Friday, December 26, 2008

Lives of Quiet Desperation

"I love my husband, but how do you make a man stop embarrassing you in public?....He asks complete strangers walking by if they would 'like to buy a wife cheap.' He tells me people think he's funny..."
(From "Not Laughing in Cincinnati", a Dear Abby questioner)

On a radio show recently, I made the rather sweeping pronouncement that eighty percent of divorces are unnecessary. I told the host that, unless a marriage is characterized by ongoing physical or emotional abuse, untreated alcoholism or drug addiction, or repeated infidelities, there should be a way of resolving problems within the relationship, at least to the extent that both spouses are reasonably satisfied most of the time.

And I do believe that. But I was talking about people who give up on their marriages too easily, without trying new or imaginative approaches to dealing with conflict. The other side of that coin are the people who suffer forever in what clearly seem to be hopeless and dispiriting marriages. These are the people who, like the Dear Abby questioner, claim to love their spouse, but die a little bit every day because of that spouse's relentless bullying, verbal abuse, and control. These are the people who should get divorced, but never seem to, usually because of an acute lack of self-respect and self-confidence.

I hope that doesn't sound like you or your marriage, but if it does I have some simple advice for you: don't put up with it another day. Don't let him call you a dumb b*tch, a fat b*tch, or any other kind of b*tch. Don't let him make jokes at your expense, funny or otherwise. Don't let him set humiliating rules for you, or monitor your whereabouts, or prevent you from seeing friends or family, or impose unwarranted limits on your discretionary spending.

But how do you stop something that has been going on without protest for years? I think you begin by staying calm, and dealing with the problem the moment it manifests itself. "John, what you just said was humiliating to me. I don't ever want to hear those words again." If he laughs, avoid the temptation to rip into him; just say, as quietly and firmly as you can, "This is anything but funny. I'm dead-serious about this."

Your new-found assertiveness may be greeted with shock, disbelief, and even anger. "Why are you telling me this now?" And, yes, you did go along with it for far too long. You may have held your tongue out of a fear of conflict or a hope that the problem would just go away. But making a mistake in the past doesn't mean you have to keep making it. Today is a new day.

Because, as I mentioned, self-confidence---or the lack thereof---often plays a key role in these situations, professional help may be needed to address the underlying problem. And professional help may be what's needed for an abusive bully, as well. But bullies are not known for self-awareness, and not likely to seek help unless pushed to the wall. The best plan is to overcome your own inhibitions first, and then assess the situation. Maybe your spouse will, after the initial shock, start respecting you and start changing his ways. If so, great. If not, divorce is an option, and it may be the best option. It's certainly a better option than suffering in silence, or writing desperate letters to Dear Abby.


A Message to My Readers

Until very recently, I have kept to the schedule I announced back in August of 2007 of writing one new blog article per week. There are now well over sixty articles archived on this site, and I immodestly believe that most of them are worth reading and re-reading.

But, in addition to my blog pieces, I now write a monthly column for, and in January I'll be a twice-a-month columnist for I'm proud to be affiliated with both of these high-quality sites, and I want to be sure I have the time and energy to produce good and original material for them. As a result, I've decided to scale back my blog schedule to two per month.

I thank once again those of you who have been reading these articles over the past sixteen months, and I hope that my quality-over-quantity approach will ensure your loyalty in the coming year.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

"That's an Order, Honey!"

"My dad started running...after my mom ordered him to lose weight."
(Stephanie Simon, quoted in a Wall Street Journal article, "Still Running After All These Years")

Dr. Harvey Simon is a man obsessed. The Newton, Massachusetts internist has run ten miles a day for thirty years. He has not missed a single day, even when suffering from broken toes and crippling back spasms. He has run through blizzards, ice storms, and hurricanes. As a doctor, he knows that he's subjecting his joints and bones to far more abuse than they were meant to handle, and he admits that he would never advise his patients to do what he does.

As a former runner, I found Dr. Simon's story fascinating, because I know how easy it is for a habit---even a good habit---to turn into an obsession. (Just because a little bit of something may be good doesn't mean that a lot is better). But as someone who writes about marriage, I was struck by the fact that, for Dr. Simon, it all began when his wife "ordered" him to lose weight.

Maybe it's just me, but I find something troubling about a husband or wife ordering his or her spouse to do something. If I ordered my wife to lose weight, she would have every right to feel that I was being obnoxious and presumptuous. Obnoxious because someone who needs to lose weight doesn't need to be reminded of it. And presumptuous because my "order" implies that I'm in a position of authority over her.

Think about it: who has the authority to issue orders to us? When you're a child, your parents do. When you're in the military, your commanding officers do. When you're at work, your boss does. When you're in the hospital, your doctors do. If you're unlucky enough to be in jail, the warden and guards do.

But your spouse is not---or shouldn't be---the equivalent of a parent or a drill sergeant or a prison guard. I'm not saying that your spouse isn't entitled to have opinions about your appearance, your habits, or your lifestyle. But the right way to deal with these opinions is either by keeping them to yourself (which is usually the best way, unless they're truly eating away at you), or by gentle persuasion.

Gentle persuasion can take a lot of forms, but it's always characterized by an underlying respect. You're treating the other person as an adult. You're not embarrassing him or nagging him. You're not saying that you're perfect and he isn't. In fact, the best form of persuasion in lifestyle matters is to say that you could both stand to lose some weight, or exercise more, or watch TV less, or whatever the issue may be. And then you attack the problem together, and celebrate each other's progress toward the agreed-upon goal.

The only exceptions to the gentle persuasion rule would be cases in which a person's actions are creating an immediate danger to himself, to his spouse, or to innocent bystanders. Thus, if your spouse is threatening you with bodily harm, you call 9-1-1 first and reason with him later (or better yet, forget the reasoning and move out immediately). If he's dead drunk and about to take the wheel of the car, it's OK to grab the keys and "order" him to lie down in the back seat until you get home.

But if he's twenty pounds overweight, or wearing clothes he should long ago have donated to Goodwill, or still sporting that Fu Manchu mustache that looked so cool in 1978, you may not like what you see but you don't have the right to order him to do something about it. Because not only does an order imply lawful authority, it also implies punishment for disobedience. If you defy your boss, you can get fired. If you disobey your commanding officer, it's thirty days in the brig. But what is the punishment for disobeying your spouse? The silent treatment? Banishment from the bedroom? Divorce? Unless you're prepared to put teeth into your orders, don't issue them.

And don't forget the old adage about not wishing too hard for something. Dr. Simon's wife did indeed get him to lose weight, but at the cost of creating a crazy man.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Creative Compromise, Part II

" what makes nations great and marriages happy."
(Phyllis McGinley, American poet)

I commented last time about a man who was in a state of panic and depression over the prospect of his elderly mother-in-law coming to live with him and his wife. I pointed out that the situation might not be as bleak as he was seeing it; that there might be viable ways of helping out his mother-in-law in her time of need, short of taking her into their home and jeopardizing their marriage.

A reader wrote to take issue with my use of the term, "compromise". Yes, the suggestions I made might help to avert divorce, but they would still impose a financial burden on the husband that he never asked for. "What does the husband get out of this?", the reader asked. "Isn't a compromise something that involves both sides giving up something? What is the wife giving up, or for that matter the mother-in-law?"

Good questions. I think the best answer I can give is that compromise in marriage is an ongoing process, a series of compromises---some big, some small---in which the amount "given up" by each spouse may be unequal in any particular case but tends to average out over time.

There's no question that the husband is making a sacrifice in the mother-in-law situation, no matter how it turns out. But his wife is making a sacrifice, too. If marital funds are spent to help support her mother, half of those funds can be considered her money. And if her mother comes to live with them, her space and privacy is being invaded as much as her husband's. The difference, of course, is that the wife is more willing than the husband to make these sacrifices because it involves her mother.

But we all have mothers, and fathers, and other blood relatives who at some point are going to need some degree of help. The issue for that couple today is the wife's mother. But tomorrow, or next week or next year, it may be his mother. The husband's willingness to go the extra mile today will ensure that his wife will do the same when the issue is someone in his family.

As to what the mother-in-law is giving up, the only honest answer is nothing. Nothing, that is, other than her home, her health, her independence, her dignity, and, eventually, her life. My guess is that she made plenty of sacrifices in years past, many of which directly benefited her daughter, and, quite possibly, her son-in-law as well. As I say, sacrifices usually even out over time.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Creative Compromise

"My mother-in-law is a widow in need of a place to live....My wife wants to take her in....I do NOT want her in my home....My wife and I are coming apart over this...."
(From a letter to Carolyn Hax, syndicated advice columnist)

I regularly read Carolyn Hax's column, Tell me About It, partly because I think she's good, and partly because it gives me plenty of ideas to write about.

The situation described by the letter-writer---a middle aged man in a long marriage who is pretty much saying "it's her or me"---is more common than you might think. With people living well into their 80's and 90's these days, a lot of people in their 40's, 50's, and 60's are facing the difficult issue of what to do when mom or dad can no longer live alone. If the son or daughter is married, the decision becomes even more difficult, because it can't (or shouldn't) be made unilaterally. The son-in-law (or daughter-in-law) who has gotten along tolerably with mom when she lived a hundred miles away, may be less kindly disposed to eating breakfast and dinner with her three hundred and sixty-five days a year, much less being her chauffeur and personal-care attendant.

Carolyn Hax's advice was to exhaust every possible alternative before issuing a veto or bailing out of the marriage, and to be as creative as possible in coming up with those alternatives. I agree. People often assume the worst about some future event, and get so worked up about it that they can't think straight.

Maybe the couple---on their own or with the help of the rest of the family---can afford to pay for, or at least contribute to, the cost of a full-time or part-time aide to keep mom in her home. Even if that's not a permanent solution, it can buy some time and de-fuse the tensions. If she absolutely has to leave the home, now or in the future, presumably the home can be sold. Even in a bad real estate market, every home has some value, and most elderly homeowners own their homes free and clear of mortgage debt.

The proceeds of the sale, coupled with mom's social security checks and possibly other retirement income, can be used to fund assisted living. If assisted living isn't an option, the money could be used to add an in-law suite to the couple's existing home, so that their privacy would still be largely preserved.

If the daughter has brothers and sisters, now is the time to lean on them. The fact that some of them may never have done their fair share shouldn't give them a lifetime exemption. Maybe, as I've written before, the biggest reason they're useless is that no one has ever insisted that they be useful.

To a large extent, creative compromise is the key to a successful marriage. The only marital issue I can think of that doesn't lend itself to compromise is the issue of whether to have children: you either want to have kids or you don't. But that's an issue that, ideally, shouldn't come up in a marriage. It's an issue that should have been resolved by the couple before getting married.

I suppose you could also say that people should take a long, hard look at the family they're marrying into before they walk down the aisle, and realize that "in sickness and in health" might eventually mean their mother-in-law's sickness or health. That may be asking too much of young people, but it should definitely be on the minds of older people who are thinking of re-marrying.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Think Twice Before Confessing

"Jack had been unfaithful to his wife and was feeling 'crushed' by guilt...He posted an anonymous confession on an online site but still felt the need to confess directly...He broke down at a church service and admitted the truth to his wife, only to discover that she, too, had strayed...."Now, we can talk freely again..."
(From a Time article, "When Confession Takes Place Online")

Well, Jack, you're a lucky guy. If your wife had not also been playing around, her response was more likely to be, Hit the Road, Jack!

The point of the Time article was that a lot of people are posting anonymous confessions on sites like and, and feeling better for it. These online confessions are not necessarily sexual in nature; people confess to everything from shoplifting candy bars to taking sick leave when they weren't sick to hurting their best friend's feelings. All well and good, I suppose. We've all heard that confession is good for the soul, and it's certainly no fun living with guilty feelings that just won't go away.

But when it comes to confessing marital infidelities, I'd recommend limiting it to the online sites. An unprompted confession to one's wife or husband is only asking for trouble. There are plenty of people who feel that, when it comes to adultery, it's one strike and you're out.

Beyond that, confessing directly to the other person can be selfish and callous. The confessor is so focused on wanting to purge his guilt and wanting to feel like a good person again that he ignores the emotional pain his confession is almost certain to inflict.

What if the situation had been a little different, and Jack's wife had said to him: "Jack, I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but the only way I've ever been able to have an orgasm is by thinking about an old boyfriend of mine. I've always felt guilty about this, and I thought you should know. But, really, I do love you. In fact, except for the sex, you're better than him in every way..." I'm sure Jack would be thrilled to hear that.

The truth is, in matters of love and sex we're usually better off being unenlightened. Do we really want to be told everything---the bad and the good---especially if the bad is something over and done with? I say in my book that if you've been unfaithful to your spouse, just shut up about it and resolve never to do it again. Maybe a little residual guilt isn't the worse thing in the world; it might serve as a reminder that extramarital sex isn't all fun and games, nor is it a victimless crime. Confessing to adultery just creates another victim, and this time a truly innocent one.

By all means, post an anonymous confession if you need to, and avail yourself of any confessional relief that your religion may afford. But, before you reveal all to your unsuspecting spouse, remember the words of the writer Taki Theodoracopulos: "We may hurt ourselves with our sins, but we only hurt others with our confessions."

Friday, November 7, 2008

Common Law Confusion

"I thought that by living together seven years, we had a common law marriage. But when he died I found out I had no rights at all."
(From a recent letter to Dear Abby)

Of all the legalities related to marriage and divorce, common law marriage is the most misunderstood. I'm willing to bet that at least ninety percent of the people who say they have a common law marriage don't have one.

Common law marriage has historically been recognized only in a fairly small number of states, and that number been shrinking in recent years as states have "prospectively" abolished it. (For example, in Pennsylvania no cohabitation arrangement that began after January 1, 2005 can be recognized as a common law marriage). As of right now, only ten states, plus the District of Columbia, recognize "new" common law marriages, and one of those states (New Hampshire) recognizes it only for the purposes of inheritance.

And no state automatically grants common law marriage status solely on the basis of cohabitation for a particular period of time, or on the fact that the couple had children together or owned their home jointly. In the states where common law marriage is permitted, the couple (or, if one person dies, the survivor) has to prove there was an "intent to be married". Proof of intent might mean having to show that you filed joint tax returns, or that you used the same last name, or that you both wore wedding rings. One way or the other, you have to come up with credible evidence that the two of you consistently held yourselves out to the world as a married couple.

If the evidence isn't strong enough, you'll be out of luck in claiming any inheritance or survivor rights that married people are automatically entitled to. You may even wind up fighting your (supposed) common law spouse's relatives in court. For example, if you move in with a man who has a child from a previous marriage or relationship, and he eventually dies without a will, that child may argue in court that the two of you never satisfied the legal requirements of a common law marriage. A surviving spouse is entitled in most jurisdictions to a guaranteed one-third share of the decedent's estate, even if he didn't leave a will. But if you can't prove you were a lawful spouse at the time of his death---common law or otherwise---you get nothing, and the children or other blood relatives would get everything.

Given that in most states a marriage license costs about fifty dollars, people are crazy to rely on vague common law marriage definitions to establish a marital relationship that can have far-reaching implications. If you're truly holding yourselves out as being married, then why not get married formally and not have to worry about it?

I should mention that gay cohabitation arrangements have never been awarded common law marriage status in any state of the country. Now that the door to gay marriage has apparently been closed in California, there may be a legislative effort in common law marriage states to extend the law there to gay couples, but it would probably be a lost cause. Gay marriage may well become an accepted practice in the years ahead, but common law marriage---straight or gay---is a concept that is quickly dying and not likely to be revived.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Some Good Publicity for Divorce Lawyers

"People assume that as divorce lawyers, we encourage divorce. That is simply not true."
(Willem Gravett, of Gravett & Gravett, Mount Kisco, NY, as quoted in the Westchester Journal News).

Although I'm still officially a member of the Massachusetts bar, I no longer have an active law practice. (And that's fine with me: I've handled enough cases to last two lifetimes. At this point I'd rather spend my time at the keyboard than in the courtroom). But I still get annoyed when lawyers, and especially divorce lawyers, are unfairly criticized.

Case in point: divorce clients who loudly proclaim, once the case is over, that "the only ones who got rich were the lawyers." I must have heard that a hundred times. But in almost every such case, the main reason that the legal fees wound up being so high is that the spouses insisted on fighting each other every inch of the way---often against their lawyers' advice.

When I was still practicing, I would frequently run into lawyers at professional events who had been on the other side of a divorce case from me. Typically, we would shake our heads and say to each other that the two of us could have negotiated a perfectly acceptable settlement in about three hours: a settlement that would have been remarkably close to what the judge eventually ordered after two years' worth of legal fees, not to mention expert witness fees, deposition charges, and court costs.

The last thing a divorce lawyer wants or needs is to be arguing over every pot and pan in the house, or dealing with trumped-up allegations of abuse, neglect, or parental unfitness in general. People may think that lawyers keep coming up with spurious issues so that they can milk the case for all it's worth, but the truth is that most divorce lawyers have more work than they can comfortably handle already.

The reason for that is not just the sheer volume of divorces in our society. It's also because good divorce lawyers get plenty of referrals from other lawyers. I would estimate that only about two percent of practicing lawyers specialize in divorce. Most of the other ninety-eight percent wouldn't touch a divorce case with a ten foot pole. They sense---correctly---that a divorce client is rarely a happy client, no matter how hard you knock yourself out for him or her. Why put up with all the grief when you can refer potential clients to a specialist?

Another case in point: anti-divorce crusaders who find it convenient to blame divorce lawyers for the "epidemic" of divorces in our country. I, myself, actually believe that eighty percent of divorces are unnecessary, and I devote most of my energy these days to trying to help people avoid divorce and achieve satisfying marriages. But I don't blame divorce lawyers for high divorce rates, any more than I blame criminal lawyers for high crime rates or immigration lawyers for high rates of illegal immigration. Divorce lawyers are simply performing their role in the system and giving clients the services that the clients demand.

Believe it or not, divorce lawyers will sometimes try to talk a potential client out of filing for divorce, especially when the person clearly needs time to cool off and think about things. As I mention in my book, I did that myself quite a few times, and I never regretted it. With that in mind, I was delighted to read recently about Willem and Margaretha Grevett, a husband-and-wife team of divorce lawyers who started a website ( devoted to publicizing local resources to help couples try to save their marriages.

The site---and it's a good one---contains articles written by experts in the fields of marriage counseling and child development; an exhaustive list of counselors and other marriage professionals in Westchester County; and links to numerous online resources. Unlike some law firm sites, it is not just a thinly-disguised advertising pitch for the firm's services. Obviously, the Grevetts would be happy to represent people for whom marriage counseling doesn't work, but they sincerely want people to think of divorce as a last resort.

My guess is that there are lawyers like the Grevetts in every state; plenty of them. They may not necessarily have a full-fledged website devoted to marriage enhancement or couples therapy, but they want to give good advice to potential clients---practical advice as well as legal advice---even if that may mean passing up an easy fee. The best lawyers are the ones who look out for their clients' long-term interests. If you consult a divorce lawyer and he or she suggests you hold off filing for a while, or gives you the names of some marriage counselors, you're probably getting good advice and you're certainly dealing with someone who has your long-term interests at heart.

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.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Paul Newman's Example

"Sexiness wears thin after a while, and good looks fade. But to be married to a man who makes you laugh every day? Now that's a treat."
(Joanne Woodward)

A lot has been said these past few days about Paul Newman. He was indeed a rare and remarkable man: an exceptional actor, an amateur race car driver who held his own with professional racers half his age, a businessman who gave away every penny of profit----and there were billions of those pennies---to charity.

And he was also very much a husband and family man. Not only was there never a hint of scandal in the entire fifty years of his marriage to Joanne Woodward, but everything he ever said about her and his kids, to his dying day, reflected great love and pride. It was obvious to anyone listening that his family meant far more to him than his fame, his Oscar, and his financial success.

I don't pretend to know anything about what Paul Newman was like in private, but Joanne Newman's quote implies that he was always making her laugh. My guess is that he was not so much a joke-teller as a guy who simply saw the humor in everything: someone who would use humor to get other people (and maybe himself, too) out of a bad mood.

It is a treat, as Joanne Woodward put it, to be married to a person like that. Unfortunately, the reason it's a treat is that it's a relatively rare occurrence. Truth be told, most of us don't make enough of an effort to put smiles on the faces of our spouse or family members. We tend to be absorbed in our own thoughts and problems, and to see other people---even the people we love---as issues to deal with, items on the to-do list. We may be good at solving problems, but not so good at doing the little things (such as keeping things light and loose) that might prevent some of those problems from happening again.

Although there are people who seem to be natural comedians, you don't need advanced stand-up skills to make your spouse laugh (just as you don't need movie star looks to take his or her breath away). All you need is the right attitude. Your attitude should be that life is tough but we can still have fun; that there's a humorous side to nearly everything; that laughter is the best way to break the tension and bring people closer.

Maybe the way to start is to have a mental to-do list that says: 1. Don't take yourself or your problems so seriously. 2. Remember who's really important in your life. 3. Be aware of moods and situations that call for a little humor. 4. Look for something amusing to say, and say it (no matter how silly it may sound). 4. If all else fails, poke fun at yourself. 5. Repeat tomorrow.

Few of us will ever be as talented and accomplished as Paul Newman was, but there's no reason we can't have the kind of marriage that he and his wife had: a marriage notable not only for its long duration but for its laughter, fun, and genuine humanity.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Marriage by the Numbers

"Nearly 70% of the men surveyed said they 'never' think about leaving their wives, whereas nearly half of the women said they think about leaving their husbands occasionally---and sometimes daily."
(From Parade magazine's 9/21/08 Poll on American Marriage)

I'm not necessarily a big believer in polls and surveys. Many surveys are flawed from the start, by failing to get a statistically-significant sampling of different ages and demographic groups, or by asking "loaded" or poorly-worded questions. And even when everything is conducted properly, people don't always answer truthfully, especially when the questions are about love and sex.

But usually you can learn at least something from surveys. I found the Parade results interesting, because in one important respect they confirm and quantify what previous surveys have strongly suggested: that wives are considerably more likely to be unhappy in their marriages than husbands are.

Look at some of the findings:

  • When asked, "Do you ever think about leaving your spouse?", twice as many women as men answered "Often" or "Daily".
  • When asked, "Overall, which best describes how you feel about your marriage?", twice as many women as men answered "I'm miserable".
  • When asked, "If you had to do it again, would you marry the same person?", a much-higher percentage of women than men answered "I'd try to do better", or "Definitely not".
  • When asked, "Why don't you have sex with your spouse more often?", 17% of women (but only 12% of men) answered "I've lost sexual interest in my spouse".

I mentioned in a previous blog article that, nationwide, 75% of divorces are filed by women. Not every unhappily-married wife will seek a divorce, and those who do often put up with their frustrations for years before taking that step. But the women who eventually say "Enough is enough" are the ones who today are "Thinking about it often".

When you look at the Parade results from a different angle, it's clear that many husbands are clueless when it comes to their wives' dissatisfactions. For example, men were more likely than women to answer "Yes" to "We talk often and communicate well", and nearly 50% less likely to say "We don't talk to each other enough".

Men should pay more attention to survey results such as these, and realize that just because they're satisfied doesn't mean that there isn't a big problem developing. Too many men are living in a dream world, a fool's paradise, and when reality strikes some day it's not going to be pretty. They'll be like the thousands of men who said in a different survey (one conducted by AARP a couple of years ago) that they never saw the divorce coming. You can almost always see it coming, if you take your blinders off.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Are You SURE the Thrill is Gone?

"The length of our passions no more rests with us than the length of our lives".
(Francois de la Rochefoucauld, 1613-1680)

La Rochefoucauld was not only one of the great writers of his era, he was also an uncommonly perceptive observer of people and their behavior. I often turn to him for practical wisdom, but I have to differ with him, at least in part, about our inability to control the length of our passions.

Yes, it's true that our passions can ebb and flow over time. I'm sure everyone reading this can recall with embarrassment, or even horror, at least one former lover. Somehow, that person who was once the focus of our life now makes us shake our head and wonder what we could possibly have been thinking. And we can probably come up with a few others who were nice enough but who eventually drifted out of our lives without leaving much of a trace.

There's no question that passion can be stirred by illusion, and that illusions are plentiful and powerful when a relationship is new. But it's a mistake to think that passion is something that just happens to us, something we have no control over, rather than something that to a great degree we can sustain through our efforts.

This is a common, but dangerous, mistake in long-term marriages. A lot of people---particularly romantic and passionate people---have affairs or give up on their marriages simply because they don't feel the thrill they used to feel. When it's missing, they assume it's gone forever. I've had divorce clients tell me: "I love him, but I'm not in love with him". I wouldn't tell anyone that she has to live out her days with someone she's no longer in love with (although if that's her only reason for getting divorced, she's going to get heavy criticism from all quarters, including her own friends and family, especially if there are kids involved and he's a good father). But I would urge people in that situation to first ask themselves if they've made every reasonable effort to keep their passion alive.

I think what happens is that people neglect their passions and then call it fate. They get lazy about expressing affection and appreciation, or they expect the other person to express it first or to be just like them in the way they express it. They get bogged down---individually and as a couple---in the often-dreary details of making a living and managing a household. They have lifeless conversations and pointless arguments, and they stop associating their spouse with anything pleasurable or fun.

This is not a happy state to be in, but the choice doesn't have to be between dying a slow death and starting over with a new person. It's possible, in a sense, to start over with the same person. My guess is that in many ways your spouse is still the same person you fell in love with. He may have gained weight, he may get into bad moods more often, he may not be what he once was in bed, but his fundamental qualities---the things that made you passionate for him way back when---are probably intact, although they may be dormant. If he was intelligent then, he's still intelligent now (but maybe he needs some stimulation to bring it out). If he was funny then, he could still be funny now (but maybe he needs to know his humor is appreciated). If he was kind and thoughtful then, he probably hasn't become a self-absorbed narcissist (although he may exasperate you at times).

The goal is to remember how he once was---and how the relationship once was---and figure out how to get the feelings back. At first, you'll probably have to shoulder most of the burden; your spouse may not immediately understand or appreciate what you're trying to do. But stick with it for at least a few months. Be realistic: your marriage didn't go downhill overnight and it's not going to get back on track overnight. But if your passions were strong and not based totally on illusion, and if the two of you haven't done any irreparable harm to each other over the years, you should be able to get those passions back and keep them there.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Defusing Election Year Tensions

"People look at us as if we're opposites. We're not. We're actually very similar people. We're both advocates. We're both passionate. We both like a good, fair fight. My opposite is someone who doesn't have a philosophy of life, who doesn't get fired up over anything".
(Mary Matalin, in

Because we live in a time when politics are increasingly polarized and no one listens to anyone with a differing opinion, we tend to be fascinated by those couples who seem to transcend ideology. For years now, high-profile Republican consultant, Mary Matalin, and her husband, high-profile Democratic consultant James Carville, have agreed to disagree on politics, without any apparent harm to their relationship. And Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver, seem to be getting along fine despite his being a Republican and her being not only a Democrat but a member of the Kennedy family.

What is especially interesting about these two marriages is that all four people had fully-formed political views by the time they married. They weren't kids when they met. They didn't start out together as, say, young progressives or young conservatives, and then drift off in different directions over the years. They knew what they were getting into from the start.

My guess is that there are a lot more marriages of political opposites than we might imagine, or at least marriages where there is an issue or two on which the spouses disagree. Many people do, of course, evolve in unpredictable ways as they get older. And people are not always ideologically consistent. A couple might agree on abortion rights or charter school vouchers, but disagree on capital punishment or mortgage foreclosure relief. My own congresswoman is considered very liberal on almost every social issue, but she owns a Glock 9 mm. handgun and is a regular at the shooting ranges whenever she's back here in Arizona.

People who have an opposite opinion on a particular issue may actually have a similar underlying goal or philosophy about that issue; their difference may be only in how to achieve the goal. In the gun ownership example, people on both sides of the issue would say that their major concern is safety. Handgun owners believe that their safety---and often the safety of other innocent people---is enhanced by ready access to a loaded gun. Handgun opponents believe that guns injure or kill more innocent people than they protect, because of careless storage or improper use. The two groups may never agree on gun laws, but they would agree, if they thought about it, that they have a common concern for safety.

Finding that underlying philosophical agreement is crucial if you and your spouse don't see eye to eye. It's almost always there if you can put your prejudices aside and look hard enough. It's also crucial to communicate about the issue in a respectful way: no yelling, no sarcasm, no name-calling, no sulking. Explain your points clearly, but don't necessarily try to convert your spouse; it will only make you feel frustrated and angry if the conversion doesn't happen (I should say when it doesn't happen, because instantaneous political conversions are almost nonexistent). Learn to accept that reasonable people can differ. Inject humor into the discussion, if possible. And if all else fails, try saying: "We'll probably never agree, but I still love you".

But the best outcome of all is to recognize, as Mary Matalin does, that passionate people attract passionate people. They may not always agree, but they feed off each other's energy, and in the end they're closer to each other because of it. So feel free to disagree with your spouse, but do it the right way. And try not to lord it over your spouse when your candidate wins.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Making Life Easier, One Day at a Time

"What do we live for, if not to make life less difficult for each other?"
(George Eliot, English novelist, 1819-1880)

As you may know, "George Eliot" was the pen name of Mary Ann Evans, who began writing at a time when women writers were not taken seriously by the Victorian literary establishment. Today, she and her contemporaries, the Bronte sisters, are probably the most admired novelists of their era, praised by modern critics for their psychologically astute characterizations and their quietly powerful prose.

The line I quoted is a good example of that astuteness and quiet power. Like most profound statements, it seems so simple, so self-evident, once we hear it. Of course we're here to make life easier for each other. What could be more obvious? Well, if it's so obvious, why does making life easier seem like such a rare quality these days? Why do so many people---in marriages, families, workplaces, and just about everywhere else---seem determined to do just the opposite: to make life as difficult as possible for the people who should matter most to them?

We could speculate all day about the possible explanations---the narcissism and self-indulgence of celebrity culture; an economy that rewards individual achievement over communal betterment; the general breakdown of manners---but it's more important to implement a solution than to worry about the cause. You or I may not be able to stop others from acting like self-absorbed jerks, but we can start changing our own attitudes and behaviors, beginning right now.

If you're married or in a committed relationship, make it a habit to ask yourself every morning: "What can I do today to ease the burden for that special person in my life?" Chance are, the answer will be something that's right in front of your eyes; something that requires minimal planning, takes only a few minutes to do, and costs nothing. But chances are it will also be something whose value will far exceed the effort.

If you're a man, do one chore or errand---just one---that your wife normally does, and do it without being asked or making a big deal of it. It could be loading or unloading the dishwasher, or doing the laundry, or watering the plants. It could be letting your wife sleep a bit longer while you make breakfast. It could be filling up her car with gas so she won't have to get her hands dirty on the way to the office. Anything!

And after you've done that one thing, give your wife the gift of your undivided attention. Pour her a glass of wine after she gets home from work or before you go to bed, sit down with her, and listen to what she says and how she says it. Take a genuine interest in how her day went. Learn to be sympathetic but uncritical. Resist the temptation to tell her what she did wrong or how she should do it next time; just be there for her.

Women are usually better at doing things for others on a day-to-day basis, but they sometimes build up a lengthy list of projects and issues to discuss with their husband, and then dump it all on him at the worst possible time. Trust me when I say that if he's a big football fan, he's not going to want to rearrange furniture in the middle of the third quarter, or discuss plans for your daughter's wedding when the game is going into overtime. There's something about sports on TV that induces a trance-like state in men, and you break that trance at your own risk. If you're a sports fan yourself, by all means join him on the couch; the game can be a great form of husband-wife bonding. But, otherwise, make his life a little easier by refilling the chip bowl once in a while and letting him enjoy the game in peace.

Sometimes, though, men don't want to be left alone. If your husband is bothered by something and clearly needs to talk, don't make him wait until you've tended to everyone else's needs first. Unless your kids are very young or very sick, there's nothing wrong with telling them you need to talk to Daddy for a few minutes before you read to them or take them somewhere. It's not uncommon for men to feel that they're second class citizens in their own homes. They're not likely to verbalize those feelings---men don't like to verbalize any feelings that make them appear hurt or "needy"--- but those feelings can lead to all sorts of problems if they're habitually ignored or belittled.

Daily acts of thoughtfulness and attention may not guarantee a stress-free marriage, but when the stress does come you'll have a deep reservoir of gratitude, love, and mutual good will to draw from. With any luck, there'll still be plenty left over after the stress has been forgotten.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Eight-Week Marriage

"Chris Katten Files for Legal Separation from Wife of Eight Weeks".
(Headline in People Online)

I said last week that the sexual and marital foibles of politicians will always give people like me plenty to write about. I could, of course, have said the same about show business celebrities. Case in point: the Chris Katten-Sunshine Tutt legal separation.

Former Saturday Night Live star Katten met supermodel Tutt at a party three years ago, got engaged eighteen months later, got married eighteen months after that, and then split up---permanently, it appears---before the ink was dry on their marriage certificate. Katten was the one who filed, citing only "irreconcilable differences". According to his publicist, Katten will eventually be seeking a divorce.

This kind of thing is by no means unheard of. When I did divorce mediation at the Maricopa Superior Court in Phoenix, I met two or three couples who had filed for legal separation or divorce after only a month of marriage, and probably two dozen more who had decided to throw in the towel before their first anniversary. Although my job was not that of marriage counselor, we did have a social work staff at the court that could offer assistance in such cases, and I always tried to explore with the couple whether counseling might help. Sometimes a couple would avail themselves of the help, but, more often than not, their minds were made up. (Or at least one person's mind was made up; in a no-fault divorce state, all it takes is one spouse to say the marriage is over, and the diviorce has to be granted).

Those cases have always bothered me. I wrote in my book that, unless you discover after the marriage that your spouse is gay, or an abuser, or married you for fraudulent purposes, you normally need at least three years---probably closer to five---before you can honestly say you've given your marriage a fair trial. Anything short of that is a premature abandonment or a surrender to panic, not entirely unlike leaving a baby on the church steps in the middle of the night.

It takes a while to adjust to another person, to learn how to deal with conflict, and to form a mature understanding of whether the future rewards are likely to outweigh the present problems. Reaching that point requires a lot of observation, a lot of thinking, a lot of talking, a lot of patience, and a lot of humor. If, after all that, a person's decision is to make the break, it's still a sad decision but it's likely to be the right one. But there's simply no way that anyone can make a sound decision about a marriage after eight weeeks or eight months.

I should also point out in connection with the Katten-Tutt matter that a legal separation is not a pre-requisite to divorce. You can be legally separated without getting a divorce, and you can get divorced without having been legally separated. Most people who file for legal separation, however, wind up getting divorced within a year or two afterward.

In a legal separation, the court can pretty much do everything it would do in a divorce---i.e., split property and debts, order spousal maintenance and/or child support, make child custody and parenting time decisions---except order that the marriage be dissolved. In other words, the couple is still legally married for purposes of tax filing status, inheritance rights, eligibility for health insurance coverage, and similar marriage-related benefits. (And, of course, they can't get remarried if they are only legally separated).

Legal separation can be a useful option for people whose religion forbids divorce, or for people who want a court-ordered framework to live within while they're negotiating whether to stay married or make a permanent split. But couples who have definitely decided to call it quits may as well skip the legal separation and just file for divorce. In most states, filing for divorce after being granted a legal separation requires additional court costs and attorney fees, not to mention statutory waiting periods and other delays.

But the important message here is that a decision to terminate a marriage shouldn't be a hasty one. If you've only been married a short time, find a marriage counselor before you run to the courthouse. Learn to understand that conflict is normal whenever two people share a home, a bed, and a checking account. Figure out a way to channel the conflict into something positive. It can be done, but it will take more time than Chris Kattan gave it.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A Sad Story, and an Unnecessary One

"When will they ever learn,
When will they ever learn?"
(Pete Seeger, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?")

I have said more than once that this is not a political blog. But a while back, I did have a few things to say about the arrogance and stupidity of Elliot Spitzer. And just last week I wrote about spousal abuse allegations involving a prominent Arizona state representative. And today I'm going to address the John Edwards situation. It's still not a political blog; it's just that---in matters of sex, marriage, and divorce---politicians seem determined to give me plenty of material to write about.

Let me start by mentioning an earlier scandal that should have served as a cautionary tale to Senator Edwards. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich also had an affair with a campaign aide while his wife was suffering from cancer. Gingrich, though, went one step further, and had his wife served with divorce papers two days after her surgery, while she was still in her hospital bed. Nice guy, especially given that his wife had worked two jobs to put him through graduate school. When the details came to light, Gingrich was, justifiably, raked over the coals by the press and even by fellow-Republicans. Apart from everything else, it was a poor career move: Gingrich's marital misdeeds have been dredged up whenever he's hinted that he might run for office again.

Did Edwards learn anything from all that? Apparently not. By cheating on one of the most admired and sympathetic women in the country, he lost in an instant whatever credibility he may have had as a politician and as a man. And, amazingly, he's making things even worse by continuing to deny that he's the father of his lover's baby. If Andrew Jones---an Edwards aide who is married and the father of three kids---is really the father, as he claims to be, then he's the first married man in recorded history to admit to paternity in the absence of any testing (especially when the mother had been sexually involved with at least one other man).

Edwards's implausible denials are only ensuring that the mess he created will drag on until the paternity issue is conclusively resolved by DNA evidence. In the meantime, his thirty-plus year marriage limps along, and Elizabeth Edwards is forced to spend her remaining days answering questions a wife should never have to answer.

(Ironically, during her struggles with cancer, Elizabeth Edwards never wanted to be portrayed as a victim. But now she'll be remembered as a victim of a different kind).

I wrote in my book that I have a certain sympathy for those who hope to find in an affair the respect, appreciation, and affection that they're not getting at home. There are, to be sure, better ways of getting respect, appreciation, and affection, but the motivation to look elsewhere can be understandable when frustrations have been mounting year after year.

But I don't have any sympathy for people whose motives for adultery are grounded in ego gratification and an overarching sense of entitlement. In their minds, the rules don't apply to them. Like superheroes, they are larger than life; they're known and loved by millions; they're indestructible. Or they are until the National Enquirer gets on the case.

To a lot of people, the only moral of this and similar stories is that politicians are a bunch of lying s.o.b.'s who don't care who gets hurt as long as their appetites are fed and their egos massaged. Although there's some truth to that, I think there's a more basic and universal message to take away. And that is: actions have consequences. Whether you're a big-time politician or a guy who works in an auto body shop, if you're married to one person and go to bed with someone else, there will be consequences. You may not have to confess your sins on national TV, you may not see your career go up in smoke, but you'll have to deal with some unpleasant issues...maybe some very unpleasant issues. It's almost never worth the risk. In most affairs, the pleasures are momentary but the repercussions are endless.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Are You SURE You Want to File Those Papers?

"What if your state lawmaker violently attacked his wife? Meet Representative Russell Pearce".
(Headline from a political flier in Mesa, Arizona)

Divorce actions and petitions for restraining orders are often filed when emotions are raw. A husband sees his wife snuggling up to some guy in an out-of-the-way bar, and the next morning he's at his lawyer's office. A woman gets shoved by her husband after a drunken argument, and she's on her way to the courthouse with an abuse petition, claiming to be in fear of imminent harm. A few days later, everything is, miraculously, patched up and all is forgotten.

Well...maybe not.

Court filings are, in most states, public records, available for inspection by just about anyone, unless the records have been ordered "sealed" by a judge. An ongoing controversy in Mesa, Arizona illustrates the fact that a divorce case may have lasting consequences, even when it has long since been dropped.

Way back in 1980, LuAnne Pearce filed a divorce petition alleging that her husband, Russell Pearce, was a "violent" man who had hit her, shoved her, grabbed her by the throat, and thrown her to the floor. Mrs Pearce's sworn and notarized affidavit was filed in court detailing the charges. Mr. and Mrs. Pearce were separated for a while, but they eventually reconciled and the case was dismissed for "lack of prosecution". The Pearces are still married today.

Mr. Pearce is now a prominent Republican state legislator, and something of a controversial one. His most determined political opponents are actually members of his own party, who believe that his outspoken positions on illegal immigration and other issues are threatening to drag the whole party down in the upcoming elections. One of those opponents, probably acting on a tip, did some sleuthing at the court, discovered and copied the 1980 divorce documents, and put together what can only be called an "attack" flier that was subsequently mailed to just about every voter in Mesa.

The Pearces reacted indignantly, which is no surprise. But rather than arguing that, 28 years later, the allegations have no relevancy today, the Pearces flatly denied that the allegations were true in the first place. Mrs. Pearce publicly claimed that she had never seen, and hadn't signed, the affidavit detailing the physical abuse. She issued a formal statement calling the political flier "misleading and false", and told a reporter that her then-lawyer, E. Evans Farnsworth (who is now a judge) must have added the abuse allegations to the petition and affidavit without her knowledge or consent.

The story gained traction in the news media. Advocates for abuse-prevention programs weighed in with their opinions. One such advocate implied that Mrs. Pearce's adamant denials of any abuse are proof that the abuse is still going on, and publicly called on Mrs. Pearce to "have the strength to get out". Those who know Judge Farnsworth are indignant that he would be accused of unethical conduct. (Mrs. Pearce's statements about falsifying documents, if proven, would constitute a fraud on the court, and could result in his disbarment).

I don't know any of these people, and I certainly don't know what Mr. Pearce did or didn't do to his wife in 1980. But I do know that the case vividly illustrates the point that court papers, particularly in divorce or abuse matters, should not be filed hastily. Withdrawing the charges doesn't make everything go away. Those charges can come back years later---decades later---to bite not only you and your spouse but also innocent parties (which I assume Judge Farnsworth is).

On the other hand, though, when there really is significant or repeated physical abuse, the abused spouse should never go back to the abuser unless he has gotten in-depth counseling (and even then I'm usually skeptical of most abusers' sincerity and their capacity to change). As I say in my book, a wife shouldn't risk her life on some reclamation project.

An affidavit, petition, or other court document is something that should be filed only when a) the allegations are true in every respect, and b) the person filing it doesn't intend it to be merely a wake-up call or an embarrassment to the other person. If you're going to file it, you should be prepared to follow through with it. Of course, genuine reconciliations do take place, and they're great to see, but by then the seeds may already have been sown for a bigger embarrassment somewhere down the road. Just ask Russell and LuAnne Pearce.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

A Good Example from the Obamas

"Barack and I make sure that, no matter what, we still find time for our date night."
(Michelle Obama, in a People interview)

I'm not trying to turn this into a political blog or an endorsement of Barack Obama, but I was happy to learn that not only do the Obamas have a regular date night, but that it's pretty much a sacrosanct thing for them. All too often, the assumption is that, by definition, dating is something unmarried people do. Of course, married couples do go out to dinner or other places, but how often do they do it with the mindset that they're on a date: that's it's just the two of them (no kids, in-laws, or other couples), doing something that involves fun, food, and an atmosphere conducive to conversation and romance?

The answer, apparently, is: not very often. According to a recent study of over 900 married people of both sexes conducted by the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver, the average married man said that he and his wife have a date about every two months, and the average wife said every four months. (The study's author, Dr. Howard Markman, thinks that the reason for the discrepancy is that men tend to have a looser definition of "date" than women do. For a lot of men, stopping off for coffee on the way home from Costco is a date. For women, a date usually means something that involves anticipation, planning, and a more significant time commitment). Nearly ten percent of the respondents said they "never" or "hardly ever" go on dates with their spouse.

But even if the typical couple has a "real" date once every two months, that still doesn't seem often enough. The way I see it, to promote intimacy and bonding and to keep romance alive, there are certain small things that need to be done every day (smiling, touching, light conversation), and certain bigger things---i.e., dates---that need to be done every week or two (going somewhere fun together, having a more in-depth conversation). (There's also a need for real vacations together every so often, but I'll save that subject for another article).

Just about all of us are cost-conscious these days, but a weekly or bi-weekly date doesn't have to break the bank. As much as my wife and I love the fine cuisine and extensive wine list of a Fleming's Steakhouse, we'd go broke in a hurry if every date had to be there. We wind up having just as much fun sampling the happy-hour specials at Applebee's, or having hot dogs and beer while watching a minor league baseball game (where, here in Tucson, grandstand tickets are still only $8.00).

And speaking of baseball, it's important for women to understand that men often need the backdrop of a sporting event in order to release inhibitions and stimulate conversation. A guy who seems tongue-tied at the dinner table may simply be physically uncomfortable, especially if the subject of conversation is something too "personal". But that same guy, if seated at a ballpark, football stadium, or someplace else in his comfort zone, may talk happily for three or four hours, even about subjects that have nothing to do with the game he's watching.

In this connection, Dr. Les Parrott, a Seattle Pacific University psychology professor and relationship book author, advises women to seize every opportunity to attend sporting events with their boyfriends or husbands. A woman who wants a satisfying conversation with her husband may think that a sporting event is the last place on earth they'd be likely to have one, but for her husband it may be the very best place. Dr. Parrott has interviewed a lot of husbands who say that they're disappointed when their wives won't attend games with them. They may wind up going with their brother or a friend from work and having a decent time, but what they really wanted was to spend some quality time with their wife.

Regardless of where you wind up going, you should, like the Obamas, circle the date on the calendar, arrange, if necessary, for a babysitter, buy tickets or make reservations in advance, and treat the day or evening as something important, which in fact it is. I've said before in these articles, but it bears repeating, that marriage should be more than just an efficient domestic partnership, a system for raising kids, doing chores, and paying bills. It should also be a system for preserving and enhancing the love that brought you together in the first place. And regular dates are a vital part of that system.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Having Fun on First Dates---Are You Serious?

"Dating shouldn't be work---it should be fun!"
(Advertisement for

I know nothing about the new matchmaking service,, but I do like the tagline they use in their print advertising. Yes, dating should be fun.

However, if you talk to as many mid-life singles as I do, you know that, for many of them, dating is anything but fun. I regularly hear stories about first-dates-from-hell: men who haven't bathed in a week; women who go into excruciating detail about each of their eight past lives; people who get up to use the restroom and never return (sometimes sticking the other person with the check); people who are ten years older and sixty pounds heavier than in the pictures posted on the dating site.

And let's not forget the mental-checklist people: the ones who have to know within the first ten minutes everything about your marital, sexual, and employment histories, your drinking habits, your political inclinations, and, of course, your assets, prospects, and disposable income.

I don't doubt the truth of such stories and I know that they're not uncommon. In fact, with so many people meeting for the first time after a couple of brief e-mail exchanges, the opportunities for mismatches are endless. But, no matter how obnoxious, inquisitive, or just plain crazy the other person turns out to be, you can still actually have fun---or at the very least an interesting experience---if you have the right attitudes.

Perhaps the most basic attitude is that you're there to enjoy yourself and, perhaps, learn something. You're not there (necessarily) to meet the love of your life. You're not there to conduct a job interview or a legal deposition. You're not there to ferret out every possible weakness or failing in the person sitting across the table from you. You're there simply to spend some time with another human being.

Not all human beings, of course, are people you'd want to see again. But even someone who's an extreme mismatch in a romantic sense may have qualities that you might find interesting, so long as you don't think of him or her solely as a potential lover. Years ago, when I was using newspaper personal ads to meet women, I met some who were clearly "wrong" for me, but whose conversation or personality I still enjoyed. In some of those cases we continued the relationship on a purely platonic level. In other cases I never saw them again. But I don't recall ever regretting the time I spent with someone on a first date.

If you've got a positive attitude, no experience, no interaction, is totally wasted. You'll learn something about yourself, about the other person, about the opposite sex, and maybe about life in general.

Of course, with some people a little bit goes a long way; you can learn all you need in thirty minutes or less. Fine. That's why first dates should always be low-key, low-cost get-togethers at coffee shops or other informal places, places that are easy to extricate yourself from if need be (or to linger at if things are going well).

Another good attitude is that there's nothing wrong with letting things unfold naturally. Except in cases where there is either no attraction whatsoever or an instant, head-over-heels chemistry, people shouldn't try to decide on the spot whether they might have a future together. I think it's that need to nail things down that leads to the "checklist" mentality I mentioned. People like that somehow feel that, by the time the date is over, the other person has to be either a Yes or a No. Well, people are complex creatures who don't always reveal themselves to full advantage in thirty to sixty minutes. And people definitely aren't at their best when the other person is peppering them with nosy, or even hostile, questions. There's nothing wrong with labeling someone a Maybe, and holding off on any decisions about future meetings until you've had time to reflect on the initial experience.

And, if all else fails, your attitude should be that bad dates produce good stories. When you do eventually meet the person who rocks your world, the two of you will get a lot of laughs recounting the absurdities and the sheer horrors of those dates-from-hell. And you will have developed some attitudes and practices that will serve your relationship well in the years ahead.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Hell Hath No Fury.....

"You never really know a woman until you've faced her in court".
(Norman Mailer)

The late novelist, Norman Mailer, certainly knew a thing or two about facing women in court. He was divorced five times, and most of those divorces were acrimonious---hardly surprising, given his propensity for affairs and his not-infrequent drunken rages (he stabbed wife number two in one such episode). But, perhaps fortunately for him, Mailer's final divorce occurred long before the advent of YouTube.

Even if you haven't seen the video clip, you've probably read something about the notorious Philip Smith/Tricia Walsh-Smith divorce case that was finalized just this week in New York, following several months of worldwide publicity over Ms. Walsh-Smith's self-serving, self-indulgent, and just-plain-nasty YouTube video.

Ms. Walsh-Smith, a sometime actress and playwright, had married Mr. Smith, 30 years her senior and the president of the famous Shubert Theater organization, back in 1999. They had a pre-nuptial agreement that said that if Mr. Smith were to file for divorce, he would have the right to sole possession of his Park Avenue apartment (which he had acquired long before the marriage), and would have to pay his wife $750,000. Apparently, things were rocky from the start, and by early this year Mr. Smith had decided that enough was enough, and filed for divorce on the grounds of mental cruelty (New York is the only state without a no-fault divorce statute). He then exercised his right under the pre-nup to have his wife evicted from the apartment.

At that point, Ms. Walsh-Smith brought in a video crew and proceeded to give a rambling, angry monologue about how she had been wronged, including references to her husband's sexual inadequacies, and to his "evil" adult daughter. The video immediately got the attention of media types in New York, and within a couple of months had been viewed over three million times and was the subject of numerous TV debates on privacy, slander, free speech, and other legal and moral issues.

As far as the divorce case was concerned, Ms. Walsh-Smith's strategy was a failure. The divorce court judge, in his written ruling, blasted her YouTube production, calling it a "melodrama", a "calculated and callous campaign to embarrass and humiliate her husband", and a "not-too-subtle attempt to pressure him into settling the case on more favorable terms." The judge ruled that the pre-nup was 100% valid, and refused to award Ms. Walsh-Smith additional compensation beyond the $750,000.

So, the case is now closed and, legally, both parties got what they has agreed to nine years ago. But in the all-important court of public opinion, nobody wound up getting anything good. The husband is now more widely known for his sex life, or lack of it, than for his long and distinguished career. The wife will be forever known as a vindictive, psychologically shaky woman---someone to stay as far away from as possible. Even the husband's adult daughter will never escape the consequences of being thrust into the limelight: "Hey, isn't she that evil stepdaughter from the YouTube clip?"

Divorces have always engendered nastiness, but in the old days---meaning just a few years ago---rants like that of Ms. Walsh-Smith's were pretty much confined to one-on-one sessions with close friends and confidants. Now, your unhappy spouse can rip you apart in front of her three million newest best friends. It's a scary and depressing situation, and there's probably nothing that can be done about it, other than individual judges imposing heavy sanctions on people who act maliciously. But by then the damage has been done; sanctions can never repair a damaged reputation.

If there is a lesson in all this---other than to avoid marrying someone unstable in the first place---it's probably that, if divorce is inevitable, we should avoid adding fuel to the fire. Divorce doesn't have to be ugly. It's possible to break up with dignity and mutual respect, and even for the couple to remain friends. I don't know exactly what Mr. Smith said or did to his wife, and I'm certainly not making excuses for her, but he might have handled the separation poorly. He might have blindsided her with the divorce and/or the eviction papers. He might have misjudged her potential reaction, might have considered it strictly a "legal matter" that would be processed in a cut-and-dried manner by the lawyers and the judge. Divorce, as well as marriage, requires a sensitivity to the dignity, the emotions, and the psychological makeup of the other person. Failing to anticipate trouble virtually guarantees that it will happen. And in this day and age, trouble is no longer a private matter between two people.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

What's in a Name? Plenty!

"With online dating such a huge phenomenon at the moment, users could benefit from understanding how something as simple as a well-chosen screen name could significantly increase their chance of finding a partner."
(Monica Whitty, Ph.D., quoted in TimesOnline)

Monica Whitty, a lecturer in cyber-psychology at Nottingham Trent University, has written extensively on issues related to online dating and is a consultant to e-harmony. She recently presented a paper at the annual conference of the British Psychological Society on a subject that deserves greater attention than it usually gets: the "screen names" people use to accompany their online profiles.

For privacy purposes, virtually every online dating site requires members to choose a screen name, i.e., a name that does not explicitly identify the member. Normally, the sites allow members to use just about any screen name they want, as long as it is unique, non-identifiable, and not obscene (although it's amazing what sometimes gets by the censors). For a lot of people, the screeen name is nothing more than an afterthought, which is why there are so many that sound alike (if you see susan5043, it probably means that susan1 through susan5042 have already been taken).

Dr. Whitty's research suggests that online daters, both male and female, should give more careful attention to choosing the right screen name. She found that many people won't bother reading a profile if the screen name is boring, weird, or offensive. What's boring? Well, anything of the susan5043 variety is boring, as is justme, citygirl, and goodguy4u. What's weird? I suppose the answer is anything the writer thinks is clever but which causes the typical reader to say, "Huh?". Some examples might be silly nicknames or "in" jokes (bubbleanniekins, willibilli, cerealgirl); references to obscure or off-putting interests (dungiedraggieguy, hulahoopgal); or names that are nonsensical (superbamcamman, zzyzlehead).

What's offensive? Surprisingly, according to Dr. Whitty, references to wealth were considered far more offensive than references to sex. Luvmyporsche, bimmerboy, wealthynwise, bigbuxbob, and the like were almost universally ridiculed by people in the study, including women who had admitted they're often attracted to affluent men. According to Dr. Whitty, "...showing off about one's wealth from the outset might reflect a superficial personality, egotism, embellishment, or out-and-out deceit".

I would add a few other no-no categories: names that say you're sad and lonely (aloneagain, rulonely2?); names that bring up failed relationships (stillhurtin, divorceddad); and, for women, names that imply that you define yourself solely as a mother (samsmom, soccermominohio).

What kinds of names did the study participants actually like? The favorites, for both men and women, were names that were playful or flirtacious but not raunchy. Fun2bewith, luv2bekissed, sweetmaggiemae, happyhank, built4comfort, and breakfastinbed4u were examples of screen names that made people want to read the profile.

Of course, a poorly-written profile can negate the positive impression of a good screen name, as can a profile that does nothing to reinforce the promise implied in the name. So if you're fun2bewith, your profile should say what makes you a fun person, or what the fun things are that you like to do. You should also look hard at the picture you post of yourself, to be sure that it doesn't send a contradictory message.

And messages are what online dating profiles are all about. You want your message to be consistent and positive, and to express the qualities that will draw the right kinds of people to you. It all starts with the name, but, unfortunately, it can end there, too.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Creating Your Own Luck

"Over the long term, you both change. You discover the things you don't like about each other and, if you're unlucky, you forget the things you did like. How do you possibly get through all that?"
(Author Salman Rushdie, interviewed in British Elle about his four marriages and four divorces)

Salman Rushdie is one of the world's great writers; I expect he'll win the Nobel Prize in Literature someday. But when it comes to marriage, he's apparently as clueless as the average Joe.

What struck me about the above quote was the word "unlucky". By definition, luck, or the absence of it, is something that's out of our control. Luck is finding a twenty dollar bill on the sidewalk, or getting upgraded to first class for no apparent reason. Bad luck is being laid off from your job, or having a tree crash down on your car in a windstorm. There's no question that both good luck and bad luck can affect our health, wealth, and happiness in any number of ways. But when a marriage fails, it's usually not due to something as random or unforeseeable as luck. It's due to attitudes that were formed, decisions that were made, and behaviors that were deliberately engaged in.

Rushdie is certainly correct that people do change over the course of time and people do find out that the other person isn't perfect. But I think he's wrong to conclude that there's nothing we can do about it, other than to accept the inevitability of divorce. We can't stop our spouse from evolving as a human being---and we shouldn't want to---but we can make a conscious effort to understand and appreciate the changes that are taking place in him (and we can try to recognize that we've changed, too, and not always for the better).

We can't pretend that we weren't disappointed when our illusions were shattered, but we can recognize that we created those illusions by seeing only what we wanted to see. And while in times of stress it's easy to forget why we were attracted to someone in the first place, we still have the power to remember the good qualities and the good times.

Readers of my book know that I don't believe every marriage can or should be saved. I don't know how people tolerate physical or emotional abuse for ten minutes, much less twenty or thirty years. But I do believe that there are far too many unnecessary divorces: divorces that were caused not by wrongdoing or genuine incompatibility but by lack of effort.

In marriage, we can't just drift along and wait for our luck to change. We have to create our own luck. We can do it by training ourselves to see the other person through fresh eyes and with a sympathetic heart. We can also do it by anticipating changes and dealing with them in a positive way: accepting the ones that are inevitable, celebrating the ones that are good, and recognizing that every change is an opportunity for insight and discovery.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Cruise Ship Romance as a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

"Of the survey respondents, 49% insisted that it is totally possible to find romance at sea (and many of them have), but the other 51% said it never happens".
( survey)

I love cruising. My wife and I have been on four cruises, and we just put down a deposit on a fifth one. On every cruise we've been on, we've seen plenty of unattached people of all ages meeting and mingling at the cocktail lounges, dance spots, pools, restaurants, coffee bars, and everywhere else that passengers---married or single---tend to gravitate to if they're in a socializing mood.

Knowing what I know about cruise ships---but also knowing what I know about human nature---I'm not surprised that the survey of single cruisers I quoted from produced such radically different results. My guess is that the people who said it's easy to meet people onboard, would be the kind of people who say that it's easy to meet people at ball games or at church events or at Starbucks or at work. And, conversely, the people who said that it's impossible to meet anyone on a cruise, probably also say that it's impossible to meet people anywhere.

When people in the latter group are on a cruise ship, they may as well be carrying signs that say, "Do Not Disturb". They're either in a corner of the library all day with their nose in a book, or they're ordering room service if they haven't made a dinner date in advance, or they're doing endless laps on the jogging track but never making eye contact with anyone. And if they do go out to the bars or restaurants, they unfailingly wind up at familiar same-sex domains: either tables of ten or twelve women (in which case the sign now reads, "No Men Allowed"), or the sports bar/cigar lounge.

The people who say that romance is possible to find, or even easy to find, aren't waiting for lightning to strike. They smile at people, they start up conversations in the gym, they aren't afraid to sit up at the bar by themselves. They project an air of confidence and approachability. They never seem embarrassed to be single. But at the same time, they don't seem desperate to meet someone, and, indeed, they're not desperate. They're there to have a great time, and that's precisely what they're doing.

There are times, of course, when even the most outgoing, optimistic cruiser is not going to meet anyone. If you don't do your homework on cruise line demographics, you may find yourself thirty years older or thirty years younger than the rest of the passengers. And a ship that's too small may not have a critical mass of singles, regardless of the demographics. But, in general, people usually find what they expect to find. Self-fulfilling prophecies are common in all areas of life, not just in dating. But because dating, particularly mid-life dating, brings up so many emotions, so many hopes and fears, it's crucial that the prophecies be positive ones.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A Kinder, Gentler Approach to Divorce

"Robin Williams and Wife to Seek Collaborative Divorce"
(Headline in Variety)

For better or worse, it usually takes a celebrity to get the general public to notice a particular issue or phenomenon. In the case of collaborative divorce, which has been around in some form for nearly twenty years, the ongoing Robin Williams divorce proceedings have transported the movement from the relative obscurity of law journals into the world of the tabloids. I think it will turn out to be a positive development.

Collaborative divorce is based on the premise that the litigation-based model is often counter-productive in divorce cases, especially cases involving children. Divorcing couples can spend tens of thousands of dollars---even hundreds of thousands of dollars---litigating issues that could have, and should have, been resolved with far less monetary and emotional cost. In addition to messed-up kids and damaged parent-child relationships, the residue of litigated divorce is usually bitterness and frustration. People out for blood never learn until the case is over that the courts can't give them blood.

In a collaborative divorce, the parties and their attorneys agree in writing at the outset of the case to freely disclose all pertinent financial information and other relevant facts; to jointly retain neutral experts (such as child psychologists) rather than "hired guns"; to conduct four-way settlement conferences in a civil and co-operative manner; and to refrain from litigating the case in court until or unless the collaborative process has totally broken down (at which point the original lawyers would withdraw, new attorneys would come in, and everyone would start from scratch).

Not every divorce lawyer is trained in collaborative techniques, and, indeed, some lawyers are opposed to the idea. A veteran litigation attorney may feel that litigation---with its relentless "discovery", its dueling experts, and its hard-hitting cross-examination---is necessary to get at the truth and produce a just result. I understand the thinking, but I don't buy it, at least not across the board. There's a proper place for both approaches. Even the most enthusiastic collaborative divorce lawyers recognize that some cases are unsuitable for the process, and probably need to be litigated. I'm talking about cases in which one person has habitually lied to or abused his spouse, concealed assets, engaged in mind games and power plays, tried to turn the kids against the other parent, or has otherwise acted in bad faith on a consistent basis.

But in cases in which the parties have at least some measure of goodwill towards each other and are genuinely concerned that the kids not be dragged into a lifelong psychodrama, collaborative divorce can be a realistic option.

Because I've discussed mediation in several previous blog articles, I should point out that there are similarities between mediation and collaborative divorce (mainly, an emphasis on resolving problems in a rational manner), but the two processes are not the same. A mediator is a neutral person; he or she can't offer legal advice or strategies to either spouse, and can't normally be a "hand-holder" for one spouse and not the other. A collaborative lawyer, despite the agreement not to litigate, is still a lawyer in every sense, with an ethical obligation to represent his or her client competently, to honor the attorney-client privelege, and all the rest. A client seeking a collaborative divorce needn't fear that it will be in any way a second-rate divorce.

If I were to get back into divorce work, I'd probably limit my practice to collaborative cases. Because the litigation model was the only model available when I started practicing in 1979, I learned it and I learned to accept its limitations. But I often thought that there must be a better way. Well, there is, and if you're seriously considering divorce you should seriously consider the benefits of collaboration.

(I want to thank Atty. Natalie Wright of Tucson, Arizona for helping to educate me about collaborative divorce. However, all opinions, examples, and recommendations expressed herein are my own).