Tuesday, April 29, 2008

You Want a Prenup? Don't You Love Me?

"People think prenuptial agreements are the death of romance. But they're an opportunity to tell your partner everything, to broach delicate subjects and expose your respective vulnerabilities. You bare your soul and express an abiding love and trust for one another. What could be more romantic?"
(Atty. Arlene Dubin, author of "Prenups for Lovers")

Arlene Dubin is not only a respected New York family law practitioner and a very good writer; she's also a brilliant marketer. She took something with a notoriously unromantic image and made it the very definition of romance. She also debunks the notion that prenups are just for celebrities and billionaires; she argues convincingly that they make sense for just about any couple with assets acquired before marriage, children from a previous marriage, small-business ownership interests, or the expectation of inheritances. And given that many couples nowadays marry for the first time in their thirties and forties, prenups are not just for late-in-life unions (although they are so compelling in such cases that I would advise older people never to marry without one; I'll tell you why in my next blog article).

The basic principle of a prenuptial agreement is that, as Atty. Dubin puts it, people get to determine their own destiny. A couple can tailor an agreement to fit their own unique circumstances, and even, to some extent, override the laws of their state. If, for example, a couple agrees to a prenup provision that in the event of divorce no alimony will be paid to either party (or, conversely, that a certain fixed amount of alimony will be paid), such a provision would normally be enforced by the divorce court, even if state alimony standards would yield a contrary result.

However, not every clause in every agreement will necessarily be enforced. In particular, provisions related to child custody, support, and visitation (or "parenting time") will ordinarily not be binding on the court, if it appears that enforcing such provisions would jeopardize the welfare of the couple's children, or undermine state child support guidelines.

A court would also reject a prenup that appears to have been the product of fraud or duress. Thus, the "Here, sign this" approach on the night before the wedding is not likely to succeed, nor would a systematic attempt to hide assets, debts, and other potentially-crucial facts from one's future spouse (of course, that hasn't stopped a lot of people from trying).

If you're at all thinking of having a prenuptial agreement, raise the issue first with your future spouse before going to an attorney. Most people would be alarmed or resentful if you consult an attorney in such a delicate matter without their knowledge, especially if they get blind-sided by a letter from the attorney. Pushing too hard or too soon on the legal front can kill your chances for achieving what could have been a beneficial result for both of you.

Of course, at some point legal assistance is a must---please don't try to write your agreement yourself---and I strongly recommend that you each get your own attorney. In fact, most attorneys would probably refuse to represent both parties, even if you're both insisting that you agree on everything and you just need a lawyer to "put it in legal language". Lawyers are, for good reason, sensitive to even the possibility of a conflict of interest.

Having your own attorney allows that attorney to bring up matters you may not have considered, to educate you on what is or is not possible under your state's law, and, if necessary, to come up with a strategy to ensure that your future spouse is fully disclosing all assets. Although having your own lawyer may make the process seem like litigation, it's not. It's really nothing more than healthy negotiation and disclosure, akin to the due diligence you'd perform if you were forming a business partnership or making a major investment (which, of course, you are; maybe the biggest one of your life).

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

When Your Spouse Refuses to Take Responsibility

"How can I find affordable marriage counseling? My husband and I need help, but he won't go and he won't pay for me to go, either".
(From Sue Shellenbarger's Work & Family Mailbox column in the Wall Street Journal)

Although Ms. Shellenbarger answered this question in her usual helpful way (see if your employer has free counseling under an employee assistance plan; or perhaps your church has a free or low-cost program), I think she misses the bigger picture. Yes, there may be low-cost alternatives for those who cannot afford traditional marriage counseling, but what good can they do if one spouse refuses to participate?

A spouse who won't attend counseling sessions of any kind is saying, in effect, "This is your problem. Go ahead and fix it if you want to, but don't bother me about it". He or she (although usually it's a "he") is washing his hands of all responsibility in the matter.

In a situation like that, marriage counseling, in the usual sense of that term, is impossible, given that it's based on the notion that the marital relationship involves the participation and consent of both spouses. A spouse can unilaterally change his or her own expectations and behaviors, but cannot unilaterally change the marital system. Recognizing this, many marriage counselors will not accept individual spouses as clients, or, if they do, they will stress to the client that the counseling sessions will be more in the nature of individual therapy. In severe cases---where the non-participating spouse essentially has one foot out the door---the therapy may have to focus on the reality of divorce and prepare the client for her new life, whether she wants that new life or not.

Having said all that, though, I'll offer at least some hope. A lot of men instinctively avoid marriage counseling because they know in their hearts that they have contributed greatly to the problems in their marriage, but they don't want to have to defend their bad behavior to a stranger, especially if that stranger is a woman. The good news is that marriage counseling is normally not about assigning blame but about coming up with workable solutions. And although probably a majority of marriage counselors are women, there are thousands of men in the field, as well as a fair number of male-female counselor teams. There is no need for a husband to feel that he's going to be tried, convicted, and executed by an all-woman judge and jury.

But if logical reasoning fails to persuade and the husband refuses to budge, he's sending an unmistakeable signal that his wife can do whatever she wants, as long as it doesn't involve him. Whether he knows it or not, that's a dangerous signal to send. His wife may well interpret it as proof that the marriage is over, and she may skip the calls to the marriage counselors and start making calls to divorce lawyers.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Playing Detective---Part II

"Rekindled romances were surprisingly successful the second time around (provided that the lost loves are single, divorced, or widowed---not currently married)."
(Nancy Kalish, Ph.D., http://www.lostlovers.com/)

My last blog article warned of the dangers of tracking down a former lover if either or both of you are currently married. And the dangers are real. But if you're both unmarried, or not in a committed relationship, a long-ago lover can be just the person you've been hoping to find. And if you're one of the many mid-life people struggling with the realities of post-divorce dating, an old lover is more likely to be in your comfort zone than someone completely new would be.

Nancy Kalish, a California State University psychology professor who for many years has studied "lost love reunions", says that rekindled relationships are most successful when the original relationship was broken off due to "situational reasons"---his family moved away while you were both still in high school, or you went off to colleges a thousand miles apart, or you were both simply "too young".

Dr. Kalish notes that when couples grew up together, knew each other's family and friends, and perhaps went to the same schools and church, they're likely to share core values, values that may seem even more important once we're older and wiser. An early love can unconsciously become the "standard" for all future loves, partly because such a love is often based as much on friendship and familiarity as on romance or sexual passion.

Of course, when there's a reward, there's usually a risk. In the case of lost lovers, it's the risk of breaking up twice. And not only are you risking a second break-up, you're risking the loss of a dream, the loss of the hope that may have sustained you during the tough times you've gone through in your marriage or in your divorce.

Because of these risks, Dr. Kalish advises that before you initiate any contact with a lost love, you should ask yourself if you could handle anything bad that might occur: a rejection, a second breakup, a sad realization that feelings have changed and the love is gone forever. If you feel you couldn't accept such disappointments or rejections, it's best not to go there at all. Let it live in your memory, but focus on finding someone new who at least comes close to that ideal.

Of course, when you learn someone's whereabouts through a computer search, you're not always going to learn his marital status. You may have to just take a chance and contact him, and hope for the best. If he turns out to be married, you're better off letting the matter drop entirely, even if he expresses a desire to see you (especially if he expresses a desire to see you). If his marriage is unhappy, you're not the person to be his marriage counselor. And I don't think you want to be his part-time wife. If and when he's free again, he can contact you.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Playing Detective can be Playing with Fire

"Married people who contact lost loves often say they just 'want closure'. But there is no closure: the old feelings always come back".

(Nancy Kalish, Ph.D., http://www.lostlovers.com/)

For better or worse, we live in an age in which it's relatively easy to track someone down. Anyone with imagination, patience, and Internet access can learn more about someone in ten minutes than the famous literary detectives of the 1940's could learn in two weeks. Most of us have probably "googled" old friends, lost relatives, and people we used to work with in the distant past. It can certainly be interesting to see what people are doing now, or where they're living, and sometimes it's tempting to go a step further and contact them. And of course, some people invite others to contact them, through their membership in classmates.com or similar sites.

All of this is usually harmless amusement, provided, of course, that one doesn't become a pest or a cyber-stalker. But one category of sleuthing and reuniting that should be avoided at all costs is tracking down old lovers, if either or both of you are currently married.

I've known a fair number of married people who have contacted or been contacted by ex-lovers, and they all tell a similar story. The first contact is typically an innocent-sounding e-mail that explains that he or she stumbled over the other person's name while doing a totally-unrelated search, which of course triggered a curiosity about what the person might be doing these days, etc. If the response is at all encouraging, the next e-mail will usually be a bit warmer in tone, alluding to happy memories and suggesting that it might be fun to meet for lunch sometime soon. ("Well, why not? We're just friends now").

The lunch always seems to be at a nice restaurant, on a day when both parties can afford to linger a while. ("We have a lot to catch up on"). After the usual exchange of information and life-events, the conversation invariably turns to their past relationship, or at least the parts that they prefer to remember. The longer the conversation continues, the more each person is likely to start feeling those old feelings, the kind of feelings that seem to be lacking in his or her marriage these days.

This is dangerous territory. What is happening at that lunch, and at any subsequent lunches or meetings, is a battle between illusion and reality. And illusion will always win that battle. I say "illusion" because, with a lost lover, we're not looking at him or her as a real person (the way we look at our spouse) but as an embodiment of a happier past. We conveniently forget that there were good reasons why the relationship with that person ended, or we gloss over those reasons by believing that we must have made a mistake in breaking up; that if we had just given it a little more time we would have gotten it right.

The reality of your current marriage may or may not be a happy one. There may be problems that need fixing. But they're not going to be fixed by escaping into the past---a past that was idyllic only in your imagination---or by forcing your real-life spouse to compete with an illusion. Even if the contacts with your ex-lover never lead to an affair, they're likely to engender an increasing dissatisfaction with your marriage, and even a resentment of your spouse for depriving you of the life you think you were meant to live.

I'm not saying you should accept your present reality without complaint. I'm saying that the way to improve that reality is by recognizing problems and doing something about them, not by embracing a fantasy.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Your Bedroom or Mine?

"By 2015, a majority of custom-built homes will have his-and-hers master bedroom suites".
(From a National Association of Home Builders market trends report)

It used to be that having separate bedrooms meant that a couple had stopped having sex. Not anymore. In rapidly increasing numbers, married homeowners---or at least those affluent enough to afford it---are opting for separate bedrooms. In some cases, houses are being designed that way; in others, couples are reconfiguring the existing bedroom set-up, turning a guest bedroom, for example, into a bedroom for one of the spouses. And they're usually not doing it to avoid sex. In fact, they may be improving their sex lives.

Married couples are finally recognizing that sleeping together (in the literal sense) is not synonymous with sleeping soundly together. A lot of people snore. Others have restless leg syndrome, or get up to go to the bathroom a couple of times during the night, or can only fall asleep while reading or watching TV.

Sleep is as vital to one's physical health as good nutrition and regular exercise. And chronic lack of sleep can also affect one's marital health. If one spouse regularly causes the other to suffer sleepless nights---even if the reasons are totally beyond his or her control---resentment will eventually set in. And resentment has a way of spilling over into other areas of a relationship.

If you're one of those unfortunate people who hasn't had a decent night's sleep in years, why not admit the obvious: it's never going to change. Then do something about it, and don't worry about what your kids or your in-laws or even your spouse will think (you're the one who's suffering, not them).

It might make it easier to implement a change in sleeping arrangements if you can look at separate bedrooms not as a necessary evil but rather as something sexy. (Yes, I said sexy). Think back to when you were single. There were probably nights when someone stayed over at your place, nights when you stayed over at their place, nights when you made love somewhere---planned or not---but then went home by yourself, nights when you were happy simply to stay home alone...there were all kinds of possibilities. And it was the sense of possibility that added to the sexiness of it all. You hadn't settled into a predictable pattern. Sex was something special; you anticipated it with pleasure, you savored it afterward, and you were never certain when, or where, it would happen.

If you can get back to that mindset, if you can pretend that the two of you are still dating, I think you'll discover that separate bedrooms lend themselves to erotic possibilities. For example, after dinner some night, you might suggest that your spouse drop by your room in an hour or so. (Of course, he'll have to knock, unless you decide to leave the door a tiny bit ajar). You will have given yourself time to take a bath, put on something nice, set up the room for a romantic rendezvous---all in complete privacy. And if you're in the mood for an overnight lover, you just might let him stay afterward. (But if he starts snoring, he can be back in his own room in thirty seconds).

As I say in my book, if you have a problem that you can't seem to solve, think imaginatively and dare to be unconventional. Having an unconventional marriage is a lot better than having a frustrating one. It all comes down to doing what works best for you. But in the case of separate bedrooms, maybe the unconventional will soon become the norm.