humans of divorce

I had a girlfriend once, who traveled a lot. She traveled for work. And she also traveled for pleasure. A pleasure that didn’t include me. It was okay, but it was not ideal. I understand, she couldn’t take as many high-faluting vacations if she took me along. However, she took me along on quite a few. But she loved to travel more than she loved being with me. I guess that’s called wanderlust.

As our relationship progressed, there were other incompatibilities. At some point, she professed that she was going to need to do something different, that she did not want to marry me. She said I could stay in her house through the summer, but after that, we’d need to change things up. I tried to suspend my collapse for a few weeks by staying in her bed and in her arms, but at the advice of a dear friend I “got the fuck out of there.”

At one of our last nights together we sat in her living room and resolved to go our separate ways. And in a moment of clarity in the sadness, I said, “I just don’t want to be alone. Neither of us wants to be alone.” It was a moment of truth. I could’ve stayed another 8 weeks, but I knew I needed to get back to my goal of finding a long-term partner. Even as I knew I was going to be devastated by the loss, I moved out the next day. We woke together, kissed lightly, and made coffee and got on with the business of our day. I don’t think she helped. She went out and ran errands as I removed my presence from her townhouse.

When You Have Kids Loneliness Becomes a Distant Memory

As my kids were born into our loving household, everything changed in my life. I grooved into the routine of being a dad. I was an active dad. Even as I worked 45 minutes away from home, I was home at night for dinner, bath, reading, and tuck-in. The flight path of young children is a magical thing. We all thrived in the early years of loving and nurturing our two kids. We were a compact and well-attached family unit. I was in my happy place.

We’d come through some amazingly hard times to bring our daughter to the planet. And while the stress had exhausted both of us, it was my then-wife who seemed to be suffering the most. We sailed along. I left each morning after making breakfast and getting the kids to the bus. I drove to a nearby city for the big job that kept our upper-middle-class-family dream alive. And she was able to spend most of her days with the toddlers. As they grew we morphed the plan slightly and she started working part-time and we hired a nanny who also did some light housekeeping and laundry. The American dream partially realized.

humans of divorce

A Speed Bump Jolts the Happy Family

And then the economic recession happened and the big tech giant laid off 50% of my online marketing group. I was given a two-month notice AND full pay for six months after that. So, while it was a painful development, we had some runway to figure out our next move as a family. At this moment, we imagined our future plans along two very different paths.

What she wanted: me to get another big job to afford her the semi-stay-at-home-mom lifestyle. (Working between 10 and 20 hours as a consultant.)

What I wanted: to use the eight months of runway to reconfigure our financial plans.

The long commute and big job had taken quite a toll on my soul and my physical body. I was 20-pounds overweight, my blood pressure was borderline dangerous, and I was exhausted 55 – 60 hours of work a week, plust the 10-hours of drivetime. I was not getting a lot of living in on the weekends as I often wanted to nap and do less, not more, as my young family wanted daddy to get up and play. Somehow, this imbalance was missed on my then-wife. She was not concerned with my health. She was focused on her lifestyle and the role of mom. I get it. But it simply was not sustainable in its current form. Yes, I could’ve hit LinkedIn hard for a new big job, but I wanted to take a portion of the 8-months to revisit our plans.

It was the fracture that eventually caused her to ask for a divorce. She stood her ground firmly and with aggressive non-action. In the course of the next year, rather than “get a job” herself, she focused on me getting the job. She cycled through various ideas about her “life’s purpose” and the job that would give her more fulfillment than her previous jobs. In the entire year after I was laid off, rather than earn “some” money, my then-wife lost $5,000 in workshops and supplies for setting up her freelance business. She was forcing the issue.

Money Issues Killed Our Cooperation

In June of 2009, my salary stopped arriving. I had gotten a few freelance gigs to bring in $6,000 but it wasn’t enough to keep up with our burn rate. And we’d just started paying very high COBRA health insurance rates. By October we’d hit the wall. I sold about $10,000 of my personal property (2 vintage guitars and an amazing guitar amp) to make our mortgage and insurance payments. And just in the nick of time, one of my leads, a former big corporate director, was ready to bring me onboard at his new company. I was hired in a week and flown to San Francisco to meet with the rest of the creative team.

In some respects, our financial woes were about to be resolved. But our emotional disconnect was about to get worse. The day I flew to SF I was told by the hotel that my new company had not provided a CC for the room yet. I put the opening charge on my personal credit card. My then-wife went ballistic. No explanation, no rationalization, no reassurances were enough to satisfy her rage. “How can you put ANY MONEY on our credit cards? It’s money we don’t have.”

“Yes, but…”

Of course, the company rectified the situation later that afternoon, but the damage had already been done. Even as I was about to start making the magic $100,000+ again, my wife was freaking out back at home about money. I’m guessing she was projecting a bit. She knew she had not contributed any money to the family budget. She was the keeper of the Excel spreadsheets where the numbers were examined frequently, and passionately. She was right, I would not get an actual paycheck for 30-days, but… Anyway, there was no arguing with her.

As my business trip settled down, I began to enjoy my walks in San Francisco and I invited my wife to join me for a getaway weekend. I arranged for my mom to take the kids. I found a $400 plane ticket. I was excited by my romantic restart idea. She refused. She even got mad at me for being so irresponsible. My dream of rebuilding and reinvigorating our marriage died as she was yelling at me over the phone about “growing up and taking responsibility as an adult.”

What she was really telling me, in no uncertain terms, was she did not want to reconnect with me. In some wounded part of her frightened heart, she didn’t want to rejoin with me in a relationship. The financial struggles had snapped something inside her analytical brain. And in those same waning days of 2009 she began to entertain ideas of leaving me. I suppose she imagined the would be happy if she could just get away from my dysfunctional boyish enthusiasm. She wanted hard numbers in the spreadsheet. She wanted to work 10 hours a week. She wanted to keep the nice house and keep the kids in the nice schools and she wanted me to pay for it. Nice dream if you can afford it. $100,000 plus bonuses was not enough money.

humans of divorce

And Then My Marriage Came to an Abrupt Halt

I’d love to imagine that my then-wife was recommitting to the marriage when she agreed to go back to couple’s therapy with me. (My idea.) I don’t think she was IN. I think she was biding her time while she got her financial picture in place. She was making plans to divorce me while still sleeping in the same bed with me, while she was “working on our relationship” in therapy. At the same time, she was meeting with a divorce attorney to get “her options.”

In March of 2010, she let it slip in our couple’s therapy that she had seen a lawyer. I’m not sure if the therapy was part of her plan. I’m not sure if she wanted me to find out while we were in session with a trusted and loved therapist, so I would not go batshit crazy. Either way, she dropped the bomb and asked that I move out that day, “We can tell the kids you had to go on a business trip.”

And Then I Was Alone

That’s when it hits you. As a dad, I was given the package. Every other weekend and one night in the alternating weeks. I was going to miss 70% of my kids’ lives for the rest of their young lives. I was crushed. I floundered. I had to move in with my sister so I could afford my $1,500 a month child support payment, and the additional $300 – 400 health insurance payments. So I had to make $50,000 a year just to pay my obligations! How was I going to make twice that? How was I even going to make that? The economy that had ended my big corporate job was still making it hard for everyone.

It was hard for my ex-wife too, but…

But her troubles were schedules and chores in caring for our kids. She had all but one weeknight. I had every other weekend. I had the “bad dad deal” that Texas thinks is fair. The dad is given more time without the kids so he can raise the money to pay for the child support and then, if he’s successful, be able to afford a place to live. It’s a lot more money if you want to live in a place that can house your two kids, as well. And, of course, my ex could care less about my situation. She was up to her neck in our kids. She was still doing the parenting dance. I was doing the sad single dad dance.

I’m sure it was hard for her too. Those two weekends a month when she got down to the business of finding a new relationship. She was leaving our kids with a sitter on her weekends in the second month after I walked out of the house. We had a mutual friend who was still friends with her, through her wife. He gave me some 411 on my ex-wife’s activities, even after I told him to stop. His wife, took my wife’s example, about six months later and divorced him too. That shut him up for good.

humans of divorce

The Marriage Crumbles

I rode out the rest of the school year while my kids finished 3rd and 5th grade. I succumbed to my still-wife’s wishes. I agreed to a cooperative divorce and then was handed my ass on a platter. She was going for the divorce package: child support, the marital home, and 70% of the time with the kids. I was going to the poor house.

I’ll never forgive her for trying to oust me while our kids were still in school. Only the elementary school guidance counselor was able to talk her out of it. You think she’d have enough compassion to see that blowing up the family during the school year would be a major hardship for the kids. So, I stayed in the house, pretended to still be a happy dad, and suffered greatly every morning I got the kids off to school and every evening when they came home. I loved the family routine. I loved being their dad. I knew I was going to crash when I was no longer welcome in my own home. I knew depression was weeks away. I knew there was very little I could do to stop the sadness freight train that is divorce.

All I could do was stand tall for my kids until they finished the last school year of their happy family memories. And as I felt the crushing sadness after I moved out, I worked hard to put on a brave face when they were with me.

Always Love,

John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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