Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Poisoning the Waters

"I don't know who started what in their 'bitter' divorce, but...'bitter' takes two. Both parents squandered their right to act surprised at their reduced roles in future milestone occasions".
(Carolyn Hax, syndicated advice columnist)

The question that Carolyn Hax was responding to dealt with a young woman who chose to have her brother, rather than her father, walk down the aisle with her at her upcoming wedding. Apparently, the woman was still angry at both of her parents for the ugliness that surrounded their divorce a few years ago, and she decided---rightly or wrongly---to limit their participation at the wedding.

There's nothing like a wedding to stir up old quarrels, rivalries, and resentments. Like Carolyn Hax, I have no idea who did what to whom, although usually there is plenty of blame to go around in a case like this. The sad thing is that the current problem could have been avoided, even if the divorce itself was unavoidable.

As I've said more than once in these articles, I'm a big believer in divorce mediation. Not only does mediation allow the husband and wife to tailor the divorce laws to meet their unique needs and circumstances, it's good training for all the big and little post-divorce negotiations that inevitably arise, especially when there are children involved. No sensible person wants to keep running back to court every time the other parent is twenty minutes late in picking up the kids on Friday, and very few judges have the time or the patience to hear such disputes. Mediation gets the parties into the habit of working things out in a civil manner.

Even when the kids are grown and out of the home, there will be important life events to deal with---co-operatively or otherwise. A wedding is one of them, but there are also births, funerals, and everything in between. If you allow your divorce to be an exercise in spite and revenge, you're sealing your fate. Not only will you never feel comfortable being in the same room with your ex-spouse, but your adult kids may not let you be in the same room as him or her, even if that room is a church.

Having been involved as a lawyer or mediator in hundreds of divorce cases over the years, I can tell you that litigation rarely leads to a better result than the parties could have negotiated on their own, with the help of a skilled mediator. And litigation never satisfies the thirst for revenge that motivates so many divorcing couples, which is why litigation cannot give closure on a psychological level. The bad feelings just live on, poisoning the waters for years to come, and sucking your children and even your grandchildren into the seemingly-endless psychodrama of your divorce.

If you're seriously considering divorce, or even if you've already filed papers in court, talk to a mediator before you get waist-deep in litigation. You'll save money, move on with your life more quickly, avoid a lot of needless angst, and preserve at least a civil relationship with your spouse and his or her family. And, perhaps most important of all, your kids will thank you.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Yet Another Reason Not to Stray

"Steve B______Cheats on his Wife!!!"
(Posting in "Cheater News"

Actually, the original posting lists Steve's full name, plus his age, hometown, and place of employment. I don't want to add to Steve's problems, so I'm going to keep his last name out of this article, along with the full names of the other people I refer to. But, for better or worse, they're there on the cheaternews site for all the world to see.

There's been a proliferation of websites in recent years devoted to "outing" those who supposedly lie and cheat in relationships. Probably the best-known one is As the name implies, it's pretty much a woman-to-woman site, the primary purpose of which is to warn one's sisters about jerks, players, sociopaths, and assorted losers of every type. Members can anonymously post personal accounts of their dealings with a particular guy, along with his picture. Other members can then weigh in with their own stories and opinions about him ("OMG, I thought I was the only one to fall for that piece of s**t").

Theoretically, these sites allow the accused to post a denial or rebuttal, but you rarely see one. (What is the person going to say---"No, I'm not a piece of s**t"?). There are apparently no barriers to posting even the most scurrilous charges. Hearsay is common ("...from what I hear, he's knocked up three other girls and just laughs about it"), as is the gratuitous injection of other people's names ("...and I'd also be careful about his buddy who works for AT&T Wireless in Anaheim, Joe McD_____, who's probably even worse...").

Unlike dontdatehimgirl, on women are as likely to be the accused as the accusers. And when they are, the scorn heaped upon them is particularly vicious ("...that fat slut will f**k any married man within two miles of her....The word is she's got herpes and loves passing it on...").

I have no idea if the majority of allegations on such sites are true or false, but I do know this: even if something is a deliberate lie, it's next to impossible to get it removed from the site. Our libel laws were not designed to deal with websites whose owners are not identified, and whose "forum moderators" are named (in the case of cheaternews) "paisley", "robstock", and "VooDoo". Posting a denial is, as I've said, just making a bad situation worse. I suppose you could spend tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees to try to get an injunction ordering the site to remove your name, or even shutting the site down, but then what? Two weeks later, they'd open up again under a different name.

I'm sure that at least some of the people who post these things sincerely believe that by exposing wrongdoing and warning potential victims they're performing a public service. All well and good, but at what cost? Our laws are based on time-honored concepts such as due process, good-faith dealings, and the ability to confront one's accuser. How can you confront an accuser when you don't even know who he or she is?

There's another legal concept, though, that comes into play here, at least where married people are concerned. And that is "assumption of risk". Adultery has always carried a risk of exposure, but the risk is infinitely higher today. If your lover becomes your ex-lover, you'd better hold your breath that she doesn't go on a late-night rant on some website. Or that she doesn't tell all to her best friend, who then decides to make the world safe from cheaters like you.

Fear of detection shouldn't be the only reason to avoid having extramarital sex, or even the main reason. But it should definitely enter into your thinking. As I say in my book, modern life has made affairs much easier to arrange, but modern technology has made them much easier to expose.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Pavlov in the Bedroom

"The more specific the stimulus, the more predictable the reaction".
(Ivan Pavlov, Russian scientist, 1849-1936)

We're all familiar with Pavlov's famous experiments involving a dog, a bell, and a plate of meat, which led to the development of the theory now known as Classical Conditioning. The general idea is that if a particular stimulus (e.g., the ringing of a bell) is repeatedly followed by a reward (the plate of meat), a dog will instinctively "associate" the stimulus and the reward, to the extent that the stimulus alone will soon be enough to activate the dog's salivary and digestive fluids.

Over the years, Pavlov's methods have been, in various forms, tested on humans, with pretty much the same results. It's quite clear that our subconscious minds respond to external stimuli, and can form strong and lasting associations between things that are not always logically connected. Because those associations are automatic and immediate, they can become lodged in our minds and bodies long before our conscious brains have had a chance to think about whether it all makes sense.

It hit me the other day that Classical Conditioning can explain why someone would want to have--- or continue---an affair, especially when the lover is someone who by any rational standard is less worthy than the person's spouse.

Think of it in terms of associations. The lover or would-be lover is associated in the person's mind with nothing but pleasurable stimuli: smiles, kisses, gifts, attention, affection, passionate sex. This is particularly true when the lover is someone new, someone without perceived baggage, someone without obvious faults. To hear the lover's name is to feel something good spread through your body; to see his car parked at the restaurant is enough to get the heart pumping. There is nothing to complicate the conditioning or cause it to fail. Every cell in your body is desiring this person.

A spouse, by contrast, will often evoke mixed associations. Some of them will be strongly negative (the way you felt when he humiliated you in public). Some are mildly negative (the way he leaves the bathroom a mess), or neutral (he tries to communicate but he's predictable in what he says). And some will be positive, but maybe not consistently so (he used to love sex but he doesn't seem to care much anymore). They can't compete with the 100% positive associations evoked by the lover.

I'm not saying we're powerless to resist the force of pleasurable associations---unlike animals, we do have free will---but those associations are not going to go away even if we don't act on them. In fact, they may only intensify if we don't have an affair, or we break it off before we get to truly know the lover as a three-dimensional person. It's normal to idealize the lover who got away and resent the person who (unknowingly) caused us to abandon the chance for a perfect love.

The only lasting solution I can think of is to create and continually reinforce positive associations in your spouse's mind by changing your own behavior. Whether you're a man or a woman, you have to learn to think and act like a lover. You have to learn to smile more, touch more, kiss more, complain less. You have to listen more attentively, converse more interestingly, and do the little things that make your spouse's life more fun and less stressful.

And if your spouse is clearly making an effort to please you, you have to train your mind to divest itself of all the negative associations that have taken hold over the years. It's not easy, but start fresh. Try to look at your spouse the way you looked at him or her when you first started dating, when all associations were still positive. They can be again, but only if both of you care enough to overcome the negativity that has crept into your relationship and taken hold of your mind and emotions.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Prenups---Part II: Late-in-Life Remarriages

"When I brought it up, [my future stepmother] was really mad at me. But the reality is that when a parent dies, you want your money. It sounds coldhearted, but it's true".
(Newton , Massachusetts C.P.A. Judith Ludwig, quoted in SmartMoney, concerning her insistence that her father have a prenuptial agreement before he remarried).

Ms. Ludwig is right on both counts: it does sound coldhearted to think of your father's or mother's money as your money, and it is true that people do it all the time. Of course, adult children can also be legitimately concerned that someone might be taking advantage of their parent, especially if the parent is widowed, lonely, in poor health, or otherwise vulnerable.

No matter what their motives, adult children are increasingly unwilling to sit on the sidelines hoping and praying that mom or dad's new spouse isn't a gold-digging con artist. One way or another, they're likely to make their feelings known, often to the annoyance of both the parent and the prospective stepparent. Family relationships can become strained, to say the least. Stepparents will sometimes get the silent treatment from suspicious stepchildren, and parents have been known to disinherit children for expressing their opinions too bluntly.

I'm not saying that older parents should necessarily take orders from their children, but they should anticipate that a late-in-life remarriage can trigger all sorts of fears, tensions, and even hostilities. The best way to defuse the tensions before they explode is to have a prenuptial agreement that specifies in no uncertain terms not only who gets what in the event of divorce, but who gets what in the event of death.

The underlying legal complication is that, without a prenuptial agreement to the contrary, a surviving spouse has a guaranteed, statutory right to inherit approximately one-third of his or her spouse's estate (the exact percentage varies from state to state, but one-third is the most common percentage). The law calls this the "elective share". It doesn't matter if the decedent had only been married a month, or had verbally promised his seven kids from his first marriage that they would get everything. It doesn't even matter if he had left a will leaving everything to his kids. The spouse still gets the one-third elective share---even more, if the decedent had a will leaving a bigger share to the spouse.

A properly-drafted prenuptial agreement can not only itemize all of the assets that each party is bringing into the marriage, but can specify that, upon a party's death, those "separate" assets that still remain intact will not be inherited by the surviving spouse. The prenup in essence specifies that each spouse waives in advance his or her elective share.

To ensure that the money or assets that are not going to the surviving spouse actually go to the kids (or to whoever the decedent wants them to go to), it's vital to have a will that is consistent with the prenuptial agreement. It may also be necessary to scrutinize life insurance policies, annuities, 401(k) plans, and anything else that has a payout procedure upon death. There may be additional forms or other documents needed to prevent the surviving spouse from automatically becoming the sole beneficiary of those policies and plans.

Because of the potential complexities, second-marriage prenups should not be drawn up in a vacuum, but should be part of a consistent estate plan. Thus, the parties need to consult attorneys who are experienced not only in domestic relations law, but in taxation, pensions, and other estate planning issues.

Once all of that is done, the new husband and wife will still have to decide what to tell their respective children about the documents they have just signed. My guess is that the majority of people would say nothing, unless the kids had clearly expessed their concerns; most people are simply uncomfortable discussing their finances with their kids. That's sad, because adult children aren't normally demanding to see tax returns, bank statements, and other financial specifics. They just want a general outline of what to expect when the parent dies. And that's what I would give them. I might also want to say that attorney so-and-so prepared the prenup and the other documents, and that he or she has either the originals or copies of them. That way, you're minimizing any fears of the documents being destroyed or conveniently misplaced by the stepparent.

Like any marriage, a late-in-life marriage will always have its challenges. But addressing the universal---if not always spoken---fears of the adult children will go a long way toward ensuring that the marriage gets off to a good start.