Archive for the ‘Marriage and Divorce’ Category

High Heels and BJs

July 17, 2011

Every other day, a new article appears somewhere in the blogosphere, promising to tell women the keys to finding and keeping a man. To summarize:

  1. Step up your personal appearance game: lose weight, then put on makeup, a tight dress and a pair of high heels, because men don’t like girls in sweats, baseball caps and sneakers.
  2. Step up your kitchen game: cook for your man and fix his plate. If you won’t, someone else will.
  3. Step up your sex game, especially the blow jobs. And work on your porn star skills. If you don’t, someone else will.

If only it were so easy.

Never mind that there are fashionable women who keep it cooking in the kitchen and the bedroom, but are without a steady partner. Never mind that there are women who stay in sweats and don’t cook, but who are happily married or in a long-term relationship. Reality doesn’t matter. The message to women is always: whatever you’re doing, you’re doing it wrong.

I joked on Twitter that I should start a class, “Cooking in High Heels + BJ Lessons.” Sadly, if such a class existed, it would sell out. Women would sign up hoping to learn to look and cook like Giada De Laurentiis, and men would sign their wives and girlfriends up, like “See! This is what you need to do!”

Problem is, you can own a closet full of Louboutins, be a master chef and suck peen like a pro, and be lonely or unhappy in your current relationship. The key isn’t sexy footwear, plate fixing or bedroom tricks. Those things certainly don’t hurt, but they’re not enough.

The secret to being in a happy relationship is finding a compatible partner. And there is no one way to do that. It starts with a combination of attraction, shared values, and mutual respect. Understand what your own wants and needs are, then don’t settle for less.

When you’re in a relationship with someone you care for, showing your appreciation for each other comes easy. I love to see my married co-workers changing out of their casual Friday slacks into a cute dress at the end of the workday, because it’s “date night” with the hubby.

People who enjoy cooking love to make something special for their beloved. Cooking is one of many small ways that you can show your appreciation for your partner. But if you don’t cook, there are many other ways to show your appreciation for your mate.

Good sex doesn’t require you to puncture your esophagus with his genitals (although there’s nothing wrong with that, if that’s your thing). That said, if you like each other – not just love, but really enjoy being with each other – you’ll want to take care of each other’s needs, wants and desires sexually as well. You can tune out the chatter about what you should be doing and focus on doing what he actually likes – and vice versa. 

Even finding that combination of attraction, values and mutual respect doesn’t guarantee lifelong, till-death-do-us-part, diamond anniversary happiness.

As anyone who has ever been in a relationship for longer than one year knows, it can be hard to keep the magic alive over time. These “how to get a man” pieces might work better as reminders to women and men alike who are in long-term monogamous relationships of ways to maintain your connection. 

If you are seeking relationship advice, try consulting with a relationship coach. When I was finally ready to jump back into the dating pool – five years after my divorce – I worked with “The Modern Day Matchmaker,” Paul C. Brunson. Brunson helped me identify the values that were important to me, which in turn helped me zero in on the qualities that mattered most in a partner.

Although Brunson didn’t match me with my current partner, his advice helped me figure out what worked and didn’t work for me. For example, online dating never worked for me, but going out – often alone – to do things I enjoyed, turned out to be a great way to meet people.

Some people find the proliferation of dating sites, books, blogs, etc. devoted to providing relationship advice annoying. They’re not going anywhere, though.  So if you read them, use those suggestions that speak to you for personal self-improvement. Whether it’s losing weight, learning how to cook, learning bedroom circus tricks, or improving your fashion sense – if it makes you feel better about yourself, it will probably lead to your projecting a greater sense of confidence as you go about in the world.

And confidence, my friends, is sexy.

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Carolyn Edgar on NPR’s “Tell Me More”

June 30, 2011

On June 29, I had the pleasure of appearing on National Public Radio’s “Tell Me More” to discuss the forthcoming book by Stanford Law Professor Ralph Richard Banks, “Is Marriage For White People? How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone.” I discussed this book in my post “Single Black Women,” and I am one of several women Banks interviewed for the book. This subject continues to touch some raw nerves, as evidenced by comments on both the NPR site and my own blog (note to anyone reading the transcript: the term is “code switching,” not “coat switching.” I hope the transcription error has been corrected). But I believe continued dialogue and debate – led by the black women and men who represent this paradigm, not media personalities and actors – is healthy and necessary. Enjoy, and feel free to post your comments.

http://www.npr.org/2011/06/29/137499303/author-tells-black-women-marry-out-not-down

I Am Not the Father

June 19, 2011

Lately, it’s become fashionable to wish single mothers Happy Father’s Day.

Miss me with that.

I am a single mother raising two kids alone. I do it by necessity, since my kids’ father has chosen, for the most part, to be absent from their lives since our divorce.

I also do it a little bit by choice. Some women in my shoes would have initiated a search for Mr. Stepdad a long time ago. Marrying a man for the sole purpose of providing my kids with a replacement father does not interest me in the least.

Being a single mother does not also make me a single father. Or some type of mother-father hybrid. I am a woman, and I can only approach parenting from a woman’s perspective. I grew up with my father and mother, but my mother was the more dominant influence in our home. For better or worse, I adopted her style of parenting even when I was married.

The notion that a woman raising children by herself is acting as both mother and father is misguided and harmful. It does a disservice to all of the fathers – including the single fathers – who are also working hard, every day, to raise their children. We single mothers enjoy the appreciation, but on Father’s Day, fathers, not mothers, deserve all the love.

My kids do benefit from positive male influences. Unfortunately, their father isn’t one. I don’t live near my family, so my children don’t have uncles and older male cousins who take the place of their absent father in providing this influence. They do have teachers. coaches, their friends’ fathers, and my significant other.

None of them can take the place of a loving, caring father, but my ex-husband is not a loving, caring father. They wouldn’t have a nuturing dad in their lives even if their dad were still around. A psychotherapist told me recently, if the absent parent does substantial damage to the child when he or she is present, it is better for that parent to remain absent. My children are not better off without a father, but they are better off without a father who is still so hurt from his own childhood that he inflicts pain upon his own children almost without knowing.

I am not a hero. I am not “holding it down.” I’m doing what I have to do. I take care of my children because I’m supposed to.

I take care of my kids because I love them and I need them and they need me. I do it alone because their father is unwilling and unable to participate. That doesn’t mean I fill both roles.

I am a mother. That’s more than enough.

So while I appreciate the acknowledgment of single mothers on Father’s Day, don’t wish me a Happy Father’s Day. I am a lot of things to my kids, but a father is most certainly not one of them.

To Snoop or Not to Snoop?

November 18, 2010

Let me be clear: I do not snoop.  But not because I’m made of morally superior stuff.

I don’t snoop because I don’t like being hurt.

The last time I snooped through a guy’s things, I was in my late teens or early 20s.  I suspected my then-boyfriend of cheating.  He denied it, but I remained suspicious.  I used the first opportunity I had to be alone in his apartment to go through as much of his stuff as I could in the time it took him to go to the grocery store and back.

Of course, I found the evidence I was looking for.  I didn’t find panties, or used condoms.  I didn’t hire forensic scientists to do DNA analysis.  This was old school.  I found love letters, from her to him.  She wrote, in the flowery language of youth, of her love for him, and how safe she felt lying in his arms.  The English major in me wanted to red pencil the grammatical errors and send them back to her for a redo. 

I didn’t feel guilty about reading the letters.  My then-boyfriend had violated my privacy the year before by reading my personal journals, then confronting me about what he had read in them.

When he came home, I flung the letters in his face.  Much screaming, wailing and throwing of things ensued. 

Of course he denied everything.  She may have had feelings for him, but he didn’t feel the same way.  Yes, he had once held her at night, to comfort her over her sick/dead/dying mother (I’m not being rude, I can’t remember which one it was), but nothing ever happened.  Yes, he may have kissed her, but they never had sex.  He didn’t know why he kept the letters, but they meant nothing to him (this said as he dumped them in the garbage).

We talked about it all weekend and decided not to break up.  I said I forgave him, even though I didn’t.  In hindsight, not breaking up was a mistake.  For me, the damage was irreversible.  Regardless of whether or not they had sex, he admitted to caring about her.  The emotional betrayal was devastating. 

From that moment on, I felt no obligation to remain faithful to him, physically, emotionally, or otherwise — which is why I should have ended the relationship.

I vowed never to snoop again after that experience, and I haven’t broken that vow.  Here’s why:

1.  Unless you actually catch him in the act, whatever you find isn’t dispositive of anything.  See #2.

2.  Evidence can always be explained away.  One guy told me the black thong panties on his bedroom floor belonged to his ten-year-old daughter.  They must have gotten mixed up with my things in the laundry, he said.  I smelled them.  They were freshly laundered.  Call me nasty all you want. 

He had made no effort to hide them, and told the lie so effortlessly, I accepted it.  Which leads me to point #3.

3.  You believe what you want to believe, good, bad or otherwise.  Did I really believe those panties belonged to that guy’s daughter?  No.  Even before I had a ten-year-old daughter, I knew ten-year-old girls didn’t wear black thong panties.  But I wanted the lie to be true, so I talked myself into believing it.  (Of course he was lying.)

You can also convince yourself that a truthful man is lying.  Hence, point #4.

4.  You don’t have to snoop to find out the truth.  You don’t need to go through a guy’s cell phone, copy down all the females’ numbers and call each one.  Or hack into his Facebook or Twitter account and see who he’s private messaging or DMing.  The evidence is usually pretty visible on the surface.  Be observant.  That usually yields more than enough information to enable you to ask intelligent, informed questions — and to ascertain whether or not he’s lying.

5.  If you suspect he’s lying, by the time you’re tempted to snoop, you already know what you’re going to find — so why do that to yourself?  This isn’t always true, but it was certainly true in my case. 

If you need that final confirmation: finding the emails, the sext messages, the hotel receipts, the flavored lubricant he’s never used on you, to know for certain he’s cheating, you should do what works for you.  For me, it’s just too painful.  I’d rather trust my instincts than find all the damning evidence that hurts so much.

I totally understand the reasons people snoop.  I don’t judge those who do.  For me, though, the violation of privacy feels wrong.  And I believe the evidence you need of whether to trust or not to trust the person you’re in a relationship with often lies right on the surface, so long as you’re willing to trust what you observe, as well as your instincts. 

Ultimately, what’s right is what feels right to you.

Question: How do you feel about snooping?  Do you snoop through your lover or partner’s things when he or she isn’t home?  Do you worry about your lover/partner snooping through your things?  How would you feel if he/she did?

Do You Know Your Sleep Number?

August 10, 2010

Couple relaxing in bed

My Twitter friend @purplepeace79 Twitter-ranted recently about the notion that men view a woman differently if she’s slept with 50 men versus 5 men, and that this causes women to lie about their number.

At a certain point in your life, keeping track of the number of people you’ve had sex with is stupid.  Which is one of many reasons why I no longer do it.

When I was younger, I used to maintain lists naming the men I’d slept with.  It was cute for a while.  Each time I wrote down a name, I’d pause and indulge in a few sweet thoughts about our fun times together.

But then things got complicated.

In the beginning, I wanted to count every new experience.  However, when I left for college, some of those new experiences were being shared with people who were not my boyfriend back home.  That became a problem.  The goal shifted from recording every new sexual or quasi-sexual encounter to keeping as many people off that list as possible. 

Thinking like a lawyer long before I became one, I began questioning which experiences “counted” for purposes of the list.  Did making out with that guy at that fraternity party count?  Did it count if we went back to his room and, someone was, um, serviced?  What if the service was reciprocal?

My answer to all of the above was No.  Except I was stupid enough to write about the encounters in my journal.  My boyfriend read my journal and confronted me about cheating. 

I denied what I’d written.

“What are you going to believe?  What I’m telling you now or some bullshit I wrote in a diary?  And if anyone’s betrayed anyone’s trust here, it’s you!  How dare you read my personal journals and invade my privacy like that!”

It worked.  He bought my story.  The downside?   I stopped keeping journals.

Eventually there were experiences I didn’t care to record, situations I wished not to remember — worse than just the failures and the embarrassments.

Did the guy who date raped me earn a spot on my list?  Did I have to count the guy who lied and told his frat he did when he didn’t?  What about that almost-rape when I was alone on vacation?  Did my own behavior in these situations make them count? 

The list became, as Jo Nubian calls it, my ho tape, that voice that told me I was wrong for having the sex I’d had with the people I’d had it with, and for daring to enjoy any of it.

It also dawned on me that if a boyfriend could pick up a personal journal and read it, he could also come across a random sheet of paper with fiftyeleven dudes’ names on it and guess what it was.

So I found and burned all of the lists.  In time, the distinctions between what did and did not “count” blurred in my mind.  I forgot what wasn’t memorable.  I lost count, not because there were actually fiftyeleven dudes’ names on the list, but because the experiences and what I learned from them came to matter more than numbers. 

When I first met my ex, he wanted to know how many men I’d had before him.  I told him he was ridiculous. “You knew I wasn’t a virgin when you met me.”

He did some fairly sloppy due diligence, and confronted me with stories he’d heard.  Everything had been so mangled in the retelling, I could say with a straight face that none of it was true.  I honestly (and naively) didn’t see what difference it made.  He boasted about his ho exploits, so I told him to get real about mine.

It didn’t quite work that way, of course.  He threw the things he’d heard up in my face, regardless of truth or accuracy.  But the most damaging story was the one I told him: the story about the one that got away.  The one-who-got-away story confirmed what he had long suspected — that I was with him, but I didn’t love him.  

I was faithful for the close to ten years we were together.  No close calls, no judgment calls.  But my ex never stopped looking around the corner for the boogeyman: the man I wanted, who was not the man I had.

I was faithful to my ex, and I stayed celibate for a number of years after my divorce. 

So as far as I’m concerned,  I re-virginalized.  The clicker has been reset. 

I’m still not keeping count, though.  My sleep number is my business.  Each and every one of those experiences – good, bad, tragic, indifferent, and everything in between — made me who I am.  I don’t know the actual count, but I am no longer ashamed of it.   It’s irrelevant.

Besides, if any man asks me “how many” at this point in my life, I’ll assume he wants to make sure his name never gets added to my count.

Why Women Upgrade

July 27, 2010

In my previous post, “Upgrade Him? Girl, No,” I talked about the “Negro Improvement Plan,” which I will now call the “Man Improvement Plan” — the desire some women have to take a man and make him over, whether he wants to be made over or not.

Some people wanted to understand why women do this.  I wish I could answer.  I have a hard enough time trying to understand why I do the things I do, let alone answering for all women.  Stanford Law School Professor Ralph Richard Banks, who also happens to be a friend of mine from law school, is exploring the phenomenon of high income black women/low income black men, among other topics, in his forthcoming book, “Is Marriage for White People?”   I haven’t seen an advance copy of Banks’ book, and don’t yet know what conclusions he has drawn.  Speaking solely from my own perspective, however, I can offer at least a few reasons why some high income black women are drawn to lower income men.

1. Familiarity. As a child of blue/pink collar workers, blue collar men are most like the men I grew up with: my father, my uncles, my cousins and now my brothers.  In my family, my sisters and I are the professionals, while my brothers are all laborers.  It is hard to imagine saying a man like my father, uncles and brothers isn’t good enough for me to date.

One of the things that appealed to me about my ex was that he was so familiar.  Our mothers grew up together in the South, and his Philly background was very similar to my Detroit upbringing.  We could speak in code about certain things — certain people, even — without any need to explain what we meant. 

I didn’t feel that same level of comfort with the men I dated who were from upper middle class backgrounds.  I imagined bringing them to Detroit to meet my family, and worried that they would be uncomfortable in my parents’ house, with its rusting porch furniture, cracked plaster walls and cigarette-burned, ass-stained sofa.  Even if they weren’t uncomfortable, I would be.  By contrast, the North Philly house my ex grew up in was in no better shape than my Detroit home, and I had no qualms about bringing him home to visit my people.

In your twenties, when your parents are still your primary reference point, the family background can be a big factor affecting your choice of mate.  As I’ve gotten older, my family background has become much less of a concern.  Even before both my parents died, where and how I grew up had ceased to define who I was.  Now, it almost seems irrelevant.  But it took a while to update my own assumptions.

This is where it’s important to be honest with yourself.  The fact is, if you leave the hood and get an undergraduate and graduate degree, you will change.  You won’t be the girl from the hood anymore, no matter how hard you fight it.  It wasn’t a slap in my father’s face that I didn’t date a Ford Motor Company assembly line worker.  I realize now that neither of my parents expected me to.  So when I wound up with a round-the-way guy from North Philly, the very opposite of my previous polite, gentlemanly long-term boyfriend, my family was shocked.

“What was it about him?” my sister would ask years after my divorce, the incredulity in her voice signaling that no answer I gave would ever make that coupling seem logical.

I don’t think I was actively trying to “keep it real” by dating a hood dude, but I was seeking to connect with a part of my background that receded in importance the longer I stayed in New York.  But there were better ways to honor my family than marrying the very type of man my mother had worked so hard to keep me away from.

2. Hot Pursuit. Hood and blue collar guys are direct.  Sometimes, too direct.  But they will pursue you, and hard.  I met my ex at his mother’s funeral.  You can say what you want about a man who is macking when he’s supposed to be grieving, but there was no doubt about his interest. 

Although our courtship was carried out long-distance, he never flaked out while he was pursuing me.  Whomever and whatever else he may have been doing locally, he called, sent little notecards: in sum, he paid attention.  This was rarely my experience with men I dated in New York, many of whom were juggling their options or hedging their bets. And when a woman is still trying to figure out if that guy she has lunch with once every other month likes her likes her, or just likes her, that kind of determined, deliberate pursuit is very appealing. 

I also happened to meet my ex after about a year of no dating, when I very much wanted to be in a relationship and not just hook up with people for sex.  Timing is indeed everything.

(Public Service Announcement: Call me old-fashioned, but I believe men who are interested in you, call you.  Not text, not Twitter or Facebook message: they call.  If he’s not calling, he’s not that interested.  Or he’s calling someone else.  The fact that he’s not man enough to admit it doesn’t make it any less true.)

As appealing as the dogged pursuit may be to one’s ego, in the end you have to ask: “What happens if I let him catch me?”  Are you prepared to be with a partner whose interests and lifestyle may be quite different from yours? 

If the answer is no, you may need to let him catch you long enough to do what you have to do, and then move on.  If you don’t have shared values and a shared vision for the future, it probably will not work, no matter how much you like each other.  Settling for someone who isn’t what you want just to have somebody in your life generally doesn’t work out over the long term.  But when it comes to relationships, emotions often win out over logic, at least for a while.  As unwise as the upgrade phenomenon may be, as long as there are lonely, needy people in the world, I don’t expect it to stop.

Upgrade Him? Girl, No

July 25, 2010

I was chatting recently with one of my law school friends about a classmate of ours whose marriage was ending in divorce.

At first I thought it was regular gossip about another seemingly happy marriage falling apart.  But as my friend filled in more of the details, I understood it was, instead, yet another example of the Negro Improvement Plan gone wrong.

And as my friend and I are veterans of the Negro Improvement Plan Gone Wrong War, we clucked our tongues and sent up prayers for what we both know lies ahead for this woman in her efforts to divorce her low-income spouse.

“Negro Improvement Plan” is a term coined by my friend Stephanie to describe the phenomenon we began witnessing as one woman after another from our Harvard Law School class partnered up with lower income men.  The men were never just the construction workers, secretaries, mailroom guys, etc. they appeared to be.  Inevitably, he was “going back to school.”  In the rare cases where he wasn’t going back to school, he was starting a business.  Or he was a producer — for artists no one had ever heard of. 

The Negro Improvement Plan meant there was a plausible and legitimate reason for these Harvard-trained women lawyers to be marrying their Mr. Blue Collars.  He was going places.  He just needed a boost.  And his loyal, loving woman was going to be just the boost he needed to take him where he should go.

When more of us, including Stephanie and me, embarked on our own versions of the Negro Improvement Plan, we didn’t recognize that we had just joined the same club we had been so scornful of. 

The Negro Improvement Plan wasn’t always about trying to force the man into some sort of career change.  My ex was a construction worker when I met him.  I liked the sound of that, and was disappointed he didn’t stay in construction when I moved him into my Brooklyn apartment.  He decided he’d rather be working in an office, and I was OK with that, too.  I didn’t try to influence his career choices too much.

But from the day he moved to New York until the day he moved out of my Harlem brownstone, I rode him relentlessly for the way he mangled the English language, the fact that his subjects and verbs never agreed and his vocabulary was a bit “too street.”  He was a grown man from North Philly who had been speaking like a North Philly gangsta pretty much all his life, and he was very comfortable with how he spoke.  His friends were comfortable with how he spoke.  I was the only one who had a problem with it.  I told myself it was because I wanted my daughter to learn “correct English.”  I wasn’t honest enough to admit it was my issue and no one else’s.

I tried to upgrade my ex-husband’s grammar and vocabulary.  Other friends tried to upgrade their men similar to Beyonce’s “Upgrade U,” by putting them in Hickey Freeman suits, Pink shirts, Rolex watches and BMWs.  They tried to slot their blue collar men into their Pottery Barn worlds of 600-thread count Egyptian cotton sheets, towels folded just so, a utensil for every kitchen-related purpose, and Jack and Jill for the children.

Stephanie had once snarked, “I guess he got tired of being bougie,” after one of our classmates’ marriages to a lower-income man fell apart.  But, as it turned out, Stephanie’s Negro Improvement Plan was the classic career changing  one.  She tried to turn her man into a small business owner.  The business failed, in part because her partner wasn’t a reliable employee of his own so-called business.

In all cases, including mine, the men enjoyed the perks of the upgrade efforts — the cars, the suits, the trips, the real estate — until they figured out their women expected those changes to be lasting.  My ex knew how to speak properly.  He was also very well-read.  Thanks to my nagging, he would correct his grammar in the presence of our children, but whenever I dragged him to some law firm function, he would reach deep in his storehouse of Ebonics and entertain my law partners, to my horror and frustration.  I was furious with him for deliberately fitting neatly into the stereotypes I assumed “they” held of “us.”

Once, I actually listened, and discovered he was carrying on an intelligent conversation, despite the Ebonics, with one of my partners and his wife about U.S. drug enforcement policy.  Later, the wife told me, “Your husband is a very smart man.”  I never knew if that was a genuine compliment, or if she was surprised to hear rational arguments coming from someone who spoke so poorly, like a dog sitting down to the piano and playing Mozart.

My ex-husband called me controlling, which I resented.  In hindsight, I realize most of our issues stemmed from a battle for control.  He already felt emasculated by my position and salary.  The fact that I would snark on his grammar was probably just a bit too much for him to stomach.  Embarrassing me at my law firm functions was his way of getting back at me.

It’s insulting and demoralizing to treat a man like, as my friend @HarlemWriter put it, stray animals or shelter rescues you can return when they soil the rug or chew on your pricey shoes.  You can’t change your mate.  You are supposed to love your mate as he is.  If you can’t do that, you are with the wrong partner.  Period.

Bottom line: leave the upgrading to Beyonce. 

And for the record, she didn’t have to upgrade her man, either.

My First Haters

May 31, 2010

 

I’ve always been opinionated, and I’m not shy about expressing my opinions, whether in a real-life discussion or on my blog.  I suppose it was inevitable, therefore, that some of my posts would rub some people the wrong way.

That doesn’t bother me.  I’m all for spirited debate.  Except . . . I haven’t gotten any.

It seems some of the people who disliked my posts, in particular the one about men, or the one about celebrity divorce settlements, chose not to post comments on my blog.  They also chose not to debate me on Twitter or Facebook, where I usually post my newest blog posts.

What they did choose to do was make cowardly ad hominem attacks on Twitter.

I’ve gotten one or two “you’re divorced, right? figures” comments on this blog.  I haven’t thought much of them.  What exactly does it figure?  Figures that I, a divorced woman, would be interested in the subject of divorce? 

Or does it “figure” that I’m divorced because I’m a bitter, unlovable hag, as evidenced by my writing and my opinions?

Apparently I’m supposed to believe the latter.

Sorry, but no.  Anyone else who wants to believe that about me, believe away.  And feel free to believe, based on a few blog posts and tweets, that you know all you need to know about my marriage and my divorce.  As long as I write about divorce and custody issues, I guess it’s understandable that people would try to construct a story about my own divorce.  Until and unless I choose to publish my divorce story, good luck with that.

I’m just disappointed that the people in question chose to resort to personal attacks, instead of making rational counter-arguments to the positions with which they disagreed. 

In the end, though, I’m pleased that people are reading and reacting to what I write.  Thanks to everyone who visits my blog and read my posts.  Whether you agree or disagree, I appreciate your readership. 

I do not, however, tolerate personal attacks, on me or any of my commenters.  As long as you keep it respectful, debate away.

An Incivil Action: Child Custody Litigation

May 14, 2010

Writer Debra Dickerson shocked many when she revealed recently that, as a result of a five-and-a-half year custody battle with her ex-husband, she and her children are now homeless.

Dickerson and I crossed paths briefly at Harvard Law School: I was a 3L when she was a 1L.  I knew of her, though I can’t really say I knew her.  Dickerson chose not to practice law and became a writer instead.  I chose not to be poor and unable to repay $90,000 in law school debt, so I went on to practice, although the desire to write never left (hence, this blog).

I empathize with Dickerson, not because we have HLS in common, but because of my own experiences with never-ending child custody, visitation and support court battles.  I, too, had a lengthy and expensive divorce.  I, too, spent over $100,000 in legal fees — most of them in an unnecessarily protracted custody fight.  I contend my ex never really wanted custody, but included it among his demands to gain settlement leverage.   And unfortunately, because divorce = litigation, we had to fight it out. 

Child custody contests are indeed battles, ones in which the most forceful weapons are the children.  In litigation, someone has to win, and someone has to lose.  And when kids are used as weapons, whether intentionally or unintentionally, they’re the ones who get hurt.

I’m still in the midst of visitation issues with my ex.  And although I admire the professionals who are involved in my case, the process is completely illogical.  I strongly believe that child custody–and divorce, for that matter–should not be determined through litigation.  In New York, it is possible to avoid litigation if the parties negotiate a separation agreement (which they file with the court), remain separated for at least a year, and then file for a judgment of divorce based on the separation agreement.  But this approach will not work for everyone.

Negotiating a separation agreement can be a very expensive process.  A separation agreement is, in essence, a settlement agreement, and settlement negotiations are still quite adversarial.  Unlike a regular contract negotiation, a settlement negotiation involves two parties who would otherwise be suing each other, attempting to resolve their conflict by contract.  Therefore, the parties and their lawyers are often positional rather than conciliatory in approach, and unreasonable demands made out of anger and hurt can derail the process as easily as as in court.  In most cases, however, people who decide to divorce by separation agreement generally are motivated to agree and avoid litigation.

The underlying motivation is a key reason why separation agreements do not work in every divorce.  If one party wants to settle and move on, and the other party wants to fight to the death, trying to negotiate a separation agreement would be a colossal waste of time and money. 

I believe every divorcing party should be required to undergo counseling, and custody matters should be resolved through mediation. Mandatory counseling and mediation would create an atmosphere of resolution and agreement, not war.  A mediated child custody settlement, assisted by counselors skilled in navigating high conflict divorces, could keep both parties focused on the children’s best interests, since neither side would benefit from making false or overblown allegations.  The goal would be to reduce the number of pointless, endless custody and visitation battles that hurt everyone, especially the children involved.

The particulars of Dickerson’s situation do not matter to me.  I don’t want to know, nor do I care, which party is “at fault” or who has done or said what to whom in the last 5.5 years.  I’m sure, in 5.5 years, there’s probably plenty of blame to spread around.  But I feel compassion for the pain and suffering her family has endured and continues to endure.  I hope that, as news of her plight spreads, the court intervenes to force the parties to settle this lawsuit and resolve their differences in a way that allows for co-parenting and healing. 

I don’t know if my mediation and counseling proposal is workable in practice.  I do know that the current system is broken.  We need a better process for deciding custody cases.

Child/Spousal Support Awards of the Rich and Famous, and You

May 12, 2010

Every time there’s a news story about the divorce/custody battles of rich people, the Twitterverse explodes, with people complaining like their own pockets just got hit.  Reports that Los Angeles Dodgers owner Frank McCourt will have to pay his estranged wife $637,000 in temporary spousal support sparked all kinds of outrage.  On Twitter, one man said, “I just don’t think you should get married if you can lose more than a 3rd world country in the divorce.”   Women, too, wondered if the prospect of going broke in divorce justifies delaying or avoiding marriage

Get a grip, people.

I’ve been married.  I’ve been divorced.  And I lost a whole lot of money in the process.  But the money didn’t go to my ex.  It went to our lawyers (both of whom I had to pay).  It went to the lawyers because instead of accepting a reasonable settlement offer, my ex went looking for one of those huge celebrity paydays and wound up with next to nothing. 

Anyone who is afraid to get married because of a celebrity divorce, or who expects their own divorce settlement will be like winning MegaMillions, is delusional.  The following facts may help you get over your fears or fantasies:

1. You’re probably not rich, and you’re probably not married to a rich person.  Accordingly, it’s unlikely you’d emerge from a divorce either super rich or financially devastated.  My marriage was coyote ugly, and I would have gnawed off an arm and a leg if that’s what it took to free myself.  Still, if we’d been able to settle, we both would have wound up better off.  Hopefully, your marriage won’t end in divorce, but if it does, divorce will cost a lot less, financially and emotionally, if neither party makes unreasonable and unrealistic demands.

2. Child support and spousal support are not the same.  Child support is awarded to help take care of the children’s needs.  Awards are made based on complex formulas that vary state-to-state, but that generally take each spouse’s then-current income and expenses into account.  The fact that Kelis may have sold a bunch of records 5 years ago is irrelevant to her current income and her child’s current needs.

3. Spousal support is where “big payback” fantasies go to die.  Spousal support is awarded to help take care of the needs of the spouse.  It is awarded most often in cases where a spouse has suspended his or her own career to support the career of the primary wage earner.  That’s probably not you.  If both spouses are working and earn enough to sustain themselves, it’s unlikely spousal support would be awarded to the lower wage-earner. 

Jamie McCourt’s job was being the wife of a rich baseball team owner.  She helped her husband maintain a certain community profile and image–including by being a non-working spouse.  As a result, she has every right to expect him to contribute towards her living expenses until the divorce judgment is final.

4. Rich people have expenses you can’t imagine.  Perhaps you think Kelis should be shopping for her child at The Children’s Place.  Maybe you think Jamie McCourt should move into a West Hollywood day rate motel until she can get a job at Hooters.  That’s what you’d do, right?

That’s why you’re not rich.

If a person’s net worth eclipses the GDP of a third world country, he’s expecting to have to shell out some dough to his soon-to-be ex.  News reports mention that Jamie McCourt originally sought $1 million per month in spousal support.  What’s really telling is that Frank McCourt offered her $150,000/month—nearly $100,000 more than the Kelis child support award that had people up in arms.  Truly rich?  Nas and Kelis aren’t even close.  If Frank McCourt could afford to offer $150K/month, another $500K/month probably isn’t going to bankrupt him.

5. For the benefit of the person who tweeted “The chick isn’t even hot” in reference to Jamie McCourt’s support award: hotness is not a factor considered by any court in entering an award of child or spousal support.  If it were, every star male athlete, actor and entertainer would be vying to marry the ugliest woman on the planet.

6. A pre-nup is unnecessary if you don’t have shyt to begin with.

So the next time you find yourself worried about the latest celebrity divorce payout, remember—unless you’re the celebrity in question, it’s just gossip to you.