The Calculus of Divorce (and how to convert pain to progress)

I remember telling my eldest daughter I was leaving.  She was four years old.  I explained it casually: Daddy is getting his own house and sometimes you will come live there.

She had no idea what I was saying, no clue of the ramifications.  I didn’t either.  I had no idea what I was doing at all.  I only knew that after years of trying to find some peaceful path within my marriage, I couldn’t hold out hope for resolution any longer.  I’d finally given up and decided to leave. It was the best and worst thing I’ve ever done.  

Pain and wisdom walk the same path. But you must overcome the pain to eventually reap the reward of wisdom.  Pain which lingers or reappears tells me I’ve yet to glean the deeper wisdom I’ve been offered.  There is more work to be done.

If you follow me on twitter, @jackmurpylive, you’ve seen my pain still bubbles near the surface.   I recently wrote a twitter essay on divorce and fatherhood which resonated with many people and inspired me to take a deeper look at my feelings.  That reflection turned into insights. This article is my way of sharing that with you.

The pain from failed marriage was as hard and true as any natural law.  It was immutable desperation.  Despite the uncertainty surrounding virtually every other aspect of life –  what would happen next, who would I become, how would my children respond –  I did have one thing to latch on to: the complete exhaustion of hope.

The end of hope leads to desperation.  And this desperation lead me to an uncertain decision where I underestimated the pain of being away from my children.  While leaving was clearly the best choice, I still idealized the greener future while minimizing the inevitable consequences of not being there every night to tuck-in my daughter.

I replaced the pain of a failed marriage with the agony of being separated from my children.  

As I explained to my daughter what was going to happen, we both were lost in fantasy.

My daughter actually got excited because I explained she would have a new room.  She wanted to know if she could have a DVD player and a TV by her bed.  I told her yes.  It was a lie.  Just like when I told her everything would be ok. But she didn’t know.  I didn’t know either.

Those were the last days of her joy I remember.  When I used to come home from work, she would run out of her room and greet me even though she should have been sleeping.  I couldn’t get mad because she’d scream and jump into my arms, her joy infectious and disarming.

I came home late often those days.  I was working hard trying to save our businesses and our home.  Trying to save our lives.  The world was crashing down around us and everyone else who worked in real estate, yet I worked to the end.  Why was I working so hard? What was I trying to save?  The life I was about to discard?

[Read: The Key to Success: The Come Back]

When you think they will be children forever, it is easy to say tomorrow.  When you think you’ll have them in your home every day, it is easy to say next time. 

The saddest irony was me working hard to save something that had already expired: my failed marriage.  Wrapped in the inferno of a market crash, my union and home life disintegrated before I could save any of it.  In the end, I worked and lost it all.  I wish I would have stayed home and held them while everything crumbled.  At least I would have those memories along with the debts.  Instead, my house is empty, my kids are gone, and I still write those checks every month a decade later.  Decisions.  Decisions. 

I feel like I lost her that day, the day I lied about the DVD player. And every day we are together I debate whether to explain what is really happening between me and her mother. I wish I could describe why I really left.  I wish I could reveal her mother was a broken rotten person who tortured me when we were together and today keeps me from seeing her.  I wish I could explain the only reason I’m not tucking her in every night, is because her mother absolutely made this the only possible outcome.  

What a weight off my shoulders that would be.  The truth set free would lighten my guilt and feel oh so sweet.  But such relief would only be temporary and cowardly. My benefit would come at the expense of my daughter’s increased distress. As much as I hope it would restore things to how they were, the truth is things will never be the same. 

I hope one day she can see it from my perspective.  Maybe then she will respect me for never giving up, always striving to be a better man and father, and never letting her mother keep me from her. 

It would be easy to take the path of self-satisfaction and eviscerate their mother, but being the bigger man means enduring pain at times, and this is my burden today.

No child wants to hear bad things about their parents.  My little girl still needs some hope, she’s just a baby in the real world.  Bitterness and cynicism can come later.  I love her too much to take that away now. 

I suspect however, her mother will show her true colors to her soon enough.  My son understands already.  He asks her to see me and she says no.  He cries to me that he would live with me 100% of the time if “they would only let me.”  

He is feeling the dissonance of a mother he loves not acting in a loving manner towards him.  It is painful to watch.  Winning like this is no victory at all.

There is little satisfaction in knowing resolution will come at the expense of your child’s idealization of their mother.

Parents becoming mortals in the eyes of their children is an essential process of maturation.  My job now is to let that happen naturally.  As children we find safety in the fable of parental perfection. It is a useful fantasy, a survival tool.  The “high road,” if there is one in this conflict with my ex, is to allow my children’s illusion of parental perfection to persist as long as nature requires.  Cramming their mother’s weakness upon them today would be selfish.

The best thing I can do in this case is let them live and discover the truth on their own, sublimating what may be best for me into what is best for them.  Sacrifice is part of being a father.  But sometimes, the kids need me to put myself first.  And that’s where things get confusing.  Despite knowing it’s best for everyone, I still feel guilty when I have to take care of Daddy before all the rest.

But I have to remember ultimately it is for them.  I shouldn’t be so tentative.  I can tell I’m scarred from the DVD lie.  

I forget, I made the choice to be a better man, and in turn a better father.  I chose to give my daughter a chance at a happy home with parents released from a destructive relationship.  

But simply leaving was not enough. The pain from our loss must transmute into wisdom and growth or it will be empty. I chose the path which seemed to offer the best chance for a healthy father, able to have worthwhile relationships with his children, and able to model appropriate male behavior for them both.  Thus,

I made an excruciating, calculated decision to leave my ex-wife in hopes of providing my daughter a better life. 

Who knows what would have happened had I stayed.  I could have self-destructed completely.  I could have found myself wasting away from alcohol abuse and self-loathing.  I would have been showing her a dad who was a piece of shit.  Instead, I hope, I’m showing her what a healthy, loving father is through action rather than just words.  Words which would have been empty and hollow had I not made my changes, changes which were impossible while married to her mother.  This is the calculus of divorce.

Parenting is the most important thing I’ll ever do: how to keep perspective on such a monumental task?

Taking care of myself is the first step towards caring for others

We have a moral obligation to maintain our health and fitness as providers. Sometimes I get overwhelmed with fatherhood.  It is an enormous and complex task. I constantly wonder if I’ve already failed. But then I remember, as I wrote in the Jack Murphy Basics, we must first care for ourselves in order to provide for our family, our community, our nation, and eventually the world.  It all starts with self-preserving acts of strength and resilience.  Physical health, mental well-being, mindset control – these are the foundations for any successful life and fatherhood is no different. 

[Read: Build a Better Life, 3 Fundamentals to Change Your World Forever]

Parenting is challenging. Build your core such that you can better serve your children and community.  This will have the dual effect of keeping you fit and ready for the challenge, as well as demonstrating to your children how to live a healthy life. Fathers lead. Lead yourself and children towards health, strength, and mental toughness.

Being the best man I can will make me the best father I can be.

Innocence is Temporary

Greater scholars than I have deduced that life is suffering. This suffering comes from our limitations as humans.  Once we accept our power is limited and that to live is to suffer, we can free ourselves of any guilt associated with not being a perfect parent.  

For me, chipping away at the guilt of my own fallibility is a daily process.  Accepting this helps to ease the pain of not being perfect.  Accepting this helps to ease the pain of seeing the real world creep in and impact the most precious things, our innocent children. 

Seeing the end of the innocence in your children is painful, wrenching, and deeply saddening. I had the naive notion I could keep the wolves at bay forever, but this is foolish.  Innocence is fleeting; it provides a structure in which children can learn basic skills, but over time, innocence is a liability. 

No matter what happens, this innocence will be lost.  The choice we have as parents is to either become the one who helps ease their transition or be the events which strip them of their purity.  The choice I’ve made as a father is to swallow my pride, bite my tongue, and be the loving guide my child needs.  No matter the urge to spill the truth, I will wait until events naturally unfurl, revealing the world to her as it is.  And when they do, I will be there for her to help her make sense of it.

Don’t trade one toxic relationship for another

The post-divorce relationship with your ex can easily become just as toxic, if not more so, than the one you left in the first place. Ending one damaging relationship just to enter into another does little to help you or the children.  Divorce creates an opportunity to start fresh.  Don’t let this opportunity pass without careful consideration and effort. It is important to limit the negative impact adult squabbling has on kids.  It is not easy, but it is crucial. I wish I could say I am able to heed this advice every day, but I fall back more than I’d like. Another reason I am writing this essay is to solidify these thoughts in my mind such that I can incorporate them in my daily behavior:

  • Don’t communicate through the children
  • Keep it simple, keep it civil
  • Keep all commentary to yourself
  • Chose a structured method of communication and stick to it

Remember, you’re no longer in a marriage with this woman.  You are in an adversarial position with someone who has something you want and she wants to maximize what she can get from you. It’s not only a business relationship, it’s worse.  Speak to her like you would a valued client.  Your job is to get the most out of her you can, irrespective of your feelings. Easier said than done, but absolutely essential.

Listen to the pain

If you feel pain, if you feel anxiety, if you find yourself reflecting on old memories – take the time to reprocess and strip away the emotion to find the undiscovered guidance contained within.

I sat down for my daily writing one morning and out poured the DVD lie I told my daughter.  I wrote a letter to her which evolved into this article.  As I wrote it, I cried.  I examined my loss in a new light, I re-lived my regret. The pain forced its way to the surface and demanded reexamination. 

Once I began to reflect more deeply and break down my turmoil I was able to take my personal experience and translate it into more relatable truths.  These were the elements of wisdom my body insisted I review as it surfaced emotions long since confined to the unreachable backwaters of my memory.

As auto-regulating men we must continuously assess, reassess, adjust and move forward.  We alone are responsible for our well-being – physical, mental, and emotional. 

But we can not and do not have to do it alone.  Technology has brought men together on the basis of ideas and condition – rather than geography or happenstance.  This is a revolutionary change which we can use to enhance our lives together.

As you go through your own process of loss, pain, regret, reflection, and wisdom – don’t do it by yourself. Reach out and find community.  The power of the internet means at any one given moment, there is likely a group of men experiencing the exact same thing you are.  Find collective strength with them and grow together.  This involves a deeper level of communication and empathy than has been expected of men in the past, but give it a try.  You will benefit.

Thank you for finding me, thank you for reading my words.  Thank you for joining me on these explorations.  Together our strength is greater.

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[Read: No Job for the Visionary: Finding the job that doesn’t exist]


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16 comments… add one
  • Dman Jan 8, 2017 @ 21:03

    Divorce with children is a hell of a thing, to put it mildly, and it is not something a lot of our brothers have experienced (thankfully). I’m also divorced with a child, although my relationship with my ex is not acrimonious (usually). However, my child lives in another country, so my contact with her is through Skype and the couple of months a year she stays with me.

    Effectively, getting divorced robbed me of the fundamental right of all parents to be able to raise their children. I sometimes struggle with whether I should have fought harder to keep my child in the US at least, but in the end my child is growing up fine and is well adjusted (thank God). We have as good a relationship as is possible under the circumstances. The time I lost with her, I will never get back, and I do not dwell on it because it is an emotional black hole of epic proportions.

    Ultimately, children should be, as you say, innocent for as long as necessary. They should not be prematurely burdened with adult knowledge, like, for example, Paul Muad’Dib’s sister Alia experienced (how’s that for a reference?). But children cannot be innocent forever, and to force them to be so is to rob them of the natural maturation that happens to everyone. The loss of innocence is not a tragedy if it is not premature. The best I can do, and you can do, is to be the best father you can be and to instill good values, morals, and ethics. Children are far more resilient than we give them credit for, provided they have some definitive stability and they know you love them.

    As our children get older, they will have a greater understanding of the world and what happened. If their mother was an unjust and unfair person, it will come back to haunt her when they become older and not easily controlled. I hope so anyway. And even if not, as long as they are able to thrive, that is it’s own reward. To wish for some ultimate revenge is probably not spiritually healthy anyway.

    Great writing, some of your best work.

    • Jack Murphy Jan 8, 2017 @ 21:25

      Thank you Dman, I really appreciate this thoughtful comment. The balance of preserving a child’s innocence against introducing them to the real world is one of the most difficult things a parent can endure. I’m not sure there is a right way to do it.

      Thank you for sharing your experience here. We all can learn from each other.


  • Jason M Jan 8, 2017 @ 21:20

    This is really powerful writing; it takes balls to share this personal information. And that Peterson tweet stopped me in my tracks. I’ll probably always struggle with living in my head too much and that internal dialogue and those errant thoughts can so easily turn to negative previous events.

    I appreciate your take on things in the blog and the occasion when we chat over a drink. Looking forward to the future.

    • Jack Murphy Jan 8, 2017 @ 21:27

      The internal dialogue is something I struggle with all the time. I’ve litigated entire court cases in my head while I take a shower. I’ve debated dead people. I’ve had arguments with people who haven’t even raised an objection yet. But over time, I’ve realized, I can control that thinking and limit the amount of time I spend arguing to ghost juries in my mind. Once I became aware of what I was doing, it was easier to stop it in its tracks. As GI JOE said, knowing is half the battle.

      Thank you for the comment and I look forward to the next time you transverse the ponds to see us here in DC. Thanks, Jason.

      • Jason M Jan 8, 2017 @ 21:56

        Yeah I’ve had success using Mike’s recorder trick to capture my thoughts and steer the conversation properly. But on a more positive note it is such a strength when deployed externally. It’s the ability to chew over an idea, see the unstated premises, incorporate new data, synthesize different trends and see the future as a collection of possible scenarios that others miss.

        • Jack Murphy Jan 8, 2017 @ 21:59

          Recording your inner monologue and listening to it is a powerful device for understanding the impact of self-talk. It’s crazy the things we say to ourselves in our own head. You’d think we’d be our best ally, but often times, we end up being our biggest critic. At least, I know I was. Being able to turn that around and use it to our advantage is a huge leg up on most folks.

  • J P Mckay (Jeb ) Jan 8, 2017 @ 23:34

    life’s tough aye.

  • Templar Patriarch Jan 9, 2017 @ 11:20

    This really struck a nerve. I, too, am a Gen-Xer, though through your writing you’ve been more of a mentor than a peer to me. At the time of my divorce I was bluer pill than most beta herbs out there, and had two kids. It tore up my soul that I would no longer be able to see my children everyday because of a decision that I did not make (my ex left me.) I eventually found out many things that would make it impossible for me to even consider getting back together with her; I see, in retrospect, that her leaving me was the best thing that ever could have happened to me. It was the Universe course-correcting for my poor choice of wife. I have never been better than I am now and my life is richer and brighter. Except regarding my first kids. Even though I gained full custody two years after the divorce, they still sleep one or two nights at their mum’s. There is always this sadness, this guilt if you will, that I was not man enough to choose and secure a good mother for them, and to warrant them an intact home to grow up in. It saddens me that my younger daugher, and even maybe the older one, do not remember a time before their parents were divorced. That my family is split every week so my first two kids can go spend time with their mother. But as you Jack, I carry this burden myself, alone, in silence. I, as well, strive to be the best father and masculine figure I can be in their lives. I hope I can make up, however partially, for all the pain I’ve caused them. Thank you for writing this.

    • Jack Murphy Jan 9, 2017 @ 11:29

      Thank you for your genuine comment. I and the readers of this blog appreciate it. First, congratulations on having custody, be thankful you have so much quality time with your children. About the guilt…man. It’s been almost 8 years since my divorce. And the guilt kind of goes through phases. As my kids mature, they begin to see things with a different perspective. That new perspective brings a fresh round guilt as the divorce has yet another layered impact upon them. But for me, I think I’m beginning to see the end of that road. The kids are getting older and they are starting to see how I’ve been fighting for them…only to be held back by their own mother.

      As I wrote however, victory by ending your kid’s idealization of their mother is hollow. It hurts them to see their mom like that. It is confusing. It creates resentment and bitterness. Just more layers to the pain of divorce. This onion will be unravelling for sometime I presume. In the meantime, I just keep trying hard to be the best man I can, the best father I can, and to try and take the pain and turn it into wisdom – this is the best we can do. Thanks again for your comment and reading, I really appreciate it. – Jack

  • Abdoul-eye Jan 9, 2017 @ 17:16

    This was a heartfelt emotional post. I could feel your pain and determination to make the best out of the situation you find yourself in. The price we pay for being alive is suffering. Thanks for sharing your suffering with us.

    • Jack Murphy Jan 9, 2017 @ 17:22

      You are welcome, thank you for reading. I appreciate you taking the time to absorb and reflect.

  • anon1 Jan 12, 2017 @ 7:23

    Thanks for sharing jack.

    Its such a difficult thing, divorce especially if kids are involved.

    There’s no non-zerosum move.

    You dont be in the kids life and they resent you and think you left them because you dont like them. It doesn’t matter what you tell them, they’ll always think they did something wrong to deserve it. Time only really heals that kind of rift.

    You stay in the kids life and things further deteriorate with the mother so the kid gets screwed around with from that.

    Its fucking difficult man.

    I personally think the western idea of marriage is outdated. Previously in the east it used to be more of a stability type of thing, you marry for familial compatibilities and long term potential for child rearing; and there was some notion of harems and whatnot that were tolerated by the wife.

    Now i mean the way the UK and America does it, whats the fucking point? Its basically a contract for a no-win lawsuit if you eject from the marriage.

    • Jack Murphy Jan 12, 2017 @ 9:18

      My biggest fear is that they think they did something wrong. I hate the idea that they may judge my love for them based on the time I’m allowed to see them.

      So to make up for it I just make sure to make the most of all the time we have, stay as connected as possible, go to all the school shows, events, practices, everything. Text, call, facetime regularly. Just be a presence.

      I think in time it will help, but for now I just push and push.

      Thank you for reading, thanks for commenting.


  • PJ Pires Oct 19, 2017 @ 5:40

    YOUNG MAN !!! Don’t marry for your sanity and money sake.
    And btw, do not make kids too.

  • Peter Shaw Oct 31, 2018 @ 5:38

    I love this article. It so clearly portrays the feelings I had when I left my own marriage. I feel terrible guilt at times but I get to see my children most days thankfully. You reminded me that I must lead my children. I also must remember to avoid criticising their mother. She’s their mother and its not the loving thing to do to criticise her to them. Wonderful article.

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