Be A Great Divorced Dad
By Kenneth N. Condrell, Linda Lee Small
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 1998 Kenneth N. Condrell, Ph.D., and Linda Lee Small
All rights reserved.
Understanding Your Feelings After Separation and Divorce
As a divorced (or recently separated) father, you are most likely experiencing the difficulty of having to construct a whole new world, particularly as a parent. As Ed, a policeman, recalls, "I was transformed overnight from a full-time dad into a phantom. I was once so close to my son that if I cut the grass he had to be next to me with his little toy lawn mower. I went from changing diapers to not being allowed into the house. If I wanted to see my kids at all I had to talk to them through screened windows." As this dad summed it up: "It's like I was erased right out of the family picture."
You are now a divorced man and a single parent with children to raise, and you probably never thought this would happen to you. You are undoubtedly feeling some panic and wondering, "How in the world am I going to handle all this?"
You begin by understanding the emotions you are likely to experience. Divorce is more than just a signed agreement; the emotional divorce can take years. Very few events in life cause as much pain, turmoil, and trauma as divorce. Often, unanticipated and unresolved feelings can interfere with your being an effective parent.
The Emotional Roller Coaster
During my own divorce, I had days when I bounded out of bed to greet my day with the eagerness of a kid on Christmas morning; other mornings I awoke depressed and listless. And then there were the days where my emotions bounced all over the place. I might hear a song that reminded me of my former wife and I would miss her. Later the same day, in opening my mail I'd find a letter from her lawyer with some new demand. This would send me into a silent fit of calling her every name in the book. And so it goes. One minute you are feeling kind toward your ex and the next you are in the midst of a horrific revenge fantasy.
It's a daunting task to create a stable environment for your kids when your own feelings are so unstable. I remember once talking to a distraught father who said earnestly, "I miss my children so much, I would do anything for them. What can I do to help them out?" I knew that his children were suffering because the settlement left them with significantly less financial support than before, so I responded, "If you give their mother more money, she can take better care of the children." He yelled back, "You have got to be crazy. I won't give that bitch more money." Like so many newly divorced fathers, this man could not separate his feelings for his former wife from his feelings for his children. Here lies one of the great tragedies of divorce: harsh feelings that hijack your real priorities.
Dealing with Feelings
Conflicting emotions are the norm. You may be really happy to be free, but underneath runs a stream of sadness and misery.
As you face these waves of emotions, you may ask: "What's wrong with me?" Chances are there is nothing wrong with you. Men often think that they can get over emotional challenges quickly. They expect that they should be able to rebound, get over this "damn divorce" and just go on. But feeling bad is an unavoidable part of the process of healing after a major life disappointment. It takes time, and you must give yourself that time.
Many men feel buffeted by the experience of divorce. They are often rejected by relatives and friends and are left without the regularity and security provided by marriage.
"It helped when I joined a single-fathers support group. Other men told me to expect to go up and down. Over time the downs really did get shorter. I learned not to expect a steady plane."
For almost everyone involved in divorce there is a feeling of profound loss. I recently counseled Tim, a seven-year-old boy whose parents were in the process of getting a divorce. I asked Tim, "Do you know what a divorce is?" He answered solemnly, "Yes, divorce is when you lose one of your parents." Traditionally, if divorce caused a child to lose one parent, it was usually the father.
But a father may feel as if he's lost everything. Whether the divorce was his choice, hers, or a mutual decision, it's common for the man to be the one who moves out of the house that was once the family home. His clothes and possessions are packed away in boxes while he lives in a cramped apartment or with a friend or relative who doesn't really want him there. He's the one who has to call to make appointments to see his children.
"I feel like I've lost my whole family. Sometimes I feel like I've been discarded like a bag of garbage."
"I'm an outsider. I sit in my car looking at what was once my dream house while I wait for my children to come out."
"I've lost more than just my ex. I've lost her whole family. My father-in-law was like my dad. My brother-in-law and I used to bowl, and I'm the godfather to his son. Now they won't even talk to me."
"I stand outside in the rain, like a dog, waiting to be let in."
Tip: Allow yourself to grieve. With any loss there is a process of grieving that has to occur before you will feel whole again. The grief we experience over losses in life often comes in waves which ebb and flow over a period of years. Usually the first year is the worst because the emotions we feel are so strong. With each succeeding year, the grief recedes, although special events such as holidays or experiencing another setback almost always revive the grief we experience over divorce.
Anger is a natural emotion; often it's the mask men wear to cover up their pain, hurt, and fear. But how men express their anger is what usually gets them into trouble. Men often feel so angry that they fantasize about taking revenge (see Chapter 4: "Avoiding the Ten Most Common Divorced-Dad Pitfalls").
"Sometimes all I can think about is ways to get back at her — to hurt her."
Too often men act out their revenge fantasies. One father slashed his ex-wife's tires. Another called his wife repeatedly at work. Being angry can lead to disruptive behavior that gets in the way of your relationship with your kids. In making your former wife a consistent target of your anger, you may well transform her into a permanent enemy, which will not help you to be any closer to your children.
Tip: List ways to release anger that work for you, and map out a plan to deal with your feelings on a regular basis. A lot of men find exercising therapeutic and distracting, others meditate to deal with their anger, while still others release frustration by keeping a journal. Talking to other divorced fathers can also be very helpful; the act of "venting" to a patient and empathetic friend who acts as a sounding board can drain off some of your anger. (Make sure you pick someone who can really listen and feel your pain without fanning your anger.)
As a result of being put through an emotional and financial wringer, many men are also depressed, disoriented, and distracted. Fear over losing a meaningful relationship with your children can leave you feeling especially distraught.
"This is the worst time of my life. One minute I think I'm going to make it and the next I'm feeling nothing but hopelessness and despair."
"Some days I feel like I can't go on. I have been an excellent provider and a terrific father, but none of that counts now that I have had an affair. My wife has refused to communicate with me for ten months."
Tip: Again, it helps to spend time with people who make you feel better. Consider short-term counseling for the rough times. Reassure yourself that the "worst" of times will recede.
Worry, Fear, and Insecurity
"I sit up late at night and I can't even bring myself to open up the checkbook to pay all those bills."
Chances are you are feeling scared about your future. You may be filled with anxiety over where you are going to get the money to pay all the bills. (Men who have been trained to take on the role of breadwinner suddenly discover there may not be enough bread to slice up to go around.)
You may find that you are losing sleep over gnawing questions about how you will survive and create a new life for yourself including the children who no longer live with you. You may be terrified that your ex will turn the children against you. Ironically, such worries may distract you so that you don't really listen when your children do talk to you.
It is normal for any parent who is getting a divorce to go through this kind of anxiety, but men have been expected to be "macho" and are accustomed to minimizing and denying turbulent feelings. No matter how successful you are in your professional life, divorce may leave you feeling insecure and shaky inside.
None of these fears is unreasonable, and there are ways to handle them. You must learn to trust your instincts and others who can help you.
TIP: The first step in managing your fears is to know what they are. You may find it calming to say the fears out loud and to write them down. Only by admitting your fears can you begin to learn how to manage them.
"I pay her almost $50,000 a year in support and child payments, so when I finally get to see the kids I have no money to spend on them."
Here's a joke currently making the rounds that many men but few women find amusing. What do tornadoes, hurricanes, and women have in common? Answer: They all get the house. A lot of men remain angry and resentful over the fact that their former wives wind up living in the house.
You may have been ordered to pay what seems to be an incredible amount in spousal and child-support payments. You may throw yourself into your work, and spend long hours at the office — after all, you have no one to come home to — and then get angry because formerly you worked only to have a nice home and family, and now you work so your ex has the nice home and you see your kids less than ever.
Tip: Make sure you have a really good accountant and/or financial advisor to counsel you about your new financial situation.
Tip: Make sure you use the time when you are not with your children to attend to your adult life and needs. (And schedule some purely fun activities.)
Men often react to a divorce by passing through a sort of wild second adolescence; they socialize and party frantically to feel attractive again. Some men drown in alcohol or sex. Others find themselves addicted to work.
Many men feel really cynical about women after divorce. A friend confided that for one year he had absolutely no interest in going out with women. If you are into being a hermit, I suggest you push yourself into gradually doing some dating. Being in a relationship can help you feel normal again and optimistic that there is life after divorce. Just don't rush into dating with a frenzy (see Chapter 13: "Moving On: The Challenge of Dating and Other Relationships").
Tip: Here's good advice from a father who has been there: "What helped me survive was meeting new people. I rapidly got involved in socializing by joining a single-parent support group at the local Y."
By now you know that most men experience feelings of loss, anger, depression, fear, insecurity, and resentment with a divorce. You're not alone.
Hook Up with Friends
During my divorce I found talking to friends a real boost. My friend John would call and say, "Doc, I'm just calling to do a head check." We would both laugh. I felt good that he cared enough to call me in the middle of the day to see how I was handling the pressures and stress of my divorce. And then there was my buddy Hank. On bad days he would come right over. Both John and Hank had gone through their own divorces so they had compassion for me and practical advice. We got into the habit of meeting every Friday night for the traditional fish fry that Buffalo is famous for.
Some men continue to maintain their male friends while they are married, while others drift away from buddies after they become family men. If you have a group of male friends, consider yourself lucky and tap into that resource. If you don't have a ready-made circle of male friends, then start cultivating one.
Give Up the Unrealistic Notion of Making a Clean Break
"I'm finished with that woman." "She's gone out of my life." "I hope I never have to see her again." These are all understandable feelings, but to really cope with your divorce you need to come to terms with the reality that there can never be a clean break for divorced parents. It won't be at all helpful for your children if you harbor this expectation. Although you are ending an unhappy marriage, you will need to have a future relationship with the other parent.
Here is a list of just some of the reasons you will have to maintain contact with your ex:
· Coordinating sharing of the children;
· Modifying support payments as the children's needs and employment and income change;
· Coming together to share special occasions in the lives of your children, such as a graduation;
· Adjusting to remarriage — yours or your former wife's;
· Having a new baby with a new partner;
· Changes in employment and income.
Reconnect with Your Children
You may need to be patient and give yourself some time, but discovering that you can still be a father is some of the best medicine for an ailing divorced dad. Men who care about being fathers really suffer when they feel they are not doing right by their children. Getting things right will help inspire you to find the energy to pick up the pieces of the rest of your life.
It was tremendously healing for me. I could sense that this "divorce thing" was a big disappointment for my three children, who had to witness the parents they loved behaving in some foolish ways. As I strengthened my relationship with my children, their anger began to subside. They had never known me separately from their mother. After the divorce, they began to see new and appealing sides to their father. ("Gee, Dad had us all over to his house and cooked stew for us.") Even though there was still a residual sadness from the divorce, my children could see I was calmer and that my sense of humor had resurfaced.
The Opportunity of Divorce
Obviously, divorce is a setback in a lot of ways. As previously noted, there are bills to be paid and worries about making it on less income. There are friends from whom you are cut off and relatives who have abandoned you. And there are the children, whose needs you are constantly struggling to meet.
It is certainly difficult to find potential opportunities in divorce when you are overwhelmed with the initial problems, worries, and sadness. But that is the way all setbacks are. At first you feel like you are stuck in a maze with no way out. Then, ever so slowly, you begin to find an internal compass that enables you to discover ways to turn your life around.
It is important to understand that you are not going to repair your life overnight. Reframing your setback as an opportunity is a process. You take one step after another step until you achieve the kind of life you have been dreaming of.
The first few steps after divorce will mostly involve taking care of yourself and your children. As a loving father, the first thing you want to get in order is your relationship with your children.
Lifting Your Own Spirits
The better you feel, the better you will be able to get on with the business of taking care of your children. Taking care of yourself may mean spending some time with close friends, taking time out for a hobby or sport you enjoy, exercising and getting more fit, seeing a counselor, or fixing up the place you now call home. So find ways to lift your spirits.
There is no shortcut to solving all your problems as a divorced father, but there are some concepts that can help get you through the challenges.
My work as a family therapist has focused on helping people to bring change into their lives. There are three concepts that can help you cope with the setback you have experienced and help you move ahead. As your personal life improves, so will your parenting.
1. Live your life lovingly. I have found that it is virtually impossible to create a better life for yourself without living your life lovingly. This powerful idea is rooted in all of the great religions of the world. When I help people change, I always advise them to make every conscious attempt to behave in loving ways. You do this simply, by saying thank you and showing your appreciation, by complimenting and acknowledging the people you meet, by having conversations with people and showing your interest in them, by being helpful to others, and by being pleasant and making people laugh. Whenever I recommend trying this for a week, people are astonished at the immediate positive results. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Be A Great Divorced Dad by Kenneth N. Condrell, Linda Lee Small. Copyright © 1998 Kenneth N. Condrell, Ph.D., and Linda Lee Small. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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