Sunday, July 31, 2011

Is Monogamy Dying Out?

A lot of people ask me whether I think monogamy is dying out, and honestly, I never think it will. It is in our nature to get attached to people, and when we find someone special, we really don't want to share that person with anyone else-- we want to claim that person as our partner and be able to count on him/her respecting a mutual agreement to be in a sexually exclusive relationship. This is normal, and healthy for building trust and intimacy. The problem kicks in when all is not right in the Garden of Eden.

Many people marry very young (the national average for women is about 26), before they truly know themselves, have established career paths, and have come to terms with their true wants and needs in a partner. By the time these things become a lot clearer, usually in someone's 30's or 40's, many are finding that his/her partner is not the best match. Some are courageous enough to try and work on communicating effectively with his/her significant other, and will make an effort in implementing changes that can improve the relationship; but others will not, and instead they will seek an escape from the situation, which often begins with a seemingly benign "emotional connection" to someone else and then turns into much more with the passage of time.

These days, thanks to modern technology, temptation is everywhere. I cannot tell you how many divorces these days have included stories of people reconnecting with an old flame on Facebook. You can chat, IM, tweet, text, or surf the internet dating sites all from the comfort of your own home while it may appear that you are doing work on your phone or computer. It is so easy and fun to build new connections instead of facing difficult conversations with a spouse, and yet I think we owe it to our partners and ourselves to at least try to work things out or be honest with one another as to why the relationship needs to end before we move on to the next love interest.

In the end, it is not monogamy that is dying out, but rather our communication skills that seem to be fading fast. These days people will "like" my status and guys will send me a "hey" text and somehow they all think that is staying connected. Well, I guess I am old-fashioned, but if someone really cares, I think they should take the time to meet up or at least pick up the phone to talk  time live. I realize we are all busy these days, but relying on modern technology to keep relationships alive is not a good idea. Nothing beats the joy of live time interaction-- when we can put away the high tech gadgets and actually listen to each other and enjoy one another's company. That is what will help sustain 100% commitment-- attempts at substitutions will not.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Fear of Change

In the past week, several have brought to my attention this common problem among many-- a fear of change. So many take comfort in what they know, that which is familiar, and so even if it is not ideal, they would prefer to stay within their comfort zone than to venture out into the unknown. But sadly, life is full of change, and those that cannot adapt will be at a severe disadvantage.

A wise, older woman was telling me that too many people try to shield their children from changes, but in her opinion children should be exposed to changes (obviously within reason) so that they understand and learn that changes are normal and necessary sometimes to get to a better place. I could not agree with her more-- as much as I believe children need stability and consistency in their lives, I also believe they need to experience the world around them.

Throughout the years, I have found the most interesting individuals (and usually the best story tellers) are always the ones that are willing to seek adventure- they travel, try new restaurants, have jobs with varying assignments and are always meeting new people. To be fun for others, and enjoy life in the process, requires us to break out of our regular routines, overcome whatever hang-ups are holding us back, and embrace new opportunities. I don't see why we should fear change-- what I fear is not being able to change.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Slashing Budgets-Not Just a Government Problem

My least favorite task to work through with clients is reviewing their budgets these days. It seems everyone is hemorrhaging cash. Sadly there are few easy solutions-- either the parties 1) increase their income to meet their household budgets; 2) decrease expenses; 3) cash-in assets to meet the deficit; or 4) take on more debt to meet expenses.

Everyone needs to be able to afford decent housing, food, clothing, transportation, and medical care. So the painful exercise is cutting the "extras" like travel and entertainment, or country club memberships. It is very hard to tell people which of these expenses should be cut, but obviously it is the discretionary (non-necessary) expenses that have to be carefully reviewed and eliminated wherever possible.

For many clients in the DC Area, one of the first big ticket items to consider eliminating is private school tuition for kids under 18. In the DC Area, these tuitions can range from $15,000 to $35,000 per year. Given the choice of being able to save for college and meet the household's necessary expenses, or paying $1000 or more a month on the luxury of a private education, many parents are finding it necessary to eliminate this expense.

We all have to make difficult decisions these days, and yet I hope we can all act in a way that takes the children's best interest into account as the primary concern. We need to reassure them that we will continue to provide for them, and that they are not at fault for any of the problems that need to be addressed by the grown-ups in their lives. The economic crisis was created by adults, and we have to fix it, not pass this on to the next generation.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

For Better or Worse

Last year, when I attended the Lab School Gala, the award recipient talked about her experience overcoming learning difficulties, and at the end of her speech she said, "all our children want are love and acceptance." So true, but I would venture to say even as adults that is all we truly seek in life.

I have heard so many people mention in dating that they are seeking "unconditional love," and with my clients I often hear them complain that their spouses clearly did not mean their vows when they said, "for better or worse." Here is the problem as I see it: most people (in a healthy environment) grow up with unconditional love from their parents and other relatives. As they get older, once in a committed relationship, they many mistakenly equate this with a familial bond like the one they experiend as children. Unfortunately, adult relationships are entirely conditional-- it is completely unrealistic to expect unconditional love from a non-relative.

Every relationship we form outside of our family bonds are based on a pact-- some understanding of what we expect from each other. In a life partner, most of us are seeking someone who will not only share our goals, interests, and enjoy adventures and celebrations with us, but also someone that will walk the line-- share in the financial and household responsibilities, work with us to tackle the challenges in life, and coordinate efforts to provide a happy and safe home life. When those pacts are broken, it jeapordizes the whole relationship.

I don't know who thought it would be a good idea to insert into marriage vows the line "for better or worse," but I would like to lobby for its removal. In a marriage, or any adult relationship really, you need to be cognizant of each other's wants and needs, and not take each other for granted if you want it to last. The only relationships that I have seen last "for better or worse" 99% of the time are through blood ties.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Maintaining the Status Quo

There is nothing worse during a separation process than that horrible feeling of complete uncertainty. Without a time-sharing schedule for the kids, an agreement on finances, or any idea of when either party is going to move out, clients feel completely vulnerable. I have lost count of how many times I have gotten a frantic call because one parent got to the school first and took the kids, or someone went away for the weekend and came home to an empty house. Bank accounts get raided, bills don't get paid, and when people don't communicate about these things, all this can quickly and easily escalate into a very bad situation.

It is hard to explain to clients that what a normal citizen might consider an emergency, may not be viewed as one by the courts. Remember, courts see the worst of the worst, so getting an emergency hearing is rare. This means it could take months before certain pressing issues can be addressed in litigation-- but that is NOT the case in Collaborative cases.

When clients sign on to the Collaborative process, they agree to maintain the status quo until a new agreement is reached changing the couple's established operating procedures with finances, child-rearing, or living arrangements. Collaborative provides parties with immediate security, unlike any other process, and allows them to set the pace so issues can get addressed quickly and efficiently.

There are some mediators and even litigators that encourage couples to try and maintain the status quo during the divorce process, but it is not a contractual requirement, and sometimes it simply is not feasible. I understand that sometimes it simply is necessary to move out without further discussion, and there are times when expenses just need to be eliminated and funds have to be accessed to meet certain obligations, but I urge everyone to try and create as little upheaval as possible-- especially when children are involved. The more stability and continuity that we can preserve during the dissolution of a partnership, the greater the chance of exiting with goodwill, dignity and grace.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Letting Things Ride

Over the years, I have encountered so many who have endured abuse, betrayal, addiction issues, or withholding of intimacy by their partners for years, and yet they let things ride in their unhappy marriages in order to keep the status quo. I have come to understand that for many the fear of change or being alone is so paralyzing that they just sit and do nothing... until some event interferes with this passive approach to life and causes a change to occur. I often wonder how things might have played out differently if when things first started to go south someone had taken a less passive approach-- I bet half the people I see would not wind up needing my advice if they would cease to take the path of least resistance.

In dating, there is a similar phenomenon, which I've dubbed "the path of least resistance." Here, I see those with a passive approach stay in a comfortable situation, simply because it is just that. Again, I think it ties back to this fear of being alone or facing change, and I understand that when you have been out playing the dating game for a while it is rather nice to take a break with someone half-way decent. But eventually someone will get attached and expect more out of the relationship, and the next thing you know you are feeling pressured to move in together, adopt a dog or cat, and you start playing house. Then the pressure mounts to get engaged, get married or have a baby. The more entrenched you get in your lives together, the harder it is going to be to disentangle, and so for these people that choose the path of least resistance, I see them just settle for what has become easy. Sadly, sooner or later they are in for a rude awakening.

Here is a news flash: life is not easy. Life is full of challenges, and when faced with trying times, it is true love that will be the glue that keeps a couple together-- all those that picked a comfortable partner may be in for a shock when that person chooses to bail when times actually get tough. I'm not shocked at all-- I see it everyday. I also realize from everything I have seen in my career that we all get sick eventually, our parents start needing extra care, some may die, meanwhile our kids require a ton of attention, just as work gets more complicated with increasing responsibilities, and to add to all of this, everyone these days is stressed about money. As I face all this chaos, there is one thing I know for sure- the person I want at my side will NOT be one whose M.O. is to let things ride.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Trying to Juggle Too Much At Once

Most humans are creatures of habit; change is difficult for lots of people, and trying to take on too much at once can cause significant stress in the best of us. Changing jobs, going through a house renovation or move, addressing health issues, dealing with a new puppy or baby, all create pressures on us and can significantly impact how we interact with others. So, as much as we might feel capable of taking everything on at once, my advice is to try and limit these changes-- prioritize and tackle the most urgent tasks first, then work down the list. The less stressed you are, the happier you will be and those around you will appreciate this as well.

We are all juggling a lot these days-- these are challenging economic times; few have job security; many have seen their home equity and savings depleted; families are scattered all over; and we all struggle to meet the demands from work and home, often at the expense of finding time for ourselves. But that "me time" is key, and in fact is probably vital to helping us find our center so that we can go on to try and tackle life's challenges.

If the chaos is overwhelming, it may actually be time for a mini-vacation. I am certainly not promoting that we try to escape our problems (that rarely works), but there is definite value in stepping away from the madness around us in order to gain some perspective. By extricating ourselves from a difficult situation, even just for a long weekend, we are far more capable of seeing the bigger picture. Then, after gathering our thoughts we can step back in to address the most immediate concerns first, and perhaps accepting that some balls may just get dropped. It happens to everyone.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Which is Worse?

Sometimes, when there isn't a perfectly clean solution to a problem, I find the simplest question helps break the impasse: which is worse? To stay in an unhappy relationship for another month and see if things get better, or call it quits now? To hang on in a miserable job situation to see if it will improve, or to make a change and try something new? To remain silent on an issue to keep the peace or speak up and try to have your perspective understood?

The way I may answer these questions is not necessarily how most people would, so what I have learned over time is to warn people that a person's advice is always going to be tainted by his/her own experience. Personally, my history proves that I will leave an unhappy relationship; I will always look for a better job if I am dissatisifed with my current situation; and I will speak my mind. I am independant, assertive and full of opinions-- but not everyone is built this way, and while I usually make decisions at lightening speed, others operate on their own timeframe.

By observing my clients all these years, I have learned that most people are quite afraid of change. Many tried to take the path of least resistance and have admitted to staying in unhappy marriages for ages because they did not want to upset the apple cart-- better to stay with the devil you know versus the one you don't know. But I wonder this-- what if they asked themselves, which is worse: 1) to start dating again in your 40's or in your 50's?; 2)to model for a child an intact, but unhappy family unit or to have them go between two homes with much happier parents?; 3) to end a marriage sooner and reduce the risks of claims to longer alimony or greater stakes in marital property, or keep the status quo and have these claims grow stronger?

Ultimately, each person has to decide what course of action to take in his/her own life, and when my clients doubt my opinion, I encourage them to go get a second opinion. This is standard operating procedure in the medical field, and it should be just as standard in the legal profession. I give second opinions all the time-- especially when someone is debating a settlement agreement versus going to trial. This moment is exactly where that key question of which is worse needs to be answered-- and not by someone's friends, who have only heard one side of the story all along, but rather by an expert with over a decade of experience in these matters.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Opposite of Love Is Not Hate

There is so much that my wise psychologist friends have taught me over the years, but one of the best lessons they shared with me early on is that the opposite of love is not hate, but rather apathy. That has helped me understand so much about my clients throughout the years-- for it really is a thin line between love and hate. When you are angry at someone, it demonstrates that you still care on some level-- if you truly did not care, their actions would not affect you at all.

Often I have seen people do ridiculous things to get another's attention-- write nasty emails, send incessant texts, call repeatedly to yell, etc. Here is my tip for disengaging: don't respond. You can always screen calls and delete unwanted emails or texts. If you are going to respond, remember Bill Eddy's line to use "BIFF," keep it Brief, Informative, Friendly, but Firm.

While parents struggle to get to the point of apathy with their partners during a separation, I strongly encourage them to avoid the conflict around their children. Kids do not need to know the details that are being negotiated in a separation agreement or that there has been an affair. They just need to be kept apprised of changes that might impact them, but more than anything they need to be reassured of three things: (1) that both their parents love them, (2) that the divorce is not their fault and (3) that both parents will continue to be part of their lives.

It is very bizarre for me to spend all day, every day, trying to get people to the point of apathy; then at night and on weekends, I am trying to teach my son about the importance of building love through friends and family. I have learned to cross between the two worlds and mastered the skills of both detachment and attachment. Hands down, I prefer the latter-- while detachment is a necessary survival skill we all need to acquire to some extent to manuveur through some complex relationships in life, I hope to never lose sight of the fact that the joy of building relationships is what actually makes life worth living.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Being A Sister, Without the Baggage

Several people have been amazed by the fact that I could spend an entire week with my half-brother, essentially a complete stranger up until 3 months ago, in my house. Even some of our family members seemed a bit concerned prior to the visit-- worried that we would not get along, or that being in the same house for such a long period of time might be a bother. What everyone seems to be missing is that the inconvenience was NOT having him in my life all these years.

Since we did not grow up together, we do not have any of the baggage that most siblings seem to carry with them from the past. We are meeting as adults, with a completely clean slate when it comes to our own relationship. Playing 20 questions with each other is actually fun-- because we are genuinely interested in each other's answers, and it is safe to open up because neither one is bailing on the other-- ever. The week together just flew by, and the only difficult moment was actually saying good-bye and putting him back on that plane across the Atlantic.

Thanks to modern technology, we can stay rather well connected, and we have already proven ourselves to be good co-conspirators in terms of playing jokes and working together on gifts for others. While my son keeps wishing that both his uncles could live next door to us, I have to keep reminding him that he should just be grateful we found everyone-- focus on what you have, and not what you don't have.

Of course I wish we were not some real life version of Princess Leah and Luke Skywalker, separated at birth for all these years, but I'm not so sure we would have hit it off so well before I became a reformed Control Freak, and I am a firm believer in the saying that everything happens for a reason: My brothers, along with my father and uncle have come into my life exactly when my son wants and craves more male figures in his life, and I feel safe introducing these men to him because they are not going anywhere.

As I watched my brother play with my son last month, I found myself melting-- something I feared might no longer be possible at this stage of the game. Without any history to taint my feelings towards my brother, I find myself gushing about him-- and although I realize sooner or later we will have our moments of disagreement, I know that no matter what, he will always be part of my family; so, for the first time ever, I now know what it is like to unconditionally love a man.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

On-line Chatting with Strangers

Honestly, I don't get it. So many people seem to be over-analyzing emails or texts from random individuals they have "met" on Match, EHarmony, Chemistry, Perfect Match, Plenty of Fish, or whatever other dating sites they are members of before they have even seen one another in person. This should not be that complicated people- these sites are just meant to increase your odds of meeting someone without destroying your liver. Instead of having to cruise all the bars waiting to meet someone, you can sit back in the comfort of your own home and scroll through the options provided via the internet. Once you find someone that peaks your interest, just set up a time to meet up.

I fail to see the point in numerous emails back and forth in the beginning. If I want your life story, I'd like to hear it in person. If you are lying about your age, height, weight, education, or whatever else, I'd prefer to figure that out in person. Let's face it, guys can usually tell within 5 minutes in person if they like a girl; for women it may take a bit longer, but not much. Bottom line, as one friend told me quite bluntly a while back is that "10s don't date 2s." True-- but maybe someone took a bad picture, or was having a bad day when they put together their profile, who knows? Rather than stay home tearing apart someone's bio, or their emails and messages, just make a plan to meet in person and get the most important answer needed- is there a spark? If not, move on, and don't take it personally. Just remember nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Monday, July 11, 2011

To-Do Lists

When we are flooded with emotions, and dealing with various logistical issues all at once, it is important to keep a to-do list to make sure nothing falls through the cracks. While clients that are separating can count on their attorneys to help them with "big-ticket items" like addressing issues of child support, custody, alimony and property division, there are the "little details" that people should keep track of on their own, especially if they want to keep fees down. Here is a list of some things to work on over time when making a transition into 2 homes:

1. Call insurance companies to divide policies, get new rates as an individual;
2. Go to DMV to retitle cars, change your address;
3. Personally make the necessary trips to your banks to close the joint accounts;
4. Make a list of the household furniture, etc. and identify what you want;
5. Update beneficiary forms and wills;
6. Change your emergency contact forms;
7. Notify lenders, the Post Office and all contacts of your new mailing address;
8. Alert the utility companies and mobile phone carriers;
9. Inquire into splitting synagogue and country club memberships;
10. Get quotes from movers, storage places, track down rental options, etc.

Some clients require a lot more hand-holding and want attorneys to follow up with them each step of the way. Others are much more self-sufficient, and they are keenly aware that there is a price to pay for having an attorney involved each step of the way. I like to remind people that it is like being in a taxi cab with an attorney-- the meter starts running the second you call, send an email, or want anything done on your behalf. Often, clients find themselves in sticker shock after they receive the first bill because they fail to realize that each call, email, or letter reviewed was being logged.

We all need help during transitions, but the key is to pick the right assistance for the right task. Calling an attorney just to vent about the other person is not the wisest use of a client's money. It comes down to a simple cost-benefit analysis-- before hitting "send" or forwarding an email to your attorney, you should really ask yourself, is this worth $30 or more? A half hour call to vent to a friend versus calling an attorney could easily save a person $100 or more. Especially in a time of economic crisis, I urge everyone to 1) think twice before involving an attorney over something minor, 2) use lists to prioritize tasks and 3) call on friends for moral support.

Confessions of An Over-Achiever

Growing up with a bunch of over-achievers starting at age 10 in honors classes until I graduated from a top tier law school in DC at age 25 is not normal, but it did provide me with a high level of tolerance for intense, demanding, perfectionistic brainiacs. In my home life these days, I still dig having brainiacs around, but the other traits I can live without. Luckily, I now have several guys in my life (my dad, uncle, 2 brothers and a son), who are all brilliant, yet low key and laid back, and they have taught me to laugh at the uber-planner Wonder Woman wanta-be me that wants to save the world.

Admittedly, my childhood was not normal at all. I was an over-scheduled, only child who tried to make up for what I was missing at home by signing up for all sorts of activities, including dance, gymnastics, debate team, editor of the school paper or journal, student government, etc. I focused all my energies on outside activities because unlike everyone else, there was not much of a family at home-- no father, uncles, aunts, cousins, siblings, etc. Without anyone to really ground me, I soared in the outside world-- great schools, internships, athletic opportunities that included summers at the Olympic Training Center and several stints studying abroad. Fantastic, I became the dream robot-child so many seem focused on creating these days, but here is my biggest confession: no amount of trophies, awards, diplomas, or anything else I have "achieved" could ever replace the longing for a normal family life.

For those of us who are built as over-achievers, it is incredibly humiliating to admit failure, and sadly there is no worse public admission of failure than a divorce. So many of my clients that are Ivy League graduates struggle with this issue, and there is this always this amazed look when I ask them, "is this the first time in your life things really went terribly off-course from your plans?" They nod silently, eyes looking down, and I sit there in one split second fully able to understand their devastating feelings of absolute shame because sadly, I lived through them. There is not much you can really say to comfort someone at this moment except to remind them that this happens in life, and it will all be okay.

As a parent, my advice to fellow parents would be to instill at an early age the notion that we all make mistakes, no one is perfect, and that it is normal to suffer setbacks in life. I would refrain from over-loading kids with activities or adding to the already immense pressures about picking the right careers at an early age. What is the right career anyway? I just want my son to be happy at whatever he does, and let me just come clean and say that most lawyers, doctors and bankers that I have met are desperately lacking in true satisfaction from their careers.

Being able to appreciate some down time is a great life skill-- a skill that I am still struggling to possess. I am relieved that my own son has no interest in following in my footsteps. Trying to please others and meet their expectations has rarely allowed me to figure out what I personally want out of life. It is utterly refreshing to see that my child is his own independant little man, who will not fit into someone's cookie-cutter mold. I hope that others will foster this free spirit in their own children and other loved ones, because being an over-achiever is truly over-rated.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Understanding the Family Fabric

For over a decade, I have seen some of the most brilliant professionals in the DC Area make some of the worst mistakes in their personal lives. I have learned to appreciate that a mathematical genius may have the emotional IQ of a pea-- because love is NOT logical. My brother teases me that lately it seems I am trying to "tick off the right boxes" when I meet someone, but what I have tried to explain to him and others is that when I got married, I completely went with my feelings and did not analyze the situation at all from a clinical perspective. I married my best friend, who was smart, cute and kind-- but he was Ferris Bueller. The things that made me laugh initially, eventually ceased to be funny as we got older, and often he would tell me in the end that I had lost my sense of humor. I lost far more than that in the end, but together we had a child, and so for the rest of our lives, we will be tied together, so that although we no longer live under one roof, we are still a family.

My experience with shared custody over the past 6 years helps me with my clients because I understand intimately what their challenges are trying to co-parent with a former spouse, who may not see the world the same way. The best analogy someone shared with me recently is that a child is like a new house you are building, and each parent is building one half of that house. For that house to be solid, it needs to be able to appreciate and love both its designers. I can tell you first hand what happens when one of the architects/builders goes missing-- it creates a hole in the child's heart.

These past six months, that hole in my heart is finally being filled with love by a family I have always longed for, and for the first time in my life I do not feel like I have to tackle life's challenges all by myself. Through my brothers, father, step-mother, aunt, uncle, and cousins who have all entered my world this first half of the year, I am finally learning to appreciate something most people have taken for granted their whole lives-- that the family fabric we create is there to act as a beautiful emotional safety net. Every child should be able to experience this and grow up with this feeling-- regardless of whether the parents stay in an intact household or not.

We all have choices to make in life, and sometimes we are defined by the choices we make. Severing all ties with a family member should only be done in extreme circumstances. Absent an extreme situation, I encourage everyone to appreciate the importance of family ties, and to work together to make the best family connections possible, not just for the sake of our children, but for everyone's happiness and well-being.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Setting Expectations and Boundaries

In any new relationship, one of the first critcial things to work out is setting appropriate expectations on frequency of contact, appropriate forms of communication and establishing our individual boundaries. This should happen rather smoothly and progress quite normally in a healthy relationship. The trickier task is re-establishing boundaries when a relationship is being re-configured, such as when a marriage is dissolving.

It is very hard for people to re-set their patterns of communication, but when they are no longer living in one house, it simply is not necessary or even healthy to maintain daily contact with an ex. Learning to disengage is difficult, and some people unwittingly seem to pick fights in order to stay connected, which of course only further alienates the other person. I cannot tell you how many times people complain to me about the frequency or hostility in the communications they receive from their soon to be exs. My first suggestion is to have the client try and deal with this alone, without the involvement of the attorneys or the authorities.

We should all try to be polite, yet firm in setting our boundaries, keeping in mind that boundaries are meant to protect you, not punish the other. Just because we have instant communication available to us, does not mean we have to respond instantly. If something truly is upsetting you, responding in the heat of the moment is probably not the best thing to do. I have often re-written client's emails for them, toned them down, and taken out inflammatory or excessive information. I try to stick to the KISS motto-- keep it simple stupid.

It is very sad when clients cannot learn to moderate their own communications and need the attorneys to step in on every day matters. People with children need to learn new effective ways to communicate as quickly as possible, and this to me is the beauty of divorce coaches, who are frequently used in Collaborative Divorces. In high conflict cases, we try to rely on Parent Coordinators to help the parents co-parent.

The absolute worst situation to be involved in is with high conflict people. These tend to have major issues respecting other people's boundaries. They will push limits, and sadly in the end the authorities and legal system have to be involved, often resulting in supervised visits (if children are involved) or a complete break in all communication through Protective Orders. For those in this situation, I want to emphasize the need to keep all documentation, talk to a mental health professional and be prepared to act swiftly with the authorities and an attorney experienced in these situations.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Ending Long Term Marriages

Today, I went to court to finalize a divorce for my client, who had been married 35 years. I have had a series of these lately-- 6 of my settlements in the last six months have involved marriages over 20 years. One of my clients actually told me that she would understand the decision more if there was someone else in the picture. I respectfully had to disagree, because my experience is that the sense of betrayal then tends to cloud the entire process.

Divorcing later in life usually eliminates the issues of custody and child support, and generally there tend to me more assets to act as a cushion as the parties divide into two households, but regardless of the total value of assets being divided, financial security never seems to alleviate all the pain, which stems from the feelings of having failed at something so important. It is normal to feel a tremendous amount of loss and dissapointment or anger. Most of all though, what I see when these long-term marriages end is clients who now have to face the fear of being alone. After decades of being part of a team, these people are now parting ways and starting over a single life in their 50's or older. It is truly one of the hardest things to observe, and sadly looking at me will not provide them with much of a consulation, for my track record over the last six years just proves that it is really hard to find the right life partner.

So many people have asked me if I still believe in marriages that can last forever, and I have never waivered in my response that I do still believe in those sacred vows, but I also understand that people grow apart, they change, they take one another for granted, they fail to communicate and resolve conflict in healthy ways. These things can all take their toll, even in the best of marriages. Rarely is it just one person's fault, and just because the partnership is dissolving does not mean it has to be ugly or nasty.

Helping people resolve their differences respectfully should be every divorce lawyer's goal. Those of us committed to mediation and Collaborative Divorce aim to do just that-- because that is what it best for families, who will remain connected even if no longer under one roof. Every lawyer may not be able to see that, but certainly every client has a choice as to the attorney s/he wants to retain, and everyone should realize that this choice can completely define the future of a family for generations.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Learning to Collaborate

After law school, I spent my first six years as an attorney in Washington, DC focusing on family law litigation. I was taught to listen to my client’s story, then advocate his/her position as zealously as possible. While my clients were always happy with their "wins" there were often times were I was left wondering whether in fact the court had made the best decision for the family as a whole.

In 2005, after my own marriage ended in divorce, I decided to pursue a complete transformation in my legal training. I became trained in mediation and Collaborative Law. I read various books and attended numerous trainings on psychology. Learning how depression and other mental health issues can impact clients going through a traumatic experience like divorce helped me understand that my role needed to be more of a counselor, not just an advocate. Most importantly, it became clear to me that to truly help people resolve their differences, I needed to hear both parties version of events, as well as their goals and concerns. True understanding can only happen when we listen to each person’s story, and a successful resolution is when we select the best option for the family as a whole, not just one individual.

In the last 5 years, applying the Collaborative approach not just in my professional life, but also in my personal life, I learned to methodically think about goals and interest; then identify the issues to be addressed; gather all the relevant information necessary; generate options for a solution to each issue; then pick the one most favorable to everyone involved. Eventually, using this technique, I found the courage to deal with something I had kept secret for most of my life: the desire to find my father, and through him, my half brother.

Meeting my father after all these years without any contact was a bit daunting, but I knew I had to face this part of my past if I was ever going to move forward with my own life. I had to find it in my heart to forgive him, and in order to do that, I needed to hear his side of the story and try to understand him, without passing any judgments.

When I first laid eyes on him in February 2011, it was surreal-- it was like looking in a mirror, at a much older and much more masculine version of me. He immediately recognized me and greeted me with a hug and kiss. We ordered some food and drinks at The Source, and then the first thing he did was start my apologizing for what happened 20 years ago. Apologies are so rare these days, but I often tll my clients it can go a long way in the healing process, and now I got to experience it first-hand.

My whole life, I wanted to understand what happened between my parents. Finally, by using the Collaborative approach, I not only have answers to so many questions, but I have found the opportunity to provide my son with a complete family, something I never had and always longed for in my own life. Of course there is tremendous sadness in the years lost, and the fact that we are all spread across two continents, but as I often tell my clients, we need to focus on the bright possibilities ahead and let go of the disappointment from our past losses.

There is a tremendous amount of irony in my life, but the most painful realization is the fact that if I had not gotten divorced, I may never have changed my approach with my clients in my professional life. Without having personally suffered the emotional loss of a family as a result of my own divorce, I might never have truly grasped the internal struggle my clients are experiencing while desperately try to cope with their grief as they make major life decisions. Experiencing this first hand is what led me to study alternatives to litigation, and then I began to apply the techniques I learned in my personal life. Without these skills, I might never have found my true family and a tremendous sense of inner peace that I have craved my entire life.

The journey to find my family was not easy, but maybe it was necessary to prove my point that families are generally far better off trying to resolve their differences outside of court. I am living proof that the courts make mistakes, and as a result of some rather harsh, egregious court decisions, my brother and I both lived for years without a father. Now, as I try my best to piece back together a family torn apart for years by the very judicial system I was taught to serve, I am glad I can offer others an alternative-- the Collaborative approach. A dignified, respectful and completely private way to address family issues outside of any court, thereby maximizing the chances for everyone to find love, happiness and peace.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Finding the Right Attorney

When you are facing a legal challenge, you need to find the right ally to help you navigate the legal system. This is a very personal choice, and you should take your time researching the person's background and reputation. Some are known for being incredibly aggressive litigators, others have more of a collaborative approach that focuses on creative resolutions outside of court. The client has to be able to determine what style s/he wants first, then the selection of an attorney that will meet that need can occur much more efficiently.

Litigation in my family tore us apart for years, and I made a personal choice six years ago not to litigate my own divorce for my son's sake. I wanted my son to have his father in his life as much as possible; I did not want my son to suffer the way I did, and I encourage my clients to get passed their anger as quickly as possible so that we can focus on the best solutions for the family as a whole.

Big firms tend to have litigators, while those who promote mediation or a more collaborative approach focused on settlements outside of court are either solo practitioners or small firms. The bigger the overhead, the bigger the hourly rates will be, and at the big firms, I have seen people spend over six figures for their divorces. I always wonder at the end whether those clients felt it was worth it-- ultimately it depends on the complexity of the issues and what is at stake.

My greatest joy is helping people minimize the losses from a separation/divorce. It is my goal to make the best of a bad situation, to preserve as much goodwill as possible, and spare the costs of unnecessary litigation whenever possible. For those who want an aggressive litigator, I have a short list of colleagues I can recommend, so that I can stay true to myself and the client gets what s/he is seeking during the legal process.