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Upward and Onward After Splitting Up


Things are never going to be the same after divorce. Everyone knows this. But the feelings following the fracturing of the family unit take a while to be fully felt and dealt with. After the hurt and healing begins to take place, it’s up to the adults in the family to move upward from the ashes and into the new new life ahead. Easier said than done, I know, but here are some ideas that might help that transition.

From this side of my divorce, 4 years later, I can easily say my life is better. Not how I expected it, but better in some unexpected ways. There is loss. I miss my kids terribly when they are away, when I don’t have immediate and continuous access to them. The off-time phone calls are all very similar. “Hi.” “How are you?” “Fine.” “Anything new at school today?” “No.” “Okay. Love you.” “Love you too.”

As a divorced parent you now have time alone. What are you going to do with your new life? Who do you want to become?

It’s like a telegraph. And often it is just a few text messages at night, that carry the same words. But the message beneath the words is “I am here, I love you, and I am available for you, when you need me. Always.”

Even when you feel like you’re not getting through to them, you are. The support they feel just from your check-ins cannot be underestimated. Letting them know you love them. Making sure they hear it from you as often as they will tolerate it.

As adults, according to Brené Brown, we show our kids how to behave in difficult situations. Rather than trying to parent correctly, what we need to show our kids is how to live correctly. So as you are suffering from the damage of divorce, it is critical that you take your “work” outside the relationship with your kids. You can let them know you are working through stuff, but your issues cannot be processed with them. They are still kids. Let them remain kids and go do your adult work with other adults.

Too many times I’ve heard angry parents railing about their ex-partners in front of their kids. This is awful. There is no complaint that your kids can make better. There is no situation with your ex that they can help resolve. Keep the adult conversations and conflicts between the adults. And do your best at parenting by showing your kids how to live and forgive with compassion.

Know that your loneliness is your issue, and that it also cannot be solved by your kids. It’s not about more or less time with your kids. The loneliness is something deeper, that probably has roots in your family of origin. Sure the pain of the separation and divorce have triggered your loneliness again, but it’s not something that can be solved with or through your kids.

As a divorced parent you now have time alone. What are you going to do with your new life? Who do you want to become? What parts of yourself did you let drop in your marriage, that now have space to grow and flourish again?

I was talking to my daughter in the kitchen several months ago, processing the positive effects of the divorce with her. “There are some things that are definitely better for me,” I said. “And I know when I’m happier, I’m a better dad to you guys, as well.” She nodded. “And you know I wouldn’t have been able to play music again as much as I am, when I was still married. But now I have this time, when you guys are not with me. And I’m playing a lot of tennis again and that makes me happy too.”

It’s not that I was trying to justify or explain the divorce to her. I was trying to show her how my life has transitioned because of the divorce, and how I’ve made the most of my time. I have recovered my joyous self, and it’s important that I show up as that same joyous parent in their lives.

And part of my joy is losing the anger at their mom. Getting over the loss of time with them. Getting on with what I need to work on in my life, as a single man.

I can drop the drama from my life, completely. When drama occurs I can observe it, name it, and step away. I no longer have to live in the drama.

I have stayed pretty focused on my own healing and the well-being of my kids. I haven’t put the energy or time into finding and building a new relationship. That has been my choice. And I’ve grown a lot from allowing the loneliness to inform my soul of what things are important in my life and what things that I can drop.

I can drop the drama from my life, completely. When drama occurs I can observe it, name it, and step away. I no longer have to live in the drama. When it’s an issue with their mom I can give myself the space and time I need to respond with kindness. Again, what I am showing my kids is how to respond to all types of losses and frustrations with kindness and hopefulness.

I’m not always happy, but I’m always hopeful. And I can show both sides of that coin to my kids. They’ve seen me struggle, but they’ve always known I was strong enough to come back and keep coming back to be 100% available to them.

I’ve seen both of my kids deal with some pretty major setbacks since the divorce. And I’ve seen them roll on with calm, optimism, and their own brand of hope. They both have their own internal languages and healing patterns for coping, and the tumble of the divorce gave them some practice at dealing with things not working out. That’s a great life lesson. Things are not always going to work out. When things fall apart, it is the optimism and hope that pulls our lives back together.

Neither of my kids harbors any bitterness about the divorce. They’ve got their sadnesses, we all do. There are times when it is clear they are missing the inclusion of the entire unit. But my ex has been with her boyfriend for over 2.5 years now, and he is also a solid figure in their lives. He comes to volleyball games even when their mom can’t. I love him for that.

We’re all just doing the best we can. That my ex-wife has found new love is a wonderful thing for her, and for my kids. She deserves to be happy. And the happier she is the happier my kids are, and tangentially, the happier I am as well. We’re all still in this together, ’til death do us part.

Always Love,

John McElhenney

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image: kids tandem, richard masoner, creative commons usage

Asking Men to Open Up and Be Vulnerable: Are You Ready?

Men get a lot of stereotypical flack for not knowing how to be vulnerable and talk about their feelings. And I’d have to say, in our culture, that being a man with feelings can be hard. I’m one of those sensitive guys, and in many situations I’ve had to learn to toughen up, be hard, unaffected by rage, bullshit, or attacks. Mostly this has happened during my tenure in corporate America. There’s no sense letting your feelings get hurt inside the big machine of business. You will be trodden under and rejected as soon as you show any of your soft unprotected emotions.

men in the workplaceBut in relationships, with some help, and a lot of time in counseling and men’s groups and drumming circle’s and retreats… I’ve learned to open up, crack the tough outer shell and let my sadness, fear, and anger show. However, a word of warning, when asking to go down this path with a man: It’s scary stuff. I’d recommend you go watch Brené Brown’s amazing TEDTalk on shame and the difference between men and women. (Brené Brown: Listening to Shame) If you don’t have time for that, here are a few of the lines that set up the premise for the rest of my post.

“Vulnerability is our most accurate measure of courage.”

For men, shame is “Do not be perceived as weak. When we reach out and be vulnerable we get the shit beat out of us.”

“You show me a woman who can actually sit with a man in real vulnerability and fear, I’ll show you a woman who’s done incredible work. You show me a man who can sit with a woman who’s just had it, and can’t do it any more… I’ll show you a guy who’s done a lot of work.”

So I would characterize myself as a man who’s done a lot of work. Learning to soften our hearts, take off the armor, and share deeply the feelings going on inside us. And guess what? The corporate world doesn’t appreciate that at all. In fact, just the opposite, that vulnerability is a weakness in cube world and one hint of your emotional being in the trenches and you’ll be polishing your resume from home again soon. Business is a blood sport. The first sign of weakness, is all the opening your colleague/enemies need to cut you to pieces.

I started bringing my anger and defensiveness home with me. I probably stopped listening to my wife in an open way. And we both began to struggle to maintain our mutual trust.

Now, this was BIG corporate management I’m talking about. But as I entered that world for the first time, during my marriage, two things begin to change in my approach to the world. I made deep friendships with several women who were able to listen to my moaning, and as veterans of this particular company, were able to set me straight. It was almost as if, being a vulnerable man, I got access to the company of women who were struggling under the same stupid and angry culture. The good news is, one of those women was my hiring manager.

But my projects were unprotected once I left my one-on-one meetings with her. I was expected to execute and get things done. And in the course of the first few months I began to learn the ropes. And I began to get hard. Except when dealing with her, who I could express myself to, I had to STFU and get it done.

In my marriage at the time, we experienced a bit of relief from the financial strains for the first time since 911 had crushed my self-employed business. So the money was a welcome comfort. But the hours and the commute were a bit harsh. I would kiss the kids and wife good-bye in the morning, drive an hour and hope from meeting to meeting all day. And then leave for my commute home around 6:30, often stopping at a grocery store or deli to bring home dinner.

But I was okay with this arrangement. I was living the dream. Happy wife. Happy kids. Good neighborhood. Great corporate gig with a highly visible company, what did I have to complain about?

As the first year in corporate-commute-life passed, this company did something they seem to do a lot. They reorganized the teams. And in one week I lost my manager, my full-sized cubicle (they were downsizing too) and most of my protection from the world of angry men. The worst part: I was placed under a man who I had challenged on several occasions from my previous position. It was clear from my first meeting with him, that it was not going to be one of trust or cooperation. In fact, no one could understand why this man was given a team again, as he had previously lost his managerial duties due to bad peer reviews. Nonetheless, there I was, being managed by my arch-nemesis.

Talk about learning to toughen up quickly. I was devastated to lose my confidant and friend. But I was more horrified to see how much animosity one man can bring to an entire team, not just me. He was sarcastic, unprepared, and cynical about every project we took on. I guess his response to corporate culture was to not give a shit and to let everyone know you didn’t give a shit.

Over the course of the first few weeks with the worst manager in the world, I began to harden in a different way. And the spillover was, I started hardening at home. I was fighting for my survival without air cover at work, and I was beginning to thrash a bit at home as I felt my security being threatened.

I started bringing my anger and defensiveness home with me. I probably stopped listening to my wife in an open way. And we both began to struggle to maintain our mutual trust. My job held the key for both of us in many ways. So we were both scared and vulnerable.

When you ask a man to open up and be vulnerable with you, be ready to be brought into his fear and shame as well.

As I tried to open up about what a hard time I was having at work, she would freak out and get scared. As she freaked out and got scared I would start sharing less. And we learned how to negotiate and navigate this assholish guy I was becoming.

The death knell at my corporate job was sounded by the economic downturn in 2009. Along with over 50% of my team, I was given a six-month deal at the end of January. And I kissed my corporate tenure good-bye and returned home to re-tool and re-discover what I wanted to be, when I grew up again.

But the economic threat was too high. My then-wife lost her part-time job the very day the severance was announced, and all hell began to break loose between us. I was unsympathetic and angry and blasting forward with what would become my next gig. And she was doing the mothering thing and terrified about how we were going to support our household. It was the worst of times.

And the deeper problem in the marriage was I had stopped listening to her concerns without getting defensive. And with my learned hardness still very much in play, I took to anger (not part of my DNA until my corporate stint) as a way of shutting down the objections and fears. We lost touch with one another over the course of several years, and we would have to both want to fight to get that trust back. That’s not what happened.

So, there is a lesson here. Be vulnerable, yes. But when you ask a man to open up and be vulnerable with you, be ready to be brought into his fear and shame as well. It was too much for us to navigate, even with counseling help, and we ended up getting a divorce. It didn’t have to go that way. But it’s taken me several years, post divorce, to be ready to let the guard down and feel again.

Always Love,

John McElhenney

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image: son on the first day of school, his corporate job – john mcelhenney (cc)

All Available Light: Positive Parenting Energy Is Never Lost

I was talking to my mom about this blog the other day and she said something I’d like to explore. As I was going on and on about how I’ve flipped any of the bad or angry narrative to the positive side, she said, “Yes, I see that. And your children see that. Your positive efforts are never lost. They are the things that people remember.”

turning the negative into a positiveAnd a close friend also had some thoughts about my “positive” writing a few days earlier. “I just want to make sure you’re not getting lost in all this positivism. That you aren’t burying the anger, or something else.”

I assured her that my anger work had a place and process for release. And I know that I imagined, but could not have written this positive side of divorce material at an earlier time. There was too much anger, sadness, resentment, and regret that I needed to process. And I still process the things that are hard, the misunderstandings, the disconnects.

But what I have found essential in my relationship to the kids and their mom, is to take that baggage elsewhere. My kids never need to hear me complain about their mom. Never.

My dad, after the divorce, became more and more sullen and angry. His drinking doubled. His bouts of melancholy frame a good two years of my life, as he moved from one apartment to another. I did not know him yet, I was in 4th and 5th grades, so my biographical knowledge of him or myself in relationship to him was very limited.

And so we move on, we fall down, we find the strength to get back up, we marry, we divorce, and we find the light necessary to continue.

What I knew was the sadness and the pain. What I knew was how far his smiles had dropped into the bottle. (Sorry, for the melodrama.) What I saw, as an 8 and 9-year-old boy, was my father completely fall apart. I lived small glimpses of it with him. I visited his apartment like it was a dangerous and sacred church. But he taught me some hard lessons about grief, and coping, and anger, that I didn’t fully comprehend at the time. I’m still unravelling some of the dark secrets that were really unhealthy coping mechanisms.

And during this time, my mom was struggling with her own depressive demons and fighting for her survival. My father took the aggressive and antagonistic approach to divorce. He wanted everything. He wanted me. He wanted her to be devastated and miserable.

I grew up in the storms of divorce. And after the dust settled I was left in a macabre replay of Oedipus. I won the mother and watched as my father destroyed himself. And as Freud revealed, it’s not a happy or healthy victory for the young boy.

As the dawning of my divorce appeared in our discussions, I was terrified of repeating the same havoc on my delightful children. I had to find a way to keep the positive light on the transition, at least for them. I could fall apart when I was alone. But they needed to see my show of color, my resilience, my strength at being their available Dad, even while I was struggling to figure out just who that might be.

One phrase my mom used all the time, as she was beginning to marshal her resources and gather available light, was “I’m turning my X’s into pluses.”

She was even painting large canvases at that time, of massive crosses (X’s) and repeating the mantra, “X’s into pluses.”

Your kids deserve the best of you. Your ex deserves the respect and caring you once had as well, even if the love is no longer a driving force. The love of your children is all you need to know.

The amazing thing is, this mantra that held her together, began to resonate with me as a child. She instilled a vibrant spirit of hope, even as things were darkest in both our lives. In so many ways, she is responsible for my ability to survive hard moments, and to flip as many of them as possible into bright changes.

And so we move on, we fall down, we find the strength to get back up, we marry, we divorce, and we find the light necessary to continue. Some of us have learned how to generate that positive light. Some of us learned hope at an early age, and this belief, this spirituality of the positive, has served to keep us from becoming cynical or bitter.

I am not angry about my divorce any more. The transformation has occurred. And while I can still get angry occasionally at things my co-parent does or does not do, for the most part those are minor complaints and not campaigns for war. When there is still war in your blood, you need to take it outside, discharge your cannons elsewhere. There is nothing to be gained from launching negative attacks on your ex. Nothing.

There may be cause for the anger. But the anger is yours alone to own, process, and release. If you don’t, the anger could consume vast quantities of your time and energy. You’ve seen it before in others, and maybe you are still in the process of releasing it for yourself, but as Yoda might say, “Release it, you must.”

Our strength and resilience in divorce and co-parenting sets the example for our children’s coming storms, and how they will navigate them as they progress into adulthood and relationships of their own.

Your kids deserve the best of you. Your ex deserves the respect and caring you once had as well, even if the love is no longer a driving force. The love of your children is all you need to know.

And Brené Brown articulated this concept so clearly. “We show our children who they can be by the way we live our lives.” Parenting, and co-parenting, comes down to this.

Live your life as you would like to see your kids living theirs. Show them the adults they can be, by demonstrating the best that you can be. Anything less is a miss. Parenting and co-parenting resources come and go, theories of parenting and how do recover from divorce will change from season to season, but this truth never changes.

Your kids are watching you and all of your behaviors. They are looking to you to show them how to navigate this difficult time. Show them strength, and love, and happiness. And show them you can still love them and their mom even as things are so dramatically different in all of your lives.

Our strength and resilience in divorce and co-parenting sets the example for our children’s coming storms, and how they will navigate them as they progress into adulthood and relationships of their own. Yes, I will stay 100% positive about their mom. I can disagree, get mad, and fight with her, but I will never share that anger, my anger, with my kids. That’s for someone else to deal with. Me, and perhaps a therapist, and most likely my next relationship.

My mom gave me the gift of this belief that we could turn the hard things into transformational events on the way to better things. I believe that is true and I hope to continue to build on that faith for my kids.

Always Love,

John McElhenney


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Putting Your Divorce in Context, For Yourself and the Kids

wholeparentbook.com keep calm and remember the kidsOne of the biggest jobs in getting to the positive side of divorce is figuring out, and often explaining, how and why you and your co-parent split up. And while most of this work happens within your own mind, you have a lot of people in your life you have to explain things to. And your kids are first up.

In my parent’s divorce I don’t remember how I found out, but it was raw and unfiltered. I didn’t understand and I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it. I think it happened while I was in third grade, and while I was at school. The memory is sketchy, but something about getting called to the office and talking to my mom on the phone. We were going on a Christmas vacation and my dad wasn’t coming. (I’m sure this isn’t right, but it is early biographical memory, so the experience is more about the feeling and less about the actual event.)

In the case of my marriage and my kids I knew that I wanted to do better. And their mom and I worked very hard to learn and negotiate the best way to do it. Since we were in agreement that we would divorce we were able to put our focus on building a parenting plan and exploring what would be best for the kids. We spent our money on a family counselor who specialized in children and divorce rather than lawyers. It was a good decision.

And it was not easy. I was still living in the house when we began seeing our divorce therapist. And there were still large amounts of emotions to process, both together with the therapist and alone as we began to write our own context stories about “what happened.”

In our case, I had gone against the recommendation of our marriage counselor and my then-wife and I refused to simply move out of the house. I saw the way my context-less and unplanned breakup affected me between 3rd and 5th grade, and I was determined to do better for my kids. And perhaps I was also terrified. Yes, I was terrified and ashamed.

So during the months of April and May, while our kids finished up 1st and 3rd grades, we stayed in the house as roommates. And there were some good times along with the bad. There were moments when I imagined we would reconcile, as I hoped we might. We didn’t. We maintained the facade to enable our kids to reach the safety of summer before we dropped the nuclear family bomb on them.

The process of divorce takes time. There are a lot of details to work out. And rushing into that process while throwing your kids and current family structure under the bus is not a good idea. I kept repeating this phrase, “There is no hurry. We’re making our parenting plan and doing what’s best for the kids.”

It was awful. It was not what I wanted. And yet, I agreed to take the steps as they came along, and move forward towards dissolving my marriage.

And that’s the goal: do what’s best for your kids. You and your soon-to-be-ex will recover. As adults we have resources, experience, and the context of our own lives to provide some safety and hope during this painful process. You’re kids have only the two of you. And your actions, every single one of them, will have consequences and echos that will reverberate right one in your children’s lives as they make choices about relationships thoughtout their lives (marriage, divorce, even co-parenting).

Brené Brown’s great book, Daring Greatly, has a line to remember for all parents (both married and divorced): “Who we are and how we engage with the world are much stronger predictors of how our children will do than what we know about parenting.”

The way we conduct our lives, the way we recover gracefully from the divorce, the way we deal with emotional struggles, all these things demonstrate for our kids, set the guiding example for them. This is how you live your life, we say with our actions. And divorce and recovery from divorce is no exception, and in my case, may have been the guide I used for what I didn’t want to repeat in “my divorce.”

In some ways the early exit from the marriage would’ve been easier. You hear things like, “let the healing begin,” and other maxims that are supposed to make that release more logical. But in my case, my parent’s divorce, and my father’s rage and alcoholism that gave me the courage to stand-in and stand up for what I believed was better for my kids.

So we went to the nice but expensive counselor’s office once a week and talked about things like “time with Mom” and “what’s in the best interest of the children.” And we processed a lot of feelings on that couch together, now working to separate rather than come back together. But in all of it, my wife and I were framing up the future lives of our kids, and we were smart enough to know that we were JOINING IN DIVORCE, in the same way we were joined in holy matrimony.

The rest of the story, the way we conduct ourselves as co-parents, as individuals struggling with sadness, confusion, and hardships, all of these things, are also us showing our kids how healthy (or working to be healthier) adults make their way in the world. Life throws us curveballs and it’s up to us to deal with them in the most positive way we can.

It was awful. It was not what I wanted. And yet, I agreed to take the steps as they came along, and move forward towards dissolving my marriage. I did the best I could at being the same old cheerful dad who roused everyone on school mornings and got breakfast going. I still fained affection for their mom (I was still feeling it, but I was learning to contain my outbursts of “can we reset and not get divorced” and change them to “I’m feeling a lot right now, give me a moment.”) and soldiered on towards the goal, my exit from the house and from the marriage.

And through it, I learned a tremendous about myself, my own resilience under great stress. And I showed my kids, I demonstrated, how to stay positive even when things were falling apart around me.

When we told the kids, we kept it simple. As parents, we tried to keep our feelings in check and really listen to the kids.

And we worked with the counselor. And we worked with the financial divorce specialist and worked out scenarios. (She keeps the house, he keeps the house, sell the house.) And we talked about how we were going to talk about it, reveal it, to the kids. The lovely and innocent kids, busily scurrying along with 1st and 3rd grade epiphanies and troubles.

And when that moment came, a few weeks into Summer, our kids reactions were honest and telling. We agreed that we wanted to tell them together, to explain the situation to them. We were not leaving them, we were simply going to live in different houses.

My daughter’s reaction was first, “What pets are you going to take?” We had agreed that their mom would keep the family house. And while the negotiations were never easy, we agreed that they would never get rough either. We didn’t fight in our marriage, so we weren’t going to fight about the divorce. (Maybe we should’ve fought more in our marriage… different discussion…)

My son was next, “So that means we’re gonna have two houses for Christmas, like the twins?” My sister was a single mom with twins who had been through the divorce process several years ahead of us.

“Yep, just like that,” we said.

There were no immediate tears. We sat together in the living room all just a little bit shell-shocked. And my son jumped up excitedly and decided we should all go to a movie. It was clear he wanted one more outing together. And when that didn’t look like it was going to happen he retreated to his room and collapsed in tears.

We kept it simple. As parents, we tried to keep our feelings in check and really listen to the kids. And we had given the event a timeline, and after about an hour of “just spending time with them” as they processed, I left.

It was one of the hardest moments of my life. I had already been living at my sister’s house for a week under the context of being ill and needing some rest without family chores and interruptions. I’ll never know exactly how those days went down for them, but after school was out, I knew they had time and safe spaces to process whatever they needed to. And I knew their mom was onboard with building a positive context for what was coming.

You will be putting your marriage and divorce in context for the rest of your life, as you negotiate and navigate future relationships. And your kids will have your example about how to live through a very difficult time. It is critical you take your resentment and anger outside the family. You will be angry. You will have resentment and regrets. But these are parts of your adult context that you can work on without processing any of it with your family.

Get help if you need it. I sure did. But make sure you understand the most critical part. Your kids are watching and learning how to be in the world. Show them the best example you can. Show them you can still love them and their mom, even when you have decided not to live together.

Always Love,

John McElhenney

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Reference: Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead