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.