Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Is Your Step Family Refusing to Blend?

I have really come to despise the term "blended family," and it turns out I'm in very good company.  In fact the National Stepfamily Resource Center discourages the use of that word because the very term sets up an unrealistic expectation, which just further complicates an already difficult situation that at least 42% of Americans can relate to by having at least one step relative.

Sadly, couples that remarry with children have almost a 70% chance of divorcing, and the number one reason is this:  fights over their children-- not just because of the time and/or money they require from a parent, but often it is the whole attitude adjustment (or lack thereof) to the new family dynamics.

Venting to your partner isn't really going to be helpful, but venting to friends actually might.  If you have friends that have already been through a step-family experience, gaining their insight might ease some of the pain by normalizing the process you are going through.  If you don't want to talk about the issues in public, then there are plenty of great books on the subject, including "Stepcoupling" by Susan Wisdom and Jennifer Green, and one of my all time favorites: "Stepmonster" by Dr. Wednesday Martin, who points out that only about 20% of adult children actually feel close to their stepmother.

There are a variety of reasons why step families fail to blend, but that does not actually mean that they cannot learn to function effectively.  The hardest part is just accepting that your bunch will not be anything like the Brady Bunch.  But if you think about it, how can it be?  If we are truly honest with ourselves, we can all agree on this very harsh reality: just as no one ever aspires to be a step mother,  no child ever dreams of  having a step mom.

Blood is definitely the tie that bonds, and when you don't have, well.. what do you have?  It makes sense that the parents in a step family have to make their marriage a priority.  Their relationship has to be rock solid to prevent the whole house of cards from crashing down.  And if there is one thing all divorced parents want to avoid more than anything else is putting their kids through yet another round of marital turmoil.  So, before things get too ugly, it is imperative that stepfamilies with issues get the resources they need to establish a good foundation for working through their family conflicts.

Thankfully, there are great counselors specializing in step couples, as well as list servs and podcasts that share useful tips for second marriages with kids.  Another key resource is the National Stepfamily Resource Center:

So, if your stepfamily doesn't want to blend, let it go.  Focus on the good things you have in life, including your partner.  Apply your love and energy to those that appreciate it.  Don't let others rain on your parade-- easier said than done, for sure.  But I think with each passing day, you can detach a little more from that which you had envisioned, and with each new day you can go on to redefine what will be your own happily ever after.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Is A Good Man Hard To Find?

Perhaps in Flannery O'Connor's time, a good man was hard to find-- because let's face it in all generations prior to mine, men were mainly primed to be good providers.  But in the 21st century, where women can provide for themselves, find a sperm donor, and live a single life without any of the shame once associated with those that remained unmarried, men have really had to step it up. So, with the pressure now on for GenX guys and all those that follow to be much more than just good providers like their fathers, or their fathers' fathers, here are 3 ways I see plenty of men rising to the occasion:

1. Caring Fathers- Unlike the men of their father's generation or anyone before then, today's men are expected to be involved fathers, sharing in all of the child-rearing responsibilities.  Indeed, today's dads can be seen everywhere changing diapers, pushing strollers, taking their daughters to ballet class, making time to chaperone field trips, attend parent-teacher conferences and school functions, etc.  And, even when the marriage fails, I see my male clients step up to the plate, trying their best to maximize their time with their children and support them financially to the best of their ability.  Does that mean I never encounter dead-beat dads?  Of course not, but my point is that after 17 years in the business of helping families through a divorce, I have found dead-beat/absent fathers to be an incredibly rare minority.

2. Supportive Husbands- Contrary to what was expected of men of prior times, today's man is not just expected to provide financially for the family and keep it in his pants, but he's expected to also know how to be an emotional support to his wife.  Despite everything they have learned as boys to not show too much emotion, we expect them to come home and open up their hearts and minds to further develop a deep emotional bond that we so long for with our partners, and guess what? Most of them actually try-- they really do try, at least to the best of their ability, and this is where it is important to remember that saying you cannot expect a fish to climb a tree.

3. Good Role Models- Throughout my entire life, I have been blessed with incredible male role models/mentors, and I know from my other female peers that I am not alone.  With such few women making it to the top (less than 15% of us make it to the CEO/partner level) who do you think is actually mentoring those of us that make it?  9 out of 10 times, it is men.  Men like legendary Robert Morgenthau, who wrote my letters of recommendation to college after my internship at the Manhattan D.A.'s office.  Men like Father Schall, a Jesuit priest at Georgetown University, who was my favorite advisor.  Men in all the prominent firms that I worked at for over 8 years in the DC Area, who guided me through the various stages of my 17 year legal career.

Now, are any of the men I have come to love and admire throughout the years perfect?  Of course not-- and neither are any of the women I have come across the last four decades.  We are all flawed, and we have all made big mistakes at some points along the way.  But actually the biggest mistake I see today is predominantly the belief among women of the 21st century that a good man is hard to find.  If this really is the mindset among today's modern women, then Houston we really have a problem.

Life is not meant to be lived alone, and men are not just sperm donors that we need to have babies.  Men have certain strengths that we don't have, just as we bring qualities into their lives that otherwise would not exist without us.  They are the ying to our yang, and together with the right life partner, we learn to achieve balance.  Will it be perfect all the time? Of course not-- but don't let perfection be the enemy of the good.

So, next time you hear someone say or you find yourself thinking that a good man is hard to find, I hope you will encourage that person or yourself to stop and take a good look around.  There are plenty of good men out there-- good role models, caring dads and loving husbands are everywhere-- and I for one, am eternally indebted to them.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Are You Having a Rough Year?

If you feel like 2015 hasn't been your year, especially if you have gone some through difficult transitions either at work or with your family, there is some good news for you: the year is almost over!  Seriously, there are less than 8 weeks left to go here, and while none of us can go back and un-do what has been done, we can all think positively and start making plans for a brighter year ahead. Here are 3 key areas to think about:

Health- if you are not happy with your work out or eating habits, the holidays is probably the worst time to try and implement some changes, but there is nothing like the start of a new year to set a new routine in motion!  At least explore options for a gym, personal trainer, or maybe meeting with a dietician to set you on the right path for 2016.

Finances- if you want to earn more or spend less next year, now is the time to plot out what changes you can make to have a more balanced budget.  Many of us need help figuring out the best strategies to pay down debt and save for retirement while also putting money aside for our children's education, and these questions are best discussed with a CPA or financial planner to make sure you are not making decisions based on just your emotions.

Relationships- if you realize that some of your personal relationships could stand some improvement, you are definitely not alone!  Maintaining relationships is hard work-- especially with those you love.  Your spouses, children and other close relatives often do not share the same personality as you, and sometimes things get lost in translation.  Luckily, there are many great books or coaches trained to guide you through the process of learning to communicate better and manage your expectations.

When my divorce clients first come to me, I warn them that they are in for a rough year.  There is a lot of upheaval in that first year as you create a new identity for yourself, learn to manage your own finances, and have to build all new routines. If you think about it (which I really didn't until I got remarried this year) same is true for those who just got married.  Lots of change all at once is very stressful, even under the best of circumstances.  So you know what my best advice is to all those that feel like 2015 hasn't been an easy year?  Be kind to yourself.

This holiday season make sure you plan something fun for yourself.  Take some time to just be alone and enjoy some peace and quiet.  Don't wait for someone to get you the best gift ever or plan the best date for you-- do it for yourself.  This year is almost over, and if there is one thing you can do it is this: make sure  you end it on a high note so you can  be sure to start 2016  on the right foot.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Are You Thinking of Getting Engaged?

The holiday season is a popular time for people to pop the question.   And soon thereafter, engaged couples will begin to plan for the big day-- finding the right venue, deciding on the perfect menu, developing the guest list, and selecting all the necessary vendors for the special day, all of which will cost an average of $25,000 per wedding, and in the DC Area yields about $1.1 Billion a year in business.  Needless to say, this is an intense endeavor with significant demands on your time and finances, so before you take that big step try to take a step back, and just ask yourself these 4 key questions:

1. What are the reasons you want to get married?  The motivating factor should not be because you are tired of the dating scene or feel external pressure either as a result of a biological clock ticking, finances, or having a visa that is about to expire.  It is also not healthy to want to play the role of a savior-- although we all want to help those we love, it grows old when one person constantly needs to be rescued by the other. Furthermore, applying the sunken cost logic, i.e. we have invested too much time or money into this relationship to call it quits is very faulty logic.  If things are not good now, it is not likely to miraculously get better by committing yourself financially and legally to one another.  Indeed, the only real reason you should want to tie the knot these days is because you genuinely love that other person (accepting them the way they are and not the way you wish they would be), and you cannot picture life without him/her being a part of the many adventures that lie ahead.

2. Are you in sync about finances? First there is the issue of paying for all the costs associated with a wedding, which is no small undertaking.  But beyond that are much deeper questions:  How important is it for both of you to save vs. spend?  How will you manage a household budget?  Will you want to keep separate accounts or create a joint account, and who will manage them?  Do you want a prenup to define what will remain separate versus joint? Are you both self-supporting? If not, are you worried about alimony?  If so, do you want to ask for a waiver or set caps in the event of a divorce?  If all these questions seem overwhelming or are a sore subject between you, then ask for help-- invest in a consult with a legal or financial expert to help you structure your partnership in a way that will work for both parties.

3. How well do you resolve conflict?  Conflict is inevitable when there are limited resources, and here the main two often in dispute involve time and/or money.  So, how do you find a resolution?  Your communication styles and tolerance for conflict will differ, that is normal.  But, are you able to hear each other's points of view and address one another's concerns respectfully? Do you feel like you work well together as a team?   If not, are you willing to work with a couples counselor to develop strategies that will enhance your relationship?  

4. What are your dreams and aspirations?  We all have a vision for what we want out of life, and each of us has a Constitutional right to actually pursue our own happiness.  But, when you get married and join forces with someone, you need to make sure that you are both in agreement as to your family's core values and vision for the future.  Put bluntly, you cannot move the tandem bike forward unless you are on the same page as to where you are heading and the pace you want to use when pedaling. 

For all those about to take the plunge this holiday season, please  know that you are not the only one who wants a happily-ever after, all those that love you want that for you too.  Just take the time to carefully think through these 4 basic questions before you go shopping for that very expensive piece of jewelry, for it is indeed true that the life partner you pick is one of the most important decisions you will make in your life.  

Regina A. DeMeo, Esq.