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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Lost Promise of Fatherhood: Post-Divorce Issues Impact Parenting

I've written a lot about the Everlasting Divorce--the situation that occurs when one or both members of a couple can't just "move on" after a breakup. One of the clear losers in particular types of Everlasting Divorces is the parenting relationship. 

In some cases, mothers struggle with financial and emotional repercussions that either overtly or covertly affect their parenting relationship with their children. Fathers can suffer, too, if their parenting relationship is used against them as a way to maintain the Everlasting Divorce and control the father's behaviors. The following is a story about a father and child whose relationship was negatively impacted by the parents' divorce.

This man lost his promise of fatherhood a few years ago. It was in the back of his car, boxes and boxes of toys, video games, books, projects he and his child made together, and the growth chart he painstakingly marked on each year. As if there were a death in the family, the car load meant the relationship with his child may never include graduation, a wedding, grand-children's births, or something as simple as a beer together on the back porch. 

The load of childhood memories was symbolic in ways the son surely didn't understand when he demanded his belongings from his dad's house and that he may not understand at all until he's a father himself. The boxes weren't just stuff. They were symbols of a commitment of a father to his son: a commitment to love him, to invest time and energy into him, and to provide a good life for him.

You might want to know more about this father.

When I first met him, this man saw his son every other weekend and sometimes for a few hours on the off weeks. He was supposed to have more custody than that. He planned his whole work and social life around his limited time with his son, including isolating himself from his friends, denying himself a love life, leaving the office early every other week, and accommodating his ex-wife's (and, ostensibly, his son's) wishes. 

Those wishes included that he NOT attend his son's ball games, concerts, or school functions and that he give in to any schedule change due to a birthday party or sleepover with friends he, as the unwanted father, wasn't allowed to meet. It included rules around where the father could be during weekly phone calls (he had to be at home, alone) and who could be over at the house on his custody weekends. 

The explicit consequence for not agreeing? He potentially wouldn't see his son at all. For many years, it was a risk he wasn't willing to take. Despite his attempts to comply, though, little by little his parenting time shrunk until it was, at best, one weekend a month. Then one weekend every couple of months.

In the world of Everlasting Divorces, this man was completely enveloped by the process. The divorce wasn't "over"; instead, it was in the forefront of his mind nearly all the time. There wasn't an emotional separation--there was emotional manipulation that caused enmeshment in an unhealthy dynamic. 

Eventually, the father entered a romantic relationship that changed the patterns. You may already know that one of the Realms of Change is the emotional realm. In that realm, little changes in self-confidence and connection can have huge repercussions. In this situation, as the father's romantic situation impacted parts of his life positively, his parenting relationship deteriorated even more.

In other words, the emotional enmeshment was about to be over. The Everlasting Divorce had a termination date, which caused stress to the status quo.

Once it became clear to his ex-wife and son that the father was embarking on a long-term relationship, two things happened. First, on the dad's birthday, while the man sat home alone waiting to be allowed to see his son, the son called and said he didn't want to be forced to come over anymore. Secondly, after several weeks of un-returned phone messages from his dad, the son finally called back and said he wanted all his belongings from their new house. He believed his dad was selfish, disrespectful, demanding, controlling, and thoughtless, and he didn't want to come over any more, ever...unless his dad went back to how he used to be. 

But, as those of us who have made tremendous life changes know, going back into a shell of an existence is impossible.

Shortly after that phone call, the father said goodbye to his son for what ended up being a long time. As he drove away from the pile of cardboard boxes that contained most of their life memories together and the son who wouldn't wave, he wondered, not for the first or last time, what he did to deserve such complete rejection. Hadn't he done everything they asked? Hadn't he always given his son what he wanted, including this, even if it meant not seeing him? Like always, he didn't know the answers. 


After many, many months of not seeing his son at all and having virtually no communication with him, the father has begun seeing him 3-4 times a year. The relationship remains tentative and its future is uncertain, but both father and son have indicated a desire to become closer at some point. The future isn't lost, but the past opportunities most certainly are.

While the focus of this story is on the father-son relationship, the effects of the Everlasting Divorce are the real issues. Physically, the son and the parenting relationship were always just out of reach. It wasn't a case of too much proximity; it was a case of too little parenting time. Financially, there were a few years when the dad paid extra child support as a way to honor an agreement he made while the family was intact. There were also a few years when he met his child support obligation before paying his own bills. 

Emotionally...emotionally, it was nearly impossible for the dad to see his self-worth through anything but the lens of the Everlasting Divorce. It was a view that caused him to feel limited and powerless. Emotionally, the father and son are nearly as estranged as is possible.

The effects of small changes can be life-changing.

This story serves as a lesson to others who are stuck in an Everlasting Divorce that uses children to manage the adult relationship. In this case, the lesson is that making changes in himself brought confidence and connection to the father, which could someday be a bridge to a relationship with his son. In other cases, the positive effect on the parenting relationship is more quick and clear to appear.

I think early intervention in the Everlasting Divorce could have helped this family tremendously. I also think an understanding of the Everlasting Divorce dynamic will help mitigate problems for them in the future.

If you'd like to share your story of how kids and parenting relationships were affected by an Everlasting Divorce, I'd love to hear them. You can comment on this post or email me at You can also message me through my Facebook page:

For more information about Everlasting Divorce, including videos about the causes, effects, Realms of Change, and Inspired Identities, please visit

Take good care of yourselves and each other.

#fatherhood #everlastingdivorce #divorce #custody

Monday, March 6, 2017

Two Trees: How We Can Keep Moving Forward After a Breakup

Growing end of the oldest Banyan tree on Maui

For the past I-can't-count-how-many-years, I've enjoyed taking pictures of plants. I like to get super close, hold my breath, and try to capture the most intimate details as possible.

As a therapist, it's clear to me that my process is the same: I like to get close to people, see them at their most vulnerable and beautiful, and then reflect back to them their unique identity.

There's just SO MUCH that can be learned about life by studying the metaphors provided by plants, and nothing teaches us as much about ourselves during times of crisis as our friends, the trees.

Breakups just suck. They hurt and are uncomfortable and they require a re-writing of both history and the future. We lose friends, gain friends, lose family, gain freedom... Despite the possibility of something better--a better sense of self, a better relationship, a better future--breakups mean change and change means growth.

Roots working with rock

The Banyan tree grows remarkably fast and sends roots out from nearly everywhere. For some of us, a breakup means that you can be like the Banyan tree--and immediately start reaching out for something different. You can re-install that online dating app; you can apply to grad school or eat what you want on a Thursday night.

You can use your post-breakup time to start digging deeply into your dreams and re-rooting yourself into your newest identity.

The Tamarack handles change a little differently. During the summer, it appears to be just like every other spruce: It has green needles bunched together in such a way as to look lush and soft. In autumn, however, the Tamarack turns yellow, like its neighboring birches, and the needles fall right off.

If you're not the type of person who leaps into single-hood with energy and vigor after a breakup, you might be the kind of person who has to wait until there's an appropriate time to change. Then, you might have to shed the life you had, along with its hopes and plans, and start over. Emotionally, that means you have to take stock and then build yourself back up from a place of raw bareness. 

Of course, I could probably go on all day about tree metaphors and breakups (I so totally could!), but I'm curious what you think.

If you're in a transition period in your own romantic relationship, which kind of tree better describes your reaction? Neither are better than the other; both serve their purpose of decoupling.

If you're struggling in your relationship right now, it's easy to get help (and super beneficial!). Twin Cities readers, feel free to contact me at or at

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Politics, Post-Divorce: Which Hat Should Your Kids Wear?

You may have heard about the California woman who walked away from her 21-year marriage because her husband said he wanted to vote for Trump. According to Gayle McCormick, the relationship was already on the rocks, and politics was the very, very last straw. "When things are 51 percent good and 49 percent bad, you just stay," she says. "[But] I was just tired and older and I didn't want to argue and neither of us was going to change." I'm going to go out on a limb and say they don't have to worry about talking politics anymore.

College of Liberal Arts & Sciences - University of Iowa
In intact families of origin or creation, discussion of politics can run the range of nonexistent to polarizing. Who among us didn't dread the holiday get-togethers where there was the inevitably wide difference of opinion? Who didn't wonder which drunk family member was going to bring down the carefully crafted facade of congeniality just as soon as the dessert came out? (And don't lie -- who didn't have a side wager as to which drunk relative it would end up being?)

As more and more attention was being paid to the election this past year, one writer in particular looked at the effects of those political discussions on kids.

In September, Cathy Areu, writer for TODAY looked at the relatively simple issue of how to engage kids in social issues without indoctrinating them into a political ideology. "So, I learned my lesson as a politically charged mom who wanted to raise Democrats: talking politics with kids is a good thing. It’s an important thing. But making them into mini-political-me’s is not a good thing." So...yes to engagement, no to brainwashing.

Let's add in a divorce.

Typically, divorced folks don't spend a lot of time worrying about the politics of their exes, but it can come up in a big way when there are other considerations, such as parents pulling their kids into political camps (as Cathy Areu was referring to) or disparaging the ex for politically-held beliefs.

What to do if you find yourself post-divorce and battling for your side of the aisle? 

Here are four suggestions.

1) If your kids are young, keep quiet or keep it simple. "I think this. But your other parent thinks that. Everyone gets to have an opinion." This can also be an ideal time to reiterate that people don't have to agree in order to work together or love their children.

2) If your older kids are already involved in discussions about social issues, remember to ask them what THEY think and challenge them on any beliefs that are just blatant regurgitations of your own. "I know you don't think people should be deported, but WHY do you think that?" Or, "What would be a good reason to let people from everywhere come live in our country?" You'll need to understand that some of what your kids tell you when you open it up like that might be because they heard it at the other house. And, that needs to be okay.

3) Teenagers might need a different tact. For this bunch, you'll want to both instigate the conversation and learn to sit back and listen. Teenagers and young adults are, by necessity and development, practicing what it's like to be "anything-but-my-parents". So, if you're a die-hard Republican, you'll need to shush up and try to understand why, based on their age and experiences, your kids think it's most definitely right to give all kids free lunch and free college. If you're a Democrat, you'll need to bite your lip while they talk about keeping America safe.

4) Discuss, don't argue. Be curious, but don't judge. Certainly DON'T say, "You only believe that because your FATHER/MOTHER believes it!" Also, don't force them to march, protest, jeer at the media, or make fun of people (that last one really just seems like common sense, though, doesn't it?).

Okay, it could be that your kids got MAGA hats for Christmas or that your ex is going to crochet everyone a pussy hat for Easter pictures. One key to remember (and remind yourself over and over again if you can't remember it after one try) is that your kids will change their ideas over time, regardless of which hat they have to wear when Grandma and Grandpa come visiting.

Another key is that this is a long-term growth and learning opportunity.

Mostly what you want for your kids is that they grow up to think critically and carefully about their values and beliefs, right? If so, then they need space to puzzle this stuff out for themselves, free from ultimatums about being red or blue or independent or green. Forcing them to be political mini-mees or judging them for being political mini-mees of your ex isn't going to give them that space.

Neither will parading around in your hat 24/7, so go ahead and do that on your off-weekends. :-)

Jenni McBride McNamara, LAMFT, is a therapist who specializes in post-divorce issues, Discernment Counseling, and decoupling. For more information about her Saint Paul practice, check out