Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Magical Boiling Point

Too often I think we let things go, and we let more things go, until one day, magically, we hit this boiling point, and it all comes spilling out. At that point, you can't go on ignoring issues and you need to focus, because now it is decision time-- what are you going to do about this problem?

In the past, whenever I hit this boiling point, my M.O. was to walk away. Filled with immense disappointment and void of any hope, I would leave and go set for a new course. I've done it since I was 8-- learned to cut people out and relied on my extroverted nature to find some new and interesting connections. This is exactly why I became so good so fast at being the handmaiden of death in the divorce world. But something really funny happened a few years ago, I realized that others did not actually share my view of the boiling point. Mediators, psychologist, and Collaborative Professionals see a crisis moment as an opportunity for families to address unresolved issues- rather than run from conflict, they embrace it. They took me under their tutelage, and I discovered a whole new way of thinking-- at least when it comes to family ties.

For the last few years, I've embraced the crisis moment in a whole new way with my clients, and in the last few years this approach has spilled over into my family life. I have to admit, the boiling point still sucks when it happens, but when you appreciate the ties that bind you, and you realize that walking away is not an option, then amazingly really can find a way to work things out. Maybe not overnight, and maybe not at all the way anyone thought it would play out, but I have to say, I'm enjoying having a lot less blood on my hands these days. Don't get me wrong, the handmaiden of death is not at all retired, but her softer side is shining more brightly these days.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Help Kids Understand the Impact of a College Degree

It's amazing to think that in this affluent country we live in only about 25% of the US population obtain a Bachelor's Degree. Those that do will make about 75% more than their counterparts without a degree; they are also more likely to get married and far more likely to stay together. The economic and social advantages just continue to increase exponentially for those with higher education degrees, so really it is a no-brainer that as responsible parents we have to help our kids navigate the complex application process and set aside money for college as soon as possible.

According to Nancy Leopold of College Tracks (who will be my tv guest this week), the number of available college seats has not drastically changed in the last 20 years, meanwhile the number of applicants have skyrocketed. Many in-state schools now cost as much as $30,000 per year, and the FAFSA guidelines presume that parents will contribute towards college. The last thing you want to do is have a child go into tremendous debt as they start off life, but sadly for some there is no other option. Nancy's organization is a local non-profit that helps kids apply for college and works with families so they understand the financial packages being offered by various schools.

Staffed with over 40 volunteers, College Tracks begins by helping high school students identify appropriate target schools, complete their essays, schedule the SATs, etc. For those whose parents have never been through the process, this is an invaluable service. As I did the interview, I had lots of flashbacks of my own college application process, and I truly appreciated more than ever all that my scholarship program did for me. The Scholars Program in New York took us on a college tour the summer before our senior year, and that is how I became acquainted with Georgetown. The Program also helped match me with internships each summer that I was in high school, so by the time I was writing my essays for college, I had a pretty nice resume and outstanding recommendation letters.

Between the Program's coordinators and the advisors I had in boarding school, I was given an incredible fighting chance at a bright future-- the only thing no one warned me about was the debt. Back then the philosophy was get into the best schools you can get into and don't worry about the debt. Well, times have drastically changed. This is a world of few haves, and lots of have-nots. If there is one thing that Nancy makes clear is that you have to be mindful of the debt you take on-- education is an amazing gift, but it comes with a huge price tag these days. If we want our kids to start the game of life off right, we need to help them prep for the application process way before their senior year, and financially plan so that they don't start off too deep in the hole because of debt.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Time to Choose: Split Up Before or After the Holidays?

As Thanksgiving approaches, the question I get most often from clients is whether to split now or after the holidays? It's a tough call to make, and very personal. In typical lawyer fashion, I tell everyone it depends on you-- if you are the type of person that can keep it together and will enjoy the time with your spouse and kids, then it might be best for everyone if you could grin and bear it until Dec. 31st so that the holidays in the future will not be associated with any negative connotations. However, if you can't stand to be in the same house a day longer and/or there is a lot of bickering going on already, then it might be a relief to everyone if the split occured prior to the holidays. If the kids are so little that they won't recall anything, then the timing may not matter as much, but when you have older children that are going to remember certain events like when mommy or daddy left the house, you have to be super sensitive to their emotional safety. The other big factor to consider is money. Can you afford to move out and still help support your kids' expenses or contribute to the mortgage? You need to run your monthly expenses and determine if you can rent another place, or else you may need to crash with your parents or friends. I cannot tell you how many people in this economy have had to move back in with their parents or another relative-- a harsh reality for anyone over 25. Keep in mind, you will also have new expenses like attorney's fees and perhaps child support. Someone may even request temporary alimony during the split, which could really create havoc on your budget. To better understand the consequences of moving out, and review the pros and cons of a split, wise people go and get a consult before making any major decisions. It is so much easier to help someone plan properly in order to avoid a disaster versus having to clean up a mess that has already been created. Remember, divorce is like an amputation- we are cutting out a part of your life, and you can either do it methodically with a surgeon or do it yourself with a butcher's knife. I'd like to see people avoid a blood bath and enjoy the holidays, so make sure you weigh your options carefully with an expert.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Friend or Frenemy? True Colors Emerge When You Fall in Love

A true friend is someone that supports you, and while they may not agree with all your choices, they will respect that it is your life to live as you see fit. Over the years, my friends have dated people that I may not have necessarily been thrilled with, or vice a versa, and of course, we have all voiced some concerns along the way, but we've also always known when to shut up and let someone figure certain things out on their own. There is a line that you cannot cross-- those that do enter into dangerous territory that could get themselves ex-communicated.

It is always sad when a friend becomes less available because s/he has found a partner, but the joy you have for them should outweigh your own sadness if you are a true friend.  If instead you put up a fuss, make ultimateums and generally become a thorn on someone's side, you will soon find yourself out in the cold, completely. 

The lesson for all of us here is this: you need to go with your heart, and accept that not everyone will be happy with your choices in life. If someone doesn't respect your choices, you need to set clear boundaries early on, and if those boundaries are not respected, you need to cut all ties. Sometimes, especially with frenemies, you need to act like the Moussad-- there is no room for negotiation with terrorists. Take no prisoners, just take them down and out.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Dishing About Dating in the 21st Century

Tonight on my show, Making It Last, I get to dish about one of my favorite topics-- dating in the 21st century. Keep in mind that it is only in the last 10 years that modern technology has really changed the game around. Online dating is how 25% of all couples meet; the rest usually meet organically either through friends, work or in school. Regardless of how people meet, in order to maintain a relationship in today's modern world, they need to become super apt at communicating via email, text, FB and phone. Expectations are so high that you'll be instantly available, and I think the rate of crashing and burning is increasing exponentially. People-- this is not a race. Dating should be a fun social experiment. You learn what you like, what you don't, you figure out where you have room to compromise, and no one should take it personally if there are some things you just cannot negotiate. The people that go the extra mile of hiring a dating coach are serious about finding a life partner. These are people on a mission, but some of us are just not motivated in that way. Many may not be clear about what they want in a partner, meanwhile others are crystal clear about the traits they are seeking in a spouse. Ultimately, the more you go in with an open mind, and an open heart, the better off you will be-- and for your own sanity, just try your best to avoid one thing: setting ultimateums. No one likes to be forced to make a choice, even though there are certain ones that are inevitable. After a few months of casually dating you do need to assess where you are heading. If there is a commute involved, eventually someone needs to pose the question of whether there is any intention of ending that situation by finding compromise ground. If there is a toxic person that is hovering over the couple like a dark cloud, either you both move to a sunnier location, or you need to part ways. If one person wants a family and the other doesn't share that vision, or one person wants to stay home and raise kids, while the other person wants to be part of a double income family, where both spouses share equally in all responsibilities, you just need to be honest with yourselves that your long-term vision is not in sync. Play out the movie in your head, and work backwards from the end you seek, that is my best advice. Envision yourself like a director going through cast calls and just have fun trying to find the character that is going to play that lead role in your life!

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Importance of Closure Conversations

Over the last 14 years as a divorce lawyer, I've seen a lot of crap. The worst, however, is when someone is blind-sided by the divorce. They had no idea that anything was wrong, and to add insult to injury the other spouse leaves without ever giving an explanation. Perhaps the goal is to not say anything further to hurt the other, but the fact is that if you leave a person in the dark as to what went wrong, you leave that person always wondering, always doubting, and perhaps preventing them from ever being able to move forward. How can you learn from your mistakes if no one ever tells you what you are doing wrong? Whether it is a friend, relative or lover that I have walked away from, I have always tried to give some insight as to why the relationship is being terminated. There are ways to have these discussions without obliterating the other person's ego. No doubt these talks are hard, but there is no crueler punishment in my opinion that to end a long-term relationship without explanation. Perhaps you may not be ready to have it right away, we all need time to calm down sometimes and gain perspective, but at some point, it is the humane thing to do.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Importance of Having a Good Life Panel

In the legal world, you can't have one person act as prosecutor, judge and jury. The whole American system in fact is set up on the premise that we need checks and balances to avoid an abuse of power. So how about applying the same concepts in your personal life? When I get mad, I know my judgment is clouded-- that is why I have a panel. My go-to people who can weigh in and help me see things from a different perspective. Some people rely on just a BFF-- there are so many problems with that, but here are just a few: 1) friends come & go from your life, you can't have all your eggs in one basket; 2) you marry your best friend, and your spouse is bound to piss you off-- so you need someone else to peel you back off the ledge every now and then; 3) sometimes people have their own agenda or their perspective may be tainted by their own past. There are of course times when you won't have time to convene a panel, and a decision must be made on the spot. When that happens, you need to go with your gut. As Malcolm Gladwell said in Blink, sometimes what seem like snap decisions are actually a reflection of our cumulative life experiences. That said, sometimes our judgment is tainted by biases we may not be aware of, so this is why whenever I have the luxury of time, and I'm not sure that I am seeing something from all the different angles, I rely on my panel-- just like I would in a divorce case involving a variety of experts. This week, my panel shined and helped me see some blind spots that I was overlooking because I was simply way too focused on the end in mind. I am eternally grateful to have learned the importance of having a panel early on, and I hope others will think carefully about applying the same strategy in their own lives.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Are Your Areas of LIfe in Sync?

Lately there has been a surge in the use of life coaches. I'm excited to have one as my guest in an upcoming segment in December. Turns out my dating expert, Amy Schoen, who will be the guest on this week's show is also a certified life coach, and her view is that first she needs to help her clients gain insight into their values and life goals by going through an analysis of the "areas of life." Only after they've worked through this can she help them identify traits they will want to look for in a life partner. It makes perfect sense that you would want someone that shares your vision of what would make for a good life. Sadly, I'm not sure most of us go into the dating world with a clear vision of what we really want in a partner. I think generally we go out in order to have fun, and we hope to find someone who will join us in enjoyable experiences. The point Amy is making, however, is a good one-- is that enough in the long run? The critical areas of life we are supposed to reflect on are (1) career; (2) family; (3) money; (4) social/friends; (5) physical; (6) spiritual and (7) personal development. Finding the right balance with all these is not easy, and part of having realistic expectations is that you are not going to be scoring 100% in all areas at once. So, we need to accept that we will constantly be re-prioritizing these-- the key then with a life partner, is finding someone that shares your same priorities. For those on a mission to find the right match and not waste time, Amy's advice is to love with your heart, but lead with your head. The partner you choose will impact all areas of your life, so she is right, you need to choose wisely.

Monday, October 15, 2012

An Engagement Contract?

They say opposites attract, but can they last??? I guess that depends on whether they share enough core values and have a common vision of what life will be like together. We've all heard about realists falling for dreamers. It is quite common for extroverts to attract introverts. The one who sees the glass as half-empty is usually drawn to the one that sees the glass as half full. The city chick, who partied like a rockstar can fall for the low-key guy that loves the burbs. But, the million dollar question is will it work in the long-run?

 If you can continue to respect each other's differences, while making a commitment to always work on finding common ground, I think it can last. Rather than just winging it or waiting until the big wedding day to make certain promises, I'm in favor of an engagement contract. If we are talking about walking down that aisle, let's seriously negotiate the rules of engagement going forward. Here would be my top 10:

1. Listen to each other’s concerns and try to provide positive feedback, realizing negative comments are not helpful;
2. Be compassionate and support one another;
3. Appreciate the efforts each has made towards building the relationship (you can never say thank you too much);
4. Be respectful of the other, refraining as much as possible from derogatory or sarcastic comments; 5. Continue to enjoy a monogamous, intimate relationship—striving for that perfect frequency that you can both enjoy-- at least 3 times a week;
6. Promote a team spirit, relinquishing a solitary approach to life;
7. Continue building trust and demonstrate a willingness to make it all work out;
8. Never go to sleep mad, and always hug and kiss both in the morning and evening;
9. Check-in daily and maintain the positive established patterns;
10. Clear calendars, and don't make a social commitment for the other without a discussion.

Remember, the goal is to enjoy each other’s company for the rest of your lives. Unfortunatly, the engagment period can be stressful, and it is important not to lose sight of the big picture. We all want to live, love and laugh to fullest extent possible, but the journey ahead is always going to be full of challenges. While perhaps the terms of your relationship may not be legally binding, having something to refer back to should be a source of comfort. These rules should ground you, and help you get back on track if you veer off course. Take the contract idea seriously-- the choice in a life partner is one of the most important decisions that will define your life.

Friday, October 12, 2012

My Favorite Oxymoron: Common Sense

This week, my son was learning about oxymorons. When asked what my favorite one is, I kind of chuckled as I replied "common sense." Why is it called that when in fact it isn't at all common?

I suppose I should not complain too much because I realize it is people's failure to use proper judgment that keeps me in business as a divorce lawyer. I also realize that unlike most, I have had the benefit of many trainings, seminars, and countless psychology books that have helped me understand the importance of communicating emotions and applying appropriate conflict resolution skills. When you are mad, you need to ask yourself why you are mad and try your best not to lash back. How is pouring fuel on a fire going to help the situation? It's not-- it will only make things worse.

In the heat of an argument, people resort to either fight or flee mode. Just picture a wounded animal-- either it will retreat or attack; humans are the same way. Sadly, two great people may just not make a great team-- especially if they can't fight well. The rules of engagement are simple, but many seem to lose sight of the big picture when they get caught up in squabbles and the daily stresses of life.

In the end, it should be obvious that you shouldn't have to put up with non-sense in a healthy relationship.  Indeed, there is a simple line in a song that sums up what I consider to be common sense in love: try not to hurt another person's heart, and don't put up with those that do.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

How Long Should You Wait to Start Dating Again?

I get this question all the time from my clients going through the divorce process. Obviously, I am not allowed to give legal advice in a blog, and anyway by now it should be clear that this really isn't a legal blog. So, from a non-legal perspective, here are my thoughts-- after your divorce is finalized, what is the point in waiting? The sooner you get back out there, the better. It is not going to be easy at first-- just accept that it is a skill that you need to work on. You will make mistakes in the beginning, and that is totally normal.

Keeping up with dating in the 21st century after you've been out of the loop for a while is going to take some time. If you chose to do internet dating, navigating the various websites, creating an online profile, and communicating with strangers, is all weird when you first start the process. Even if you rely on set-ups, blind dates are hard at first. Eventually, however, you will get the hang of it, and soon you will find yourself being able to share stories with other friends that will make everyone laugh. Have fun with it, and never view it as a waste of time. It is a learning process-- and it will morph over time, as will you. The one thing to really keep in mind is that you don't want to lose sight of the point in this social experiment. Ultimately, the goal is to find a suitable life partner, and it is simply a very competitive market out there.

Often I hear divorced parents say they'd rather wait until the kids are off to college before they seriously start to date, and I can certainly understand that the thought of trying to date around a custody schedule is a logistical challenge many might be inclinded to avoid, or the idea of trying to blend two families is something so complicated, that it may seem easier to just not deal with this at all. But as I see it, there are huge opportunity losses to putting off dating-- if I thought it was challenging to find a good person in my 30's, I can't imagine how much harder it would be in my 40's or 50's. The sad reality is that the older you get, the less marketable you become-- kind of like cars with too many miles on them. So, if you want to maximize your chances of finding someone else, I think you need to get back out there sooner rather than later. As long as you use good judgments, the kids will be fine, and you will be too.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

It's a Good Thing If You Don't Suffer Fools Well in Dating

This week, I get to interview Amy Schoen, author of "Get It Right This Time." She is a dating coach in the DC Area, who helps people navigate the various phases of dating. Both of us spent time after our first divorces analyzing the things that went wrong, and a lot of her tips focus on the need for an individual to really be self-aware. To get it right in dating, I truly agree with her that you have to understand what you really need, and what you can live without. There will always be trade-offs, but you have to know your non-negotiables from the start in order to protect your heart. The last thing you want to do is get super deep into a relationship only to realize that this one issue that you shelved is in fact an insurmountable one. Being honest with yourself and others does not always come easy-- but I have certainly found that the more you don't suffer fools well, the more apt you are to cut to the chase. Maybe it is because I was trained as a lawyer to view time as an expensive commodity, but I really don't like misleading people, and I get really irritated fast if it seems someone is wasting my time. That attitude has definitely bled over into my personal life. Perhaps if more people could embrace this approach, they'd find their dating lives more productive and enjoyable. We should all be looking for a good return on our investment, and it starts with doing some homework to gain insight into ourselves. Once you do that, you too will find that you don't suffer fools well.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Renewable Marriage Contracts?

There has been a lot of talk for some time now about the continued viability of the notion that we are entering into marriage "until death due us part" knowing full well that there's about a 50% it may not in fact last. The idea of renewable contracts with a built-in review term, however, is not the solution to this problem. In my opinion, what we need to address as a society is the notion that marriage is indeed a partnership, and in some ways we need to apply business philosophies to this union in order to ensure its sustainability. I am not alone in this thinking, and in fact the late Dr. Stephen Covey wrote a book "Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families." In that book, he applies corporate techniques to build a better family structure. Think about it-- successful companies tend to have 5 year plans, 10 year plans, and they do annual retreats. They review budgets regularly and make sure that they are sticking to their missions and accomplishing their goals. Employees are routinely sent to trainings to update their skills, and periodic reviews are conducted to ensure everyone is happy and sticking on task. Why should families be any different? Perhaps people have forgotten that Hollywood movies were originally made to help people forget about the harsh realities of war. Movies often provide an escape from reality, and they help inspire us, but real life is full of challenges and having the right ally by your side is key. Maintaining a home, raising kids, dealing with finances and health issues are all part of normal life, and you shouldn't take for granted the importance of having a partner to help you deal with these issues. It is way too easy these days for couples to grow apart and lead separate lives. Too many people get caught up on external pressures, and they ignore their marriages until it is too late-- and the reason I know this is because half the time I am dealing with someone in complete shock. Over half the people I meet have no clue that there was a problem in the marriage. This is why I strongly encourage people to check-in with each other regularly. You need to have date nights and plan fun outings, even long after those wedding bells have stopped ringing. One of my friends said, "love is like a plant. If you don't water it and give it sunlight, it will die." Another person once told me that marriage is like a garden-- you have to keep weeding if you want it to stay beautiful. Their points are all well taken-- the key to having a more realistic expectation on marriage is NOT to give up on the notion of it lasting forever, but rather to embrace the reality that it takes hard work to successfully make a partnership last.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Bridging Two Worlds

As internet dating has taken off and our society has become more fluid, there is now more than ever an increased probability that you might pair up with someone that is not part of your world. Now more than ever, the ability to compromise is going to be key. For example, everyone knows I'm a city girl. Born and raised in New York, until I went away to boarding school. I've always been addicted to stimulus. I moved to DC for college because it reminded me of Paris, where I spent part of my senior year in high school as part of a student exchange. Short trips outside the city I can deal with, but I've always joked with my friends about needing a passport and an epi-pen the further away I get from city life. So, I am very cognizant of my limitations and where I won't be able to bridge the gap.

The more different you are from your potential partner, the more you need to question whether it is likely that you can create a bridge between two different worlds.  Remember, for some, change is very scary, and so I think after the first few months of fun are over, you need to consider whether you can envision making some changes in your life to be with that other person. Can you see yourself actually working together to build a bridge that connects the gaps in your lives? If you can't, it is not a reflection of how little you care about the other, it is simply an indication that you are stepping way beyond your comfort zone.

The older we get, the more cemented we get in our ways, and although I've been trying to chisel away at some of that cement lately, I accept that for many who were not exposed to a million different view points, moves, and changes early on in life, their capacity for flexibility is now much more limited. Bridging two worlds is really hard work, especially in our later years, and requires having an open mind and heart. Know your limitations and be honest, that's the best advice I can give to those in today's dating world.