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Divorce Retrospective: Getting This Off My Chest

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I did not want the divorce. My understanding of how love works did not involve leaving my kids behind. Ever. It certainly did not have malicious intent toward my ex-wife, even as she continued to behave poorly. 

What Broke In My Marriage

I go over it from time to time, even 13 years later. What could I have done better? How could I have solved my ex-wife’s issues before they became a crisis? Of course, I know better now. You cannot fix another person. You cannot convince them to change, or do the work, or stay. When my then-wife panicked and went to see a divorce attorney about her options, our marriage never had a chance.

See, I think my ex-wife did not understand or have the experience of a secure attachment. It’s one of the things I do well, attach. In her family of origin, dads were stoic to the point of silence, and moms were bonkers. She never knew what love was supposed to look like. Her dad divorced her mom two or three times. He came back! And divorced her again. WTF?

In my experience of the ending, I told our therapist in the exit session, that I was “hopeful” about the progress we’d been making, right up to the point where she surprised both of us with the lawyer thing. Her word, I kid you not, was cynical. And that about sums it up. I think my then-wife and my ex-wife are cynical. As if, there is nothing really to be done for the entropy of the world, of our lives, of our family. Eventually, there is nothing to do, you just give up.

My then-wife was in the process of giving up. In a moment of panic, perhaps on advice from her father, she consulted with an attorney. If I think back now, I suppose she found some new major energy at that time. I didn’t know that’s what she had done, but she got very busy. Her lawyer showed her the promised land of the traditional custodial mom’s divorce. She would get the house, the money, and the kids. And in Texas, she was like 85% of other moms who were offered the same package deal. Once she saw that she could have her dream and a new life without me, and all she had to do was sacrifice her kids up every other weekend? Well, she started to plan. And she was a planner.

How Things Got Dark

For two months after she smashed couples therapy, I stayed in the house so the kids could finish 3rd and 5th grades. She wanted me to move out that afternoon, after the BIG REVEAL. It was a slip actually. A comment that came out of her mouth during couples therapy. I held up my hand, the universal signal for “Hold up, what did you just say” and she blushed and looked ashamed. “I was just trying to get information,” she said. We ended up having one more therapy session to say goodbye to Rich, our loving and well-meaning therapist.

The word she used to summarize her outlook on the situation was cynical. My word was hopeful. And that, in a nutshell, shows where we were coming from.

I still wanted to work on it. That’s why I’d gotten us into therapy in the first place. It was our second run at getting help understanding each other and how to improve our relationship. Except, here’s the rub. If she was getting ready to go see a lawyer about divorce, don’t you think she should’ve brought that up in therapy? BEFORE she went to see the lawyer? I mean, what was the point of couples therapy if you’re not being honest about where you’re at. She wasn’t very honest a lot of the time, actually. (See: The Lies My Wife Told and Continued During Our Parenting Struggles)

Anyway, about 10 minutes after the therapy hiccup occurred, she said she wanted me to move out. “To give us all a break.” I was stunned. I escalated to anger, which is hard for me to do, and unfamiliar. “If you’re having such a hard time,” I said. “Perhaps you should move out.” She ignored my comment. “We could just tell the kids you are going on a business trip.”

My ex-wife was always worried about appearances. What’s the story? What’s our spin? Let’s get our stories coordinated. What she was not worried about was the impact this NEWS would have on our two kids. It wasn’t until the following week, after she met with the school counselor, that she agreed with the idea that we’d wait until summer to kill our kid’s hopes of having a family. “The counselor said it would be too hard for them, during the school year, to deal with their own emotional issues.”

No shit, Sherlock.

So I stayed in the house. We lived as roommates. I took on the depressed romantic suitor role. I didn’t mean to. But when the anger and overwhelm wore off, I still wanted to be married to her. No matter what. I was willing to forgive the emotional infidelity, the one that got us into couples therapy the first time. (SEE: Blameless Divorce: I Had a Dream Where You Apologized)

I was willing to forgive her for not being honest in couples therapy the second time. I was even willing to forgive her for trying to strongarm me out of the house in the divorce.


She had seen the divorce brochure and she liked the future it foretold. I don’t think it’s worked out the way she planned, but I’ll never know. She doesn’t talk to me. Well, she does, but it always involves a scree of charges and how I’ve disappointed her. That’s how she got me to quit asking about co-parenting. As she began to freeze me out of parenting cooperatively, she would write horrendous emails and texts. Meant to frighten me. Or meant to crush me into suicide. I don’t think she really cared which at that point. She had what she wanted. She was starting to date again, on her off weekends.

Still, as the father of our children, and the person she seemed to care about at one point, she really became a completely different person. As if her personality changed. Now, she was the winner. She was the MOM. She was the victim of whatever caused the divorce. That’s not the truth, but that’s how her texts and emails always sounded.

Imbalanced Parenting

Here’s an example of our two approaches.

Whenever I would ask for a variation on our schedule or plans, she’d fire back, “This is too hard, let’s just go back to the decree.” It was her poison dagger. However, after a few years, when she asked if I would swap kid weekends with her so she could sync up with her new boyfriend, I agreed. My first response, unspoken, was “Fuck you.” My therapist advised me against conflict and said maybe this olive branch would soothe her anger a bit.

I agreed to swap weekends so she could match up with her new boyfriend.

She had 100% of the power and authority after the divorce. Because she was awarded the custodial parent role (I didn’t know this at the time.) she didn’t really have to cooperate with me at all. I mean, it might have been in the best interest of the children, but fk that. She was the winner. She was “their mom.” She had 100% of the power.

A few years in, my employer lose a major client and they were going to delay in cutting paychecks for a few weeks. I told my ex-wife what was happening. I put in my own hopeful spin that it wouldn’t last very long. And that I was completely committed to paying her, and catching up, as soon as I could. She proceeded to send the “decree” to the AG’s office for “enforcement.” Apart from the fact that she renigged on our 50/50 shared parenting agreement at the beginning of the divorce, this was the meanest thing she’d ever done. And she knew it was going to fk me. She knew I was trying to refinance my house. She didn’t need the money. She just wanted to hurt me.

Congratulations. It worked. For the next 11 years, my daughter was 7, and the AG’s office sat on my credit report. In the eyes of anyone who looked it up, I was a deadbeat dad. One example of how this played out at one point, I was getting her to write me letters of confirmation to my potential employers. “He is not a deadbeat dad. We are working on the finances. He is meeting his obligations.” Can you imagine, having to ask your ex-wife for a permission slip to get a job? So you could give her HALF the money? I’m guessing that she and her new husband too great delight in this turn of events. He too was a piece of work. ADHD, OCD, and spectrumy. Heck, maybe my ex-wife has some dysfunction. She keeps pushing BPD (borderline personality disorder) on my son, as a diagnosis. You know what they say. People often point out their own flaws in others.

Hope For Dads Everywhere

Here’s the good news. I survived. I got out from under the AG’s thumb. I’ve even managed to buy a house again, once the deadbeat dad status was removed from my credit report. Here’s how great the AG’s office is to non-custodial dads.

One year after I paid all of my child support, my account was still open. Despite several “recorded for training purposes” phone calls and even a few visits to the office where they deal with real deadbeats. One year later, I was still labeled as a deadbeat dad. I kept at it. And a few months ago, almost two years since I paid off the AG’s office, guess what happened?

They actually sent ME a reimbursement check. The reason they had not been able to close the account. Rather than me still owing $6 like they kept claiming. They owed me $179.31. The AG’s office of the great state of Texas delayed closing and squaring my account because THEY OWED ME MONEY BACK.

Today, I have a great relationship with one of my kids. And I’m working like hell to earn the respect and love of the other one. But he was fed a lot of lies. Even as recently as last year, he was told I still owed child support. WTF? My ex-wife still tries to sew discontent between me and my kids. I can’t imagine that her 13 years of parenting without me left my reputation unscathed. She’s still trying to hurt me by dividing me from the love of my kids. I don’t think that was her purpose when she asked for a divorce, nuked our shared parenting plan, and went for gold. But that’s how it’s played out so far.

The part I don’t understand is this. Doesn’t my ex-wife see that her hurtful barbs are really damaging her relationship with her kids? As they come out from under the fog of her distortion, my kids are coming to understand that one parent lies and harbors distrust. And one parent is simply doing their best to smooth the difficulties with more love, more compassion, more empathy. I guess I’ve lost my empathy for my ex-wife and her dickish husband. No worries. My kids don’t read my work, and I’m not going to tell them all the time how fkd the behavior of their mom is.

I walk away from this story knowing I did everything I could to keep the marriage alive. And after the divorce, I’ve done everything I can (outside of shutting down my writing) to be a good father, a good man, and a reasonable person. But sometimes, you just can’t reason with crazy. It’s exhausting. Better to focus on yourself and say, “Bless their heart” all the time.


John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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