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Losing the Meaning of Life As My Marriage Blasted Me Out of the House

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This type of stat always makes me really sad. Divorce is not the end of the world. However, it’s often the end of most dad’s major bonding and influence with his kids. Most divorces end with dads being marginalized by the family court precedents. (In my state of Texas, 85% of all divorces end with the mom getting more than twice as much time with the kids. “More than twice.” Why?

How Did Dads Get Marginalized?

In my parent’s day, divorce was less common. And in many circumstances, the dad was the breadwinner and the mom was the stay-at-home parent. Also, moms were typically the emotional heart of the house while dads were the enforcer and the rough housing semi-kid. When my parents divorced in the early 70s the family laws had already started to protect moms from vindictive and predatory fathers who didn’t want to give up any of their money and little of their time. The problem is, the family courts, and the federal laws governing child support, have not been updated to reflect the change in both parenting responsibility and financial changes of our modern world, which often requires both parents to work full time to provide the home and lifestyle they want for their kids.

Today, it’s more common that both parents work out of the home. That both parents share the kid management equally. I’d call it 50/50 shared parenting while married. (I’m saying most, knowing that I’m making an assumption about my audience, middle-class and well-educated parents, with no drug or mental health issues. Under that assumption, I write about my own experience as if it applies to parents in general. I understand this is not the REALITY for many families. But, my perspective is limited by my own experience.

Here’s how our decision to have kids looked. I met a high school friend twenty years after high school. She was beautiful and open to having lunch. Both of us had been divorced for a year of so. Both of us were clear that children were in our plans. And the mutual attraction pulled us into orbit. She moved into my house. We got married. And we made a very conscious decision to remove birth control while we were on our honeymoon.

We had two amazing kids, despite one of them being born the year before 911. We wanted another child, and we prayed for a girl, since our boy was delighting our lives in ways we could not have imagined. A year after 911 our daughter arrived. In our minds, my wife and I were set. Blessed. We had everything we needed in life.

The Magic of Children

For the first five years, we were mesmerized by our children. We didn’t go out much. We stayed home with our tribe and played. We were genuinely happy. Yes, I was working a really demanding corporate job that was slowly killing me, but when I returned from my hour commute, I felt like I was living the dream. My wife was doing some freelance work. Mostly, my choice, she was basking in our kids and becoming the best classroom volunteer at their elementary school. It was a perfect marriage, but we had our commitment to our kids, we loved each other for the glow of parenting that bonded all of us. And then 2009 came along and stripped a lot of Americans of their livelihood.

I was laid off from my corporate gig. But there was a twist of hope. I was going to have six months of pay at my full rate, we could keep the health insurance, and my bonus for the year was paid at 100%. I was terrified and elated. Mostly terrified. We’d only recently gotten back on top of the finances of owning a small house is a really nice school district.

I Thought I Knew You

I was in for a surprise on the first day of my paid vacation. My wife was livid that I was considering taking a few weeks to reset our goals and make a plan for our future financial agreement. I was really fat, the corporate job offered massive stress, two hours of commuting in heavy traffic both ways and my soul was slightly drained by the experience. I wanted this break to be an opportunity to rebuild our partnership. So that I could enjoy some of the hard-earned prosperity too. That was my plan. “I want to use these six months to reset our deal, rebuild the connection with my wife and kids, and make a plan for a healthier life. That was how I articulated my goals.

My wife got mad. “The severance is not enough money.”

“What? It’s my full salary. Nothing is going to change financially for six months. That’s the gift.” I was already feeling defensive. I didn’t understand why my plan caused her to be furious.

“But at the end of six months? What’s the plan then?” she asked.

“The goal is to redo our plan. Work on it together. And create something more equitable and healthy for both of us.”



“You need to find another job asap. We can’t survive on six months of pay.”

This was on DAY ONE of my release from the corporate factory that was an hour’s drive away. I guess we agreed to disagree. The part that isn’t recorded in this story yet is my wife was laid off, without severance, from her part-time work a month before. And she was an Excel-centered person. She wanted to see how the spreadsheet was going to support us in 8 and 9 months. And her resolution was I needed to get the big corporate gig again, no matter what.


Winter Is Coming

Nothing got better. It was hard. I enjoyed my time at home with everyone, but my wife was often stormy and critical around the house. In addition to searching for a job, I began writing a marketing blog, I started some freelance consulting, I began doing all I could to bring in some money, in addition to the salary. My wife, on the other hand, leaned into the frosty approach. She began to freeze me out in the bedroom. She became agitated and bitter. She slipped into some stereotype of the bitchy (I’m sure she was freaking out) wife. The problems were always mine. The failure was mine as well.

She also went through the motions of looking for a job. But it was clear, both from our initial conflict, and her activities that she was looking to “find herself” rather than an income. She paid for some classes. She considered becoming a programmer. And she began to make our time together, being parents, more of a challenge. Looking back, I think she was forcing the point that I needed to replace the big job. Once that was in place, she could resume part-time work and volunteering in the classroom with our kids. Nice. I wanted to volunteer too. I wanted those things too. Where was the space for me to rejoin the joyful and engaged parenting role at our kids’ school?

It was a difficult period for all of us. The severance ended and we began to drain our savings to pay for the house and the essentials. It was NO-FUN time, financially. I was bringing in about 1/3 of what we needed. But here’s the rub, she was bringing nothing. More importantly, she was spending resources to find her perfect job. I was in support of that idea. I was not aware how she was upping the pressure on my “big job” by bringing in zero money. I don’t know if it was intentional. That doesn’t really matter. We were stressing.

I sold about $15,000 of my prized collection of musical gear (I’m a musician.) the summer before I landed the next big job. I did find the job, and I accepted. I was going to make about the same as I made for the big corporate gig. And, in a cool flourish of bravado, they flew me out to San Francisco, to the company HQ, to meet with the creative team. I was thrilled. We were saved. Everything was going to be okay. And somehow, on the very day I traveled to SF, my wife again got furious about money. The company had not put a CC on file for the incidentals for the room. I put it on a credit card. My wife went ballistic. “They are going to replace the card long before I check out, it’s no problem.”

She replied, “Oh it’s a huge problem. You lied to me. You said you would not use the credit cards.”

“Honey,” I was trying to console an angry wife, “This is my new job. This is my first day. The first hotel room. They are going to make it right.”

“That’s not the point. You lied.”

“I got the fkn job. We’re going to be okay. My paychecks are going to get us caught back up.”

The hail mary had arrived and we were saved. She was pissed at me. But, I think she was allowing her fear and stress to escalate her fear. It turned into anger. She never got un-angry. She got more and more bitter about something. I never could sort it out. And couples therapy wasn’t really cracking her open either. The “fuck yous” began to show up in arguments. They even showed up in conversations when we had friends over. It was as if she couldn’t contain her rage. I took the hint. I worked harder to please her, to try and make her happy again. It didn’t work.

The First Failure of My Marriage

An unexpected series of catastrophic events set off my wife’s move to consult a lawyer about her “options.” But the fracture had already happened somewhere in her heart. The “fuck yous” were a symptom, a tell, of what was going on in her mind. So much of this story has been told in my book (The Storm Before the Divorce) that I’ll just give some cursory details and wrap it up.

She went to see an attorney and got the idea of what she could get if she went for divorce. She went for it. And though we negotiated the conditions of my surrender as a cooperative divorce, at the end, she decided two months into the process that she wanted everything. She was entitled to everything. Most of the women in the world would agree. Moms should get the majority of their time with their kids. I mean, they are the MOM, right?

So, though we negotiated the finances of the divorce cooperatively, and we agreed not to engage lawyers unless necessary, she balked at 50/50 shared parenting. She will have to answer the question of why on her own. The twist of the knife killed me. I could’ve/should’ve lawyered up and fought for the 50/50 agreement we’d been working on. I did not want to drain our limited resources by paying lawyers to fight. And in 2010, I would’ve lost.

Over the years as a single dad, my ex-wife has continued to attack me, complain to the kids about me, and about two years in, turned our “decree” over to the AG’s office for enforcement. I was not a deadbeat dad. My employer lost a major client and I was a week late on my child support. I explained the situation. I pleaded with her to give me a little time. I promised the company would find a new client and resume my salary.

what dads can do in divorce

And it was at this moment,
I lost 70% of my bonding time
with my two amazing children.

The meaning of life became less clear. My commitment to fight to stay relevant continues today. And my fight to help other dads, moms, and kids, to survive divorce with less trauma also continues. This photo still makes me sad. Both of these children were so good and so loving, and the divorce crushed the hopeful spirit out of one of them. I persevered. I fought depression. I rebounded. I recovered. I wrote and wrote and wrote. And my ex-wife, to this day, continues to harbor the “fuck you” in any response to me.

A sad trajectory. A hopeful story, in these pages, fraught with pain, sorry, anger, despair, and most of all HOPE.

Thanks for listening.


John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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