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Inspired by a grant from one of its trustees, Men Mentoring Men (M3) recently produced a book and seminar series on the challenges men face during and after the divorce process. M3 is a not for profit organization dedicated to re-defining the concept of masculinity. Through support group meetings and educational efforts M3 enhances the lives of individual men, their families and the community at large.
The book, “Fathering Through Divorce: A Handbook For Men Dealing With Divorce And Its Impact on Parenting,” written by Carol Patton, combines research, tips and personal stories to inform and support men through the stressful and potentially destructive experience of divorce. “Fathering Through Divorce” helps men plot a personal course to recover from divorce – mentally, emotionally and financially – and to empower them to lead a full life as a man and as a parent.
The book begins where the divorce journey begins – accepting the reality of divorce. As one interviewee put it,
“You find it hard to imagine that this day would come, that your marriage would fall apart. You started out so happy and so much in love with each other. What happened? How did you end up this way?”
Coming to terms with these questions, while maintaining your emotional stability, is a daunting task and should not be confronted alone. Men need to reach out to get support from friends, family, support groups and mental health professionals in order to avoid the devastating isolation that often accompanies divorce, especially when the man leaves the marital home and his children.
The book also addresses some of the practical issues of the divorce process itself. The importance of finding an attorney or mediator that is experienced and responsive to the client’s needs is underscored. Men need to both protect themselves and at the same time maintain their obligations to their children. The more detailed the divorce agreement, the fewer disputes that will arise in subsequent interactions with an ex-spouse. Courts today are very comfortable with joint custody arrangements. However, if the arrangements lack specificity you can be sure disputes will follow. Visitation times, schooling decisions, elective medical issues are but a few of the areas that often lead to conflict between divorced parents. Being proactive in negotiating how these issues will be handled combined with finding a method to communicate are the best ways to avoid the damaging arguments and subsequent re-appearances in court. If telephone contact is unworkable then email becomes an emotionally neutral way to communicate the details that must be resolved between a divorced couple. A consistent theme running through the book is the recommendation by mental health professionals and the men who have experienced the journey to shield the children from the disputes that arise between the parents. “No matter what, don’t let you children hear you putting down your ex-wife. Take the high road even if your former spouse doesn’t.”
Living as a divorced dad who is not the primary custodial parent – which is most often the case – and maintaining a close healthy relationship with children is difficult and stressful. There are so many variables that must be addressed. For example, the book chapter entitled “Disneyland Dad” explores expectations children have when they spend visitation time with Dad. It is unnatural in the flow of parenting to only see your children at prescribed times. By definition the word visitation itself conjures up the image of an interaction with a guest. We are conditioned to entertain guests and that is the heart of the problem. The limitations on time spent with children decreases the opportunity for a parent to connect spontaneously with their child therefore making the visit more like an event with Dad planning fun activities that children often perceive as treats. Another issue is discipline. One of the men interviewed in the book described the problem of disciplining his son on their weekly visit. His ex-wife reported that their son was not doing his homework regularly and that his grades were suffering. The dad felt terribly conflicted. On one hand he felt he should give his son feedback on his responsibilities about schooling and possibly enact some sort of punishment. On the other hand, he didn’t want to make the weekly visit with his son a negative experience. He never entirely resolved the dilemma. When he saw his son he discussed the homework but backed off from taking a tougher stand so as not spoil their time together.
The book then shifts gears somewhat and focuses on the steps needed for a man, post-divorce, to date and enter into relationships with women. Most divorced men have not been on the dating scene for many years. Their self-confidence has been badly damaged by the divorce and they are adjusting to living alone and re-defining themselves as being single. It is a time of extreme vulnerability and again men need the support of other men and professionals when things become overwhelming. The book contains six questions for a man to answer to determine if he is ready for dating. If he answer no to all of them he is ready. Divorce groups, singles events, internet dating are all good options for a man to pursue during this transitional period. The first dates can be scary. However, there is an element of excitement about meeting new women and presenting oneself as a divorced man who feels good about himself. When the excitement is experienced, that is real evidence that a man is ready for a new relationship. Of course there are complications; particularly introducing one’s children to the women he is dating. Honest communication about adult needs for companionship and stressing the fact that loving another woman doesn’t mean less love and attention for the children are important.
The book concludes with a discussion of re-marriage and the possibility of becoming a step-father. Guidelines are provided which focus on defining one’s role with step children and how to handle discipline. A step-dad, especially one who enters a child’s life when they are above the age of 10, must accept the fact that he should not be the disciplinarian but rather be there as a friend and mentor to the child while supporting his wife in her efforts to monitor the children’s behavior.
“The overall message of “Fathering Through Divorce” is that although a painful and extremely challenging life event, divorce does not have to destroy a man. He can emerge stronger, healthier and continue to live an abundant life as a man and as a father.” – Richard C. Horowitz, Ed.D. – Past-President, Men Mentoring Men