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.