Monday, May 28, 2007

Better Advice

I need to start writing a column offering Better Advice. There's a lot of advice out there -- legal advice, relationship advice, sex life advice, wedding advice, etiquette advice, travel advice, etc. And a lot of it is reasonable...if not good...advice. I just can't help thinking it could be a lot better.

Take MAXIM magazine's advice for men who are about to initiate a divorce in the June 2007 issue. Now mind you I don't regularly read MAXIM. It was something I ordered for my 16-year-old son, remembering how much I valued my Cosmo subscription when I was that age. That said, I was curious to see how things look from the other side of the gender divide. In this particular column, their first word of advice (courtesy of the founder of the Men's Legal Center in Santa Monica, CA) is to "Take everything you want. It's easier to give something back than to get it later."

Nice. Real nice.

Come now, gentlemen. Whatever happened to taking the HIGH road? A divorce is painful enough without one party drawing first blood with a gesture that says, "I don't think you're trustworthy, and these things matter more to me than our relationship, so I've absconded with them. Good luck getting them back."

I know a woman who left a man who was threatening her life. He had been verbally abusing her for years prior to that. It was not an impulsive decision. It was something she had hoped to avoid by talking to priests, marriage counselors, you name it. But in the end, all other avenues having failed, she left him, her own things, their children, her cat -- everything -- because she was in fear for her life. After she left, he tried to coerce her into returning by threatening to break things that she valued if she did not come back.

It does not take an enormous leap of logic to see how one could go from MAXIM's divorce advice to this scenario, especially when emotions are running high on both sides.

These were things that had been in her family long before this man ever came into her life. She told him he would just have to go ahead and break them. She would not return. Why? Because those things were trivialities compared to the relationship that was broken beyond repair. There was no getting it back. To lose these things would have added insult to the existing injury but they could not have injured her more.

Unless a man has a tangible reason to show such distrust of his wife when it comes to the material things they share, it seems an act of enormous ill-will to
launch a pre-emptive strike by making off with the goods. It's manipulative and controlling, but worse than that, it takes a bad situation and makes it worse.

So here is my Better Advice, and it applies across the board, to both ladies and gentlemen, straight and gay, young and old, married or co-habitating:

  1. Be the adult -- or better yet, be the Buddha. If you set the tone in a positive and constructive way, amazing things can happen. At worst you will have a peaceful and uncontentious divorce. At best, you may decide that divorce is not necessary, and that your marriage can be healed. IMO, unless you're faced with a dealbreaker (I have four marriage dealbreakers: Addiction, Infidelity, Commission of a Felony, and Abuse/Severe Neglect), you and your partner have an obligation to relocate the joy you once shared. It's usually there if you both work to find it.
  2. Consider counseling -- couples and/or family therapy at first, and if the relationship is not salvageable, then individual counseling to help you transition out of the relationship in the sanest and most constructive way possible.
  3. Remind yourself daily that the most important things in life aren't things. The most important things in life are the intangibles -- not only our connections and interactions with others, but the qualities that make us worthwhile human beings: our self-respect, decency, humility, gentleness, integrity, honesty, and love.
  4. Let her/him go and wish them well. Really. That can be excruciatingly hard to do at first, especially if infidelity is part of the picture, but hanging on like a bulldog with a bad case of lockjaw will only exacerbate your own suffering. It's a process, and it will take time. Be patient with yourself and trust that you'll get there. Once you begin to let go, you allow your own healing to begin. After all, bitterness is like acid -- it eats at the vessel that contains it.
  5. Remember that when one door closes another one opens. The ending of this relationship makes it possible for new (and possibly better) relationships to come into your life.
  6. Be grateful. Every experience carries a lesson, and we garner far more wisdom from our failures than from our successes. The ending of a long term relationship can, if you are open to it, teach you a great deal about who you are, your values and goals, and what type of person you really want to spend the rest of your life with. It also teaches you that you are stronger than you thought...than you can and will endure...that your spirit, like the noble fireweed, can recover and blossom after a devastating burn. That's a lot to be grateful for.

Bonus advice: forget the attorneys and seek out a professional mediator. They frequently cost much less and have no vested interest in dragging out the proceedings the way an attorney might. On the contrary, a mediator's default mode is to seek the most constructive and fair agreement for all involved.

When my ex-husband and I divorced, we were already living physically separate lives. I left and he remained in the house we had shared. I made it clear from the very beginning that I would not fight him for more than shared custody of the children, nor would I fight him for things -- and it is not because we had nothing worth fighting over. Between art, antiques, and various wedding gifts (some from Tiffany & Co.) we could have had many bones of contention. Instead we sat down at a table in a quiet public place with a list of all the things that were his when he came into the relationship, all things that were mine when I came into the relationship, and all the things that we had collected together over the years...and with good will and mutual respect, we went through that list item by item and determined how we would divvy them up. My having taken the high road from the beginning enabled him to do the same. My attitude allowed him to choose a similar attitude with trust and without fear. We managed to mediate things ourselves and I will always be exremely proud of that. It was what was best for us and for our children. And trust me -- that is the only way it happens.

I would respectfully suggest to everyone reading this that, if material things matter more to you than your relationships, then perhaps relationships are not for you. They're not for everyone. They take work, self-sacrifice, patience, and perseverence, and not everyone has that to give to another person.

So, to the gentlemen at MAXIM, I hope you will consider more carefully what advice you are given in the future when it comes to things like divorce. Chances are there are a lot of otherwise nice, decent men out there who read that advice and then made off with the goods before asking for a divorce...and who are now wondering why their soon-to-be ex-wife has morphed into a raging Medusa. Seriously -- what did you expect from advice like that? Peace and harmony?

Of course this is also a magazine that currently displays the Geico caveman in a fashion layout. I suppose we must consider the source...

So, if you need Better Advice than you've been getting up to this point, ask me. I'm here to help.