Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Pleasure Principle

"Satisfying sex has less to do with positions, camera tricks, or physical stamina. It is about cultivating the simple moments of playfulness, joy, and appreciation. Instead of adding more and more, deepen what you have".
(Dr. Sandra Scantling)

Faithful readers of this blog know that I admire the work of Dr. Sandra Scantling (www.drsandy.com), author of "Extraordinary Sex Now" and a certified sex therapist. Unlike a lot of "experts", she writes clearly, convincingly, and from a real-world perspective.

As a sex therapist, Dr. Scantling---naturally enough---gets a lot of questions from couples whose sexual desire or performance have gone downhill over the years. Some of her clients have objective medical or hormonal problems that interfere with normal sexual functioning. But others are perfectly-healthy people who have somehow convinced themselves that their their sex lives are inadequate. They think that they're not having sex as often as they "should". Or they think that their lovemaking techniques are not sufficiently varied or sophisticated, or their orgasms sufficiently explosive.

In many such cases, the couples are unduly hung-up over external, and often erroneous, definitions of what is normal. They read some survey in the newspaper that says that married couples their age have sex twice a week, and they feel depressed about having sex only once a week. Or they watch an explicit video together to see if it increases their desire, and it has the opposite effect. They wind up comparing themselves unfavorably to the hardbodied, super-endowed, multi-osgasmic porn stars on the TV screen.

People like this are allowing "society"---in the form of everything from oversimplified media reports on sexual functioning, to celebrity sex scandals, to erectile dysfunction ads, to porn movies---to define what is normal for them, and, even worse, to define it in purely quantitative terms: how long, how hard, how often.

What Dr. Scantling suggests, and I agree completely, is to stop worrying about what is "normal", and start searching for what she calls your internal erotic focus. Start enjoying things again, not just when you're in bed but when you're savoring a chocolate truffle or a glass of fine red wine, or enjoying a funny story someone is telling, or breathing in the fresh air on a fall morning. People who can consistently take pleasure in the little things of daily life are going to approach lovemaking with the same sense of anticipation and relaxed sensuality.

If you have sex just once a week---or once a month, for that matter---but it's an experience that physically delights and emotionally nourishes you and your partner, you've got something to treasure. If it works for the two of you, forget the (probably inaccurate) statistics and the (probably doctored) porn videos. You've learned that quality matters more than quantity, which is one of the secrets of a happy life as a couple.

Monday, January 21, 2008

When No News Is Not Good News

"When women make up their mind that the relationship is over, they stop talking about the relationship. Men interpret a woman's lack of complaining as satisfaction. But more often, it means she's given up".
(Dr. Lori Buckley, host of the relationship podcast, "On the Minds of Men")

In a 2004 AARP survey, over 25% of men who had been divorced in the previous year said that they "never saw it coming", compared to only 14% of recently-divorced women. "Sudden Divorce Syndrome" is a term used by counseling professionals and divorce lawyers to refer to situations in which one party---usually the husband---feels he was the victim of a divorce filing that "came out of nowhere".

Typically, such men become resentful and self-pitying, and will be eager to blame anyone but themselves for the failure of their marriage. "Everything was fine until those damn friends of hers started putting ideas in her head". "That greedy lawyer must have told her she'd be getting a big alimony award". "I'm sure there's some guy involved who turned her against me".

I mention in my book a friend whose wife moved out while he was away on a business trip, leaving a note taped to the refrigerator. He told everyone who would listen that she had given him no warning whatsoever, that she had always acted as if everything was fine. But when I ran into his wife a few months later she told me that she had, in one way or another, been trying to tell him of her frustrations every day for five years. At some point she just decided that she was sick and tired of talking to the wall. Enough was enough.

The big majority of divorce actions---as many as 75% in some states in recent years---are filed by women. I don't think that means that more women than men are unhappily married, but rather that women are more likely to do something about their unhappiness. Even unhappily married women, though, are not likely to act rashly. They don't normally pack up their clothes unless they've exhausted every other alternative. In fact, for years they may be knocking themselves out to prop up a one-sided relationship. But when a wife does decide to act, watch out. By then, she's already planning her post-divorce life, and there's usually no turning back.

The best advice I can give to men is to take their wife's complaints seriously. I'm not saying that wives are always right, or that some women---and men, too---like to complain just to hear themselves complain. But if a wife is complaining, it usually implies that she cares enough to complain, and that she hopes her complaints will lead to a resolution of the underlying problem and to a healthier marriage. If she's stopped complaining, and you haven't changed the behavior she was complaining about, you may be living in a fool's paradise, with a case of Sudden Divorce Syndrome soon to follow.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Fault with No-Fault

"Respondent remains committed to preserving the marital relationship".
(Kathleen McCarthy, divorce attorney for Christine Olson, in a response to the divorce petition filed by legendary basketball coach Lute Olson)

If you're a fan of college basketball, you know who Lute Olson is. Until he took an abrupt and unexplained season-long leave of absence from his job a couple of months ago, he had coached the University of Arizona Wildcats for 25 highly-successful years, leading them to one national championship and numerous Final Four appearances.

Although early speculation centered on Coach Olson's health (he is 73), it is now clear that the leave of absence was, at least in part, related to a divorce action that he filed shortly after announcing the leave. Because Arizona---like every state except New York---allows no-fault divorce, the divorce petition cited no reasons other than that the marriage was "irrevocably broken".

By all accounts, Christine Olson was surprised and devastated by the divorce filing. Through a spokesman, she declared that "...she is worried about Coach Olson, she's still in love with him, and if there's any way to save the marriage, she'd like to work on it". Her attorney is seeking an order from the judge to refer the matter to the court's conciliation department. But Coach Olson's lawyer has pretty much declared that any conciliation attempt would be a waste of time: "The marriage is still irretrievably broken, and there is no chance of reconciliation".

I don't know anyone involved in the case personally, and I'm not taking sides, but I feel bad for Christine Olson. Assuming she is sincere in what she's said, she's had the rug pulled out from under her. To be sure, her marriage to Coach Olson was a relatively short one (four years), and she is unlikely to be hurt financially (she is an accomplished businesswoman in her own right, and is presumably amply protected by the pre-nuptial agreement the parties signed). Fortunately, there are no children involved. But Christine Olson, like many others in her situation, is about to lose what she feels is a good marriage, and there's not a damn thing she can do about it.

The no-fault divorce laws allow a husband or wife to unilaterally decide that the marriage is over. It doesn't matter if the person has a good reason, a bad reason, or no reason at all. It doesn't matter if the other person insists that the marriage can be saved. It doesn't matter if there are kids at home. If one person wants the divorce, the court will grant it. Court conciliation programs like the kind Christine Olson's lawyer is referring to can slow down a divorce but, if one party remains intransigent, cannot stop it.

As I've stated in my book, I'm not opposed to no-fault divorce in principle, and if both parties agree that the marriage is over I don't think the laws should interfere with their right to get divorced. But when only one party wants the divorce, the courts should be doing more than just rubber-stamping the petition. In such cases, there should be meaningful and mandatory participation in the conciliation process. If the divorce petitioner fails to show up for the sessions, or just sits there with his arms folded and refuses to talk, the court should dismiss the case. If there are minor children, there should be additional sessions dealing solely with the effect of divorce on children. If the parties have ample resources, they should be required to pay for in-depth marriage counseling from private counselors, since most court conciliation programs are understaffed and underfunded.

Maybe none of these measures would save the Olson marriage, but at least Christine Olson would feel that she had a forum (other than the newspaper) for expressing her thoughts and her feelings to her husband, and that she had done everything she could to save their marriage.

Friday, January 4, 2008

When the "Marriage" Was Never a Marriage

"Appellate Court Upholds Annulment---Aiming to get funds, future husband lied about marital history, finances, transvestism".
(Headline from 12/25/07 article in Arizona Daily Star)

When I had an active divorce law practice, I frequently met people who wanted to file for annulment rather than for divorce. Annulment means that there was a legal "impediment" to the marriage that rendered the marriage null and void from the start. People apparently feel there is less stigma to an annulment than to a divorce, and getting an annulment removes any religious objection to remarriage (since, legally, there wasn't a marriage in the first place, even though there was a wedding ceremony).

What is or is not an impediment varies from state to state, but typically they include anything that would have made the marriage a legal impossibility (such as one party already being legally married to someone else), or anything that one party deliberately concealed before the wedding that, had it been disclosed, would have caused the other party to bail out of the deal (e.g., no intent or ability to have sex, or marrying someone solely to get U.S. citizenship).

Most of the time, though, people seeking an annulment can't cite a legally-recognized impediment. They simply feel that, if they had known then what they know now (that their spouse is a slob; a poor communicator; a chronic nag or complainer; a cheap, miserable s.o.b.), they never would have married him or her. Unfortunately, such behavioral traits are not grounds for annulment. Divorce is normally the sole legal remedy for terminating the marriage of those who have been disappointed in their choice of partners.

With that as background, I was more than a little surprised to read about a Tucson, Arizona couple---Ronald and Kumiko Cuthbertson---whose marriage was, at Kumiko's request, annulled by a family court judge. What particularly surprised me was that the couple had lived together in Japan for 17 months before getting married there in 1999 (they had met on the Internet); then moved to Tucson, where they got married in an American ceremony in 2001; and then continued to live together another four years in Tucson before Kumiko filed for annulment in 2005.

Normally, if there is truly an impediment to the marriage, it's going to be discovered shortly after the wedding, not six or seven years later. In the Cuthbertson case, what saved Kumiko was her limited understanding of English. She had to use a dictionary to understand Ronald's e-mails at the beginning of their relationship, and she was overwhelmed, confused, and misled by his fast-talking accounts of nonexistent business deals, nonexistent book publishing contracts, and similar schemes designed to, as the court concluded, separate her from her money.

Ronald had also lied to her about his numerous former wives (one was a prostitute), and he was a long-time transvestite. However, all four of those earlier marriages had been legally terminated by divorce, and Kumiko had learned of Ronald's cross-dressing practices while they were still just living together. The court noted Ronald's promise to Kumiko that he would stop wearing women's clothes once they got married, but, here too, the court seemed to give her the benefit of the doubt. Normally, you can't knowingly get married to, say, an alcoholic, or a cheater, or a spendthrift, and then claim later on that you're entitled to an annulment because your spouse had failed to keep his promise to change his ways.

I think what happened here is that the court stretched the law a bit to produce a fair result. Arizona is a community property state, which means that if Kumiko had filed for divorce instead of annulment, she would probably have had to give Ronald 50% of her assets, and---who knows?---maybe even pay him alimony. With an annulment, the community property and alimony laws don't apply, because by definition there was no marriage.

From everything I've read of the case, I'm convinced that Kumiko paid a heavy price for her years with Ronald, and I'm glad that she won't suffer additional financial losses in the future. But I hope that the case doesn't give false encouragement to those who decide, years after their wedding day, that they can simply get the marriage annulled and thus avoid the messiness, stigma, and financial consequences of the divorce process.