Monday, March 24, 2008

Playing the Psychiatrist Role

"Marriage is a 50-50 proposition".
(Author unknown)

We've all heard the saying that marriage is a 50-50 proposition, but what, exactly, does that mean? And is it true?

I think what is usually meant is that marriage involves compromise. You shouldn't expect to get your way all the time. You should be prepared to meet your spouse halfway to resolve the inevitable differences that will arise.

All of that sounds reasonable, but in the real world compromises are often hard to achieve, or even to define. If she wants to have another child, and he thinks that the one they have is enough, how can they resolve the problem by compromise?

Even many "routine" disagreements or incompatibilities are difficult to compromise. If she wants to have sex tonight and he just wants to fall asleep, is there a "halfway" solution? Or if he's dying to buy a Porsche, and she feels they're already one step away from bankruptcy, is there a 50-50 alternative that will please both of them? I doubt it. No matter what happens, one or the other of them is going to "win" on the issue. (And, unfortunately, when people get hung up on winning, both of them are likely to lose in the long run).

I'm not saying that we shouldn't be trying to reach out to our spouses to achieve mutually-satisfying results. I'm saying that we should recognize that true compromise is often an illusion, and that the "50-50 proposition" theory should refer to the overall contributions of both spouses over the course of time, rather than to the outcome of a particular issue.

At any given moment, though, one spouse or the other may need to be putting in considerably more than 50% of the effort to keep the relationship going. If your wife's mother was recently diagnosed with cancer, you're going to have to cut her some slack---maybe a lot of slack---for quite some time. If your husband was suddenly terminated from his job, you're going to have to help him deal with his anger and possibly his depression, while simultaneously dealing with the financial realities of the situation and with your own anxieties.

Part of being a good husband or good wife involves playing the role of psychiatrist. You need to sympathize with what your spouse is going through, provide encouragement, offer suggestions, serve as a sounding board, and suppress your own need to seek sympathy or vent your anger. It's not easy, and the reward isn't always immediate. But if you know in your heart that when the time comes your spouse will return the favor, it's worth the effort: eventually, things will balance out.

Of course, things will never balance out unless both spouses willingly take turns being the psychiatrist. It's all too easy for one person to obsess endlessly over his own issues, and to take his spouse's efforts for granted. If a perpetually-needy person has a self-sacrificing spouse, their relationship might go on for years in a one-sided way, but it can rarely go on like that forever. Even the most self-sacrificing person will eventually grow resentful and hit an emotional wall. When that happens, it may be too late to restore a 50-50 balance, or to avoid a divorce that could have been prevented.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Hard Times and Bad Divorces

"The only people who are selling now are people who have to sell, such as people going through a divorce. And I sure don't envy them".
(Neil Brooks, Phoenix real estate broker, as quoted in the Arizona Republic)

When I was a mediator for the divorce court in Phoenix, real estate prices seemed to be rising by the minute. The only divorcing couples who didn't have substantial equity in their homes were the ones who had gone crazy on home-equity loans or lines of credit, and had blown the borrowed money on luxury vehicles, expensive vacations, and the like. Just about every other couple could either sell the marital home and split the proceeds, or figure out a way for one spouse to buy out the other's equity and remain in the home. They at least had something to start a new life with.

Although divorce mediation is never an easy job, it's always more pleasant when there are profits to be divided rather than debts to be apportioned. When you combine the inherent psychological stress of divorce with the very real prospect of financial disaster, you have a situation that brings out the worst in people. Each spouse is convinced that it was the other one who got them into the mess they're in. "You're the one who wanted that damn house, not me". "What do you mean? You're the one who was always bitching about the bathrooms being too small in the old house".

Assigning blame is all-too-human, but it's a colossal waste of energy. And focusing on the past won't clean up the mess. If you're convinced that you want a divorce and you want it now, you're probably going to take a major financial hit. There may be little or no equity in the house; there may even be negative equity. Your credit rating may take a nosedive, which will not only make purchasing another home difficult, but can bump up the interest rate on your existing credit cards, even if you've never missed a payment. On top of all that, who knows if your job will still be there in six months---or six weeks?

Unless your marriage is truly intolerable, or unless your spouse is a compulsive spender or degenerate gambler, maybe you should hold off on divorce. Divorce is always expensive, even in good economic times. When the same income that was barely enough to keep one household going now has to pay for two of them, something has to give. When you add to the mix the lawyer bills, the court costs, the real estate broker fees, and the moving costs, you're flirting with bankruptcy or even---in an extreme case---homelessness.

Maybe you should ride out the bad times together. You'll not only avoid having to sell in a free-falling market, you'll have a common purpose. Instead of it being the two of you against each other, it will now be the two of you against the world. You can try, maybe for the first time, to get a grip on your spending. You can get in the habit of celebrating little victories, such as keeping that old car running another year, or getting another season or two out of your clothes, or finally paying off that high-interest credit card. You can learn not to keep harping on past spending decisions, no matter how unwise they may seem today.

Of course, breaking old habits is never easy. The old way of doing things---the way that led to the current crisis---will have to be changed. Priorities will have to be set. Spending limits will have to be agreed on (or, if necessary, imposed). It will be tough for a while, and it will take unending co-operation and good will. But co-operation and good will may be exactly what your marriage has lacked.

Give it a try. If it works, you may never have to think about divorce again. But even if, down the road, you do decide to go your separate ways, you'll have a much better chance of starting your new lives on a better financial footing, and of knowing how to avoid similar problems in the future.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Spitzer Psychobabble at its Worst

"Dr. Laura: It's Silda's Fault..."
(Headline in the Daily Intelligencer)

"My brother was simply following a biological imperative. If men weren't attracted to sexy women, the human species would have disappeared a long time ago".
(Dr. Daniel Spitzer, brother of Eliot Spitzer)

Readers of my book know that I have a keen appreciation for human frailty, especially when it comes to sexual temptation. I don't endorse extramarital sex, but I can understand what can drive a person to it. And as a self-proclaimed moral relativist, I'm not usually one to criticize those who have succumbed to temptation.

But I'll make an exception in the Eliot Spitzer case.

Even before the scandal broke out, Spitzler was known in legal and political circles as arrogant, ruthless, and egomaniacal, given to self-congratulatory comments, mean-spirited attacks, and the worst kind of opportunism. It was said that he would throw his own grandmother under the bus if it furthered his agenda. As far as I know, he didn't do that to his grandmother---literally, at least---but he has certainly sacrificed his wife and allowed her to twist in the wind as the alleged "cause" of his behavior.

Let's start with Spitzer's brother's quote (which Spitzler has not, to date, repudiated). According to the brother (who has been described as a "reknowned neurosurgeon"), there is no personal responsibility when it comes to men and sex. If you have the opportunity, you'll go for it. In fact, by going for it you're playing a vital role in the propagation of the species. Well, Eliot Spitzer, by fathering three daughters, has already done his part to ensure that the human race survives beyond this generation. And is the good doctor implying that Eliot's wife, Silda, is inadequate in bed, or at least not adequate enough to compete with "sexy" women?

And then there's Dr. Laura Schlessinger. The day after the Spitzer story broke, she was on the Today show pontificating about how a wife like Silda Spitzer has only herself to blame when she "fails to make him feel like a man, like a success, like her hero". When that happens, "he's very susceptible to the charm of some other woman making him feel what he needs".

What absolute garbage. First of all, Eliot Spitzer was not exactly the poster boy for the Low Self-Esteem Society. "Feel like a man, like a success, like a hero"? Hey, just ask him! He's not only a man, but an Alpha Male. He's Superman. He's indestructible. (At least until this week).

Secondly, when Schlessinger says that Spitzer was "susceptible to the charm of some other woman", she seems to be saying that the other woman was pursuing him. Earth to Dr. Laura: this was not an affair. The girl was a prostitute. The only thing she was pursuing was money. He initiated the whole thing.

And finally, who is Dr. Laura to tell us that Silda Spitzer was failing to please her husband? She doesn't even know the woman. The arrogance of Eliot Spitzer is exceeded only by that of his apologists and enablers.

Prostitution is often called a victimless crime, but of course that's not always true. Eliot Spitzer is certainly a victim. He may be a victim of his own sense of entitlement, but he's a victim nonetheless. For the rest of his life, he'll be a public joke. But the truly innocent victim here is Silda Spitzer, who a week ago was largely unknown to the public, and is now accused on national TV of being a bad wife, an unsexy woman, and the "real" cause of her husband's downfall.

If there's any lesson for married men to take from all this, it is that decisions have consequences, sometimes unanticipated and far-reaching consequences. Make sure the decisions you make are the right ones.

Friday, March 7, 2008

The One Relationship We Forget to Nourish

"When people take time off, they're really spending time with themselves. That's a relationship worth having, too".
(Carolyn Hax, advice columnist, in response to a question about starting a new relationship right after the previous one had ended).

Carolyn Hax, whose "Tell Me About It" appears in hundreds of newspapers, is the only advice columnist I feel is worth reading. She's an exceptionally clear thinker and she's not afraid to tell her questioners what they don't want to hear.

In the column I quoted from, the questioner's ex-boyfriend had immediately taken up with someone new (my guess is that he had the new one lined up all along), and she wanted to know why she shouldn't do the same thing. Why should she mourn the loss of someone who proved to be a jerk? Why should she deny herself companionship and sex? Carolyn's response was that if companionship and sex are all that you want, then go for it. But if you want to try to figure out what went wrong, and prepare for a new relationship that involves more than just companionship and sex---with someone who's not a jerk---you're going to need time.

I agree. When people rush into new relationships, particularly after the breakup of a marriage or other long-term involvement, it's usually for the wrong reason. Wanting sex is all well and good, but often a person's perceived need for sex is really a need for validation that he or she is still desirable, or a means of revenge against the "ex". If you are still in a state of shock, anger, or resentment, sex with someone new is not going to cure the problem. It may even make it worse, especially if you get overly invested in the new person and he or she just sees you as a friend with benefits.

I'm not saying that you have to spend every waking moment for months and months obsessing about what went wrong. Yes, you want to examine what the two of you did or didn't do, but you also want to figure out who you really are and what you want in a relationship. You can do this best by---as Carolyn Hax said---forming a relationship with yourself. Learn to be comfortable spending quality time alone. Read some good books, listen to music, go out for long walks. Spend time with friends, but don't hesitate to go somewhere by yourself if you're in the mood.

If you're a man, learn to do some of the things that you always depended on your wife or girlfriend for. I'm convinced that the reason many recently-divorced men are desperate for a new woman is not that they need sex so urgently, but rather that they simply have no clue how to function on their own. If men learned the rudiments of cooking, cleaning, food-shopping, checkbook-balancing, and other basic life skills, they would more easily avoid the trading-one-woman-for-another trap.

For both men and women, the goal should be to emerge stronger, wiser, less bitter, and with a renewed sense of optimism and purpose. Depending on the length of the prior relationship and the intensity of feelings engendered by the breakup, this can take anywhere from a few months to a couple of years. (If it takes much more than that, there may be more avoidance than healing going on). But the time it takes to develop that relationship with yourself is well worth it. After all, it's the only relationship that you can guarantee will last a lifetime.