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We Do The Best We Can and Still We Fail: A Marriage Requiem

If two people join together in marriage they have indicated their intention to stay together forever. Even in today’s cynical climate, our marriages start out with the best of intentions and aspirations. I don’t think couples begin their marriage journey with doubt, but doubt can inevitably creep in, even in the best of relationships.

Kids Change the Course of Our Lives Forever

Marriages can come and go, but when you decide with your partner, to have kids… The rules are changed forever. I’m not sure couples take the same sacred vows when they begin the joyous journey to become parents, but again, we’ve got to assume the best in all of us. As we, as a couple, cross over the bridge towards becoming parents, we are agreeing, 100%, to be the best parents we can be. With stars in our eyes and a blissful and hopeful marriage dream, we set sail for the other side of marriage: parenting.

I’ve seen two kinds of parents in my experience.

  1. Has kids and tries to make the kids fit into their pre-kid lifestyle.
  2. Has kids and allows the absolute transformation to take place in their lives. Kids will always take priority over all other concerns in our lives.

Of course, there are less-conscious parents and accidental parents, who stumble into the new frontier without a roadmap or a prayer for where their family is headed. For today, I’m going to focus on conscious parenting: two well-attached individuals who decide to actively bring a child into the world and are willing to sacrifice much of their previous lives to the greater goal of being great parents. These are the hopefully married, the willing and able couples, the believers in the sacredness of life and our roles as parents.

The Love Hurricane

We welcomed in the chaos that ensued. We added a co-sleeper to our marital bed and baby mommy and me were transformed magically and instantly into Parents. (Capital “p”.) Our little boy defined all of our goals and aspirations. I had a hard time returning to work the week after he was born. We had decided that mom would get to stay at home with the baby as much as possible. We entered into a typical father/mother/child agreement: I would work to provide for the loving home and we would put the priority on mom’s time with the baby. That was our plan. I agreed to join as a 50/50 parent and to do my part as a provider.

It was not easy to leave every day for my job. I wanted to stay in bed. I wanted to stay home and smother my son in kisses and nap and laugh and lose the outside world within the bliss. But, “Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work I go,” was the plan. And we began to get our groove back as a couple. Focused on our child and our joy as parents, but we shared our bliss easily with one another. We were closer and more loving than ever. We allowed the grace of our firstborn child to burn away all our complaints and frustrations.

We loved our parenting role so much we decided to take a chance at having another child. And just as the planes crashed into the World Trade Center we were called in for medical consultation about complications with the new child in gestation. Even as the economy was crashing down, my self-employment fantasies were smothered as all of my clients froze 100% of the work-in-progress. We had some money in the bank, and some inheritance, but our income dropped to zero just as we were struggling with a weekly medical exam to determine the viability of our coming 2nd child.

Through some amazing struggles, my wife’s body was able to adapt to the prenatal challenges and we welcomed a baby girl into the post-9-11 freaked-out world. We kept our heads down, focused on the new baby, and again found ways to turn toward each other in the crisis. Us against the world. And now we’d just increased our numbers. We were blessed with “one of each.” We had done it. And the doctors advised us not to try for a 3rd as the medical complications would worsen with each attempt. Our family unit would top out at 4. We entered a period of nervous bliss, of man-to-man parenting, and the magical mystery tour that is watching siblings begin to notice and interact with each other. All systems seemed OKAY.

The Long Summer

As the summer blazed on in Austin, my employment journey took some unexpected turns. After years as a freelance website developer, I was suddenly challenged with getting a regular job with “good benefits.” I stumbled and tried a few things before landing a job at a downtown marketing company that did work for Dell. With their benefits, I got my vasectomy and we experienced a bit of a surge in our sexual activity, sans reproductive risks. It was a moment that didn’t last very long. After almost two years Dell canceled our quarterly retainer, and our little group of 8 was no more. The shock of this job loss was felt throughout the family. And we entered a new challenge in our marriage: money woes.

Social media was the new hot topic so I took two different agency jobs that both ended in disaster. We, digital marketers doing social media for medium businesses, didn’t know what we were doing. Companies expected “social” to cure all their marketing problems. But the sluggish economy made high-dollar employees expendable and easy to replace.

Something deeper and darker was happening in my relationship to my wife, however, that was unspoken and for the next several years, unaddressed. As I struggled with the highs and lows of high-salary employment and then unemployment, I also suffered some serious bouts of depression. Lack of confidence in my ability to earn a living was an acid test for my mental health, but more critically, it became a fracture point in my marriage. As I struggled to find the 3rd next “big job” that would sustain the part-time stay-at-home-mom dream, my wife began to get scared. Then she began to get angry. But most of all, she began to doubt me and our fundamental bond as co-parents.

The Longer Winter

The 3rd big job provided us with another 2 years of financial stability. I landed a position with Dell, through the manager that had been the contact at the small marketing company. We were back in the high life again. Except we were not. Even as I was entering the famous halls of Dell’s main campus in Round Rock, my wife was beginning to complain about our relationship. She was not happy. She was stressed out. She wanted more time and more options for what she wanted to do next with her career. She was working 10 – 20 hours a week and meeting the kid’s bus in the afternoons, but she was interested in doing something else. She didn’t know what, but she knew she was unhappy with the way things were.

And our romantic liaisons began to take a hit as the stress between us reached new levels of discord. Sex issues are often not about sex but about safety. She was ready to blame our lack of intimacy on something external, but I think the fracture was deeper and harder to ferret out. She complained that I didn’t ask for sex in the right way. So I tried new creative ways of subtly introducing intimacy into our conversations. Then she was unhappy with the amount fo money in the bank. She said she was always worrying about paying the bills. So I took on weekly Excel/money meetings where we could draw every financial detail out with plans and trajectories. Then she said she didn’t have enough time to keep the house and cook. She didn’t have any time for herself. We hired a nanny who did housework and cooking.

Still not happy. Still not having sex. Still unable to pinpoint the issues. But it appeared, as we started couples’ therapy for the first time, that the issue was me. My employment problems. My depression problems. My lack of responsibility. I was dizzied by how the therapy kept focusing on me and not on US. I was unable (or unwilling to poke the bear) to talk about our lack of sex. I do believe we were working as hard as we could. I do believe she was giving it her best effort. I do believe she wanted the marriage to work. And, I also believe, that she was unhappy and was trying to pin that unhappiness on me and what I was or was not doing for her or for the family.

The issues did not get sorted out. We sailed along. We grew tired of the constant fight of couple’s therapy. We agreed to try harder. She agreed to accept intimacy as part of the marriage and she would try to give in around 20% of the time. It was stunned that she seemed to have no “desire” on her part. Where was her need for closeness? I would learn later, where this disconnect was coming from. But at this point, we both made an effort to rejoin and renew our marriage.

And then I got laid off from Dell as the company tried to defend against the economic meltdown of 2009.

When Conscious Separation is the Best Option

I was laid off in January of 2010 with a six-month severance package that included my annual bonus and health care. The first Monday I was not driving to Round Rock my wife and I had a lunch meeting. She was visibly unhappy. I was hopeful about the next chapter we would be writing together.

What I wanted: Let’s pause for a few weeks and discuss how we wanted to go forward. Perhaps I didn’t have to go back to the next big company, a 50-hour week gig. And perhaps she would need to up her freelance practice or get a job herself. I was stressed and fat and I wanted more time with my kids too.

What she wanted: “We’ve only got a few months. You’ve got to get the next job. We can figure out our deal later.”

It was non-negotiable. She was not interested in renegotiating our financial obligations or contributions. And while this fracture is what I believe ended our marriage, there was a darker fear that was driving her hardass approach. She no longer had confidence that I would ever be a successful breadwinner again. Her history with family mental illness had led her to believe I was disabled. She no longer assumed that we would make it. Unless she could bludgeon me back into another big job. And she set out to show me how my idea was not going to get me what I wanted.

I did get another big job, but the damage between us was trending toward toxic. Even as I was flown to San Francisco to meet my new team, she was furious and yelling at me over the phone because the company was asking me to float the hotel room for 24 hours until they could get their card on file. She had gotten mad at me during the post-Dell come-to-Jesus and she had stayed mad. I had just landed the big job and in that relief, she was able to unleash even more of her frustrations and fear about where we were going. Or where we were not going.

I have no idea how soon after that moment in San Francisco she went to consult with an attorney about her options in divorce, but it was clear that she never intended to surrender to the marriage and vulnerability required to stay in an intimate relationship. She set her internal alarm system to SURVIVAL MODE and prepared to make the best deal she could for her and the kids. My welfare was not her concern. Just as it had been when I wanted to renegotiate our financial agreements, she was not concerned about my health and well-being.

The Road Back to Wholeness

All this effort to come up short. What is a young family to do? How can we learn to turn INTO the relationship rather than AWAY from it? In the nine years since my divorce, I’ve been writing and examining what went wrong. I’ve been trying to understand what kind of relationship I might be able to build that would sustain my idea of a lifetime partnership. And I’ve continued to examine how I could’ve done better as a partner.

As a father, I have done the absolute best I was capable of. I have never put my goals or frustrations above the needs of my children. I have maintained a close relationship with both of them. Meanwhile, my ex-wife continues to refuse to co-parent with me. Somehow, she’s still mad at me.

The good news is this: I am happy. And you can be happy too. Regardless of your situation, the path to your healthy divorce recovery is fairly simple:

  1. Take care of yourself first (mental, physical, emotional, spiritual)
  2. Take care of your relationship with your kids (let them know they are the priority, always)
  3. Wall off your feelings and reactions to your ex-partner. (Zero response is better than a negative response 100% of the time.)

The rest will take care of itself.

I did not get what I wanted in the marriage. I certainly did not get what I wanted in the divorce. And my story is still a happy story. My kids are fine. My ex-wife is still mad. And I’m… thriving.

Always Love,

John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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image: the first beach trip as a single dad

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a good dad's guide to divorce

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