When my marriage blew apart, I was the cliché of the angry divorced father. Despite pressure to let go my anger “for the sake of the child” I couldn’t, I just couldn’t. I was at war with my ex and I didn’t even want to end it.
Three years later I did.
This was not the result of a spiritual revelation nor an aha-moment in therapy. It was a step-by-step process whereby I approached every situation asking myself: “What’s the truth here? What’s really going on under what I think is going on?” The answers were scary because they were often the opposite of what everyone said was true.
These are five keys that I discovered during this process.
1. Believe in something more important than the child.
At the time of the divorce, I felt that my 4 year old son was the most important thing in my life. His mother felt the same way about him. This was a recipe for War because one of us had to give way. Yet to give way felt like betrayal—only a bad father gives up on his son, right? So I continued to fight.
But when it became clear that this war would never end, I asked myself: Is my son really the most important thing in my life? I felt like a bad father even asking it, but I asked anyway and my subconscious answered the question with a question: Is your son more important than Truth? Than Love? Than Honor?
These noble words I associated with the likes of Martin Luther King or JFK, but I was just a divorced guy—did they really apply to me? “That depends,” said my subconscious. “Do you want them to apply to you? What would happen if you took your son off the pedestal and put Truth there instead? Would you like him to grow up to be a man of truth? And if so, who must set the example?”
I tried it. It literally turned my life around.
2. Deal with reality as it is, not as (we think) it should be.
In theory, fathers are of equal importance and have as much right to their children as mothers. In practice, mothers have the prior claim. My raging about injustice and female hypocrisy did nothing to change the situation and meetings with lawyers who gave me the straight truth convinced me the fight was lost before it began.
When it comes to children, today’s system favors women over men. A hundred years ago it was the other way around. That’s just the way it is. I had a choice: Join a crusade for Equal Rights or get over it.
I got over it.
3. Trust the ex-wife’s abilities as a mother.
“Trust my ex-wife? The woman who broke every promise she ever made, including ‘I would never take your son away from you?’ Never!” That was me at the time of the divorce. I was angry and hurt and not for nothing—even my ex-wife couldn’t defend her actions because she had broken her own moral code. “I have a right to be happy” was the best she came up with.
It made no difference. I not only lost my home and my son—it appeared I had to help finance her ‘new life.’ Talk about rubbing salt into the wound. I was enraged. A lot of male friends advised me to fight for custody on the grounds that a woman who breaks her own codes of behavior is also an unreliable mother, but my subconscious voice disagreed. “If you were to die, would your son die too?” it said. “Or would his mother somehow bring him up to be a healthy, wonderful young man?”
I did not like the answer to that question. But the truth was clear: Whatever my opinion of her as a wife and a woman, she was certainly not a bad mother. I did not have the right to take him away from her, however justified my anger might be.
4. Define our own role as a father and tell everyone else to f**k off.
When I divorced, everyone was keen to tell me what to do: My parents, my friends, other men I shared my story with and, above all, my ex-wife. I got sick of the phrase “Think of your son.” I couldn’t think of anything else. But I did understand what they were afraid of.
Like it or not, to leave the child with his mother and walk away was a valid option. I used to judge men who did that, but when I was in the same position I realized that I wanted to go. What increased this desire was reading the accounts of fathers who stayed, especially the ones who tried to be inspiring about fatherhood after divorce. It sounded like Hell.
But I did stay. And it was Hell. But it was Hell on my terms, not hers, and that made the difference. How I achieved that is a whole other story because she fought me all the way and I discovered that having nothing to lose is a powerful position. In the end she had to accept that while she had the ability to take my son away, I would never allow her the right to tell me how to be a father. That was mine. There are some battles worth fighting even when children are involved.
5. Trust the child to handle life.
I believe we disrespect children when we insist on seeing them as helpless victims unable to cope with difficulty. My 4 year old son was broken-hearted when his mother and I separated, but not broken. He was sad, he was angry, he was grief-stricken—but these are normal reactions to losing your family. “Don’t you think he’s too young for that?” said the child experts to me. “If he broke his arm playing football, he’ll suffer pain whether he’s too young or not,” I replied. “This is an emotional version of the same thing and I believe he can get through it.”
And he did. Young as he was, he learned to cope. He was sad when he felt sad and he cried when he needed to cry. I saw a natural healing process take place within him and my job, as I saw it, was to give him the space to feel his feelings and not to sabotage that process with my own emotions.
In this regard, his mother was supportive. Quite early on, we sat down and made a kind of Geneva Convention, an agreement on the rules of War. In essence, we both agreed to do nothing that would disrespect our son’s feelings—both his love for his parents and his grief at the divorce. This was hard for my ex-wife because she saw the divorce as a positive thing, but she stuck to our Geneva Convention anyway.
For my situation, these keys worked. They enabled me to end the war with my ex-wife not just with good intentions, but in my heart. For some years now, our son has seen that his parents trust and understand each other (even when they piss each other off) and this has proven to be a more solid emotional foundation than so many well-meant attempts to create ‘security.’ As he nears adulthood, it’s become even clearer how important it is to him that his mother and father genuinely respect each other. This did not fall out of the sky.
The secret to ending a war is not to avoid it, but to wage it with integrity—to understand the difference between getting into a fight and making a stand.
First published May 2014, http://www.goodmenproject.com
Copyright Mike Pearse