…by Changing Expectations
“If your house is a madhouse on a daily basis when you come home from work, then why do you expect it to be anything else? Why do you expect to walk in the door with no demands being thrown at you? You are setting yourself up, on a daily basis, to be upset and angry. Change your expectation. Prepare yourself on the drive home to walk through that door ready for the behaviors you are most likely to see. Walk in emotionally ready to deal with the needs of your family.”
This was advice from my therapist years ago when I was still trying to keep my family together. He had asked me to describe moments during my week when I most struggled with anger, and those that I most regretted afterwards.
It was good advice. I changed my expectations of those moments when I walked through the door. I was better able to parent, and my reaction to the demands of the early evening was no longer from a place of anger.
My therapist’s advice has also helped post-divorce.
When our relationships end we tend to remain locked into emotional patterns with our ex-spouses. Their words drive us up the wall. Our responses to their texts and behaviors come from a place of frustration. We continually expect a different outcome to the same patterns.
One of my greatest triggers has been my ex continually describing me as an angry monster. And in the beginning, like a broken record (or an animated GIF for you younger readers), every time she texted me with that accusation I would send off a reply defending myself, expecting her to agree and tell me that I wasn’t so bad. Each time I would feel my gut get tighter, and it would take me hours to calm down from the interaction.
“Our ex-spouses know how to push our buttons, because they installed them.” I don’t know who originally said this phrase, but it is a very accurate description of how our post-divorce patterns drain us of our emotional health.
I was eventually able to change my expectations of our interactions. I became better at ignoring her accusations, and now go silent whenever an interaction about the kids or shared finances becomes an attack from her side.
More recently I have begun to use my therapist’s advice more successfully with a different type of interaction. It has helped my parenting in the process.
My daughter has been struggling emotionally at her mother’s house. This has led to episodes that have escalated to a point where my ex has called the police on my daughter or has called an ambulance to take her to the hospital.
In March, when I received a call from the police asking me to pick my daughter up and take her to my house, I was putting furniture together at my girlfriend’s house. Internally my reaction was, “not again.”
As divorced parents we try to create a life for ourselves when our children are not with us. We create a schedule where we try to balance work, chores, self-care and new relationships. An interruption to that schedule is not easy emotionally, and can affect our new relationships as well.
That same “not again” feeling kept popping up whenever my daughter called me crying. The disappointed tone in my voice was not helpful as I tried to talk her through her feelings.
More recently I have begun to change my expectations. After several months of being full time with me, my daughter has finally returned to her mother’s house and resumed the regular custody schedule. I know there are going to be rough patches. I know that the “not again” feeling will pop up when I receive the call, but by expecting it I am better able to manage my response.
I can already chalk up one successful call to my new expectations. When my daughter called crying the other week, I was able to very quickly start problem solving with her. I was able to get her to think about her safety plan, and together we came up with the idea of her finishing a story that I started for her. My daughter likes to write. She was able to call 10 minutes later to read the story to me. It was enough to calm her down and help de-escalate her behavior.
There are many events and interactions in our post-divorce lives that have the potential to drain our emotional energy. Some we can influence, but others are either not in our control or are so complex that they require time to resolve. Maintaining our emotional health in those situations depends on our ability to manage or change our expectations.