That morning, Alex Laguna hadn’t the slightest inkling that life as he knew it was about to end. Divorce caught him totally off-guard.
He was heading off to work when his wife stopped him. “She just said, ‘I don’t love you anymore. I don’t want to be with you anymore’,” he recalls. “I bloody nearly fell over.”
The couple had two children – a three year-old son and four-year-old daughter. The most crushing part of the break-up: Alex would no longer be able to live with his kids.
“To be honest, it completely fucked me,” he says. “I had this concept of what my family was and what it was going to be. Having that stripped away from me and not being able to see my kids… that was just so heavy to manage.”
Forced to move out, Alex rented a nearby house on Sydney’s Northern Beaches to stay as close to his kids as possible. But confronting the stark reality of this new life very nearly broke him.
“I woke up one day in this new house with no furniture on a foam mattress in a sleeping bag,” he says. “I was ready to take my boot-laces out and find the closest rafter.”
“The way I felt then would probably not be uncommon for men going through divorce and separation. You’re completely undone. The magnitude of what your life looks like at that moment is horrific.”
Eight years on, Alex has managed to rebuild his life. Happily remarried, he’s had three more kids while he’s also launched a successful business – his company, Laguna Lighting, provides the lighting design for TV shows like MasterChef.
It’s a comeback of Rocky Balboa proportions, but it didn’t happen by chance. Turning things around involved hours of self-work and reflection propelled by the determination to manage the situation correctly for the sake of his kids. Along the way, Alex discovered certain tactics that he now credits with helping him to cope, recover and ultimately bounce back stronger.
“Look, I still fuck up as much as anyone,” he admits. “I still have to focus on all these things daily – there is no: do it once and you’re suddenly this new guy. But these are some of the elements that helped me.”
TALK TO SOMEONE
“When my wife left me, my old man actually told me to go and see a counsellor. Initially, I was really pissed off at him saying that. Because I was still fucking angry. At that point I felt it was all my ex-wife’s fault – you left me, you left the relationship, you broke the family. My attitude was really quite child-like and ultimately not very helpful.
“My dad said to me, ‘Listen, if you don’t go to a counsellor, you’ll end up in the same situation, the same scenario. You need to talk to someone about why this has happened. So in the end I did go. And it was the best thing that I have ever done. It was completely life-changing, completely life-changing.
“The interesting thing was that I went in and started talking about my relationship with this woman. But then, just naturally, I started looking at all these other elements in my life. Why was I the person that I was? What was I was really like? Why do I do the things that I do?
“Exploring those things enabled me to have some empathy for my ex-wife. It helped me to understand that she was struggling with her own things. That it must have been hard to break up the family for her, too. That it wasn’t making her happy to do this. And so that took the steam out of the situation.
“Talking to the counsellor helped me to get rid of the anger and the blame. When you’re always blaming someone, it means you think everything is always someone else’s fault. That’s not the way to move forward.”
“Look, there were times after seeing that counsellor that I almost crawled out of there, like broken. But afterwards I felt so good for it.”
KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE PRIZE (AND YOUR EGO IN CHECK)
“My parents divorced when I was about nine years old and it was really messy. I think that made me hyper sensitive in wanting to look after my kids through my divorce. And so my main focus became making sure they were OK and that what they had to deal with was as smooth as possible. There was this big prize at stake: that was being able to see my children. They were the most important thing.
“My ex wife and I were in a situation that could escalate like… you have no idea how fast. It could just blow up! It was still difficult speaking with her, but my aim was to always try and stay as calm as possible. Things could easily escalate whether in discussions or text messages. So I learned just to not send that text message or reply to that email. I just tried to stay cool.
“To do that, I had to really work on keeping my ego in check, because my ego is the thing that would have got me into huge strife earlier on. I learnt that I didn’t always have to win every argument. I learnt that instead of disagreeing with my ex wife, I could say: ‘No, you’re right, that’s a great idea, let’s do that.’ She’d have been swinging at me and all of a sudden it’s like – hang on, there’d be no one there to swing at.
“Often arguments come down to pride and ego. There is no gain. So I just focused on my kids, on trying to stay out of court and on making life as calm between with my ex-wife as possible. Because I also knew that if my kids were at her house and she’s all fired up, well that’s not a good environment for them. And that’s why I never bring problems with my ex-wife home to my kids. Ever.”
USE EXERCISE TO
CLEAR YOUR HEAD
“Straight after the split, I got so sick of thinking about my divorce. It was always on my mind. I needed to clear my head, so I started going for walks to get some fresh air in my lungs. That was really helpful.
“Then I said to myself that every time that I think about my divorce, I’m going to drop and do 20 push-ups straight away. So I ended up doing fucking hundreds of them every day. Each time you’d get a little shot of endorphins, and it’d make you feel good, and all of a sudden you felt stronger. Things just grew from there. Soon I was running, doing push-ups and chin-ups everywhere
“Exercise was an unbelievable help for me. It really played a huge role. I was a single guy so getting fitter helped me to feel better about myself and become more confident, even though I was still a bit beaten. Exercise made a huge difference – I couldn’t recommend it highly enough.
GIVE YOURSELF SOME
“Taking some time for yourself every day is a really good idea. If you can stop for five minutes, close your eyes, take a few deep breaths and just try and let go of some of the pressure that you’re holding onto, that can be really helpful when you’re dealing with a lot of conflict and trying to remain calm.
“You know what it’s like. From the moment you wake up your mind’s racing. From dealing with everything at home to the kids, work, money… It never stops. Ever.
“Meditation might be too far-fetched for some people. But I did a weekend course of transcendental mediation with this guy called Tim Brown in Sydney. What meditation did was to give me the ability to calm everything down. It gets rid of all those layers of constant thought that pile pressure on you. All of a sudden you’re not thinking about yourself and all these problems that stress you out so much.
“The other thing meditation gave me was a greater ability to listen to other people. It helped me to empathise more with what they were going through, because it gave me the mental space to be able to do that. It really helped.”
WORK ON YOUR SELF-AWARENESS
“Self awareness is probably the big one. With my first marriage, I think I just lost sight of my relationship. I was working so hard trying to build a business and stay employed in the film industry, which is a really tough field. I’m not sure if I was focused on work too much. You never know. But what I have learnt is that need to be more self-aware.
“Now with my wife, I try to think more about what I’m really like in my relationship. I think about my partner more. And I probably talk more openly and honestly when I’m struggling with things.
“Listen, I don’t always like being open. It’s not easy for men is it? It’s this huge challenge for us and I can still struggle with it. But every time that I have shared my thoughts with my wife when I’ve felt stressed, I’ve felt this huge relief.
“Self-awareness extends to being a dad too. I’m my kids’ role model and I learnt that it’s my actions that they’ll take on, not what I say. So I have to behave a certain way all the time. It’s really important that you remember what you are and what you’re like, even when your kids aren’t around. Because ultimately that’s who you really are.”
Alex Laguna is the founder of BetterDads.com