Tag Archives: responsible separation

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

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image: couple, creative commons usage

What “Responsible Separation” Means


Laura A. Munson has written an amazing book about a crisis of heart she and her husband suffered. Well, actually her husband suffered some sort of mid-life crisis and she was along for the ride. When he said he didn’t love her she didn’t buy it. When he suggested divorce she refused.

She was determined to stand by her husband and her family come hell or high water. And the flood was all around rushing through her house, her bedroom, her life, but she stayed with it. It’s an amazing story, and it made me a bit sad when I first read about it in the New York Times.

This isn’t the divorce story you think it is. Neither is it a begging-him-to-stay story. It’s a story about hearing your husband say “I don’t love you anymore” and deciding not to believe him. And what can happen as a result. – Laura A. Munson

What? Amazing. How did I not deserve this same resolve. Even when I was fighting to stay in my marriage the entire time. How did I not have a fighting wife?

Her husband kept falling down his own mid-life rabbit hole of despair and she kept holding strong to her house, her family, her marriage.

“I don’t love you anymore. I’m not sure I ever did.”

His words came at me like a speeding fist, like a sucker punch, yet somehow in that moment I was able to duck. And once I recovered and composed myself, I managed to say, “I don’t buy it.” Because I didn’t. – ibid

And this was only in the short article about the transformation that occurred when she took on her husband’s depression with her own fury and calm resolve to never give up on him.

The article is a bit more inspiring than the actual book, but I’ll let  you go through the entire story on your own. (book: A Season of Unlikely Happiness )

She keeps coming back to the idea of the responsible separation. Over and over again her husband just wants out, wants something else, wants an apartment in the city. And she gives him some conditions if he wants his responsible separation.

And actually in my marriage, my ex-wife stood by me with great resolve and strength as I went through my own version of a mid-life crisis and major depression. It’s hard to admit to REAL DEPRESSION, but that’s what it was. I needed counseling and medication to get up off the floor of confusing and sad ideas that were clouding my head, much like Mrs. Munson’s husband.

I wanted her to be something different. She wanted me to be something different. We didn’t agree to a separation, we got a divorce. BUT, we tried, and continue to try, to make it a responsible separation.

We weathered huge storms, and we came through it. But something, some wounding, happened in the process that weakened our marriage. Some element of trust became threatened, and for her it broke. For me, I was so grateful to have survived both the depression/crisis and the potential divorce, that I was hopeful and energetic at the rebuilding of our life and love together.

We came through the trauma as a family, but the lover in my wife had exited the stage. She was here for the family, and no longer hid the anger she felt towards me. It’s okay. She had a right to be angry. For a while.

When anger becomes constant and unyielding, it becomes toxic. Probably more toxic to the angry person than those around them, but it makes everyday life a lot more difficult and dramatic. And the shift was gradual, almost unnoticeable until the flares would should out sideways with a casually thrown curse. It was painful and different. We both reacted the first time she shouted at me. Ouch.

And the anger didn’t subside. I woke up each morning with a positive approach to things, difficult and easy. She didn’t. She was unhappy.

Some of our difficulties in life are participatory. And often our partners are the triggers for our anger. BUT when the anger lasts longer than a few hours, or cannot be discharged, the deeper hurt and anger is with someone else. The core anger is related to our family of origin. And we cannot resolve it with our partners. That work is done outside of our relationships. But it must be done. Or we bring this unresolved BS into all of our relationships.

And I can’t pass judgement or claim to know what she talked about in therapy, but something was not getting processed. And in some form of the story, I was the cause of her hurt and anger. It’s not an uncommon story. I know, but here the roles in the Munson story were reversed.

Even after my wife had consulted a lawyer and had told me she wanted a divorce I was unsure that this was the right course for us and our family. I fought her. I fought our couple’s therapist who suggested maybe I should just leave the house and let things cool down.


The concept of separation was proposed, but I was not able to see the value of leaving my house. I was not willing to leave my kids and family two months before the end of the school year. (Kids 7 and 9.) No way.

Somewhere along the hard path the issue had become trust. When one partner begins to lose trust, the recovery is difficult.

The school counselor was actually the one who convinced my wife to wait, if indeed we were going to divorce, until Summer break.

And that’s what we did. I stayed in the house, as a roommate. I still got everyone ready for school each morning, and made breakfasts. And during the day, I worked from my home office trying to figure out 1. how to make more money, and 2. how to convince my wife that divorce was not the answer.

I failed on both of those objectives, but I succeeded in keeping my kid’s lives relatively stable for the remainder of their 2nd and 4th grade years. It sucked. And ultimately I did not do a very good job at proving myself to be a great partner. I was a great father. But that wasn’t the issue.

Somewhere along the hard path the issue had become trust. When one partner begins to lose trust, the recovery is difficult. And if the distrusting partner is not willing to do the work, the process is doomed. We sat in the last few sessions with our counsellor and recounted our two different positions.

ME: We’ve had a crisis. We’re in a great position to rebuild around the core issues that were not working.

HER: I had showed yet again how I could not be trusted. And it was more of the same. I was obviously never going to change.

And in fact I too was waiting for her to change. And that’s never a winning proposition. I knew this already. But I was willing to sublimate my desire for a “touch-centered” love in the name of keeping the family together.

I wanted her to be something different. She wanted me to be something different. We didn’t agree to a separation, we got a divorce. BUT, we tried, and continue to try, to make it a responsible separation. We do our best every day as co-parents. That’s as good as it gets, once the decision has been made to separate.

Always Love,

John McElhenney

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image: true color of love, keoni cabral, creative commons usage