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Taking the Long Way Home: My Divorce Journey Back to Joy

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As my divorce loomed ahead, in the bursting days of Spring, 2010, my then-wife had convinced herself that she (and the kids) would be happier after divorcing me. I stayed in the house with her and the kids for two months, while my 3rd-grader and 5th-grader barreled on towards a Summer break to remember. She had asked me to simply move out, give her and the kids a break from the stress and animosity. Uh, what? (We were in couple’s therapy at the time of the “went to see a lawyer” revelation.) I’m not going anywhere. If you need a break, you can take a vacation and I’ll stay here and finish school with the kids.

Sorry, No.

It was only the elementary school counselor that reasoned with my wife, “Please let them get to the Summer without starting a divorce. You don’t want them having to come to school while all that messiness is going on.” Of course, I was not with my then-wife when she met with the school counselor. She merely dropped her “move out now” lobbying efforts.

Whatever happened in those last two months of married-life-under-the-same-roof is now a blur. I was part asshole and part “honey can we work on our marriage.” She was “sorry, no.”

That has pretty much been my ex-wife’s response to me ever since that moment in the therapist’s office when she outed herself and her legal investigations. “Sorry, no.” Can we do 50/50 parenting? “Sorry, no.” Now that our kids are in middle school can we commit to better communication as co-parents? “No, sorry.” If I pay you 100% of the child support upfront, would you be willing to put a portion of it in savings for their college fund? “No, sorry.” As things have progressed, her approach has gotten the desired result. I don’t ask my wife for anything. Ever.

But, in those closing weeks of my life as a family man in the family home with typical night-time family routines, I was anticipating the heavy crush of losing my kids. I was sad about losing my best friend and lover, but mostly I was aware that I, the dad, was going to be given the “fractional dad” role as outlined by the state of Texas. The Standard Possession Order works out to about 70/30, with the dads getting less than a third of the time the mom gets. I knew my comedown was approaching and there was nothing I could do about it.

After Divorce We Either Reset or We Give Up

Some dads, give up after divorce (SEE: Why Some Fathers Give Up After Divorce) and immediately or eventually distance themselves from the ex-wife and kids. Most dads, however, are committed to being good parents and would like to co-parent as much as possible. As I entered my single-dad phase of life, I was clear that my priority in life was to be a different divorced-dad then my dad was, and to continually show up for my kids and let them hear and feel my availability. I was the vulnerable one in the divorce. My daughter, on the day we told the kids, asked, “What animals are you going to take?” She wanted daddy to have an animal to take care of him when he was alone.

Crushing depression ensued.

And then, from the wreckage of my broken life something else emerged: hopefulness. Even as I was convalescing after my breakdown, I was aware of a glimmer of hope shining in the darkness. I was divorced. I was alone. I was homeless. And yet, I knew, eventually, that I would pull out of this dark place and rise again. Deep inside there was a motivating desire to love again. A passion to pursue a new lover and eventually be loved again. I did not know how or when, but I knew I was not going to give up and die.

What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been

In the nine years since my divorce, I’ve had several relationships. I’d count only one as being long-term. I was even engaged to be married. I have been diligent and active in the pursuit of my next Relationship. I tried a lot of online dating (chronicled here: Dating Again page.) And my focus has remained clear. If a date did not have long-term potential they were quickly no longer a potential partner. I did not want to date. I wanted a relationship. I wanted to hear someone say, “I love you, John.” I did not want to be alone. And I certainly did not want to fail again.

As I meandered through the complexities of healing myself after the divorce I continued to discover more things about what I was looking for. My first “girlfriend” after divorce taught me what it was like to be with someone who could express affection with ease. It was almost overwhelming when she started saying, “I adore you,” from time to time. In my ten years of marriage, I don’t think I heard that statement more than once. I began to appreciate the easy expression of love. I had always been a connected and affectionate person. It turns out, I married a person that had a different love language, and “I love you” statements were not part of her natural range of emotion. I decided with my first girlfriend that I would never accept a partner who could not display and express affection easily and casually. I felt well-attached in that first relationship even though we eventually moved on. I’m still friends with this woman. Her affection was authentic, as was mine.

In my engagement, I learned a number of lessons as well.

  • I cannot be in a relationship with an alcoholic
  • I cannot be in a relationship with a partner who does not express affection easily
  • I cannot be in a relationship with a partner who does not make an effort to know and love my kids

While I was in this relationship, I was not so clear about what was working and not working. It wasn’t until I had moved out of my fiance’s house that I understood the depth of the depression the drinking had caused me. Over the next year, I learned about how her dismissal of my children had also been hurtful. She resented them. It was clear, she wanted a relationship with ME. My kids were my business. She didn’t engage with them as much as ask me, “So what are YOU going to do with your kids this weekend?” What you want in a partner is someone who asks, “What can WE do with your kids this weekend?” I won’t make that mistake again. And I know I cannot be in a relationship where drinking takes the priority over closeness and intimacy.

And Here We Are

As I was leaving a store yesterday and driving towards my home, I noticed I turned down an old street where I used to bicycle with my fiancé. It was not the shortest path back home. Something in me wanted to see and feel the old space, touch the old biking-moments that were still inside me. I noticed the places we’d stop for dinner. I noticed the hills where her fitness caused her to race ahead and wait for me at the top. I noticed a touch of sadness even as I am very happy and in love. I could feel the warning and the loss. Even what appears wonderful can come apart if you don’t pay attention and put in the effort to join your partner in all parts of their lives.

I think about the nine years it has taken me to feel connected again. As I was being asked to leave my marriage and leave behind my children, I knew it was going to be a LONG TIME before I felt like I had a “home” again. I am not there yet, but I am building a foundation for just that. I am being clear. I am asking, always, for what I want. And I am learning to be flexible when things don’t meet my expectations or comply with my desires.

Leading Your Life, Even From Within the Pain

It would’ve been easy to thrash in my quest to find a new partner. It was tempting to stay in the casual sex mode of dating. There is a lot of energy and passion when you meet and begin partnering with someone new. But that’s not what I wanted. What I wanted (what I want) is stability and trust. What I want is something more authentic than I had in my marriage or with my fiancé. What I want is someone who can lean into the troubles and work them out. What I want is someone who can express affection easily and frequently. What I want is someone to match my level of desire and passion, to meet me at my level of adoration.

I want that for you as well.

It has taken me nine years to find the “home” feeling again. And I hope to build on this feeling for the rest of my life.

Always Love,

John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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