Divorce, Single Parenting, Dating, Sex, & Self-Recovery

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what if i

OFF-smiling[from strange horizons poems]

a touch
stretch
creaking open
this dusty
space of
alone
me

venture
towards
joy
you
juiced
kissing
hands

embark
this time
arrives
now
for
some mystery
to
take hold

fearless
open
joy
becomes
life
worth
exclaiming

1-28-15

image: she fights, melania brescia, creative commons usage

Back to the Beginning: Serenity with Your Coparent

OFF-blackdog2

 

Co-parenting is about accepting the other person for who they are, exactly as they are, and holding them in the best light you can.

As we walk through our individual lives we necessarily come in contact with a lot of other people. And the primary relationship with our significant other, is going to be the deepest journey of our life. Yes, we’ve got to figure out our own B.S. so we can self-regulate and learn to mind our own business. But in our primary, one-2-one, relationship we’ve also got to learn to love another person even when they are dealing with their own personal struggles.

The dark thoughts multiply and begin the pull downward even as the poor depressed person is acutely aware of what’s happening.

It’s hard not to tell others what you think. It’s double-hard not to tell your partner what you think, especially when you imagine you can see a better approach for them. But even in that deepest of emotional and physical relationships, you cannot really know, really see, what’s happening in the other person’s mind. You might think you know. But the right answer you imagine, the minor tweak you see that could make their lives so much easier, is a figment of your imagination.

It’s more than minding your own business. That’s an idealistic goal that is easier to imagine than to put into practice. The act of allowing your lover, partner, co-parent, to flounder and fall and struggle, is actually the deeper gift.

In my life I have struggled with periods of depression.

The first appearance of the black dog came while I was a freshman in high school, fourteen going on fifteen. I was “away” at prep school in New England, and while I should have been having the time of my life, I began to unravel a bit as the Winter came on with a vengeance and my natural exuberance began to falter under the dark days and extreme conditions. As November and my 15th birthday arrived, I was concerned that something was wrong with me.

I remember a few of the moments quite vividly. I was struggling with my first foreign language, Spanish. And something about my brain just felt off. I tried to study each night during the enforced study period from 7 – 9 pm, but I found myself staring at the pages rather than reading them. I sought advice from my advisor. She was even more clueless than I was about why a young seemingly normal teenage boy would struggle so much. Her advice was more like a form of scolding. Even though I had sought her out she used the opportunity to recant the rules and policies of study period, and maybe I was just goofing off more than I should. “Maybe you shouldn’t play music in the room when you’re trying to study.” That was her highest thought. It was a disastrous year.

Over the course of the next 15 years or so, I struggled a bit with the black dog, but for the most part I got better help, used various therapeutic remedies both chemical and verbal. It was a bit of a jagged line, but I’d say my line graph trended in the upward direction overall, between the collapses.

It turns out, depression is part physical and part mental. And according to Peter Kramer in Against Depression, the body begins adapting and changing physically as a result of the swings down into the pits of darkness. As a person experiences depression several times, the body begins to identify the early symptoms and essentially leans into the chemical pathways that cause the depression to strengthen and deepen. Depression becomes a learned coping mechanism in response to periods of great stress. And after those neural pathways are connected by the initial bouts of uber-sadness, they become more likely to get fired up and activated with stressful events.

And the dark thoughts multiply and begin the pull downward even as the poor depressed person is acutely aware of what’s happening. It’s a bit like a Hitchcock scene from Vertigo. You see the dark ground below, you begin to tremble and swoon with dizzying panic, and in an act of escape you actually jump towards the blackness.

The Black Dog Stops By Again

In my second major moment of fear and despair, the darkest moment of my life, I can remember the taste of the fear as it leached in and sucked the joy out of my heart. I was married with one son and another child in-the-oven, and I cannot begin to imagine the frightening experience my descent must’ve caused for my then-wife. And she’d had some experience of deep sadness in her life and in her family of origin, just like me. It’s part of what bound us together, this recognition and acceptance of our moodiness. It’s part of who I am.

In periods of great drama and stress you either split apart or you deepen your connection to your significant other.

This time, as an “adult,” the onset was more noticeable and pronounced. I never tried to hide what was happening even as I was trying to cling to the joy in my life as a metaphorical cliff edge. I sought out medical help. I sought out spiritual and mental help. I sought out my own inner work. I tried running as therapy. I tried focusing on the good in my life, the beautiful pregnant wife, and the amazing baby boy, but nothing could lift the filter of fear that had started forming between me and my experience of life.

It was in this time, as we struggled as a little family in crisis, that I became dependent on my wife for my own survival. I know this was an unfair burden to place on another individual, but I was unable to see the way forward without some form of counsel and daily encouragement. It was a dark time indeed.

We survived. I survived. The marriage survived. And over the next few years, filled with diapers and tears, I began to get my footing in the world of work and the optimism of life continued to grow in all of us. And just at this time, my wife experienced her own moment with the black dog. I was back, ready for bear, and again we persevered. We didn’t exactly thrive, but the joyful days outweighed the mournful ones, and we gave our kids the optimism-in-spite-of-the-moment, that they still rely on today.

Adaptation, Survival, and Change

In periods of great drama and stress you either split apart or you deepen your connection to your significant other. And maybe the deeper story in our case, was a little of both. In my “video camera” retelling of the story I would color things with a slightly rose-colored lens. I might say, “We went through it, we survived, we’re stronger than ever and ready for what’s next.”

I can say that I had no idea what my then-wife struggled with during my dark times or her dark times. What I knew was that I had another person in the storm with me, holding my hand.

My then-wife’s retelling would vary in one significant way. “We went through it, it was hard, we’re stronger now as individuals, and I think my happiness will return outside the marriage rather than continuing in this way.” And in this moment, even 6+ years after the statement came out of her mouth, I cannot begin to imagine what was going on inside her during those final months of our marriage.

I had learned that I could only rely on my own best thinking, and take care of my own actions. And even as my then-wife was making choices that I didn’t agree with, I was ultimately accepting of her decision. I saw things and experienced things very differently. I imagined our future together *with* this additional strength. She saw our future ahead with this additional liability.

The darkness we had suffered and recovered from together had changed us in different ways. I wanted to return to the relationship with her as a the start of the next chapter. She wanted to set out and find a new partner for that next chapter. It would be absurd of me to characterize of attempt an understanding of her experience and her decisions.

We passed through several dark nights of the soul together. And as we go forward in our kid-connected lives we will still have moments where we think we know what would work better for the other person. It’s pretty clear, from this side of the divorce, that I had no clue what was happening in her mind during all of those ups and downs. Her actions for part of the experience were connective and supportive. At some point, after she grasped that she could not change me back into someone she loved, she decided to make plans to seek a different relationship.

I’d like to put a bow around this difficult story with some sort of statement of silver lining. Something like, “We’re better for it, we’re stronger because of it, we all have a more realistic view of life and dealing with setbacks and disappointments.” And while I can’t really say that, I can say that I had no idea what my then-wife struggled with during my dark times or her dark times. What I knew was that I had another person in the storm with me, holding my hand.

Even today, nearly 5 years after the divorce, I can’t project thoughts into her mind. I can imagine that I understand idea behind some of her actions, but it’s only my projection. I have no idea what goes on in her mind.  That’s okay, that’s not the idea. Co-parenting is about accepting the other person for who they are, exactly as they are, and holding them in the best light you can.

Occasionally I get mad and I don’t see my own part in the dynamic, but for the most part I have learned to mind *my* business, to pay attention to *my*actions and *my* words. That’s the best I can do, always. That’s all I can do.

Sincerely,

The Off Parent
@theoffparent

reference: Against Depression – Peter Kramer, M. D.

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image: with the wolves, sprinkle happiness, creative commons usage

The Serenity Prayer

God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference.

she says yes

shesaysyes-POEM

[from strange horizons poems]

and when she says yes
opens
and pleases at the touch
laughs
remains calm in the middle of the fire
when she arrives
with flexible thinking
mind
body
and she says yes the second time
enough to make you imagine
you’ve heard her correctly
she might
have
arrived
just at the right moment
in time
to answer
one
more time

yes

1-24-15

Entitlement & Narcissism: The Blurry Lines Between Divorced Parents

OFF-sharing

Entitlement is a hard word. It’s a bit harsh. It carries a lot of judgement, so I’m going to try to take this one apart and examine it from all angles. If I can stay objective, perhaps I can learn something as we go along together in this post.

Let’s start with a definition.

entitlement

Okay, so now we’ve got a few starting points. First let’s start with me, that’s usually the best place to begin a self-examination.

My Family of Origin

I do have certain rights. And I do believe I am deserving of good things, but not necessarily special treatment. The fact is, my father was a successful physician and made a ton of money before his death at 56 years old. I wouldn’t say his success made him happy.  But a lot of his path was colored by alcohol, so his happiness is not a very good touch point for my sense of entitlement. I do have something though, that rubs up close to that last, less flattering, definition.

I was raised to believe that I too would have financial success. But even with this auspicious beginning, at some level I equated financial success with devastating dysfunction, both emotional and physical.

I lived my formative years in two very nice houses. But by the time I was progressing through 4th grade my mom and dad had begun a knockdown drag-out divorce. See, my dad was also an angry drunk, and he was determined to ruin my mom, rather than see her enjoy any life after divorce. He used a scorched earth mindset to attack, sue, and humiliate my mom. And some of it worked. My mom has always been frightened about money. And some of it backfired. Seeing my sometimes raging and sometimes despondent father made it clear to me at an early age, that I would never go live with him. No matter how awesome his mansion became, no matter how inviting the views and the swimming pools, he and I were mortal enemies. As he tried to destroy my mom, in some elementary school Oedipal complex, I became her champion. I became a shining defense against my father’s hate. And in many of those years the hate spewed out directly at me, for siding with her. But that wasn’t the story. I was hiding from him and his unbridled fury as much as I was trying to support and survive with my mom.

Anyway, in my early years, I knew what it was like to have a lot of money. Money covered with furious guilt and anger. But nonetheless, I was raised to believe that I too would have financial success. But even with this auspicious beginning, at some level I equated financial success with devastating dysfunction, both emotional and physical.

But my inner-core of  entitlement must look something like this: I can achieve great success if I work hard, stay sober, and keep a positive outlook. So far, things have not always gone to plan, but I do believe I have used that inner belief as part of my resilience. Somewhere deep down inside, I believe I will enjoy the fruits of my labor. And every time I do, even if it’s just having enough money to buy the groceries I need for the week without having to check the bank balance, I am not only relieved but grateful. I have a lot of appreciation for life when things go right. It’s not luck or fate I’m talking about, it’s faith and belief in my own ability to thrive and survive even within horrible circumstances. I’ve always had this inner voice. I believe this is the gift of my entitlement. I will make it. We will make it. Things will be okay, eventually. No time to fret or worry obsessively about, it’s time to get back to work.

Her Family of Origin

Now, without taking too much time, since I really can’t give much insight into her family of origin experience, I will give you a skeleton view of my ex-wife’s family of origin. Dad was a severe disciplinarian and a hard-working engineer. Money and fame were not part of the routine, but hard work, perseverance, and a strict attention to spreadsheets and details and mechanics was always at the center of the plan. Mom, on the other hand was slightly unstable, but very creative and artistic. She was a bit of an Amelia Earhart type: she even raced airplanes, rode a motorcycle, and had a touch of the delicious madness of emotional imbalance. (BTW: I have a good bit of that too.)

I can’t blame her for seeing the money around me and imagining the money and good times to come.

The result of this early training for my ex-wife was that she gravitated to the safer parent. She too became very pragmatic and less emotionally focused. Sometimes in our marriage, and in couples therapy, the lack of emotional energy was really an issue. She too liked to build financial models, built scenarios, and project future trajectories. But she didn’t like things to get too touchy-feely. So in some ways, as polar opposites, we fit together like a circuit. Her logic and financial prudence, matched nicely with my emotional epiphanies and earning potential. But there was more of a business-type fit, rather than an love-type fit. I didn’t know the difference when we started dating. I thought I had met my perfect foil. The perfect woman who could collect and multiply the financial rewards of my genius. (Oops, that’s probably a bit of that grandiose thing I do.)

I can’t blame her for seeing the money around me and imagining the money and good times to come. And I’m sure I was (and still) project great confidence about my potential. But of course, that’s part of the issue between us, always, I’m saying, “Things are looking up, this deal is just about to break, I’m on the cusp of a big breakthrough” and she was saying, “But we need to put another $2,000 in our IRAs to take advantage of the tax breaks.” Oh, that was music to my ears. Well, it was, until things didn’t go so well.

When the financial plans got a bit more complex and more faith-based, after 911, my wife began to drop down into the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. Her focus turned, naturally for her, to spreadsheets and bank balances. And cash flow was a problem for everyone at that time. I did my best to rebound from the total loss of my freelance business, but it was a dark period for us personally over the next 5 years as we weathered the storms of our economic free fall and the emotional separation that began to divide us along our two vastly different senses of entitlement.

So things got messy. I got depressed. She got furious. I held the emotional heart of the family while she managed the spreadsheet and the withdrawals from our next egg, put there courtesy of my dead father. We rallied around the parenting duties and the great love of our children. Between the two of us, however, something was beginning to pull apart. I wasn’t aware of what was going on, but I knew she was more pessimistic and angst-ridden than I ever remembered.

Financial Entitlement

Okay, let’s cut forward to today, to our lives now as two separate but connected households. In many ways she’s still counting on my big paycheck each month. And when the child support checks stopped arriving, when I lost my work, lost my house, lost most of my possessions, she got even more furious. As if her fury and demands were going to motivate me to do more, be more, earn more. Except that wasn’t the problem. But of course, as things got tense between us, as I missed my first child support payment (even with two months notice that I was about to hit an unexpected financial problem), she moved in to hyper-accounting mode. This was her M.O. This was how she dealt with stress, both while we were married, and now almost 5 years after our divorce.

I kept telling her, “I’m going to get caught up. I’d never skip out on my obligation to you and the kids.” But she must have been hearing something completely different.

See, the problem is, when you divorce, and you’re the man who 80% of the time get’s strapped with the child support obligation, it puts a very large additional obligation on your balance sheet. In the divorce, since I didn’t sue to get the 50/50 plan I proposed, I wound up agreeing to a child support payment that was based on the good years of my full-time employment history. And to make it crystal clear, here’s what you’re going to be obligated for, if you get divorced in Texas and are given the standard plan. (I didn’t have this information going into the divorce, or I would’ve understood why she fought so hard to get primary custody.)

And somewhere along this journey, she began to see that obligation, that deal, as her entitlement.

I was asked to pay child support based on prior income, not income that I was currently making. (I had a few good job prospects at the time, and in my optimism and attempt to smooth our way into the conflict-free divorce decree, I agreed.) I was also asked to pay the kids health insurance costs. (Again, since I didn’t have a job at that moment, it would be in the form of cash to my ex-wife, to cover the premiums. Okay, still all good, if I had solid and lucrative employment.) And when you add those two items together, in my case, I came out of the marriage with a 1,200 – 1,600 monthly payment.

Again, it’s not about the deal. That’s a standard deal. Dad pays approximately 20% of his gross income AND the health insurance. And this money allows the mom, theoretically, to be able to afford the lifestyle she has become accustomed to, and more importantly the kids have become accustomed to. I agreed, because I didn’t know what my options were. I agreed because I was optimistic about several job opportunities. I agreed because I wanted to do what was best for my kids and even my ex-wife, before I considered what was best for me. I gave in to the idea that she was the primary caregiver and thus should be paid to maintain that role and to give me additional nights and weekends to work. To work so I could pay the child support payment.

And somewhere along this journey, she began to see that obligation, that deal, as her entitlement. Just yesterday, as she was railing against me about the dog and my obligations and responsibility, she was saying, “The money you owe me.” And somewhere along the path, she saw my financial contribution to the family (even after divorce) as more important than my health and welfare.

She some how, got the idea, that she was entitled to everything and then some.

  • The down payment for the house came from my pre-marriage assets.
  • 60% of the money while we were married came from my employment, while 100% of the cash contributions to her retirement plan came from my pre-marriage assets.
  • Getting to keep and stay in the nice house was a financial deal, made possible by my child support payments
  • We had always agreed and parented 50/50 she was the better and primary care-giver

She believed that the money, the obligation was hers. Not a promise based on actual income. Not a percentage of salary earned. No she believed, still believes, that the child support is her entitlement. This is no longer a relationship it’s just a business contract. I am no longer a person to her, I’m a debtor. I’m the problem. I’m the reason she’s unhappy.

Striking A Blow of Unhappiness

So in the ultimate blow of her financial frustration and power (even as I was pleading with her to remember me as the father of her children, and still the man she married) she sought enforcement of the degree, enforcement of the child support payments, enforcement of her entitlement, buy turning me into the state’s attorney for collections. She was owed the money. And now it would show up as a BAD DEBT on my credit report until she was paid in-full.

Somehow she’d gone from being a partner in parenting to being an angry business partner with deal that had gone south.

Despite the fact that her retirement account was still full, and was built on the proceeds of our life while married. Despite the fact that she was living in the marital home and had never been threatened with even a late mortgage payment. She could see that I was asking for compassion, she could see, and even acknowledged that she believed I WAS working and looking for work. She could see, because I told her, and showed, her, and gave her all the information I had, that I was at risk of losing my house, losing my shelter. She did not see me as a struggling former partner, she saw me as her dead beat husband, who needed to pay his child support.

How we got that disconnected I’ll never understand. How could she imagine that suing me with the State of Texas’s AG’s office was a compassionate idea? Did she understand that she would be making it ever so hard for me to get my next job? Did she know that my housing options would be forever diminished by her vindictive blow? Didn’t she see that the money she was living on, the house, the retirement, was built from joint contributions?

No, somehow she’d gone from being a partner in parenting to being an angry business partner with deal that had gone south. She wants her money. Above all else, she’s owed that money. And I can see now, that the future money (oh, in the neighborhood of $120k) is also already hers. It’s the contract she won. It’s in her spreadsheet and financial models for her future. It’s not about the kids, when you repeatedly shut down your partner’s options. It’s not about the kids when you do things that hurt your coparent.

It’s all about her. Is this the definition of narcissism?

narcissm

Sincerely,

The Off Parent
@theoffparent

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image: drink from my cup, ian sane, creative commons usage

The Best Will Come Out, Eventually… But First This

OFF-madwoman

[This story is a continuation from this afternoon’s drama: Texts From the Ex. What’s the Crisis?]

As we continued on our journey towards the weekend with the little dog’s fate hanging in the balance I tried to enter my ex-wife’s house with as little fanfare as possible. It’s hard to explain to your kids that you’d really rather NOT pick them up at their mom’s house after school. But it happens. And it’s really no big deal for them. And of course, their mom get’s a little bit more cuddle and hug time.

So I stayed in my son’s room, helping him pack up his computer. I was summoned to the “other room” so we could talk about the dog. So much for the sleeping idea.

I tried to listen. I really tried. As she was telling me about how hard it has been for her with the dog I really tried to join with her and empathize. But that’s not what she wanted. I’m not sure what her objective was, actually.

I said, “Yes, I’ve been giving it some thought and trying to get into the idea that the dog isn’t really mine or yours, the dog is like another child and we’re just doing the best we can to provide for his comfort.”

“Except you’re not doing it,” she said, putting my bridging efforts to an end.

“Not doing what? I asked.

“There’s some huge gap between you saying you’re doing everything you can and then doing nothing.”

“I don’t understand.”

“It’s all on me,” she said. “And you just magically think it’s all going to take care of itself. But you’re not doing your part. You’re not taking responsibility for your part.”

Because I wasn’t doing enough. Because I didn’t have a solution right now. And because she was mad about a lot of stuff.

I felt my anger flaring. “What would you like me to do?”

“You’re not acknowledging how hard it is. You’re not doing anything. And it’s all on me to take care of it.”

I snapped. “One more fucking week.”

“You’re not taking responsi…”

“I can’t do anything about the dog for one more week. I don’t have any other options!”

“So you’re getting the house?” she said. There was something of disbelief in her voice. Or perhaps that was me. My own defensiveness.

There was this moment on Monday, before her torrent of texts began blowing up my phone.

Screen Shot 2015-01-23 at 9.47.02 PM

Wait, what? There are so many things wrong with this out-of-left-field statement. She isn’t very good at containing what she’s really thinking.

Screen Shot 2015-01-23 at 9.40.27 PM

She clarified that the kids had mentioned a house. She didn’t know that I wasn’t buying it. (Yeah, maybe she really has no clue what her AG maneuver cost me and is still costing me.)

Screen Shot 2015-01-23 at 9.52.25 PM

And it was a day later when we got the plan together for her to take him on Friday, because, as I understood it, it was just too much for him. And obviously too much for her. When the house fell through on Thursday, I was sad but determined to go after the previous house, that I actually wanted even more.

So now we’d made it, the dog, my ex-wife, and me, through one week. And yet, somehow the crisis was hotter now and exploding again. Because I wasn’t doing enough. Because I didn’t have a solution right now. And because she was mad about a lot of stuff.

I walked away. I was angry. I had let my own rage flare, and I wasn’t all that proud of the exchange.

“Can we go outside?” she asked, wanting to diffuse the anger or shield our son from hearing what was going on. (He was in his room with his earbuds playing loud music.)

“No,” I said. “This is exactly what I was asking about. Shouldn’t we do this with our therapist? This is exactly why we got involved with her in the first place.”

“I’m not paying for that any more. I’m not scheduling that any more,”she said defiantly.

“Don’t you think it’s worth $35 dollars to talk about this *with* someone?”

“It’s $55 dollars and two hours of my time. And I’m not paying for it any more.”

“I think that’s exactly the place for this kind of discussion. That’s what I’ve been saying all week.”

“I’ve got to get back to work. I’m not scheduling anything. If you want to invite me to a meeting, I’ll consider it.” And she was gone.

+++

I’m still trying to decipher the encoded message, beneath the anger. Money. Time. Lack of responsibility. Lack of belief that I was ever going to be able to afford a house.

Because… the alternative was what?

*breathe*

I walked away. I was angry. I had let my own rage flare, and I wasn’t all that proud of the exchange. However, I did not believe the crisis was a crisis. I believe the dog issue was a manufactured crisis of convenience. Just as we’re about to enter a new era, she’s gets a bee in her panties and has to come screaming in for justice. Justice for the dog. Justice for her wronged life and all the money I didn’t make that I still owe her because I was too nice to file a lawsuit against her to lower the un-attained amount of child support I’d agreed to. Even as I was forced to agree to accept less than 50/50 parenting.

Okay, reset.

I don’t have to respond to her crisis. I don’t have to engage in the drama. When she’s blowing up my phone I can ignore it. When she’s blowing up my phone during a work day I can allow her the revelation that an email might get a response. I can do my best to stay on the lighter side of the situation.

She can no longer hurt me. The story and vitriol is all hers. And I won’t take that on.

I’m hopeful that the house will come through next week. It’s all dependent on how they view my “dead beat dad” credit report. Yes, she’s *owed* a good bit of money. It’s not anything I’m proud of. It is my responsibility. But I don’t have any more things to sell, and just as I’m back to full employment, she’s going to start hitting the fk you panic and crisis button… Why? To stir up my world?

Is she attempting to lower the quality of my life to something more angry and dissatisfied? Is this her way of pulling me back into the morass of misery that we had become in our collapsing final year of marriage? Where I owed her a better life and I was not doing enough to get it back for her. I’m still not. That’s obvious.

She’s doing one thing for me quite nicely. She’s showing me the situation I could be in had we stayed married. She’s showing me who she is at the core. Perhaps in the same way she released us both from a sad marriage, she is now helping me to detach from any idea of compassion that I might still have for her situation. I’m getting there.

But it’s not really about her, is it?

She can no longer hurt me. The scrapes and bruises and huge credit liability and shame are mine. But the story and vitriol is all hers. And I won’t take that on.

She will survive one more week with the old shitting pup. I will survive another week in my mom’s house. And if luck and fortune smiles in my direction I will be moving in to a rental house in my old neighborhood, a half mile from the tennis club, in just over a week. I’ll keep you updated. (grin)

Sincerely,

The Off Parent
@theoffparent

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image: january jones, aka betty draper from mad men, promo shot – creative commons usage