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What you don’t know going into marriage (first, second, or other) is what variables will change and how those changes will affect your life. But as you go through the entire process, from wedding day to rough patches to divorce, you learn some things. I’m going to try to highlight the big ‘ah-ha’ moments I had in both my marriages.
We were young. I allowed her beauty and my passion to blind me to some of the issues we had early on. We had both just graduated from college, and it felt like the thing to do. I was madly in love, but I didn’t know enough about her. I jumped into my first marriage on sexual chemistry and gut instinct. I thought if we were this happy now then we’d be just as happy after getting married. I was wrong. And this is what I learned from our time together.
Lesson 1: Weather some storms before you tie the knot
The first unhappy moments actually arrived on our honeymoon. I suddenly got a glimpse of an unhappy and angry person, one that hadn’t exposed herself prior. Something, even in those early days of bliss, registered this as a big red flag. I’d have been better served had we endured some adversity prior to tying the knot, and my thoughts as my new wife raged at me was, “Uh oh. I think I made a mistake.”
Lesson 2: Things that are not working are liable to get worse, not better
You cannot count on the other person changing to please you or simply to make life easier. If you both agree to therapy, you can move the needle a bit. But if one of you is having major emotional issues, no amount of goodwill, good behavior, or good intentions will fix things. If you are waiting for the other person to change, you are in trouble.
Lesson 3: Rage and abusive behavior are never okay
It took me three tries to end my first marriage, mostly because I didn’t want to be the person who gave up. But when anger becomes abusive, there is very little left to work on. Therapy was helpful, but you can’t go to therapy for the rest of your life. When the counseling ended, so did the positive behavior modifications. Ouch.
I recoiled from my divorce for a while. I stayed out of the dating game for a year or so while I tried to recollect my own center and sanity. But I wouldn’t say I was healed when I ran into my second wife at a local coffee shop. We had gone to high school together, so we had an immediate connection, and from the initial reaction to seeing me, we both had some interest in exploring the possibilities.
Lesson 4: Pay attention to early things that don’t feel right
There was some initial miscommunication that later turned into a huge problem. But during the early days of my courtship, I was unaware that she not only had a boyfriend but that she was living with him. I think her secrecy early hurt us later when other issues began to arise. Again, I fell passionately in love with her before any “issues” came to light. And when they did, when she did tell me about the other guy, I should’ve run for the hills. But a month later when she called to tell me it was over with the other guy, my loneliness and the magnetism of our connection caused me to jump right back in.
Lesson 5: Kids change everything
Aside from forging a new level of commitment, kids change the chemistry of the relationship in a big way. Overnight there are 200-percent more things to do. Chores become an issue. Exhaustion becomes an issue. And as you both slip into the overwhelmed state of raising kids, some deeper level of personality comes out. In an overwhelming situation, you’re either a happy camper making due or an unhappy camper complaining the whole way. I was generally happy. She wasn’t.
Lesson 6: Trust is the foundation of a relationship
There seemed to be a lot of trust issues in the second half of our marriage. I was always in the process of doing something wrong or covering up something else I had done wrong. In fact, I’m not even sure I was doing things wrong, but the unhappy camper was certain that her unhappiness was due to me. I don’t think another person is responsible for anyone’s happiness. But therapy didn’t sort this one out. Once the trust was broken, the repair was difficult and ultimately failed.
Lesson 7: Intimacy does reflect a lot about a relationship
The book Love Languages does a great job of explaining the different ways people feel love. And for sure, my second wife and I had very different languages. But there’s a balance, even if you’re languages are on opposite sides of the spectrum. And when touch is taken out of the equation for any length of time, the entire relationship can begin to change. We are animals. And sex is a base-level need. When sex goes, the relationship is soon to follow. It reveals some deeper dysfunction.
Lesson 8: Even in an amicable divorce, you need to get a lawyer
As we parented 50/50, I was certain in the early divorce negotiations that we would end up with a joint custody arrangement. So when the therapist we’d hired to guide us through the process suggested something much different, I was upset but didn’t stop and fight. I know today that I was whitewashed into accepting the Standard Possession Order and being the non-custodial parent because it was what my then-wife wanted all along. We agreed to cooperate, but I was handed a non-cooperative ruling right off the bat. In hindsight, I should’ve stopped the process and lawyer-ed up. But I’m conflict-averse, and I listened to the ‘reasonable’ therapist and my ‘in-the-best-interest-of-the-kids’ wife. I was railroaded.
John McElhenney is a single dad who lives in Austin, Texas. He is the author of the single parenting blog, The Whole Parent, and writes for The Good Men Project, The Huffington Post, and other sites. His latest book is Single Dad Seeks about dating again after divorce.