BINGO.

It’s unfortunate that the Bingo, or win for my ex-wife, had to be such a simple open and shut case. In several forums I was told that my ideas of 50/50 parenting were simply not realistic. I was made to question whether I could provide the love and care for my kids half the time. I was lead to believe that the kids needed their mom more than me, that a mom’s love is somehow superior, or more comforting than a dad’s love.

I lost 70% of my kids life in that split second in the therapy session when she said she’d seen an attorney. She knew she’d get the custodial parent role and approximately 70% of the custody. She knew she’d get the house, nearly paid for. And she knew she’d get a healthy monthly stipend that would allow her to keep the house without too much stress. She also knew she had to get a full-time job to divorce me. So she did.

It’s odd how the entire year leading up to the big fail in therapy, she’d been “looking for a job” that suited her sense of self. We’d been down several career changes together. I was supportive even as the bills were threatening our house, because I wanted her to be happy. The last year before we got divorced her income was actually a negative number. She was demanding I get the full-time job again, and she was apparently unable to get a job herself. Until she wanted the divorce.

Responsible separation would be 50/50 parenting, just how we did it when we were together. Responsible separation would mean not attacking the dad for being a second-class parent so the courts would rule in favor of the 70/30 standard possession order that is common in most states.

She knew what she was going to get. She placed her bets and altered the course of all of our lives to meet some new agenda she had cooked up alone. Or, if she had counsel, it wasn’t from me, or our couple’s therapist. He was as shocked as I was that she had seen an attorney.

The business of divorce took place over the next few months. I gave in on most issues. I was too depressed to fight. At that point I wanted to end the fighting and pain and get on with whatever was next in my life. I’m still sorry she chose the course she did. And I’m sorry the state of Texas still rules in mom’s favor 80% of the time, rather than in the favor of the kids by granting 50/50 custody.

Always Love,

John McElhenney

Related Posts:


image: couple, creative commons usage

What I Wish My Ex-wife Knew

I’m not writing this blog to my ex-wife, but there are times when I wish she would read my words. I still love her, because of our connection and history with children, but she makes it difficult to remain objective sometimes. One of my outlets is to work it out, alone, right here. Again, I’m certain she’s NOT reading me, but these posts could help our relationship. Soften her up a bit, perhaps. And then again, I’ve given up imagining that my words or actions can change her in any way. We’d like to think we can make another person happy, or comfortable, or secure. Unfortunately, we cannot.

If I could give my ex-wife a quick list of posts to read, this would be the shortlist.

As it is, we’re supposed to have moved on from the charged feelings towards our significant, but no longer spousal, other. When the anger and defensiveness is quick to surface there may still be some emotional work to do. Somedays I’d really like to send her a link to my prayer for her. I don’t. Again, I’ve learned it’s not for me to change her, but really learn to love and adapt to her as she is today.

She’s remarried. She’s got money again. She seems to be enjoying her job and the job of parenting, but she still complains a bit too much for me to buy the slick surface. I’m not taking her inventory here, I’m releasing her. I just wish my loving words could reach her some days. And I hope, everyday, that my loving actions will soften her heart enough to give her peace.

“I wish you happiness in your new life, I always want to see you shine, you are the other half, the partner in this parenting journey we accepted together. Your joy is joy for our kids. Your peace is their peace, and mine. As we walk separate paths we are blameless and grateful for the gifts we’ve been given. And to you, my dear ex, I give the deepest respect and love. Thank you for where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are going, still a family, still parents, still blessed.”

Always Love,

John McElhenney

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image: red flower, creative commons usage

Staying Positive, Resetting, and Getting Positive Again

I try to stay positive with the mother of my children at all times, I really do. But she continues to do things that would get her divorced in any other relationship. Well, it worked out that way for her and me in the first place, but she doesn’t need to keep being difficult and self-righteous. I do a ton of things to keep the peace, but it’s tiring. When is someone going to offer me the merit badge for good friend and father? Never.

I would’ve thought marrying a man with money (her new husband) would relieve some of her stress, but it seems to have made her even more intolerant of my situation.

I know not to expect anything from my ex-wife. I mean, she really doesn’t owe me anything. In fact, I still owe her. But it’s a contract between us, my child support, and something I would not try to, nor could I ever get out of my obligation to my kids. Full-time employment in my field of social media marketing, can sometimes be a more hit or miss routine. I’m in for 10 months, have a good roster of clients, and then nothing.

About three years ago I hit a “nothing coming in” period and I reached out to her to explain the situation. Three years into the divorce, and still there was only flak and anger coming back at me. I shared my income, my prospects, and my business hunt on a weekly basis, trying to temper her need to press the whole “divorce” thing over the Attorney General’s office. For 45-days it worked. While I wouldn’t call it cordial, she was at least willing to give me a bit of time to figure it all out.

“Meanwhile,” she said, “I still have bills and I’m still forced to pay for things that we should both be paying on.” I was ashamed and motivated to increase my efforts.

She went ahead and filed on me. It’s the equivalent to sending your loved one (former loved one) to a collections agency. Suddenly my credit score fell through the floor, and I became listed as a deadbeat dad. What? How did all that happen? How did we get from coparenting, to answering to case workers and “pressing 2” for non-custodial parent?

And today she’s still certain that the 10% we pay to the AG’s office is some how worth her piece of mind, that she will be paid. I try to remind her that she get’s paid from every dollar I make. She doesn’t want to hear excuses. She wants to hear commitment dates.

I don’t see how having the state’s child support team clamping down on me is going to help. There is nothing they can do but threaten (which they do) and freeze my bank account

She’s always been very spreadsheet oriented, and she’s obviously paying close attention to her balance sheets. And any dip or change in the plan causes unwelcome drama all over her prospects for a better future. I would’ve thought marrying a man with money (her new husband) would relieve some of her stress, but it seems to have made her even more intolerant of my situation.

And, the bottom line, she is entitled to all of the money. And in the best case scenario, my current work search will provide a renewed steady stream of income for her and my kids real soon. But again, I don’t see how having the state’s child support team clamping down on me is going to help. There is nothing they can do but threaten (which they do) and freeze my bank account (which they’ve done twice – causing more than $1,000 added expenses and hardships for me, along the way.)

“But you owe her the money,” the AG representative told me, hours before he froze my account.

“Don’t you see that I’ve just gotten a new job and have registered this new employer with your office?”

“Fine, but what about right now? I’m going to take half the money in your account to go against the debt  you are obligated for.”

“But I need that money for the kid’s health insurance premiums.”

I don’t think she’s ever considered what it’s like on this end of her authority stick. But it didn’t need to go this way, and the 10% she’s giving the AG’s office for staying involved, is money that would be better spent on our kids.

I’ve proposed a few scenarios for securing her debt while removing the AG’s office from my backside. So far, she’s stalled and said she won’t have time to think about that for a few months. Wait, what? “It’s just a conversation I want to have, not a decision.”

She’s in control this time. Much more in control than she was in the marriage. Having the angry hammer over my head, must give her some satisfaction, knowing she could precipitate my financial shut down with one phone call.

Always Love,

John McElhenney

Back to Positive Divorce & Co-Parenting

related posts:

reference: The 5 Love Languages  by Gary Chapman

image: kids and money, creative commons usage

Custody Should Be a Collaborative Term

Screen Shot 2016-09-11 at 4.48.02 AM

If you are getting a divorce and you have kids, go for 50/50 parenting or nothing at all. FIGHT for 50/50 parenting and JOINT custody. Do not agree to be the non-custodial parent, under any circumstances.

Today custody in divorce w/ children usually means someone loses. Sure, there is joint custody, but the states usually like someone to be listed as primary custodian, otherwise recognized as “the custodial parent.” And for the rest of us, usually men, we are called the “non-custodial parent.” Seems like semantics, but let me assure you, it’s serious as hell.

In my case, even though we share joint custody, my ex-wife has the custodial parent role. While we were negotiating the divorce, this term didn’t mean anything to me. I was assured that the “joint custody” covered me in all issues and decisions related to my kids. That was a lie.

What it really meant, is that the minute I got the slightest bit behind on my child support (the non-custodial parent ALWAYS pays the custodial parent) my wife was able to file our decree with the OAG (office of the attorney general) and put my life into a living hell.

Imagine if you’re struggling already. Imagine asking the co-parent to wait a few months while the work situation settles out, so you can get back on track with payments. Then imagine your significant other saying, “Sorry, I’m filing with the AG’s office today. It’s for the kids, not for me.”


Once the decree is signed and you (the dad) have agreed to a specific payment each month, the AG’s office becomes a collection agency. They’ve got one of those lovely phone trees that asks before anything else, “If you are the custodial parent press ONE, if you are the non-custodial parent press TWO, if you are an attorney press THREE.”

You don’t want to be the non-custodial parent under any circumstances. Remember all that stuff you learned in couples therapy about power and control? The divorce brings out the worst of the dysfunction. And if your co-parent becomes a custodial parent, you are about to get punched in the balls. (Pardon my assumption that the dad is 80% of the time, the non-custodial parent, in my state of Texas.) If you are the mom who is non-custodial, then you can be prepared to have random titty twisters anytime there is a dispute.

But we weren’t having a dispute. I was telling her exactly what was going on. “My company just lost a big client, we’re struggling as quickly as we can, so if you can be patient…”

She was not patient. She waited exactly one month before sending me threatening emails. Talking about “for the kids,” and “not doing them a favor by letting you continue to not pay.” But here’s the problem with that ill-logic. Once you’ve signed a decree for divorce with kids, the child support agreement goes into law. Not even bankruptcy can wipe away your child support obligations. So if my wife was smart, and she was, she would’ve known this. I’m sure her attorney told her as much.

So if I’m not ever going to be able to skip out on my financial obligation to my ex-wife and my kids, what’s the point of filing against a cooperative parent? Power. And. Control. Now she has 100% of the power. And with the arm of the law she also has compete control over my financial future.

By filing with the AG’s office she effectively prevented me from restructuring my mortgage with Wells Fargo. She also got a lien placed on my credit score that began to damage my financial stability and resources immediately.

HARD AND FAST RULE: If you are getting a divorce and you have kids, go for 50/50 parenting or nothing at all. FIGHT for 50/50 parenting and JOINT custody. Do not agree to be the non-custodial parent, under any circumstances. You will regret giving in on this single point more than any other item in your divorce, so PAY ATTENTION.

In my future, I have my ex-wife to thank for the hardship of used car loan rates in excess of 19%. And she could care less. She claims to be all compassionate and always interested in protecting the kids interests. But suing your coparent is not protecting anyone’s interest. There was no need to attach a debt collector to my account, I was on the hook 100% and willing. But I went through a minor setback for one month in the summer three years ago. And I still can’t get a car loan.

Always Love,

John McElhenney

Back to Positive Divorce & Co-Parenting

related posts:

reference: The 5 Love Languages  by Gary Chapman

image: tango creative commons usage

Focusing On the Other Person is a Trap


We are only responsible for our own happiness. Taking another person’s inventory is not beneficial for either party.

She’s still certain that I have done her some major injustice during the year or so that I was unemployed. And she’s got the big, state enforced debt to prove my fault. But it wasn’t supposed to go that way.

In recovery we learn that focusing on another person’s problems is really none of our business. We can only be responsible for our own recovery (from alcohol, sex, drugs, pornography, whatever). It’s called taking someone else’s inventory. In a marriage it begins to happen if you don’t guard against it. I think I was pretty good at looking at and working on my own shit. I think my then-wife often looked for reasons that I was the cause of her unhappiness.

Now, seven years later she’s still unhappy with me. She’s still certain that I have done her some major injustice during the year or so that I was unemployed. And she’s got the big, state enforced debt to prove my fault. But it wasn’t supposed to go that way. It’s the way the law is written, and it’s the way she chose to “enforce” it that became the issue. But had we been cooperative, or 50/50 as I asked, we would’ve cooperated and negotiated my economic hardship just as we do things like medical bills. No one expects them, but they come up. And together you deal with the issues.

When I told my ex-wife that I was going to be a bit late on one of my child support checks she got furious. I explained the situation, and the prospects for new clients. She was unfazed and threatened taking action with the attorney general’s office. The second month I still did not have an exact answer for when I could “catch up.” And after a few more threatening emails she stopped talking to me. She wouldn’t even meet with me over the Summer when school was starting up again. “When and how much?” became her standard response to any request for parenting discussion time.

We withdrew into our fighting corners. She threatened. I pleaded. I looked for new business for the company I was working for. I struggled to make my mortgage and keep the lights on. I was burning through my retirement to make child support payments and when that ran out I ran out of options. She was mad. She was mad like she had been mad when we were married. It was my fault that she was mad. I was the reason for her pain and anguish. All of it. Except we know that’s not the way anger and anguish work.

I am not responsible for my ex-wife’s happiness. The debt I owe her, money I did not make and therefore did not have to give her a portion of, is not going to make her happy.

Even at this time I could only focus on myself and my issues. I was working contract jobs for a small handful of clients but was not making money to make my mortgage and/or child support payments. My employer had lost a primary client that had kept me on the payroll. Nothing I said or did, short of delivering a check to her, was enough for her to relent or even discuss options with me. She was done and she let me know she would deliver our decree to the AG’s office by the end of the Summer. And that’s just what she did.

Now, about three years later, she is still owed this debt. The money I should’ve been making during our divorce, and the payments I should’ve been paying her, and now the debt I owe her has become a lien on my credit account. Yes, she has transformed me, a good-natured, honest, and transparent dad, into a deadbeat dad, in the eyes of the state and the credit bureaus. This new black mark on my record killed more than one job opportunity in the last few years.

This past week, when we reported to the AG’s office to reset the child support payments based on what I am actually making, she was still pissed about the money I “owe” her. I’m still her biggest problem. If I’d just pay her all the money I should’ve paid her, from money I should’ve been earning, then things would be just fine.

I tried this same kind of logic while we were married. If I could just get enough money in the bank she would relax. If I could get more of the chores done, hire a made once a week, and do the dishes every night, she would be happy. If I could get everything done and get an activity for the kids to do maybe then she’d entertain the idea of sex. Except there was usually a reason or two, an issue or two, that I had not anticipated or taken care of.

See, she was waiting for me to change. She was depending on me for some happiness that simply was not inside of her. Another person cannot make you happy. Sure, their actions can make you madder than hell, and sometimes their actions can be pleasing to you, but happiness is more of an internal thing. Happiness is a personal responsibility. That my ex-wife is still focused on me as part of her unhappiness just shows how much she still has to learn about compassion and self-improvement.

I am not responsible for my ex-wife’s happiness. The debt I owe her, money I did not make and therefore did not have to give her a portion of, is not going to make her happy. She’s not happy. She’s still unhappy about the way I’m treating her.

For me, I have moved on. I am dealing with the stress of the AG’s lien. I’m in a new relationship and feeling as happy and centered as I’ve ever been in my life. See, I know my happiness begins and ends with me and my thoughts. Even my ex-wife’s rage and antics don’t bring me down. She lost that power over me years ago when she decided to divorce me. And of course, I was learning that she never had that power to begin with. By focusing on my own issues and my own faults I am responsible for my actions. I am responsible for how I wake up each day and attack the hill with joy or anger.

I’m a happy climber. And I’m in a relationship now with another happy climber. There’s always going to be hills in life, and it is your attitude about your own work ahead that makes the difference.

Always Love,

John McElhenney

Back to Positive Divorce & Co-Parenting

image: dancing, creative common usage

The Big Three Marriage Issues and the Hope of Counseling


Was it marriage counseling or divorce counseling?

Chores are the root of many arguments and most of the resentment. She always felt she did most of the chores. Even though our agreement tended to validate that premise, it still made her mad.

It’s all in your approach to therapy. In our case we started hitting the couch before we thought there was a deal-breaking problem. We agreed that things were stressful between us and we could use some communication skills to help us work through the hard stuff. Maybe even a moderator while we dug into topics like money, chores, and sex.

Those are the big three. MONEY. CHORES. SEX. And couples therapy can help you unravel the details, but probably won’t fix any of them. Let’s look at them one-by-one.


Either there is enough and you are both negotiating the balance of power, or there’s not enough and you are negotiating who’s going to work more. It’s a hard discussion to have without outside help. Loosely our relationship to money was I would work more she would work less so we could raise the kids with an active parent. For that trade, I would do contribute to the chores, but the lion’s share, during the day, while I was at work, would fall on her to-do list. That was our “spoken” agreement. The reality was a bit more obscure. Often I was being hammered for wanting to nap on the weekend when there were still chores to be done.

MARRIAGE MAXIM: There will always be more chores to be done. Your happiness will be a direct ratio to how okay you are with undone chores. I was okay with them, she was hardly ever okay with them. Money can help, you can hire a maid once a week. But money will not fix the issue. We had a weekly made and money in the bank and still, I was not doing enough to “help.”


Sex with two people who are open and feeling is a magical thing. Sex with only one partner in the “open” mode is a different experience all together.

Ah, the root of many arguments and most of the resentment. She always felt she did most of the chores. Even though the spoken agreement tended to validate that premise, it still made her mad. And this imbalance made her mad most of the time. The problem is, she was prone to be mad anyway. She had some-kind of built-in “mad chip” on her shoulder. And chores were one of those things. I could be in trouble even before I knew what was wrong. I’d look around the house on a Saturday morning and think, “Things look great.” She would wake up and give me hell. Oh yes, men and women deal with chores very differently. Perhaps that’s part of the Mar and Venus thing.


Sex is the unspoken killer of a marriage. Men typically want more. Women typically want to be bothered about it less. Unless they are in pursuit of a baby however, then libido takes a back seat to purpose and intention. When my wife wanted a baby we had sex all the time. Once we had the baby, sex became a negotiation. That’s okay, until the negotiation becomes so lopsided that you’d rather have sex with yourself then approach your partner. And sex was one of the topics we rarely reached in “couple’s therapy.” Because there were always one hundred other issues, from topics 1 and 2, that I was not doing correctly. It was almost like she chose to inflame the first two issues so we didn’t have to look at the underlying distress: intimacy.

MARRIAGE MAXIM: When sex goes the relationship is not far behind.

Sex with two people who are open and feeling is a magical thing. Sex with only one partner in the “open” mode is a different experience all together. I always hoped for open sex, but occasionally settled for “whatever” sex. The sex you could take or leave, even after it’s done. “Meh Sex.”

Towards the end of my marriage I believe my wife was navigating us towards divorce rather than reconciliation.

But boring sex is a symptom of some deeper intimacy issues. When a woman is feeling resentful or unheard she will shut down sexual options. It’s her nature. When a man feels unloved and stressed he might turn to sex for affirmation and affection. When the two competing needs don’t match up, the woman becomes used to not having sex and the man becomes more adept at pleasing himself than his wife. Bummer.

Sex is hard to talk about. So talk about it before and after you’re having sex, but don’t try to cover emotional topics or “new ideas” during sex, unless you are prepared for a quick change, reset, or no. The best discussions about sex happen within the post-coital glow, the few hours after sex where you are both still feeling warm and fuzzy.

“I loved it when you rubbed yourself during sex, and I could feel it too.” Pretty racy statement, but great information for better and more mutually pleasurable sex. Still hard to say. But easier to say when you are both feeling optimistic about the relationship and the sex you just had.


Towards the end of my marriage I believe my wife was navigating us towards divorce rather than reconciliation. She had completely shut down the sex channel of communication. She was angry 95% of the time. And her single word to describe couple’s therapy was CYNICAL. Yep, she was already dooming the relationship while still agreeing to engage in the negotiations.

As it turns out, we were not in “couple’s” or “marriage therapy.” We were working with a counselor who worked with a system that attempted to get you and your partner communicating on a very clear and simple level. What you attempted to strip away in the therapy was the projections, and regrets and simply deal with the present. It worked so well, that over the course of a few weeks my then-wife went to see an attorney to understand her “options.” Now it would’ve been more helpful had she brought that up IN therapy BEFORE going and meeting with the attorney, but she didn’t.

MARRIAGE MAXIM: Couple’s therapy only works if both partners are honest and genuinely want the relationship to continue. If one partner is opting-out there is little hope that a therapist can repair the damage.

Something in our communication was telling her, “It’s over.” So she planned accordingly. Had she wanted to work on the relationship the only honest thing do to would’ve been to bring in the idea, “I’m thinking of seeing an attorney about a divorce,” BEFORE she actually did it.

Once she met with the lawyer, the divorce strategy was planted in her mind. The encouragement from the attorney who wanted the new business, might be too hard to resist. The fact that she did it before talking about it in therapy… Well, that says, I’m done, and I’m doing this therapy to help you feel better about what’s going to happen.

Always Love,

John McElhenney

Back to Positive Divorce & Co-Parenting

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image: 14 months ago at my mom’s house, john mcelhenney, creative commons usage