‘What came out, in the weeks that progressed, was the vast difference in our perspectives on the future of our family.’
Take a deep breath and count to 10. Relax. Divorce may feel like the end of the world, but it’s not. It’s bad, it requires a lot of strength and self-reflection, but you can make it. This is going to hurt, but you’re going to be stronger and more resilient as you emerge as a strong single parent.
There is nothing in your life that prepares you for becoming a parent. The amazing mystery of life brought into your home and bringing your “family” together for the first time. The transition into a parent, for me, was one of the most welcome changes in my life. I wanted kids. I had a strong and beautiful partner who also wanted kids. We did the kid thing. And now I’m a proud parent of two bright children, one boy and one girl. Just perfect.
And we grew as parents as they grew as kids. And so the story goes. Things got a bit more difficult as adults. The economic meltdown of 2009 really took its toll on my job and my then-wife’s job as well. Suddenly, the shine had worn off, the mystery while still available and magnificent was undercut by survival necessities. It was no longer enough for me to be a good man and a good father and a good husband.
And as things began to get tough, the shine wore off in my relationship as well. As newly minted parents we knew we had our work cut out for us, but the reality of money and insurance and late mortgage payments began to crush the camaraderie. Something else began to raise its ugly head. Money. And who’s going to earn enough of it to keep us in this nice house and this excellent school district. How are we going to survive?
The answer wasn’t as easy as it was during the mystery years. When both of you are focused on the magic of your kids you will do *anything* to provide for them. You will sacrifice time and sleep and health in order to make your family home a happy one. Except that is not a sustainable model for very long. And when you’ve been heading down that road for a few years you may wake up and find yourself fat, stressed out, and tired 95% of the time. Now what are you going to do? What are the options?
The painful realization came for me a few weeks after my big, fat, corporate job had given me the first golden parachute I’d ever earned. I was exhausted. I was about 25 lbs. overweight. And I was tired of the grind of the corporate cube farm. I had been willing to do it, to get us set up, to provide the best insurance we’d ever had, to make the happy home/stay at home mom/dream come true. Except I couldn’t maintain it. I was on the heart attack track. My blood pressure was beginning to register borderline hypertension. I was ready for something to change, but I didn’t know what.
What I thought was that the six-month severance with benefits would provide me a window of time to reexamine and restructure the next career path for me. I needed a change.
But something else happened at the same time. As I got a glimpse of life outside the corporate walls again, I remembered that I had owned my own consulting practice for eight years before having kids. And while the economic climate was against any start-up ideas, I began to imagine what it would look like to be working for myself again. I kept up the hyper-focused job search for yet another corporate job, but my imagination began plotting alternative career and lifestyle choices.
One of the questions that got asked during this moment of reconsideration was about my then-wife’s work/career plans. We had been a bit vague about what the strategy was once the kids were in elementary school. We had organized so much of our lives around the kids we hadn’t planned on far into our future as a family. And under the pressure of the our economic faltering, we both went into a bit of “survival panic.” Everything was about money. Every decision was based on a line in an Excel spreadsheet. And any discussions outside of the “get a job” box for me were met with major resistance.
The problem was, I knew I wanted something different from what I had been struggling through job-wise for the last five to seven years. And I also knew that while I was looking for a corporate replacement job, I was also seeing that as a temporary option, not a life path. I needed more time with the kids and less time working to keep our heads above water. We needed a plan. But the discussions were amazingly dysfunctional and heated every time we got into money.
In my typical fashion as a conflict-adverse male, I backed off the hard topic of what was she going to do for money. But the hard question had been breached, and neither of us was happy with the initial negotiations. We entered couples therapy for the third and final time.
When your kids arrive all of your priorities shift and they become your focus. Nothing is too hard, nothing is too tiring, no goal is to hard to strive for, when you are talking about your kids. And as a dad in this newly-minted family, I did all the right things. I did everything I could to provide a nice house, a nice neighborhood, a nice housekeeper and nanny, and for this role, as dad, breadwinner, and head-of-household, I was on the hook for the bulk of the money. In the early years this was an easier agreement. But as our kids became a bit more autonomous and the time opened up a bit more as they began going to school, I started imagining some other options for myself as well as my then-wife.
What I didn’t expect was for her to begin fighting with me during the second week of my paid layoff. And I further didn’t expect that she would also lose her part-time job and create a double burn on my six-month paycheck. But that’s what happened. At this time another feature showed up in the relationship between me and my then-wife. She started getting angry a lot. She told me a few times that she didn’t love me any more. She began to yell “fuck you” from time to time. I was confused. Something was changing for her too, I suppose.
In therapy we worked on the crisis issues. Money, jobs, trust. And I suppose the expectation was that we would get our individual issues worked out in our individual therapy sessions. But the therapy was not to fix our marriage, and our therapist was not a marriage counselor. We were working with a therapist who was trained in helping people communicate clearly with each other. And one other aspect that was front and center in his work was the parsing of what was reality and what was fantasy or fear, but not real. We got very real.
What came out, in the weeks that progressed, was the vast difference in our perspectives on the future of our family.
Me: Yes, things are rough, but we’re big enough to get through it. We love each other enough to work through anything. I’m optimistic that we’re on the right track to reorganizing our family about more rational objectives.
Her: Things are not getting better, in fact, they are getting worse. Nothing is going to change or get better.
And we worked on how each of us were operating on internal projections of reality rather than the actual NOW we were in. And we struggled along. And she was always mad and I was always off-balance as I tried to do the right thing, say the right thing, and keep the peace.
But fundamentally, I was saying something different. “I will find the big corporate job again, that’s critical path at the moment, but I’m not agreeing to that as our long-term plan. We both need to figure out how we’re going to divide up the financial obligations of the choices we’re making for our family.”
That’s the request that broke my marriage.
Over the next year, I worked as a consultant while looking for the big corporate job and continued to bring in just enough money to keep us afloat. Painfully afloat, but shelter and food were not being threatened.
Over the next year, however, she did not earn any money to contribute to the family. She went through a couple of “what am I going to do next in my life and career moments” which I peacefully allowed. And when the taxes were being organized for the year behind us, she had actually lost $5,000 on the year. Wait, what?
I think that was more telling than any conversation or argument we had. She was pressing me hard with survival and crisis demands and yet she was unable to contribute anything. Something was wrong with the picture. Something was not honest.
As she continued to express anger, frustration, and unrelenting demands for me to become “responsible,” she was going in the opposite direction. And somewhere along that path, she went to see an attorney to understand her options. What she would get if she divorced rather than partnered with me. And that’s essentially what happened. She decided to bet against me. Somewhere in her stressed-out and angry mind she determined that the best course of action for her and our family (because as a parent you know this decision affects everyone) was to ask for a divorce.
And as we stated our final summaries to our counselor on our final meeting, we said essentially the same thing. It was clear. One of us wanted to fight for the marriage. The other wanted to fight her way out.
I’m not much of a fighter, but I’m getting better.
The Off Parent
< back to The Hard Stuff posts
- Fundamental Flaw at the Beginning of my Marriage
- She’s Still Mad At Me
- My Divorce: A Searching and Fearless Moral Inventory
- Waiting for the Other Person to Change
image: dancing thai poosam, peverus, creative commons usage