Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Pause That Refreshes

"For solitude sometimes is best society,
And short retirement urges sweet return."
(John Milton, from Paradise Lost)

A few weeks ago, I drove up to Silver City, New Mexico---an old, mile-high mining town that's been transformed into a place with lots of art galleries and funky businesses---and spent a couple of enjoyable nights there. I went alone, my wife being happy to stay home and catch up on her reading. A few weeks before that, she went off by herself to Detroit to visit her niece and her newborn baby, and that was fine with me. I used the time to go hiking and to check out a couple of new restaurants.

My wife and I go to plenty of places together---we're actually great travel companions---but there are times when we recognize that we either need time alone, or one of us wants to go somewhere that the other one has no real interest in. In the case of Silver City, the town reminds me in many ways of Brattleboro, Vermont, where I spent some happy years in the 1970's. My wife, though, doesn't relate to either Brattleboro or Silver City, and there's no particular reason she should. Conversely, I don't relate to Detroit. Her niece is a lovely young woman, but she lives in quite possibly the ugliest, most dispiriting city in America. Just thinking about Detroit puts me in a bad mood.

So, rather than tag along half-heartedly somewhere, or feeling guilty that the other person isn't having fun, we sometimes go our separate ways, and we're both happier for it.

The reason I'm saying all this is that I keep running into married people who seem imprisoned by the notion of togetherness. They go everywhere and do everything together, even when it's quite obvious that at least one of them would rather not be there. (Next time you're in a mall, look at the faces of the married men). Or they "compromise" by coming up with a result that neither of them really wants. (He wants to go camping, she wants to go to the beach, so they wind up in some big-city hotel). This seems crazy to me.

Not only is there nothing wrong with spouses having different interests, there's nothing wrong with acknowledging those differences and acting on them. Obviously, if a couple has no common interests and never goes anywhere together, it wouldn't be much of a marriage. But there's no reason why a weekend apart now and then, or even a longer trip, has to be seen as a threat. In fact, being away a for a while will often make you realize how much you miss your spouse, and how eager you are to tell him or her about the details of your trip.

Mutual trust, of course, is a crucial element in spending time apart. If a wife is worried that her husband will be trying to pick up women on his ski trip, or a husband thinks that his wife's visit to her college roommate is a cover-up for seeing an old boyfriend, it won't work. But if someone is that suspicious---with or without cause---how much trust is there, anyway? And if a person is determined to have extramarital sex, he or she doesn't need to fly a thousand miles to get it. In fact, if a person senses that his spouse won't let him out of her sight for fear of his taking up with someone else, he's probably more likely to misbehave. If he's going to be blamed anyway, the thinking goes, he may as well get something out of it.

In my book, I discuss what I call "unconventional" marriages. For many couples, spending time apart is not especially unconventional, but for other couples it might be. It might even be terrifying. I'm not trying to convince anyone to do something he doesn't want. But I am trying to get people who are stuck in a less-than-satisfying system to think expansively, to try something new, to get reaquainted with themselves, and to return to their home relaxed, refreshed, and with a greater sense of appreciation and purpose.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Taking the Pressure Off First Dates

"I don't know how willing I would be to go on a date with a stranger."
(Jacqueline Malan, 25, explaining why she goes on "group dates". From a Wall Street Journal article titled "All Together Now")

When I write about dating, I'm usually addressing the concerns of people who are getting back into the dating scene after a divorce or the break-up of a long-term relationship. I'm thinking of people in their 40's or older, who may feel out of place in bars but who find online dating to be baffling, frustrating, and overly time-consuming.

Mid-life singles are far more likely to be looking for a stable, long-term relationship than for a series of flings, and quite rightly. (I think it was Lenny Bruce who said there's nothing more pathetic than an aging pickup artist). But the search for a "suitable" partner can all too easily turn first dates into inquisitions, where each person is bombarding the other with dozens of make-or-break questions and neither person can sit back, relax, and enjoy the moment. Although it's understandable that someone wouldn't want to waste time on a person who's wrong for them, how can anyone make a good impression if he or she feels under attack? So both people go home unsatisfied, and the next day they're even less enthusiastic about repeating the process with another stranger.

A possible solution to this problem comes from a somewhat unlikely source: the Facebook generation. Accurately or not, twenty-something singles are usually portrayed as interested mainly in brief hookups and "friends with benefits" relationships (the "benefit" being sex). But, according to some sociologists, young people---and young women in particular---are disillusioned with casual sex, and wary of "traditional" first dates, where "Will we go to bed tonight or not?" is the unstated subtext.

In response to this disillusionment, a number of group dating websites have sprung up recently. encourages new members to enroll their friends and their friends-of-friends. Once a critical mass of members is signed up from a particular geographic area, an "ambassador"---a volunteer social director, in essence---will arrange get-togethers such as beer tastings, bowling nights, hiking trips, and other recreational or social events. Whenever possible, members would be invited to events with at least one of their friends, so that no one feels like the odd person out. What they do there is up to them.

Similar sites include, which has 40,000 members, and, which has 70,000. Facebook has an application called Meet New People, which claims over three million users who are eligible to attend group gatherings (hopefully, not all at the same time).

Although these sites are geared toward young adults, my guess is that the average age of their members will gradually rise (just as the average age of members has gone from 31 to 48 over the past few years). But mid-life singles don't have to wait, or be the oldest person in the room by twenty years. There are plenty of events right now in almost every city or town that are geared to a more "mature" crowd, and that provide much of the same low-pressure group activities that the online sites I mentioned do.

In my own small town of 30,000 people, there are regularly-scheduled events such as Latin dance classes, wine appreciation parties, drop-in current event discussions at coffee shops, photography workshops, and hiking clubs. In a larger city, you could go to similar events seven nights a week and barely be scratching the surface of what is available. Not all of them are just for singles, but, typically, singles constitute a large percentage of such gatherings. In fact, you're probably better off not going to something solely because it's advertised as singles-only, because if you don't meet someone you like at such an event you'll think of it as a waste of time and money. But if it's an activity you truly enjoy, you'll have a good time no matter who else is there.

The other thing I like about interest-oriented group events is that, unlike online dating sites, you actually get to see how a particular person looks, sounds, dresses, and behaves in public. In the online world, out-of-date photographs and misleading, or totally false, descriptions are all too common. Without wasting time corresponding with a person who ultimately disappoints you, or having to barrage him with personal questions on a first date, you can quickly size someone up at a group event without even letting him or anyone else know what you're doing. And if you find someone interesting, you can approach him or her in an unthreatening way, perhaps with a question or comment about the activity that you both, presumably, enjoy.

But I wouldn't start with, "Hey, you hike here often?" Even Lenny Bruce would groan at that one.

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Gift That---Unfortunately---Keeps On Giving

"A Manhattan lawyer is suing his wife, her lover, and her father, claiming she gave him a venereal disease she contracted while having an affair".
(From a New York Post article, September 21, 2008)

Of all the repercussions that can result from extramarital sex, contracting a sexually transmitted disease, and then passing it on to your spouse, ranks right up there with getting your lover pregnant (or getting pregnant by your lover). But that's what happened to Amy Tanne and her husband, Frederick Tanne.

While looking through his medicine cabinet one day, Mr. Tanne found a herpes-treatment drug that his father-in-law (a physician) had prescribed for Amy. Mr. Tanne demanded to know how Amy could possibly have contracted herpes, since neither one had ever had a sexually transmitted disease previously. She eventually admitted that she had been having an affair with a prominent Westchester County accountant named Robert Stockel, who had presumably given her the disease. Mr. Tanne then had himself tested for herpes and, sure enough, he has it.

At that point, Mr. Tanne, a senior litigation partner at Kirkland & Ellis, a huge (1,400 lawyer) national law firm, decided to sue everyone involved on one legal theory or another. He filed a divorce action against his wife on the grounds of adultery, a separate tort action against Stockel for "knowingly transferring the virus", and another tort claim against his father-in-law and Amy for "conspiring to hide the infidelity and the subsequent infection". In addition to a divorce from Amy, Mr. Tanne is seeking monetary compensation from all three of the defendants for medical bills, lost income, and pain and suffering.

Let me point out here that some of Mr. Tanne's allegations have been denied by the defendants, and it may be many months before the whole story emerges. But the damage has already been done, a lot of it self-inflicted by Mr. Tanne, who apparently has allowed his anger (which is justified, if the allegations are true) to cloud his judgment.

As an experienced litigation lawyer, Mr. Tanne knows that court filings are generally considered public records, unless they are specifically "sealed" by the judge assigned to the case. Given the juicy nature of the case, and the fact that the parties are all high-income, high-profile professionals, it was eminently foreseeable that a tabloid like the Post would ferret out the story and have a field day with it (the headline was "Cuckold 'Sore' at His Wife").

My guess is that Mr. Tanne is less interested in getting a monetary judgment against the defendants---he probably makes well over a million dollars a year at his firm---as he is in punishing them and making life difficult for them. As I said, he has a right to be angry. In fact, he has a right to be very angry; people have gotten killed for less. But just as Mr. Tanne's lawyerly restraint kept him from showing up at Stockel's office with a loaded gun, that same restraint should have kept him from filing legal actions that will wind up humiliating himself more than they humiliate the defendants.

Sadly, clouded judgments and rash actions are all-too-common in divorce cases. It doesn't matter if the person is a lawyer, a doctor, or a Fortune 500 CEO; anger and the lust for revenge will undo decades of professional training. It happened a while back in the Jack Welch divorce case. Welch, one of the most famous corporate executives of our time, had an affair, filed for divorce, but then became an absolute madman when it came to opposing his wife's financial demands. He wound up paying her anyway, but he lost not only a lot of money but a lot of respect among his peers that had taken decades to build up.

The Post article implied that another attorney was representing Mr. Tanne. That's certainly a good thing---we all know the adage about lawyers representing themselves---but I have to wonder whether that lawyer really thought it was a good idea to file the various lawsuits or whether he just gave Mr. Tanne what he wanted. A good divorce lawyer always needs to consider his client's long-term interests. That may mean telling the client (in a diplomatic way, if possible) what he doesn't want to hear. It may also mean talking the client out of revenge-based attacks. This isn't easy to do, especially when the client is a lawyer himself, but it's necessary if the lawyer wants to keep the client from being called a "cuckold" in the newspaper.

The other obvious lesson from this unhappy story is that, in this day and age, if you're going to risk your marriage and your future by having an affair, you shouldn't compound the risk by having unprotected sex. Amy Tanne probably thought that with an educated, high-income professional like Robert Stockel she had nothing to worry about. She was wrong. And now her lapse of judgment, coupled with a very different lapse of judgment on her husband's part, has turned a private affair into a very public spectacle.