10 Reasons to be Grateful you are Divorced this Holiday Season

While we look around at all of the people rushing to spend this holiday with loved ones, those families who are in transition – going through divorces or separations right now, or living with the decisions to do or not to do either of those things – might feel a little less grateful for their particular lot in life this week.  No need!  Divorce is an important time to count your blessings.

Here are 10 reasons to be grateful if you are divorced or separated this Thanksgiving:

  1. You never have to eat your mother-in-law’s greasy mashed potatoes again.
  2. If this is the year you do not have the kids, you have a day to yourself to finally watch the entire series of Breaking Bad in your bathrobe.
  3. If this is the year you do have the kids, you can start making unconventional choices for the menu – rainbow marshmallows on the sweet potatoes, anyone?
  4. No one insinuating you look fat by asking, “Is that what you are going to wear?”
  5. No more worrying that your spouse is going to get drunk and embarrass you in front of your parents.
  6. No more worrying that if you get drunk and say what is on your mind you’ll hear about how it affected your in-laws.
  7. Whether it is true in India or not, in America we do not light our daughters-in-law on fire when they ask for a divorce.
  8. Whether it is true in Iran or not, in America being divorced does not automatically mean you are also homeless, bankrupt, and un-marriageable.
  9. Even if you just moved into the smallest apartment in town, you have a roof over your head; and you get to choose who does and does not walk in the front door.
  10. If the whole idea of being divorced during Thanksgiving just turns your stomach – maybe you’ll lose a few pounds and be in “market-ready” condition at all the coming holiday parties! It is never too early to shop for a New Years’ outfit.

If you are not yet divorced or separated, but know in your heart-of-hearts that you need to get out of this relationship, use this holiday season as your internal farewell tour.  Catalogue what you do not like, be it the menu, the guests, the smells, the  pressure to buy expensive gifts, the complete disregard for the expensive gifts you bought, or anything else, and remind yourself – I will never have to do *this* again.

If you are healthy and safe and making choices for your own life, then you are more fortunate than 90% of the people who live on this planet today.  Take a moment to stop and count your blessings. . . Then, please pass the greasy mashed potatoes.

What We Love:  I have never actually tried rainbow marshmallows; but I do love the idea of them.

Divorce is Pretty Popular?

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Does this happen to you, too?  People talk to me about their divorces all the time. I don’t just mean my clients. I mean the lady next to me waiting for our dry cleaning, my eye doctor, a mom whose son plays baseball with my son, the cop directing traffic at the corner, the woman getting her hair cut in the next chair over from me.  I mean all the time.

Sometimes I think it is because of what I do for a living. You know, the fact that I’m a lawyer.  But the lady at the dry cleaner does not know that.  I do not wear a divorce lawyer name tag or uniform.  (Although that does remind me of this joke: what’s black and brown and looks good on a lady lawyer?  A doberman.)

I think the level of detail might increase once they find out I am an attorney.  Maybe it is because they assume I will be more interested.  Or maybe I just start asking more questions because I am, in fact, interested in people and their relationships, and – let’s face it – their divorces.  I am always looking for the good divorce story; for the people who can teach me something about how they handled a difficult or challenging situation and made it better; so I can pass the wisdom along to my clients.

I am recently starting to see a pattern develop in the realm of who says what about their own divorce.  I think that part of the reason why divorce gets such a bad reputation is because the people with the most to say about it are the people who narrowly survived a hideous episode and are still traumatized by it.  The people with calm, healthy divorces have very little that they need to say.  I think it makes sense, in a way.

Here are two recent contrasting examples.  A lady at a little league game and I are watching our sons play ball.  She asks, “did you see Tuesday’s game?”  I answer, “No. I was working. I heard we won.  Did you see it?”

She says, “No.  I wanted to come and promised my son I would be here.  But his father decided that he was coming instead, and I am not showing up here and running into him ever again.  Last time he brought his new wife. I don’t even understand why she wants to come, this is not her son.  This is my son.  So, now, I have to go back to court for contempt because I wouldn’t let him go home with them at the end of that game, and then he said fine, I just won’t pay you until I can see the kids and I said, you have to pay me, so I called my lawyer, and my lawyer said that he has to pay me no matter what.  Now he has to pay me back alimony and if the judge says it is contempt then he has to pay for my lawyer’s fees, too.  So how am I supposed to risk going to one of his games and then she might show up and then all of us are in contempt again and paying each others’ lawyers.  So I told him he can’t come to two games in the same week, no matter what. He came Tuesday and I’m here today and so help me, he better not have the nerve to show up.  Do you know what the score was?”

I could have mentioned what I do for work; but I decided to let it go.  It seems to me she already has way more attorney involvement in her life than anyone should, why add my name to her mix?

Then, there are the people like my my eye doctor.  He has met my kids, and says something that indicates he has kids, too.  We chat about that for a few minutes, and I ask where they live, or something.  “With their mom,” he says, and goes back to his business.  That is clearly all he plans to say on the topic.  And, if I were a normal person with no divorce fixation I might have left it at that.  But, of course, here I am in my Doberman coat, asking for the gory details.  “How long ago were you divorced? How old were the kids? How often do you see them?” Etc.

And, just as you may have surmised, his was a clean and amicable divorce.  They are still friendly with each other, 8 years post dissolution.  In fact, he and his ex had dinner together with the kids two weeks ago when the dad brought the kids back from a summer vacation.  Nothing was angry or nasty then, or since.  So, in his mind, there wasn’t much to say about it.  A short and unfortunate incident that happened almost a decade ago. Nothing more, nothing less.

But, not to me. To me, that is the crux of it – the people who were not crippled by their divorces stand happily and quietly off to the side as the parade of mangled zombies proclaim the hideous aftermath of their terrible divorces.  I am not suggesting that the people whose lives were irreparably damaged by unhealthy marriages and diseased divorces need to be quiet about it.  Not at all.  I know they need to process what has happened to them and they have every right to do so.  My qualm, if I have one at all, is with the secretive success stories.

There are men and women who live in our midst – use our hairdresser and dry cleaners and ball parks with us – who know that they got out of their marriages in calm and humane ways and have lived to tell the tale.  I say, let them tell those tales.  The stories of divorce which end with “happily ever after” need to take their places in the parade, as well.

WHAT WE LOVE:  Guilty secret: I actually love lawyer jokes and challenge any one to tell me one I have not already heard.

Divorce Equals Division

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Did you ever notice how the words “Divorce” and “divide” both start with the same three letters, the same root?  Divorce can be seen as a time to “divvy-up” assets, debts, photo albums, relatives, and even friends.  You can almost picture a black jack dealer with a green eye-shade laying the “alternate weekends” card in front of dad, and the “pool club membership” in front of mom.

That’s really not the tricky part.  Taking what you want, or need, and leaving the rest where it is – well, that’s something most of us learned (or should have learned) in kindergarten.  If two adults can’t do the dividing themselves, the judge will step in and divide it up for them.  Usually it is just a matter of simple math.  The house has $300,000 in equity. If we sell it, each party can have $150,000 to go buy a condo and start again.  Easy math. Predictable outcome.

But, what if the house is worth more to the parties than the $300,000 in equity? What if giving up my right to $150,000 is nothing compared to my need to stay next door to my neighbors who have protected me during this awful ten year marriage, for example?  How would you go about quantifying that for a judge?

Or, what if there are two drivers and three vehicles? What if one is the jalopy we keep in the garage in the hopes that enough tinkering will someday bring it back to life as a classic?  It might only be worth $75 to a judge’s balance sheet; but it might be worth thousands to the people who saw it as an investment in their someday retirement.  While a judge could arbitrarily assign it to one party or the other, allocating a $75 dollar offset somewhere else; the owners might want to see it through to completion before relegating it to a junk heap.

The division of divorce is simplistic. It is the multiplication which can be elegant, and beautiful.  Instead of seeing each asset and person as a dividend to be chopped into smaller equal shares; consider looking at them as opportunities to multiply.

Here are some quick examples.  Two parents have a marital residence and a time share vacation home.  Even if they decide to sell the marital residence, they don’t have to give up the vacation time share.  It might be transferred to the children.  In the case of minor children, the transfer would be in name only. In the case of adult children it could be an acceptable conveyance by the terms of the management company. The children get a week at the time share and mom visits them there for the first half of the week and dad shows up for the second half. The kids go from vacations with two unhappy parents; to separate vacations with one happier parent. A larger, not smaller, outcome.

People who are worried that the friends will choose one spouse or the other can use the same multiplier logic by demonstrating in advance that they will be comfortable in each other’s presence.  No one needs to choose sides. No one has to pick which spouse to invite to a dinner party, if the dinner party will go just as smoothly with both people there.  Even better, showing that you will accept each other’s new boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife, will go a lot further towards helping your friends keep all of their invitations wide open.  Now you have gone from keeping half of your friends, to keeping all of your friends, and the new people as they come into your lives. Multiplied.

The family boat does not have to be sold if the parties can agree to sharing the use and costs of maintaining it. In fact, not only do you get to keep using your boat (on alternate weekends, maybe) but now you are only responsible for one-half of the upkeep.  So, you have multiplied the part that you like, while dividing the burden.  A better outcome, all around.

Of course, no judge would order a couple to share custody of a boat. That can only come from people who are willing and able to work together.  Trained mediators, professionals who practice collaborative divorce, and even marriage therapists can sometimes help identify opportunities to multiply instead of divide.

WHAT WE LOVE: There is almost always another way of seeing what is directly in front of you.  You just have to be willing to look for it.

Bad Start Turns Happy Ending

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A Former Client called today.

 

Her ex-husband, from whom I divorced her about 10 years ago, passed away.  Frankly, he lived a lot longer than I would have guessed.  While we were going through the divorce process, I never expected him to make it to the next meeting or court date.

 

The poor man had a serious alcohol and drug problem.  Not the glamorous Phillip Seymour Hoffman, millionaire by day/junkie by night kind of problem.  He had a 1920s hobo kind of problem.  He came to court with the tops of his shirt collar frayed and holes in the bottoms of his shoes.  He looked 25 years older than his age, and was not above drinking absolutely anything that might produce a buzz.  I believe he sniffed gasoline and glue when he could not access alcohol.

 

Sadly, he almost never had a problem accessing alcohol.  While they were married, in a gesture of goodwill, his wife helped him purchase a bar.  It was the local dive where he spent most nights drinking, and they were able to get it for a good price.  She thought that they could make a go of it, since he was always there, anyway.  She would cook food and manage the finances; he would manage the bar.

 

In retrospect and from a distance it is easy to see this as a bad idea.  Do not give your diabetic uncle a bakery, either.

 

It turned out to be an even worse idea than you might have thought.  They lost everything – the bar, their house, their credit, their life savings, their relationship, and ultimately, his liver.  The divorce was short and painful.  He promised to look for work, she promised to keep their kids functioning.  They have stayed in touch all along, and she made sure that the kids always visited him when he was in a position to see them.

 

This is the part of the telephone conversation that made me smile.  It turns out, she followed the best piece of advice I ever gave her.  I told her to keep a life insurance policy on him.  She told me today there were months when she had to decide between the $50 premium payment and using that money for groceries, but she always followed my advice, and maintained that policy.  She said she heard my voice in the back of her head, saying, “He cannot help you while he is alive.  Give him the dignity of helping after he is gone.”

 

So, she called today to tell me that after all of these years, and everything they have been through, her Husband is helping her pay off some debts and buy their daughter a used car.  It’s not much, but it is more than he has been able to do for them since I met him; and I honestly believe it would have made him happy to do it.

 

What We Love:  If your lawyer gives you good advice, follow it.  If it works, let your lawyer know.

 

Don’t underestimate the value of your in-laws…

inlaws

What is the value of keeping your in-laws in a divorce?

I recently heard a woman make an argument that she should be entitled to increased alimony because she lives closer to her in-laws than to her own parents.   Many states use a rubric of factors to determine alimony. Factors may include  length of the marriage, causes of the breakdown of the marriage, each party’s education/station/ability to earn a living, age and needs of the minor children.

One factor I have never seen listed in an alimony calculation, however, is geographical location of grandparents.  I don’t believe it is something we will see any time soon.  We live in a time when it is common place for people to relocate far from family for work, exploration, curiosity, advancement, and countless other reasons.  So there is no special attention paid to how close or far one lives from one’s parents.

But, the woman does have a point.  Her parents happen to live in Mexico, and she lives in New Jersey with her husband and two children. They are in the process of getting divorced and she is keenly feeling her lack of support system.  If she lived close to her parents and siblings and cousins, there would likely be someone around to take the kids for a few hours; or help her move into her new apartment; to drop by uninvited and unexpected with a pizza and a bottle of wine.

Sure, friends may be able to pick up some of this slack.  But only very good friends, and not necessarily without strings attached. Not the way family would.  But what makes her situation more difficult is that up until very recently, she did have family in town – her in-laws.  She was used to the informal, always at each other’s disposal, give-and-take of family.  When you have spent a certain number of years not having to pay a sitter for every little night out, each annoying errand, or when you just need to go away overnight, there is a shock factor that comes along with suddenly having to shell out $10/hour for each of those “meaningless” excursions.

What about family holidays?  Until now, every major holiday included her children looking forward to aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins laughing together at someone’s house.  They knew there would be gifts and favorite foods, “inside” jokes, and familiar arguments.

Now, she will have to choose if her children will spend holidays with their extended family or with her. She might need to take her kids to a restaurant for a Thanksgiving dinner, or cook her own Christmas feast to make them feel like things are still as good as they used to be.  Or she might want to fly herself and the kids down to Mexico, so that she can be with her own family during the holidays.  But, while being with her own parents and siblings might make her feel comfortable, it will likely have the opposite effect on her children, for whom everything will feel foreign and new.

Or, if she believes the best interest of her children is to keep having holidays the way they always did, then she might spend every holiday all alone, watching the clock until it is time to go pick them up again.

Instead of increasing her alimony, which might not even solve most of these issues, there is a less expensive and more obviously available solution:  keeping her in-laws.  Those people who are inextricably linked to the last person in the world she wants to see right now may hold the ticket to her salvation.  But, depending on the details of the divorce, they might not be particularly interested in seeing her right now.

They have likely heard her husband’s side of the story. They might believe that she alone is at fault in the breakdown of the marriage.   They may have been willing to keep an open mind in her regard at the beginning of the divorce, but by now might feel that she is being stubborn or greedy or hostile in the divorce proceedings, even if it is her attorney calling the shots instead of her.

How, then, could she bridge that chasm?  Is there any hope for her of replacing her far-away family for herself and her children with the people she knows best in New Jersey?  Yes. There is a chance. That chance is in her hands.  It is up to her to reach out to her in-laws.  Individually, if necessary, to mend any broken fences, and say things as simple as, “I hope that we will still be family, and that my children will always feel as close to you as they do today.”  And, of course, she could take advantage of every opportunity to be kinder and more generous than she needs to be – both when her in-laws are watching, and when they are not.  In matters related directly to the divorce, and in unrelated matters. She could make a point of always something positive about her ex-husband, so that everyone knows there are no hard feelings. And so that no one is worried what will happen if they are both at the same dinner.

This might sound difficult, especially if she has just cause to be truly angry at her husband.  But we do the same thing in dozens of social situations all year long at parties, work, and school: pretending to be nicer, more forgiving, or more generous than we really are.  And sometimes, if we are very lucky, those good feelings catch up with us and stop being pretend emotions. Sometimes acting as if you are a benevolent person actually makes you become one – inside and out.

What We Love: The loving family you seek might be closer than you think.

GRATITUDE IN A POST-SANDY WORLD

The eastern seaboard of the United States has just come through a major storm and its after-effects. Hundreds of thousands of people are still without electricity and more are dealing with the results and damages.  More than a hundred people are reported dead.  Those of us who “only” lost heat, or electricity, or cell service or some work days/school days, are feeling pretty grateful and fortunate right about now.  And, considering that it is November, it is just about that time to start being deeply thankful for our blessings.

Yes, even if you are going through the turmoil and disorientation of a divorce.  This year, as always, I am collecting some of my favorite stories of the post-divorce possibilities. These are the stories that make me feel a sense of gratitude and hope. These are typically people who kept their wits about them during the divorce process enough to be civil adults with each other afterwards.  (The names are fictitious, the stories are true.)

“Rickey” owns a restaurant in town. A few days after Hurricane Sandy I saw him at work looking unshaven and a more bedraggled than usual.  I asked if he had electricity and water at his house.  He said he did not; he lives in one of the towns near here that spent a few days with 100% of its citizens in power outages.  But, some of the guys at his place had been able to find him a generator that very morning.

“I bet you are excited to get home and get it juiced up,” I said. 

He chuckled, “not quite,” he said.  “I had them bring it over to my ex-wife’s house, so she and the kids can use it.  I’ll wait until they go out tomorrow, and see if I can go take a hot shower while they are out.”

“Annie” hosts her family for Thanksgiving every year. She and her two sisters rotate who hosts each of the major family holidays, and she is always happy to have a large crowd for Thanksgiving.  Being the youngest of the three sisters, her children are also the youngest of the 8 cousins and they get very excited to have all of their cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents at their house for the day.

This year, the divorced middle sister is bringing her new fiancé, which surprised me, since I know that the kids all love her ex-husband, Uncle Mike.

“Oh, Mike will be there, too,” she told me. “It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without his pumpkin pie.  He is very happy for my sister that she is moving on in her life, but none of us sees any reason why that should mean we lose Mike in the process.”

“Brandy” lives in my neighborhood with her husband “John,” John’s 11 year old son “Johnny” from  his first marriage, and 3 year old “Alyssa” – Brandy and John’s daughter.  John’s first wife, “Tracey” lives in an area of our town which lost their power for 6 long days.  On Halloween night I was out trick-or-treating with my kids when who did we see going door-to-door together but Brandy, Johnny, and little Alyssa, all in costumes.  Alyssa was being carried by a woman in a witch’s costume, so it took me a moment to recognize her.  But, of course, it was Johnny’s mom – Tracey.  Alyssa calls her Aunt Tracey. She ate most of her meals and took most of her showers at Brandy and John’s house the week she had no electricity at home. So, it made perfect sense for her to be out in our neighborhood carrying Alyssa from house to house helping her collecting candy and treats.

For more of these anecdotes, please visit my post at http://www.blogsondivorce.com.  And may you and your loved ones be inspired this year to think not only of your divorce or separation in November 2012, but of all of the Thanksgivings, and Halloweens, and even hurricanes to come.  Those of us who survived this storm have a unique opportunity to recalibrate our priorities right now, and to rethink what the words “family,” and “emergency” and “necessity” truly mean.

WHAT WE LOVE:  The rewards that come from doing the right thing, even when no one would blame you for doing the wrong thing.