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Divorce Lessons: 8 Critical Choices In Making a Positive Split


You’re entering into the first WTF discussions with your partner about divorce. I’m sorry. There are a few things you should know, mom or dad, that will make your transition to a divorced couple more manageable. Again, I’m sorry for your loss, perhaps there is something better on the other side, but right now you need to attend to the details. Maybe I can help. Here are the 8 critical points of maintaining a positive divorce approach in the days, months, and years ahead. Your relationship may be ending, but the road of divorce never ends.

Each parent is responsible to keep their own emotional upset out of the kids lives.

1. Kids. If you’ve got’em, everything you do from this point on should revolve around making their lives a bit less tumultuous over the next few years as your and your ex figure out the routine and cadence of co-parenting. Everything, and I mean, everything should be about the kids. All of your needs come second. Period. (Since this is my situation, most of the rest of this post deals with the kid-first issues of divorce.)

2. Money. A friend told me during my practice divorce, “If you can rub money on it, let it go.” And this is fairly clear. If it’s a material object, there is no sense fighting over it. (Embittered or contested divorces notwithstanding, don’t sweat the little things.) After the kids the money is the main negotiation in divorce. You have assets and you have debts. And as you separate your money issues, you will each get portions of both. If you have a house you are going to have to decide who gets it. Do you keep it? Do you sell it? If the kids would be better served by not being uprooted at this time, maybe you need to consider how you can best keep them in their home. (Notice I said their home. Yes, it’s your asset, as parents, but the home, the feeling of home, the safety, security, and love that was established in this home, is really all about them.

But money doesn’t stop with the house and things. The next issues is the sticky wicket the stalls a lot of divorce negotiations.

3. Child Support and the noncustodial Parent. This is the one I was completely uninformed about when we entered into our divorce planning. It was my hope and intention that we would work out the divorce with the same care we took in planning to become parents. We were a 50/50 family, all the way. But something happened on the way to the counselor’s office where we began drawing up our parenting plan. This is the core schedule that will run your lives and your kids lives over the next 10 – 15 years. It is the most important part of the divorce, but maybe not the most important part of the custodial negotiations.

If you stay on the positive divorce route, you will help your kids keep their positive opinions of both of you.

Back in 2010 when I got divorced, the state of Texas had a pretty clear judicial record on divorce. 85% of all divorced awarded the mom primary custody and the dad noncustodial status. It’s still called joint custody, but don’t be misled by the title. Here’s the part I didn’t quite understand, even as I was reading divorce books and making my own strategies about putting together a fair 50/50 schedule. The noncustodial parent pays child support to the custodial parent. No negotiation. The state has a formula based on your income (it works out to approximately 19% of your after-tax take home) and you (the noncustodial parent) will be asked to pay for 100% of the kids healthcare insurance. Okay, so get that straight. If you go the path of least resistance, as I did, and cooperate to the best of your abilities, you are still likely to be given the noncustodial role and the big monthly bill.

This is the major sticking point in a divorce. I didn’t know this. I agreed move on after I was told, in no uncertain terms, that my soon-to-be-ex would get this anyway if I fought in court about it. That wasn’t our deal, that wasn’t what we were doing, we were jointly paying a pricey divorce counselor to help us make these decisions together, but that’s what I was “going to get if I went to court.” So I folded my 50/50 plans, and was politely told my 50/50 schedule was nice, but that’s just not how this cooperative negotiation was going to go.

I should have gotten an attorney at this point. The problem is, back in 2010, I would’ve gotten what I got. So we avoided that pointless fight, and moved on to the plan.

4. Parenting Plan. Here’s where the non-financial work goes. This is the real meat of the divorce, at least as far as the kids are concerned, and remember that’s what we are focusing on here. Kids first, adults and our wants and needs second. So, along with the noncustodial parent role I was shown something called the Standard Possession Order or SPO. In Texas this means the dad gets the kids one night a week, plus every 1st, 3rd, and 5th weekend. (I’ll get to that 5th weekend in a second as well.) That’s the deal. That’s what’s going to happen “should you go to court” so you’d best be prepared to start there. Again this is the counselor talking. What I was saying is, “Why not 50/50? It looks like the books all say if the parents are cooperative and equally committed to co-parenting, that 50/50 parenting actually works better for the kids.” That’s not what you are likely to get if you end up in court, so “even negotiated” that’s likely what you’re going to end up getting if you try to keep the divorce planning in a cooperative and gitterdun mode.

The parenting plan also covers things like holidays, which Christmases they are with who. How you’re going to divide Spring Break and Summer Vacation. Those are the routine details of the plan.

5. The Dating Clause. One other part of the plan, that I think is essential, is the dating clause. In our plan, any parent who is dating, cannot introduce their dates to the kids until it has been a serious relationship for over 6 months. I think this saved us some real heartache in the early rebound days, and I was glad to have it in place. As it turns out, I still haven’t made it to 6 months with anyone. My ex has been dating for two and a half years, so the kids are familiar with him and like him. The idea is this clause keeps the kids (especially younger kids) from becoming attached or involved in any relationship that might be temporary. It’s a good idea, and I have felt that the way it slows down the pace of dating and moving into a more serious relationship, for me, has been beneficial.

6. Your Attitude. This is the core emotional piece of the divorce that you might spend more time on than you think. If we start with a few assumptions we might see the benefit of positive divorce more clearly.

  • Divorce is painful for everyone.
  • Each parent is responsible to keep their own emotional upset out of the kids lives. It’s fine to let them know or see that you are working through some stuff, but your promise has to be to not work it out in their presence. Get help for yourself outside the walls of your house.
  • Your kids will learn how to respond to this major life event by watching how you cope. You’re the role model that will provide the guides for their future upset navigation. By keeping your attitude positive and keeping your issues about your ex between you and your counselor, you can show your kids how to continue a loving family, even as your ex now lives somewhere else.
  • Anger is part of the grieving and growth process. But anger should not be worked out in front of your kids. Do whatever you need to do, but keep the frustrations and conflicts with your ex, OUT OF THE KIDS LIVES. There is not one angry thing that is appropriate to say about your ex. Not one. Your kids are not your little confidants and they should not be included in your bitching sessions. And take care to notice when you are doing this over the phone, those little ears are *so tuned* to every nuance of what is going on, that your anger, even in another room on a phone call to a friend, should be considered risky. Grieve, get mad, get support, but don’t let off steam in front of your kids.

7. Positive Divorce. If you stay on the positive divorce route, you will help your kids keep their positive opinions of both of you. You will give them healthy examples of how to cope with crisis and difficulty, that will provide a strong framework for them to grow with later in their own lives.

You still have loving kids between the two of you. Keep their loving attitudes in your hearts, and when you’re getting off track, focus on them and their needs.

You may never want to be friends with your ex, but you must maintain friendly relations in front of the kids. Even if money, or schedule conflicts are raging off scene, you’ve got a commitment to your kids that supersedes any and all issues. Yep, it’s hard, but keep that powerful pain out of the family.

Nobody wins in divorce, but we can keep either side from losing, if we stay present and positive in the coming months of negotiation and planning. And keeping things out of court and out of conflict, as much as possible, will go a long way to keeping the coming years on the cooperative side. Believe me, you need your co-parent, sometimes more than you did when you were married. As a co-parent some of their help is voluntary. It is okay to say, “I’m sorry I can’t help with that.” But it is so cool to be able to say, “Hey, I have plans, but let me see if I can move them so I can take the kids for you.”

The second sentence works like magic. You still have loving kids between the two of you. Keep their loving attitudes in your hearts, and when you’re getting off track, focus on them and their needs. That’s what it’s all about.

Always Love,

John McElhenney

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image: yes, peace, mark farlardeau, creative commons usage

We Have So Few Chances to Feel Loved


This is about my family of origin, and my willingness to try and out-grow, out-love, out-inspire, some deep wounding in the other person. I don’t look for the wounded person, but when I find them, I should run like hell. I need a whole person for my whole person.

I don’t know what I need. I don’t know what kind of woman, or what a healthy relationship really looks like. I mean, I’ve read books. I’ve imagined. I’ve written posts and poetry about it until I’ve created my own surreal ideal. But I am clear, I have no idea what I’m talking about.

And since my divorce, I’ve had ONE connection. A few relationships, but one connection that lifted all of my hopes and ideas. And from this wonderful infusion of energy and hope I constructed pyramids and offerings to the gods of love. Because there was something, some little glimmer, that really turned me on about this woman.

I guess I can say this now, because it’s gone. Her fears and objections have finally won out over my optimism, regeneration, and attempts to repair the breakups that kept happening. Okay, so that was a clue that something was not right between us. And the further I launched into “being okay” with her constantly not being okay, the more I moved away from my core truth. The flow has to go both ways.

I must’ve learned in my family of origin, as a little boy, how to repair and attempt resuscitation for bad relationships.

And how did I get fooled into thinking a woman, who had done very little “work” on herself post-divorce, was going to heal in my light of love. What a crock. The work ahead for her, is for herself alone. And unfortunately, now we both get to move on alone, and heal without the rubbing and joy that our “relationship” was causing. The joy was apparent in both of us. The chemistry was hot. The sex… Well, I’ll use discretion and not talk about that.

Coming out of a failed marriage, both partners often feel damaged and depressed. In my case, I was certain that I would never love again. Of course, that was my depression talking, but when you are Sad, you can get pretty dark. So there’s this concept, from a divorce recovery class I took, called the Healing Relationship.

I was determined not to be this woman’s healing relationship. And I worked hard to make myself as flexible as possible. To recede when she needed space. To not share the poems and inspirations I was feeling about her, so that she wouldn’t get freaked out.

But you see, the freak out was the problem. And I was not going to be able to fix it, no matter what I did, or how well I behaved. There would simply be another freak out, regardless of how it started, and we would hit the rocks.

During my failing marriage, I got very good at listening for the sirens of destruction (I had done something wrong) and looking for escape or some heroic journey to fix the problem. Both in my marriage and in this relationship, that was not the right approach. But I didn’t want to accept the warning signs I was being hit over the head with. I didn’t want to accept defeat in my marriage, and in some microcosm of the same role-relationship, I didn’t want to accept that this woman, who I was “crazy about” was going to toss me out because she was afraid.

Again, it was more than her fear. It was everything.

She was hungry for affection and love. But she recoiled from what she needed soon after she began getting it. She was overly protective of her son, but that’s what single moms do. She was/is still deeply angry at her ex, and is continuously upset by the dickish-ex he has become. And for sure, he is a dick, both to her, and their son. He has no excuse.

On the other hand, she has no excuse either. And actually, I have no excuse. I have no excuse for continuing a relationship that I could see was full of “holy shit, what’s wrong now” moments. But the chemistry was on. And I had not felt chemistry for a long, long time. I might be addicted to hot chemistry, or sex, but not getting either for years and years was a harsh form of torture, for someone like me who thrives on touch.

And we touched, but she pushed me off sometimes. And she told me constantly how we would eventually break up, and she mused occasionally about what it would be that would finally do it.

I must’ve learned in my family of origin, as a little boy, how to repair and attempt resuscitation for bad relationships. I tried and tried to keep my parents together. I excelled at school. I excelled in football and tennis. I was a childhood magician. I worked hard as the mascot or hero child to keep everyone happy. And when my parents split for the first time, because of my dad’s drinking, I was the one who brought them back together.

I had moments of hope, “wow, this is amazing, she is amazing, we could be amazing.” And then the red flag, more like a red bazooka would blow a hole in my theory of love in the time of recovery.

I’m not making this up. That’s what I was told, by my alcoholic father. And when the “try” didn’t work and my mom left for Mexico with everyone but me and my dad, I again went into hyper-performance mode to try to make things better. But there was no fixing my dad. And over the next two years he fought to win me. I think it was more about the money than me, but he liked to tell me he was doing it for me. Of course, he was drunk when he was telling me this, but that didn’t keep it from registering deeply in my 7 year-old heart.

I can’t repair a broken person. No one can. And my first “love” post-divorce was no different. And even as I bucked against the breakups, and saw the signs that this was a deeply wounded person, I was addicted to the … What?

Was I enjoying the suffering? I don’t think so. Was it familiar? Very. Did the dramatic breakups feel familiar? Yep, right out of the last 4 years of my marriage.

But she would not be healed by me or anyone else. She would only recover from her anger and sadness about her divorce, by going through it, in some sort of therapeutic setting. And I was not that path. I didn’t fantasize that I was the healer, but I DID try to be big enough to contain her thrashing against the feelings towards and against me. These feelings were more about her and her ex than anything I brought to the relationship. It’s sad to see it happening. And I was soooooo connected to her physically. But of course, that’s my obsession.

Well, ultimately the book of poems wasn’t enough. Even with the crowning poem being direct plea to her, or protestation, or warning… it’s hard to tell sometimes. But the poems were definitely me expressing MY wants and HOPES regardless of what I was seeing in her actions.

In recovery of any kind it is not for us to fix each other. The support is so that we can find our own path to fixing ourselves. And as we find ourselves in relationships with unhealthy people, it’s is our responsibility to do what is best for our health. And trying to be supportive and loving is one of those things we can do. Trying to be loving enough to get them to change, well that’s the trap right there.

So I wanted to change her. No doubt about it. I could say it with a straight face, full-well knowing that I was nuts. I wanted to blow her wide open with stability and love poems and clarity of intention. But… As the story goes, every. single. time. there is no fixing the other person. And the more we work towards or wait for them to change, the further we get from our own integrity.

The chemistry, while essential to the growth of a real relationship, is only a small portion of what is required to develop a relationship. And that’s really what I want. I want a relationship.

At the core, it is my healing that is at stake with the break up of this relationship. I felt deeply for the first time since my divorce. I had moments of hope, “wow, this is amazing, she is amazing, we could be amazing.” And then the red flag, more like a red bazooka would blow a hole in my theory of love in the time of recovery.

For someone to be loved they have to love themselves. And that loving cannot come in the form of caring for another person (a child, for example) or by going through it while IN a relationship. No, in my understanding of recovery, in general, the recovery has to take place in the individual, regardless of the support or lack of support in their surroundings.

There was simply no way I could love this woman enough. She was not mine to fix. And I knew this. I still know this. But the pain of losing a “loving feeling” is also hard. I would’ve continued to heal, retry, reset, over and over to keep the physical connection. But I was covering up the disconnection that had nothing to do with me. And that disconnection is what was my own healing that still needed work. I wanted to be loved. I wanted things to be ecstatic. And I was willing to toss my own instincts and knowledge down the tube for a while, in order to feel or not feel this sense of being loved.

I don’t believe we have a soul mate. I believe we have connections. And for me, for a connection to occur there has to be chemistry. But the chemistry, while essential to the growth of a real relationship, is only a small portion of what is required to develop a relationship. And that’s really what I want. I want a relationship. I don’t want a recovery project. I don’t want to fix someone. I want them to come to me healthy, happy, energetic, and done with a good portion of their baggage.

Well, that’s not who struck my heart with a warm glow. But that’s who I now recover from myself, as I return to working my own issues out, again. I have to walk away from my own issues in this relationship, in hopes of being a whole and ready man when the next potential shows up.

Always Love,

John McElhenney

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image: put your red shoe on, albert huffstutter, creative commons usage

Positive Divorce: From Blame To Forgiveness

positive divorce - the whole parent

Be warned, some of you are not going to like this next sentence.

The divorce was a good thing.

I know, I can’t say that with any information about your situation. But hear me out, and let’s see if we can work through this concept of positive divorce. This is my story.

In the beginning we got married to start a family. And two bright shining babies came along just as we had hoped and prayed for. Healthy, beautiful, undamaged.

Then the path of life had its way with us. Economic pains, emotional pains, growing pains, all stretched us to our limits. And for a while we were both strong enough to hang on, hope for better times, and keep the family together. But we broke something in the process. We had different coping mechanisms for the difficulties. Some were helpful, some were destructive.

If we move through our own recovery process, we begin to emerge from the blame and anger. We often then move into grief and loneliness.

In the latter stages of our marriage things were difficult and dark. We struggled to keep the edges from showing too much to the kids, but we had begun sleeping in different rooms and speaking only as necessary to get the job of parenting done. We were doing the best we could, given the circumstances.

And that’s the hard thing to remember. As mad as you get, as much blame as you can hurl at the other person, you have to get to the understanding that, as difficult or hard as it was for you, your partner was equally distressed and trying to cope and adapt and survive.

When survival kicks in, you’re in the final stages of the married part of the relationship. Even if you weren’t the one who asked for the divorce you were most likely looking and hoping for some release from the painful bonds. Perhaps you hoped, as I did, for the other person to change. Perhaps you just wanted to feel wanted again. Perhaps there was dysfunction to the point of concern for the wellbeing of your children.

Something happened, at some point and you both began to imagine life without your marriage. And even if you are in the throes of it now, in the anger and blame and bitterness, you will eventually grow out of that. You will pass through the stages of grief just as if someone had died. And in fact, that’s a good analogy. The marriage has died.

If you have kids, however, the relationship will last a lifetime. It’s often a bitter pill when you discover how entwined you still are years after divorce. How decisions your former spouse makes can drastically alter your life.

If we move through our own recovery process, we begin to emerge from the blame and anger. We often then move into grief and loneliness. At this stage it is common for one or both of the partners to jump back into relationship. To find someone else to fill the gaping hole. But, I would caution this enthusiasm for a bit longer. And here’s why. There is still more growing that needs to happen within you, before you are ready to attempt a new journey. Why would you want to cover over the past mistakes and repeat them with another person.

As loneliness and possibly depression is being plumed, you may often seek support in the form of counseling or therapy groups. I personally joined a divorce recovery class in my city, and spent the next 10 weeks meeting with 18 other divorced people, men and women, to discuss and map our growth out of the hole of shame and blame.

Emerging again from the emotional wreckage of divorce you may be ready to date again. And this time you hope, find ways to cope and navigate the relationship in more constructive ways. But even as we go on to date, kiss, have sex, and perhaps even marry, we still often have work to do on the hidden anger and resentment of our divorce.

How can I explain the positive side of divorce to any daughter who misses the daily connection with her dad? Or the wounded sons I see who don’t see or receive any love from their absent fathers?

In my case I felt betrayed. I was never willing to give up. I was fighting to stay in the marriage even after I learned the my wife had already seen an attorney. So I was devastated and deeply depressed when I had to agree, finally, to the divorce. And I sunk to the lowest point in my life. And I needed help.

And there was no way for me to process the divorce when I was in such a wounded place. I jumped quickly on a few dating sites, determined to jump into bed and heal my sexual emptiness. But that didn’t work out. And I’m kind of glad it wasn’t as easy as I had hoped. My heart still had a long way to go to release the obsessive compulsive desire that had been created by the last few years of my divorce, that had been rather sex-less.

Today I mark the fourth year since I walked out the door of my house, and gave primary custody of my two children to my ex-wife. And I’m just now beginning to understand how deep the forgiveness must go, for me to completely agree that the divorce was a positive event in my life. And even more so, a positive event in the lives of my kids. (Now 13 and 11.)

How can I explain the positive side of divorce to any daughter who misses the daily connection with her dad? Or the wounded sons I see who don’t see or receive any love from their absent fathers? Early in the process of divorce, it is nearly impossible to imagine a positive side to what is happening. And if the echoes of your parents divorce still haunt you, like they did me, I was certain it was the end of everything. (Much like I did when I was 5 and learned that my dad had moved out of the house.)

And here’s the grace note. You will get through it. Your children will get through it. And eventually, you will (I’m still hopeful anyway) find another “love of your life” to try and reassemble your loving relationship around.

The first step of letting go is just beginning to understand that the blame, regardless of what happened, is squarely and equally on both your shoulders. I know, again, there is no way I can know or say that about your marriage. But if you can just imagine that it is half your fault, even if you have to pretend that you believe it, you will pull out of the pity and sorrow much quicker as you release your feelings and anger at the partner who is no longer your spouse.

Positive divorce is a choice. And the process to get there requires time, insight, and often the help of professionals. But the alternative is bitterness and continued failings at love relationships as you make the same mistakes, miss the same red flags, and put up with the same behaviors that got you into divorce in the first place.

Get help. Reason things out with another person. And let go of your blame. The rest of your life you will be relating to this person, if you have kids, and your healing can go a long way towards healing everyone.

Always Love,

John McElhenney

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image: over you, woodlywonderworks, creative commons usage