Archive for December, 2011

What a crazy year

Posted: December 31, 2011 in Reflection

The last day of the year.  The first day before a new one.  What have we done?  Where are we going?  My oldest daughter is fascinated with some people’s fixation on the world ending next year with the Mayan calendar stopping a little over a year from now.  Her take?  They got bored and stopped writing out the calendar in December of 2012 and now a bunch of people think that means something.  Is she right?  I guess we’ll find out.  Sometimes it takes a kids perspective to remove all the complexity from something and just point out that something has no meaning at all.  It is one of the reasons I love having kids.  They keep you from taking yourself too seriously.  “Yeah Dad, it was real impressive that you can fix the lawnmower.  Can I have some ice cream?”

Going through this year essentially made me take life with that type of quick slapdash type of rhythm.  If I had thought about what was going on, it would have had the possibility to bury me under the weight of change and it might have turned out very differently.  Instead I focused on the essential goal of making sure three kids had their lives moving forward as much as possible and that they were unaware of the chasms opening around us that could swallow us whole at each step.  Some achievements were small victories and some were key steps to avoiding problems years later.  All required planning and execution, but I think to them it all seemed to just happen.  If that’s the case then I did my job in 2011.

For us everything was packaged very neatly.  The last day of 2010 I was helping my stbx move stuff out of our house.  The first day of 2011 my three kids and I was the new family unit that was moving forward.  New Year’s Eve for us last year really was out with the old and in with the new.

I quickly got them into see a counselor.  I talked with him myself a bit to check the pulse of things and make certain I was solid.  After a few sessions he pronounced us all in great shape for what had just happened.  We talked about warning signs that should bring us back.  I had a few times during the year in early summer that almost made that happen.  He was impressed with the understanding all my kids had of what had happened and what was to come.  They understood the abdication by their mom of her basic responsibilities and how they had filled in the gaps by growing up quickly.  My biggest challenges?  Make by twelve year old understand she did not have to be an adult and my ten year old that she needed to get things out.  She needed the most attention, said the counselor, as she would internalize things and mull them out herself.  I had to converse with her often and draw out the pain and help her understand what to do with it.  One of the proudest early milestones of this year was when the counselor said to me, “I’m wasting your time and theirs.  You have a terrific handle on what is going on and what needs to happen.  I completely trust that you will know when there are problems that need a return to see me and that you will make the proper choices for your family.”

Smaller, yet big items for me were learning to take care of a dog by myself.  My ex was the pet person, and since the kids were with me for most of the time they wanted to dog to stay here.  Remembering the heartworm pills, the flea and tick medicine and handling keeping him trained.   When we moved mid year I had to get him used to the invisible fence again.  I made a mistake at one point in training him and forgot that the sidewalk around the house was off limits.  I’m dragging the dog for about five seconds while he’s whimpering about being shocked before I realized my error.  What I created was a dog who would not step outside and plaster his ass against the door and not move.  That took about a month of effort to get him to understand he could move.  Again, small victories.

Barely two months into the new year, my divorce was final.  Shepherding that process forward while working and designing the new logistics of our lives was in hindsight, was nothing short of amazing.  The number of details that had to get handled in a short amount of time numbered in the thousands and normally would keep me up to the wee hours of the morning.  I could have broken down to the pressure, could have been pulled into a depression of how my life was changing and turning into a mess.  Instead I let God help me every morning and guide me to the most important tasks of the day.  At one point two days before the court date, I finally made the decision that we would need to sell our house.  My attorney and everyone else said I should really redo the divorce decree otherwise all the financial impact of this decision would be absorbed by me.  I had a few hours to make what would be a decision that would impact my life for years.  Too many other elements in the decree has been hard won and I did not want to risk that for what was, while I major financial hit, not something I felt was not able to be worked out of over time.   For my stbx I knew getting out was the driving force.  Pulling that away from her while also tossing a major financial hurdle in her way would have caused the entire decree to be up for negotiation again.  I’m good at making decisions for companies that effect how they run for a decade of more, so I made the decision to move on with the court date and take the hit.  Looking back now, it was in every way the right decision.  I am cash poor at this point yes, but the extra turmoil of at least three more months of negotiation and changes would not have allowed everything else that transpired this year to take place.

Making the decision to sell the house also caused things to shift.  I always operate as much as possible on the premise that I do not promise anything or give my word unless I intend to make it happen.  Therefore the kids had been well aware that selling the house was on the table the entire time, so when I let them know it was happening we avoided the magnitude of upheaval this would normally have during a divorce.  Yes they needed to change schools, make new friends, make a new home.  They had just done this barely a year earlier and about five years before that.  I knew how to make this happen, and more importantly so did they.  I think it would have been more difficult had this been the family home for their whole lives.  It certainly helped that the only person who actually liked anything about the house we were living in was no longer there.  It had nothing to do with the bad memories of the divorce decision really happening there.  It was more about the actual house, the age, the layout, the size.  Nothing really worked and it had been a final compromise of mine as I had tried to hold the marriage together to just let my ex pick the house.  Now my fears had come to roost.  I had a house that would require a specific buyer who like the architectural style and could deal with the fact it needed some updating.  The kitchen and bathrooms were every bit of the thirty years of age and they showed with green floor tile and bright shiny purple and silver wallpaper.  Everything they teach you about for resale no-nos?  This house had it.  It was on a great piece of land and had a cool pool.  That saved it a bit.  Couple that with the fact that we had a pipe break and flood the basement so at least that was no longer wood paneling and strange wood patterned carpet felt and we had a few things going for us.  So barely six months after we had moved in, in the worst real estate market in this country, I’m selling a house that only 1 out of 10 people would even like and the guy before me took 458 days to sell.  And I’m living there with three kids and a dog in spring when the yard is muddy and I need to have the house in showing shape every day before we leave to work and school.  No problem.

The kids were troopers.  Every night was walked the house and picked up anything.  The house looked like no one lived there.  You know the way a realtor wants you to have it.  A blessing of the divorce was that about half the furniture was already gone, so the rooms looked sparse already.  I have no idea how we did it, but we got comments on the showing forms that the house was pristine.  I’m proud of that.  Through divine providence we had an offer on the house sixty days after it was listed.   Still we kept us the staging until the very end.  No opportunity for this deal to fall through as I knew what that would mean.  The market sucked the financial bath was total and mind numbing but the house was sold and the repair bills and higher mortgage payments once I got the equity out to my ex that would have been coming were now wiped away.   The “new” house we moved in to has come major repairs like roof and HVAC coming up in the next couple years but it was the best we could do.   The net shift made by that choice once everything is worked in exceeds $1,000 per month.  Sure the roof and other things will not be inexpensive, but I am in a much better position to work from.

So as summer approached I had another milestone.  My ex had stayed at home per her choice.  Summer was a season she dreaded.  She now had kids home all day and no free time.  However we also had no childcare.  I had to spend the time I was working on the divorce details in February working out what was going to happen in the summer.  I finally found a program for them, but the cost was still insane in my mind.  I had friends who both worked and had kids in day care and I knew what to expect, but I was praying I could find something reasonable.  It was not too bad in the grand scheme of things, but when you know you are selling a house, having no equity left and then taking this expense on it gets a little daunting.  Sure the ex was responsible for less than 25% of it and it was something, but I knew I could not count on that.  To date I’ve received $125 from her for any child related expenses.  Getting them to and from that childcare was an exercise in logistics.  I could only drop them off so early and they could only stay so late.  My job was not always predictable on if I needed to work late or go in early.  There were days I needed to go in, head back home to take them to childcare, and head back to work.  Or do something on the tail end.  My ex’s solution would have been to let them sit at home all summer alone.  Yes the oldest was certainly capable, but I knew the calls with issues would have been too much during working hours.

The general tasks of being a single parent were certainly an adjustment.  Nothing unique there for those of you who live it every day.  The kids also had to adjust to not having anyone home when they got back from school.  There was a bit of scrambling when the new school schedules but we’ve made it work.

In the back half of the year, we have the new people in our lives come in to the mix.  I’ve certainly covered a good deal about this and will in the future.  This all happened as we were moving and shaking every aspect of our lives up again for the second time in as many years.  My fiancée and I have been very focused on making sure we are not seeing any warning signs that indicate this is too much.  I certainly have had enough people tell me that we are taking a huge risk with all the change and I know that.  If we saw any problems it would be very foolish of us not to slow down and figure out what needs to be done.  Little things pop up here and there but because of the precedent I have with my kids of talking through things, we work them out and they know their feelings are heard.  Counselors and the divorce care recovery group, specifically the ladies, marvel at the level of communication I have, especially with my girls.  That I am also very proud of.   It took a lot of work to get to that point and I am not naïve enough to think that somehow as they all get into heavy adolescence that it will somehow keep the drop in communication for happening, but I can tell you I’d rather have it happen from where we are now.  I could have let the  divorce make me withdrawn and quiet and unavailable for my kids the way many people struggle through, but I was lucky enough not to have to do that.  I had processes my divorce years back and so I was able to be available for them.  As I learned from counseling they had done the same.  The sad thing I do notice is that they have developed that very leisurely attitude towards divorce that can occur.  Yesterday my daughter was playing The Sims and she told me “I got married to this guy and we had twins, and then I got divorced because it just wasn’t working for me.”  We’ve done the “right” things by not telling the kids the details of why we got divorced and making the divorce as non-ugly as possible but is this was that created?  Oh, divorce is not so bad, it’s just a choice.  This is on my list to work on going forward.  It is important to me that my kids understand that marriage is a serious covenant and not simply something you change out of.  I also understand that some or all of this lackadaisical attitude could be outside influences that have made divorce so much easier, but I don’t know.  What I do know is that there is some significant work to do here.

So I could have been ending the year in the same type of singlehood that I started with, minus the stbx that was removed in the first quarter of the year.  It could have been me and the kids, and that would have been fine.  It was certainly the expectation.  I knew when I decided to see who God would place in my path that it might not ever come together, let alone as quickly as it did.  The kids could hate each other, but they seem to get along OK, certainly no worse off than other kids.   They get sick of each other and fight.  They also ask to see the other kids.  On the adult side I expect fewer issues because if there was anything significant this relationship would have been over a long time ago.  We have the normal struggles of two adults coming together.  There is a lot ahead, but that’s for future posts.  This one is about this last year.  Most of this blog has been about the new family, so I will shift back away from that for now.

During the new school year, my oldest daughter was attacked by another student and had to go to the hospital.  Luckily it was nothing medically serious and through a few months she appears to be back in a good place with attending school without worry.  We have police and court dates that we had to deal with for that.  We also had kids activities including some really neat ones like symphony groups that require auditions and are a real gift.  Of course the child involved has the typical teenage, “it’s no big deal” attitude when problems arise but it gives her an opportunity few have and adds logistics and cost and planning, but that’s my job right now.  When they grow up and get on their own they will take over care, feeding, financing and supporting their own lives.  For about another decade we will have someone to handle that for.

Finally the spill over drama from the ex was never dull.  Sometimes it was fist pounding maddening, and other times just shake your head and laugh stupid but it was never dull.  She’s currently jobless for the third time this year after having a job and she’s pregnant with a mom who told her and her fiancé while visiting for Christmas that she better have an abortion if she wants any financial help from her.  I only care because her decisions on these things will impact our kids and therefore impact my fiancée and her kids.  Will she get married and thereby stop the alimony or will that continue until termination?  That has a big impact on upcoming events.

2011 was a whirlwind of change.  I hope things are not the same in 2012.  We know what is coming, but I’m hoping to avoid having to move again, having to change jobs, having to deal with some problems with the kids.  What I know I can’t avoid or anticipate is what impact our exes will have.  Both have shown themselves to be irrational beyond the pale.  I simply ask God to help create a more normal situation for us all, whatever that will be.  The country had its own “new normal” and we will be entering ours.  I know I’ve not had this much hopeful anticipation going into a new year in as long as I can remember.  Nothing is gnawing at the back of my mind as a potential big problem.  I’m looking forward to a great 2012 and beyond bringing our new family together and helping everyone I can.  Today we will be visiting with my brother and his son with my fiancee’s family.  We will then return to my house for a quiet New Year’s Eve with three adults and seven kids.  As 2011 ends I look at what we’ve been through and it inspires confidence that we can handle what it to come.  But the cool thing is I really think what is coming is going to be awesomely fun.  Every choice we make changes the world and we’ll be making choices immediately impacting eight lives.  As the clock strikes midnight tonight I get to kiss my baby whom I love with all my heart and look forward to the future.  I also will take some time before that to quietly reflect on all the people who are not so fortunate who are still struggling this New Year’s and pray that God will help them keep moving forward.  Keeping things in perspective is key.  I drove my ex nuts with that phrase, “You can’t really appreciate a good movie unless you’ve seen a bunch of crappy ones.”  Life works the same way.   Our path ahead is certainly not easy, but in following the Lord’s guidance and doing our part to make the productive choices we do the best we can.

Have a wonderful new year!

No I’m not trying to sell all you fence dwellers on divorce.  I will ALWAYS encourage anyone I meet to find another resolution to their maritial situation.  Even with what I’m going to talk about today, divorce was terrible and lives were changed in ways I will only understand on my death bed.  You will never hear from me that this was the best thing I ever did, because it was not.

It is easy to get caught up in the junk that is a divorce and its aftermath.  There is always something else to attend to.  There is always another message from your ex that makes you shake your head or causes you to have to take action.  I wanted to take a little time today to share some of the things I have found that are a benefit of divorce.

Just doing what you want when you want, i.e. being single, is a big benefit.  For many people that is one of the biggest reasons they never get seriously involved with anyone else again.  I think it is critical for anyone considering marrying again that they are CERTAIN that this is something they can compromise on.  I can imagine nothing worse than being married to someone who just makes decisions without regard for their spouse.  I was married to someone like that.  I found the biggest benefit was that it allowed me to understand what was really important to me to keep doing when I do get married so that I do not feel upset.  For me that list is very short, honestly rather non-existent, but I tend to be more flexible than most I understand.  If I can’t go see that movie I want to see on opening night, I can go the next day or the next weekend.  No bother.  My friend’s brother on the other hand might melt if that happened, so he tends to push away some ladies because of that.  I’m sure some of you are or were married to guys who had to play golf every Sunday, or spend nine hours attached to the couch during football season.  If that works for you that’s great, but if you walk around all day wanting to be with them and being miserable because they are not, learning that about yourself is a big step.

Another benefit, though some might not see it that way, is to change your perspective.  I used to eat out four nights a week.  I would go see a movie each week.  I spent money on other things over the years such as DVDs and thought they made me content.  What I realized when I could no longer afford those things either as my marriage was ending or it was over, was that I was using those things as a distraction to mask what I understood was reality.  When my ex and I spent time together it was usually not pleasant because there was an underlying current of ennui.  We went to dinner because we “should” have a date night, not because we wanted to.  She also did not want to cook and I was too tired to cook every night, especially when the gratitude of the receiving party was overshadowed by the level of happiness of Grumpy the dwarf.  Women complain about their ungrateful husbands after they slaved away for hours over a hot stove.   Believe me I fully understand and have felt your pain.  Now doing things with our new family is much more enjoyable because it’s not an exercise in covering up.  How many nights have I just sat in bed with tears of joy at the fun day we’d all shared?  Plenty lately and it’s wonderful.  I had the most glorious Christmas Day at my soon-to-be-sister-in-laws house.  What did we do?  Have dinner an just hang around.  Sounds boring?  Not to me, who grew up with Christmas Day’s like that, but has not had one in almost ten years because the crap of making it happen with my ex was just not worth it.  I understand my kids might not be as nostalgic and excited for that, especially since most of them are too young to recall a really fun family time, but I hope they will see and embrace the difference.  First try at that will happen in a day.  Getting back to my story, I was sitting in the corner of the room tearing up realizing how much I had missed that stuff and just thanking God that He had gotten me to a place where it was possible.  The opportunity to have those changes in perspective are a benefit of divorce.

One of the things I learned too which I almost feel guilty about is that being divorced gives you kid free time.  My guilt stemmed from the fact that I got this needed down time even though I was not looking for a divorce.  It almost felt like a consolation prize from God or something.  “Congratulations!  You’ve just gone through a broken marriage!  As your parting gift you get to enjoy four days every two weeks to be an adult.”  In our case where we can our visitation schedules match up, so that means for three days every two weeks our house will have no children in it from either of us.  That is a benefit even originally married couples can only fantasize about as even well-meaning grandparents will not usually commit to an every other week weekend at Grandma’s.  Marriage counselors stress the need for adult only time to keep the marriage alive.  Keeping the focus on the adults and making sure they are happy results in a more stable family, says an author I recently read, John Rosemund.  It’s almost as if follow marriage come with an added benefit to try to give you better odds.  I like that, but am at the same time saddened at how selfish people can be that even with that they still have a higher failure rate.  I know, I know there’s a lot more to a solid relationship than alone time.  I also understand that a LOT of divorces result in one parent abandoning the kids entirely and vanishing and not allowing for any shared parenting at all.  Our situation is not the same as every divorce, but given some of the darker underbelly of both our situations, it’s nice to find a silver lining like this one.

It can suck you in

Posted: December 29, 2011 in Anger, Divorce, Recovery

One of the things we all hit to one degree or another when going through a divorce is anger and bitterness.  Myles Munroe makes a statement about this that really hit home, “It’s not what you eat.  It’s what’s eating you”.

I struggled with this heavily at times while I was still married but knew I was on the way to a divorce.  A big part of the pain was that I knew that there must be a way to fix what was wrong and I was trying everything I could think of.  I was being extra attentive, making changes in how I talked with her, being more interested in things, spending even more time with her than before.  Sometimes a change would appear to happen for a while and I was ecstatic.  If you recall, I mentioned at one point, that she began reading the Bible every day.  We were in LifeWay for something.  The fact she was even there without constant negative comments was a mini-miracle in itself.  Then she said, “I should get a Bible”.  Not a question of should I, but a straight forward declarative statement.  Having learned my lessons for many years I was not so easily sucked in so I did the natural thing and assumed she “should” get a Bible because she just remembered some friend who would like one.  After all we were in the heart of the Bible Belt and a huge portion of her friends were very, very religious.

After verifying that no, in fact she meant for herself, she did ask a question.   “What kind should I get?”  We talked about the various formats for a while and she eventually settled on a Quest Bible thinking that would work best for her doubting mind to get some more direct input into why she might want to believe.  I was pleased, but still not over joyed.  After all, many people have Bibles stacked in their homes and none have ever been opened.  Like the first step on a journey, buying a Bible was only step one on a very long road to her becoming a believer.

Then for the next three months she read almost nothing else.  She would regale me each morning about what she had learned the night before.  She would pepper in comments like, “I can see how it makes sense now.”  I thanked God several times during this process that my patience in not hounding her and just letting Him change her heart had finally paid off.

Then one day, nothing.  The next day, the same.  After a couple weeks, I nonchalantly asked, “So what’s going on with your Bible?”  “Oh, I’m taking a break.  You know me.  I read so fast, I read as much in three months as an ordinary person reads in a year.  I can stop.”  Sounded reasonable to me.  A few weeks later, I asked again.  I knew she was reading front to back, and I saw the bookmark about a third of the way through, so she had a lot to go.  “I’ll get to it.”  I was starting to get the normal feelings of distrust and passive aggressiveness that I was used to.  To cut to the chase, she never cracked that Bible again that I was aware of.  She actually looked for it when she moved out, but no idea why.

I was so upset with myself for trusting that she might have changed.  I knew she had done other things for months and then just tossed out that she was trying on the new behavior or activity like a cheap sweater.  It seems she had tried on God to make sure she hadn’t grown into Him, and found He still didn’t fit.  She pulled something similar just before she announced she wanted to get divorced for the last time.  About a month before she became super attentive and affectionate.  Sitting on my lap and chatting for fifteen minutes, greeting me at the door when I came home.  Sitting close on the couch for a few minutes before moving back over.  It lasted for about a week.  When I asked about it out of curiosity a couple days after I had been to the lawyer to start the process, she said, “She was just checking to make sure.”  Again, quite a bit of bitterness on my part, though she was never shown anything directly at that point.

I work with several people and talk with a brother who has also gotten very, very bitter in the last month about their divorces.  I know how you can start making decisions that are not very rational mainly as a feeling that you will somehow be vindicated, make your ex pay, or some other petty form of retaliation.  In DivorceCare they talk about this phenomenon as the only control you have left so you use it in an irrational manner.  It invariably leads to worse results, more frustration and sadness for you as you realize that you just did something you are not proud of and you still got lackluster results.  My fiancée mentioned that in her case it was not helpful when people suggested she just get better.  I agree that asking for the impossible is fruitless and we all need to work through our emotions in our own way, however I still think that for most of us as stupid as it sounds just having someone suggest a different way is helpful.  We are usually not thinking anything near clearly at these times and it just does not occur to us that stomping our feet, screaming and throwing a fit are not the only options.  Behaving like a rational human being is not in our mind set.  If we could all just choose the correct path easily there would be no need for people to spend money on therapy.  Yet they do that to have someone tell them what they already know in most cases.  It is the reinforcement from an outside person that helps us get the strength to make that change.  These are the people God puts in our lives and we need to not get overly irritated with what may seem like blathering happiness or optimism and understand they love us and are trying to help.  Otherwise it gets too easy to get stuck and make that bitter life style the new you.

Step stigma

Posted: December 28, 2011 in Philosophy

As I get closer day by day, no matter what I do there is a looming issue both of us will face when we marry. No matter what we do, by virtue of the fact that we each bring children into our marriage we will all becomes “steps”.

I’m a stepdad, she’s a stepmom, the kids are stepbrothers, stepsisters, or that all-inclusive stepsiblings. There will be stepaunts, stepgrandparents and stepdogs, stepcats and stepgerbils.  The problem with that is that just as growing an arm out of our back or being a person who can eat 50 hotdogs in 12 minutes, it makes us a sideshow attraction. As much as our American society wants to pretend that we embrace difference, any African American, any inter-racial couple, any same sex couple will raise their hands high in protest. Steps fall into that same situation.

The kids are looked at differently. They will get questions about “What’s it like to live with THEM!?” We will get questions about who is home on what day as the kids move in an out and continue their shared parenting lives. As we move around in public, those who know little about us may assume we just really decided to have six kids. The moment they get inkling that we are steps, though I know the questions will start. For some reason it still is interesting to many people even though over 20 million stepfamilies exist.

Am I making this up? Are we really going to be outsiders? Yes we are, and even more so than others. If you are a certain race, you have a check box. I suppose you could argue on the marital status options we are in fact married, but we will be reminded every day we fill out school forms or permissions slips that only have two lines for parents and they are for mother and father. Depending on what the form is for, the practical situation is many times that the two adults in the house are the best ones to place on that form, but one of us will be a step. Not the biological father or mother. So where does out name go on that form? We will be picking them up or signing them up, or whatever, yet we’re like too much pie filling. There are now too many parents and we ooze over the edges.

As a man, I avoid the biggest stigma of all. The stepmom. When you hear that moniker, what comes to mind. Cinderella. The baroness in the Sound of Music who wants to ship the kids off to boarding school. The various incarnations in the multiple Parent Trap movies.

It’s unclear where the word evil became associated with stepmom, but some of what I read suggests it came about in the Victorian era. The original Cinderella stories has evilness in mother figures, but it was later moved to stepmothers. Since women usually told these stories to their children it was first a way for women who tended to die in childbirth to teach their children that whomever inevitably came along after they died and raised them should never replace their loyalty. Women also had a legitimate fear of husbands replacing them with younger women, and the stories could serve as a sort of revenge if she replaced her.

The challenge this creates is very interesting. What if you have the situation where a woman chooses to accept the role of caring and loving children not born to her? Somehow the stigma still stays because many cannot readily accept that. There is an assumption that the woman must have ulterior motives and cannot be truly in it in any way for the children.

Yet if that same woman chose to adopt a teenager, she would be a hero. What’s the difference? She still is choosing to love and care for a child not biologically hers. She still is taking over for the care of a child that was raised by someone else for a time. She still does not have a shared history with that child. She is still making the choice freely. Still any doubt there is a stigma? Why is the step choice viewed as strange, but adoption is a virtue?

Part of what I think is the driver of this is that it is still unique. One researcher, Peter Gerlach, determined there are almost 100 different types of step families that can be built depending on how the parts come together. The variables in remarried families are staggering:  remarrying after a death, after a divorce, with kids on one side, both sides, varying custody (full, legal, shared, visitation), half siblings, full siblings, stepsiblings, and “mutual” babies.  Gerlach says, “The net effect of all this variation is that each family feels alone in their experience.  It feels to each thaat there is no one else like them, so no one understands.”  That means that even if you know another step family their experience and composition can do very little to help you.

A remarried family is not going to be able to behave like a nuclear family no matter what we do.  What if the ex is Jewish?  What impact does that have on holiday plans and schedules if your new stepfamily is Christian?  Your family wants you there for Christmas, but the stepchildren want to be with their mom for Hannukah and might not even believe in Christmas.  The best we can do is hope to show people that we are not that strange and not that unique. We are two adults trying to raise our kids. If people want to add more to it, I guess they can.

There is a topic I have had plenty of discussions on with various people in the last year. In most cases when you get down to the discussion with someone about what family and friends thought as they found out they were divorcing, or that something was amiss in their marriages, you get the invariable, “Oh, I knew that was coming!”, or “I knew he was screwing around with someone else!”  It has tendrils into a few other posts I made (lying, choices) as well as the final points I made in yesterday’s post about not being shy about pointing out a concern for those I care about.

As I started to hear these things from friends and family in my divorce, I first felt stupid that I had not seen what they had.  As I went through my healing my thoughts began to change and eventually they moved to, “Really?!  And you are my friend, family, someone who cares about me?”  A little further along I got to the point where I began questioning the process more objectively as I said in the title of this post.  As I move forward as a parent I wonder, what will be different if I make the conscious choice to not mind my own business when I see issues?  In talking with my future mother-in-law when I had made the trip to her home to ask permission to marry my fiancée, she also stated that she had seen things with her daughter’s relationship and marriage.

This is really a situation I still have not resolved for myself.  I’ve talked this out with some a bit, and some ideas come to me as I pull this post together.  In this society where we have gotten more and more closed off to each other, and just let people do what they want, are we doing them a disservice?  If my parents, or hers had told us what they saw bluntly and clearly would it have mattered? 

In my case, I was a young man and like any self respecting young man, I usually felt my parents were hopelessly out of touch and just could not see what I saw.  They had dropped hints here and there, but I had dodged and parried them away.  They did not see the softness I did.  They did not get how her background made her act that way, but in her heart I knew she was different.  Was I talking away issues?  Absolutely.  Is there anything my parents or anyone else could have said to stop me?  Probably not. 

Yet I wonder, if the information had been passed along with more directness rather than polite suggestion, could I have gotten the message?  I think there was a chance, and especially as the average age of marriage moves up, that our children might be mroe mature to accept and understand direct input.  As things were going on in our marriage, would some tough love have been the better way to handle it?  Something like, “We do not like how you and your wife do such and such.  We feel it best to not visit unless that changes.”  Even as I write that,  I think there is no way I would have received that message without anything other than wishing them well and being clear we would do what we wanted.  So do we drive people to stay out of our business?

I know what I am struggling with is it would be nice to think that somehow all the bad times and pain could have been avoided, and more importantly now, if we can learn from those missed opportunities to warn me and my fiancée, what can we then do differently with our children as we see relationship nightmares forming to stop them?  Is there really no way to avoid this?

I’m careful not to cast blame on my friends and family for not making me see what they saw.  I made the final choices that led me down the path, but if they had avoided the white lies and been brutally honest would it have changed my choice?  As I discussed in the post about lying, was it fair for them to determine how much about my own life I really understood?  I do not attribute bad intentions to any of them.

I think this is certainly one of those areas where everyone will have their own spin.  I will continue to think this through and as situations come up with our children, my spouse and I will circle around this topic and chart our own path.  I’d like to think we’d be honest and express our concerns directly, but do so understanding we cannot force them to choose as we feel they should.  Maybe that will be enough, as I strive to avoid the white lies many of us tell to avoid what we think is a discomfort.  In this case, though I think the fallout is clearer.  Avoiding that short term discomfort could lead to a divorce and significantly larger discomfort in the past.  I could certainly see some people getting upset with their friends who told them they saw issues or knew their spouse was cheating on them. 

I hope to hear some opinions on this one.

Beware of this in your marriage

Posted: December 26, 2011 in Divorce, Lessons

One of the more interesting experts I came across in my learning was John Gottman from the University of Washington. John has done several studies and been able to predict with amazing accuracy if a couple he meets will divorce. Some people say he has a 94% accuracy in this capability.

In looking at my marriage I was certainly able to see what he calls The Four Horsemen of the [Marital] Apocalypse. While I came across John’s research in learning about how I can best succeed as I move forward towards a new marriage, this applies in any marriage, including first marriages, so if you happen upon my blog and you are still in your first marriage, if you see these four guys, get fixing!

The first one is hostile criticism. I think any solid marriage needs to be able to withstand criticism and use it to help each other grow. The point is to make is constructive. Harping on things that cannot be changed, such as physical attributes or something that you know is a firm belief is not going to help anyone. Also stating things like, “You are always so mean” place people in a position to dig in and/or fight back.

The next one is defensiveness or denial. Placing blame on the other spouse is a great example. “I’m always ready, you make us late” is an example. Turning yourself into a victim and not accepting your role in whatever is not working is another way this behavior can play out.

Next is contempt. Of the four horsemen, this is the biggest, baddest mother of them all. In Gotteman’s study this was the largest predictor of divorce. Things such as “you’re stupid” fit into this category. Attacking your spouse’s abilities as a parent, or as a human being fall into this bucket as well.

Finally withdrawal is the last predictor. If you feel that you are just shutting off when your spouse is coming at you in an argument, you have disengaged and this can be a very dangerous behavior. Many times this can happen as a protection mechanism against the other predictors.

As I noted earlier, I had a lot of this in my marriage that fell apart. I certainly know there was hostile criticism “if you knew how to do your job you would not have been laid off. Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” Going back to the Love & Respect lesson, this is certainly NOT what you say to a man. Even though I knew it had no bearing, it still stung that she felt strongly enough to voice that ,even if I wrote it off to her being afraid of what happened next. I had a solid amount of contempt coming my way as well as a peppering of defensiveness. That resulted in me withdrawing. The Four Horsemen were riding through our house with a vengeance.

I know I have certainly gotten better at determining which people I know are not on solid footing and headed towards family court. My directness also ensures that I have no qualms about letting a couple know I see problems. As you look back on your failed marriage, do you see some of these things being present?

This Christmas we are still in a bit of flux.  My kids are going to be with my ex and they will return on the 26th.  It did not seem to make a lot of sense to have them come home for a few hours and then go back, so we just agreed since it was just the next day to leave the schedule as is.  Therefore I will spend Christmas Eve and Christmas with my fiancée and her family.  Around Thanksgiving we also did not spend time together due to a misunderstanding and so my fiancée went and did what she has been doing for the last few years which is travel to a family cabin in the Southeast US.  I had a simple Thanksgiving at home with just me and my kids.

It is an area that is still to be worked out as we move forward.  As with anything in the blended family literature, the consensus is as much as possible to come up with something totally new.  So for Thanksgiving I guess that means we will not have a turkey and stuffing and instead we’ll have a bowl of stewed tomatoes and liver and onions.  For Christmas next year, no more tree, Santa delivering presents and all that, we’ll just hang cooked spaghetti noodles from a coat rack and go shoplifting.  What exactly do they mean something totally new on the holiday?  Again, I struggle with these recommendations.

In doing some more digging what I found was what I think we’ll end up with, which is a blend.  I certainly can understand the difficulty in just doing what one group or the other did.  That puts you back into territoriality issues and resentment that the other traditions were not good enough.  I think we were stumbling blindly towards something like compromise with our Thanksgiving plans.  We were going to have a future family unit meal with the traditional items, and blend a few of the favorites from each side.  I think it would have worked, but even that little negotiation went south and we ended up doing the old stuff.

So the Christmas season gets us a little closer.  I will be present with my fiancée and children in their celebration, but me being there will be but a little shift in the mix.  Rather than jumbling up my kids schedules and injecting them into all the togetherness with people they have never met on a major holiday, we have decided instead to travel back out to her family for “Christmas 2.0”.  In addition it appears that my brother and his son will be visiting and attend with us, so it will provide a bit of a cushion.  If the kids start feeling uncomfortable they will have a familiar face there other than me to go off with for a bit. 

The things I’ve heard are that holidays heighten tensions in every way.  They do that for a nuclear family as it is.  Everyone indulges the crazy aunt and her stories but no one really enjoys them.  Aunt Martha bakes her brownies that taste more like sewage and we all smile and take a bite then feed the rest to the dog, who takes it out back and buries it in the yard.  Doing that with people you are related to by blood is hard enough.  As adults we sometimes forget that for kids it is not so easy.  I’m getting varied reactions, as I would expect, by child.  Obviously my fiancee’s kids are perfectly fine as the setting for this Christmas repeat is one they have grown up with.  My oldest is doing the typical rebellion against change hoping that it just somehow stops.  She knows it will never be what it used to be, and I think silently might admit she would not want it to be that way, as after the Christmas Blowout of 2005 I talked about earlier, they’ve been a little ho hum anyway, just our immediate family and no one else.  She hates meeting new people and being forced to do that, her only mechanism that she knows to employ is hostility, yet I see interest there.  She’s taken on my bad habit of focusing on the difficult parts and applied it to people.  She’s assuming they will be no fun, and scary, and she’ll hate them, yet in one conversation shortly after she shared all this negativity with me, she chastised herself for judging people before she met them, a trait she admitted she hates in others.  She was self reflective enough to know she was doing this, and I commended her for getting to that realization on her own.  That was three weeks ago.  Any time I have brought up the impending visit her face still sours, but she no longer outwardly erupts.  I’ve learned through some reading the last few weeks that that’s progress.

My youngest is also not looking forward to this new holiday requirement this year.  He has no real reasons, and I suspect my fiancée is right in her assessment that he tends to follow the lead of my oldest as that was the dynamic he is used to.  Without a solid mother figure in the house during our marriage, he migrated to taking his lead on what the world should feel like from his older sister.  I felt that was a nice, easy, pretty bow-on-top psychological answer at first, but as I objectively observe the interactions over the last month I see some high credence to it.  It does at times take someone on the outside of the family dynamic to point these things out.  This is a benefit the remarried parents can provide to each other that biological parents cannot. 

The middle child is the most easy going about this.  I can see she’s a little shy and apprehensive, but she has adopted the most go-with-the-flow attitude on Christmas 2.0 that I wish the others would pick up.  She is also more comfortable withdrawing into herself and just sitting there and not talking so she knows she has that defense mechanism in case she feels strange.  I’ve seen her do it in various settings. 

At this point the best I can do is make it clear to them all that this is happening and they are expected to act nicely.  If they acted poorly in any setting with adults they would be punished later and this is the same type of scenario.  As much as I would like, I have come to learn in this process I cannot make them feel anything about anyone.  They need to form that relationship on their own.  If I try to force it, it will backfire.  I did that during my marriage to try to make things go well, and for a time I was falling back into that pattern, but some hard discussions with my fiancée made me realize this was happening.  I am grateful we are both so good at communicating with each other than we can have these hard discussions and adjust accordingly.  I am much more relaxed knowing that I just need to let stuff happen when we visit.  I might have three kids who sit on a couch and stare at everyone in the room all visit long and never say a word, just taking it all in, and I know that’s OK. 

Blending is hard no matter what.  Blending on a holiday is blending on steroids.  I think where we ended up, with the added bonus of maybe having another couple familiar faces with us, will help.  This will be the first time my kids will meet all these people.  Removing this from doing this during a “real” holiday is good.  The pressure to perform should be off everyone. 

Just last night my fiancee and I discussed if we should have the kids exchange their gifts with each other in between Christmas and Christmas 2.0.  I’m sure we’ll make a few more adjustments in the coming days.

Welcome to the holidays, remarriage style.