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How a Balanced Divorce Would Have Better Served My Children

I wanted to recalibrate our family financial plan and see what other options were available to us as an aspirational couple. My then-wife was not happy about my idea to revisit our plan.

All of our lives changed forever when I was asked to leave the family house for the last time. I think, my life changed a bit more dramatically, but we all lost the most valuable thing in life: time together. I look at pictures of my kids the summer and fall before my then-wife decided to change everything, and I can still long for that lost time. In many ways, I was removed from their lives for about 70% of the time. The bulk of family dinners, school night study time, rise-and-shine mornings, were all gone from my life. And, I suspect, my kids immediately missed my happy and playful approach to life.

Sure, we have to move on and do the best we can with what we are given. In the time allow me, by the Standard Possession Order, frequently awarded the non-custodial parent, I made the best of it. I worked hard to show my kids the continually positive side of my life. Even as I was struggling to keep a roof over my head, due to the high child support payments, I never let that struggle enter into our relationship. And, for her part, my ex did the same. Well, mostly.

Life as a married couple can be rough. And, adding kids to the mix certainly challenges all the weak links between you and your co-parent. As we moved from new parents to parents with elementary-aged kids, our financial mix got a bit more challenging. When our second child was three I started a new full-time gig with Dell Computer Corporation in Round Rock, a 45-minute commute away. I was working for the dream. I had the two kids, the dog and cat, the front and backyard in a nice neighborhood, and life seemed solid. It was less solid than it appeared.

My sweet corporate job afforded us several luxuries. My then-wife worked about 20 hours a week and we had a housekeeper to do laundry and dishes, and a babysitter for when worked called her out of the home. She was often home when the bus dropped off our oldest kid. It seemed like things would’ve been smoother than they were. But somewhere, something wasn’t right.

We struggled with communication between us. We struggled with intimacy. We struggled with different love languages long before the book was written, and we had very few ways of bridging the gaps that would come up between us. And, I struggled with depression. Perhaps, it was this last factor that undercut my then-wife’s confidence and commitment. Though things had been good for years, there was always the possibility that I would slip into a less jovial mood for long periods of time. And then the economic collapse of 2008-2009 happened.

We were in a good place financially. We were not in a good place emotionally, as a couple. I was given 60-days notice before being laid off in late November 2009. And as part of the deal, I would get my full annual bonus for 2009 and be paid full wages and health care for six months, from February to July of 2010. I felt this gave me a good running start at what I wanted to do next. It was clear to me, Dell had taxed my system physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I wanted to recalibrate our family financial plan and see what other options were available to us as an aspirational couple. My then-wife was not happy about my idea to revisit our plan.

The first Monday in February, I was no longer required to go into the office in Round Rock. I was still getting paid, but my job was to reimagine my career after Dell and work on some strategies to get me my next job. My then-wife and I had lunch that first day at a local restaurant and sat on the back porch. I was optimistic and excited about planning our future. She was less hopeful and her approach was quite direct. “You need to get another job, quick.”

During this time we were in couple’s therapy to help us get better at communicating our wants and needs. She was being quite clear. We did not agree.

“I’m not really ready to go back to another big corporate job,” I said. “I’d like to take some of this time to figure out what other options I have.”

She was firm, “It’s not that much money. It doesn’t really cover us for very long.”

What had also happened that January is her part-time job had let her go. They didn’t have enough work to keep everyone busy. The economic hit was indiscriminate. So, in fact, if she also did not have any income, we would be burning my salary at double the rate. Okay. She was technically correct, but we were both very capable of making money. We just needed to figure out what sort of work we could get re-energized about. She was angry. She did not like my idea of “looking around” for my next gig.

Over the course of the next 12 months, I took a few consulting gigs and ultimately ended up with a full-time job with a former Dell manager at his new social media company. During those same 12 months, my then-wife took a series of soul-searching adventures toward various jobs, but never landed on what she wanted to do. Essentially, I brought in the only income we would have and this financial struggle ramped up the stress and pressure between us considerably. I’m not sure if she just didn’t want to go back to work for more than 10 – 20 hours a week. Our kids were in 2nd and 4th grade, so there was time, during the day, to work. But, as a dutiful and loving husband, I let her search for her dream job, even as our financial struggles were becoming an issue. The full-time gig solved a lot of the present crisis, but not the relationship crisis about finding a balanced approach for both of us to work.

Then something terrible happened. An internal company struggle about my “creative” position being in Austin, while the “creative team” was in San Francisco came up at work. My boss, the man from Dell, had hired me without really considering the reaction from the creative director in San Francisco. A power struggle ensued during my first weeks on the job. I pressed on, worked hard, but a client meeting didn’t go as planned and I was thrown under the bus to protect the agency’s business. It was a simple case of scapegoating to save the client. It crushed my then-wife’s fragile hope about our marriage.

We were in therapy when she said something that caused me to stop the conversation. “Wait a minute. Have you gone to see an attorney?”

Less than a month after getting laid off my then-wife went to an attorney to seek advice on her options. She failed to bring this up in couple’s therapy. Um, why? Because she had already moved on in her mind, the rest was logistics and negotiations. I suppose she wanted to get her options firmly in hand, her numbers well built-out on a spreadsheet, before she let me know we were through. Our therapist was surprised as well. The session ended quickly as did our marriage. I moved out two months later, after the kids had finished 3rd and 5th grades, and by August 2010, the divorce was final.

The result of this decision she made for all of us, threw me into a new depression as I struggled to find a place to live, find work to support myself and the $1,350 per month child support bill I had agreed to. Again, I was optimistic and gung-ho about being the best dad I could be, in spite of the hardships. My loss, however, was more than a job, more than a marriage, more than time with my kids. My loss was complete. Everything.

I went from having a nice job and nice family in a nice neighborhood to no job, no family, no home, and less than 30% time with my kids. The family law of the time was pretty set on giving this SPO deal to dads. And there was nothing much I could do to fight my ex-wife. I did not have the cash to hire an attorney and fight over custody and child support. So I cooperated and got the standard package.

I’m sure the loss for my kids was quite dramatic as well. Their mom is not the most cheerful and optimistic person on the planet. And I’m certain the hardships of the divorce were not easy for her either. However, now, without me in the house, I was no longer there to moderate and mitigate some of her anger. After the divorce, my kids had to fend for themselves with a less-than-happy mom. Before, when she got heavy I would often intervene and make alternative plans. I was the cheerleader. And, contrary to common divorce stories, I was the heart of the home. It was my joy and love that had kept us together for so many years, even when things got tough. I was sad when I visited my old house and saw the sorrow that was so evident.

We all did the best we could. My ex-wife recovered from the divorce as well. And my kids are happy in high school and appear as well adjusted as any teenagers can be. But the gap, the harsh 5 – 6 years when we were all struggling for identity and survival, did not need to happen. I look at all the photos during their formative years, years when I was only a partial influence, and I mourn. I can still see the hopeful kids who could’ve used both of us to navigate the process of growing up. Instead, they got mainly mom. Being Dad every other weekend is just not enough time to be more than a bystander on the bulk of their lives. Dads are important. Giving dads the short end of the custody stick is not serving the best interests of the child. My kids needed me. They needed my positive spin on life and difficult moments. I give it to them when I can, when they are around me, but it’s not the same. And, as teenagers, now that they are seeking me out again, their needs and wants are very different.

We could’ve separated and agreed to a 50/50 parenting and 50/50 custody schedule as I requested. That was more in keeping with the way we parented. But it did not match up with my then-wife’s objectives. Those “options” she learned about from the attorney, rather than the options about staying in the relationship she could’ve learned in the couple’s therapy, were too hard to resist. In the turning away from the marriage, my ex-wife redirected and altered the life plan for all of us.

I’d ask, of any future relationship, when you are in therapy about the relationship, please bring up what’s going on for you in the therapy, before you go discuss your options with a lawyer. Otherwise, you’re not in couple’s therapy, you’re in divorce therapy.

Always Love,

John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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