“Women Hold the Key to Marital Bliss”

Photo: Andrea Obzerova/Shutterstock

Well of course they do. Generally speaking, parents foster emotional intelligence in little girls, at least in Western cultures, so women are better at identifying and naming specific items of redress in an emotional domain such as marriage, love relationships. They can speak the language of emotional discourse and are less likely to lose their balance when the dizzying frays of discord strain individual temperament, patience and understanding.

Though the study is not new, from September 2014, the findings not startling, it was curious that the Journal of Marriage and Family just recently studied and concluded the above-titled findings. But I like an article such as this one that appears in NY Magazine because it details the source of the study and the methodology, thus lending credibility to the information and affording the reader an opportunity to assess the value of the conclusions. Sociologists at play. The writers are also respectful and cognizant of the dangers of stereotypical gendered assumptions–like the ones I made above.

It’s a short read. The authors conclude that women are better at talking about their feelings, which may be the reason for their holding the happy marriage card, but I can think of other reasons historical, biological, cultural and sociological.

What’s your take?

Ghost Marriages

Ghost marriages? Though ghost marriages are historically reported, and thus are real, the metaphoric possibilities of the concept are far more interesting.

Ghost marriages were an ancient Chinese practice to ward off loneliness in the afterlife. The “arranged” betrothal of an unmarried deceased family member occurred when a corpse match was found to bury beside the unmarried one, usually by a relation, resulting in the intended eternal union. Though contemporary China has discarded the practice and grave robbing is outlawed, there still exists practitioners in rural areas. In fact, just last October, the BBC reported a grave-robbing incident by eligible corpse seekers, which led to arrests.

The idea of a ghost marriage is quite frankly creepy to me, but that is most probably due to my cultural predispositions. As the short TED talk featured below describes, marriage is an historical institution that is shaped by the ever-changing values and practices of a given culture throughout time. It is a flexible arrangement that conforms to the people who practice it.

But a ghost marriage is precisely what some people have, whether intended or not. Let me belabor the obvious with an example of the married couple, one of whom works endless days and nights and misses out on the benefits of marriage and family. A husband who works at an all-consuming job appears vacantly in the family functions of necessity, sometimes at dinner or breakfast before scurrying off to work. His mind is never really there, just his body. He is a symbolic figure as husband and father. Though he goes through the motions of patting his children on the head before leaping off to his car or makes love to his wife to keep up some semblance of duty, his presence is somewhere buried in what others need of him: his job.

Or perhaps his mistress’ siren call is the life-suck that keeps him a specter in his marriage. When he is home, he thinks of her and wants to be with her; she provides him with what he doesn’t get at home. He thinks of her when he does his husbandly duty to keep that circle sewn up, maybe even making it possible to complete the task of making love to his wife. He is a ghost husband.

But the ghost husband or wife may also be either or both in a marriage that has run its course, where both long to be somewhere else but remain in the marriage for the sake of the kids or for fear of financial insecurity or the unknown. The comfort of the well-worn patterns walked in the carpeted floor of the family home of thirty odd years is all that is left when desire and disdain have deadened walking bodies, zombies, that refuse to be buried. The glazed over lifeless eyes that gaze out the kitchen window onto manicured green flawless lawns of suburban safety reveal the truth.

A marriage is only as strong as its weakest member.

Marriage clearly is a highly improbable proposition. How can two people pledge themselves forever after in a lifetime of change? The inhabitants of this thing, marriage, are both the components and the encasement of that which has an independent existence itself. Marriage is both the sum of its parts and the excess, an entity in itself, an idea, a pledge, and a monument to societally structured love and order. It persists.

Like the jailhouse that stands separate from the inmates will continue to stand though the inmates perish, languish or thrive within, so too marriage survives beyond its inhabitants. The bride and groom pledge as much to the symbol and practice of marriage from wedding rituals to marriage licenses and filing joint tax returns, as they promise themselves one to the other.

Marriage tests the mettle of its subscribing members. Survivors of imprisonment and marriage–no I am not equating the two–make their world from within not without. Strong marriage mates can stretch, withstand and grow from pain, isolation and degradation yet do not stagnate in the long safe sailing days of predictability, comfort and security. Marriage is both stasis and evolution, the anchor and the ship.

Just as our bodies are garments we wear to weather the surrounding climate, so too the marriage protects us from outside forces that threaten us: disease, rejection, insecurity, heartbreak and restlessness. We trade possibility and excitement, stimulants from the outside, for the quietude and stability from within the shelter of marriage. Some of us need the staid grounding that strengthens us to journey far.

Some find themselves, what they’re made of, only in adversity. While marriage is the impetus for that discovery for some, ultimately, each of us finds within ourselves the necessary tools to make our own happiness wherever we are and with whom we are by self love; selfless compassion and forgiveness; fullness of time; persistence, presence and acceptance; growth in experience; open-mindedness and the ability to laugh at ourselves.

What is Love Anyway?

I love you whether or not you love me
I love you even if you think that I don’t
Sometimes I find you doubt my love for you, but I don’t mind
Why should I mind, why should I mind

What is Love anyway, does anybody love anybody anyway
What is Love anyway, does anybody love anybody anyway

Can anybody love anyone so much that they will never fear
Never worry never be sad
The answer is they cannot love this much nobody can
This is why I don’t mind you doubting

And maybe love is letting people be just what they want to be
The door always must be left unlocked
To love when circumstance may lead someone away from you
And not to spend the time just doubting

Howard Jones

I woke up with this song in my head. Since it’s an old song, I could only remember the two line, one line repeated actually, refrain, until I looked up the lyrics.

As luck would have it, however, I came across a BuzzFeed article that fed into the ear worm eating at my brain…”What is looooooooove, anyway?” According to Chloe Angyal in “The Paradoxical Rise of the Viral Marriage Proposal,” despite the present decline in marches to the altar, those who do seek marriage want it to be known–everywhere–because true love is exceptional, something that should be spread like a virus. Okay, that’s my cynically bent twist on Angyal’s showcase, which is the growing phenomenon of viral internet marriage proposals and weddings as love on public display, a paradox, she muses, that marks “contemporary romance culture.”

Aside from some fun viewing of the Danish proposal gone wrong, gone viral, and a choreographed wedding walk down the aisle (and all over the church), her premise is that romantic comedies have framed our vision and appropriate measure of the ultimate public love expression–marriage. Thus, the advent of the viral video proposal and wedding madness.

If romantic comedies tell us that the truest and most special love is performed in grand, public ways, then the advent of social media has increased the pressure on all of us to stage those performances in our own lives. Now we can all prove that our love is special and true by putting on our own romantic comedy happy ending — and now more people than ever before will be able to watch it.

Her more intriguing claims are not teased out enough, however, leaving the reader hanging, though with some good food for thought.

And, of course, for people whose love is still threatening to the status quo, treated as second-class or hidden away and kept secret, there’s enormous political and personal power in the kind of visibility that a spectacular public display provides.

Really? How does public display garner respect and not increased public aversion or even hate in minds predisposed to the threat of all that is other than themselves, their values, their world view?

After observing that the public marriage proposal smells like a trap–the woman is compelled to say yes or stab her beloved with public humiliation in addition to plain old rejection–Angyal concludes:

But marriage is evolving in a way that is historically normal, even if it feels unprecedented at our close range. This is just one of several paradoxes at the heart of how we perform and consume love today: As marriage becomes less popular, the performance of it becomes more insistent. Another paradox: Despite the intimate nature of romantic love, straight, cis couples seem more intent than ever on displaying it in public.

Not sure what she means by marriage’s evolution as “historically normal” especially since she implies by this penultimate parting thought that marriage is performing its “swan song.” Seems more like the devolution of marriage.

Love is exceptional, or at least we think “our love” is exceptional, are her final words. Perhaps that is the reason for the decline of marriage, which, historically has been all about public display. Before meticulous institutionalized record keeping, the best way to keep track of who was having kids with whom and where was by the public marriage ceremony, aside from the symbolic nature of an open declaration of love as testimony to its truth, to its manifest being. But the belief that couplehood love is unique or special is a sure set up for the big let down when it turns out to be the ordinary kind of love that morphs into fermented love over time or rubs out completely in daily friction.

I’m exceptionally fond of a definition of love I found on today’s Brainpickings.org offering by Tom Stoppard in his play The Real Thing:

It’s to do with knowing and being known. I remember how it stopped seeming odd that in biblical Greek, knowing was used for making love. Whosit knew so-and-so. Carnal knowledge. It’s what lovers trust each other with. Knowledge of each other, not of the flesh but through the flesh, knowledge of self, the real him, the real her, in extremis, the mask slipped from the face. Every other version of oneself is on offer to the public. We share our vivacity, grief, sulks, anger, joy… we hand it out to anybody who happens to be standing around, to friends and family with a momentary sense of indecency perhaps, to strangers without hesitation. Our lovers share us with the passing trade. But in pairs we insist that we give ourselves to each other. What selves? What’s left? What else is there that hasn’t been dealt out like a deck of cards? Carnal knowledge. Personal, final, uncompromised. Knowing, being known. I revere that. Having that is being rich, you can be generous about what’s shared — she walks, she talks, she laughs, she lends a sympathetic ear, she kicks off her shoes and dances on the tables, she’s everybody’s and it don’t mean a thing, let them eat cake; knowledge is something else, the undealt card, and while it’s held it makes you free-and-easy and nice to know, and when it’s gone everything is pain. Every single thing. Every object that meets the eye, a pencil, a tangerine, a travel poster. As if the physical world has been wired up to pass a current back to the part of your brain where imagination glows like a filament in a lobe no bigger than a torch bulb. Pain.

Love is knowledge. I like that in so many ways, its broad application to the unlimited: to people, learning, everything, really, and even to the unknowable. The bible’s love as patient and kind resonates rightly with me too. And I don’t know why it does exactly except for my experience as one individual has proved it so–for me. What IS love anyway?


credit: image.slidesharecdn.com

Dinner table discussions around the holidays are always enlightening. The boisterous clashing of personalities of all who chime in on politics and religion, especially liven up any table, even if not recommended for ease of digestion.

Inevitably, when the shouts die down and civil conversation resumes, family members ask me about the latest on the blog. My preoccupation of yesterday I have to admit was the sticky issue of mistress morality, and how I may have mis-represented myself as rather heartless or conscience-less with respect to the cheated on wife. I have maintained that though I have felt guilt, sorrow and empathy for the wife of my married lover, I have not felt as if I cheated her.

She is not mine to betray, the wife of the married man I have loved. I have made no promises to her.

Yes, we all owe others the duty of non-harm. Ahimsa. I came across this term several years ago when I renewed my yoga practice, probably in a yoga journal. In my readings over the years, I have come to understand that the Vedic meaning is non-violence, though it has been modernly used as a wider term embracing all non-harm, whether in word, deed or thought. While I embrace non-harm as a measure of ethics, I confess I find the practice challenging, perplexing at times.

How far does that duty of non-harm/non–violence extend? Some say as far as the improbable. There is no Sanskrit exception to the rule. I would hope the love thy neighbor biblical axiom would likewise have no exception clause. But I am neither a Sanskrit or a biblical scholar, just an ordinary person trying to live well among others.

How far does my duty to others extend? Am I obligated to stay home when I have the sniffles in order to prevent someone I may come in contact with in the street, on the bus, or at work from contracting my cold? Or is my higher duty to go to work, the grocery store and the pharmacy in order to keep my life, and those whose lives depend upon me–children, husband, parents–from suffering damage, i.e., jeopardize my job, feed my children or medicate my father’s diabetes. Whose harm do I avoid? In this hypothetical, I would do what I could to protect others in a compromise position: keep my distance from others and protect them from my coughing and sneezing by directing my germs away from them and wash my hands frequently. But I would go out.

We always weigh our priorities, and often, we hurt others in picking one priority over others. Okay, I am not equating the possibility of spreading a cold to hurting a wife in the event she finds out her husband is cheating. I am simply stating that our choices are relative to circumstances, and we are often forced to choose the lesser of evils. I’m also concluding that there is no way to completely forego harm to others.

The mistress to a married man risks injuring his wife, that the wife will find out and the fallout from the discovery will unleash the untold misery of hurt and immeasurably blasted trust. I have suffered it. And I also have caused it. Neither end of it escapes the scarring.

There is nothing equal to the hurt that comes from betrayal. It overturns the world of belief most adhere to just to get by, feel safe and experience love and peace day to day.

My children betrayed me recently. In light of the depth and length of our relationship, betrayal is the appropriate word. I felt betrayed. The predominant emotion was hurt, not anger.

I raised my daughters under the banner of honesty is the best policy. I reminded them frequently since they were born that honesty and trust go a long way to buying freedom. As they approached teen hood, I spelled out more concretely the concept: the leash is longer if you follow the rules of checking in and answering your phone, telling me where you are when I ask. I’ve explained the consequences of lying and deceit, that it causes all parties to suffer from constant vigilance: verification of the whereabouts and alibis and lockdown when verification isn’t a possibility.

I depend a lot on trust. I relax my vigilance some in faith that they will do what’s right, that I raised them with a good guiding inner voice. I depend on their bond with me as the cradle of their freely confessing their fears, hopes and mistakes, knowing that my love overcomes disappointment or disapproval to rescue and forgive. I depend on that bond.

But they are kids. My 15 year old crawled into my bed early the other morning like she hadn’t done since she was little, complaining of a stomach ache. She slept uneasily by my side for an hour or so. I let her stay home from school, something I am loathe to do unless fevers, broken limbs or other severe maladies present. A teenager will want to stay home from school for a ripped cuticle. Concerned and questioning her symptoms and possible alleviation, I determined to let her stay home.

Later, I went off to work but came home mid-shift to pick up some lunch, something I hadn’t done before. On the way home, I called the older, my 18 year old, asking if she had seen her sister, was she okay, and did she think she was faking. She said she had seen her but didn’t know if she was faking. She seemed a bit stuttering and cagey. When I arrived home, I went up to see the infirmed one, who was nowhere to be found. Checking in with my father, I found that she went out with her sister somewhere.

Now the rule in my house is that if you are too sick to go to school, you stay home. Even if you have a miraculous recovery, you stay home to convalesce or catch up on missed school work, work ahead if you have to. So, this was not only a clear violation of rules, but a deception maybe even from the start on the part of the supposed ill daughter. However, the cover up of the older was just as if not more culpable. She defended herself by saying it wasn’t she who broke the rules; she just provided the ride. However, I found her lack of responsibility to advise her sister about the consequences and to consider the choice, to be disappointing, but to lie by omission to me was the worse of the two indiscretions.

She had broken the trust between us that she would not sever the bonds of faith built upon her good character.

My younger daughter was contrite, desperately apologetic. However, I countered to her apology and explanation that I did not know whether she was sincere or just telling me what I wanted to hear, that that is the real tragedy of deceit. It puts all actions, all words, in a new light, suspicion.
As to the older, I finally got through to her about her part in deception by offering her insight into my misgivings going forward.

My daughters are close and enjoy spending time with each other. I allow the younger to go places and do things, like concerts and late night movies, that I did not allow the older to do or go to due to safety concerns. The younger, however, is permitted to do what her sister could not at her age, when she is accompanied by her older sister.

Now, however, I explained to my older daughter, I did not feel comfortable allowing her to be the guardian of her younger sister, given that she does not have the moral compass I entrust her sister to. If she cannot be a guide to her good choices and her safety, cannot make her sister consider her actions in light of what the consequences might be at minimum with her own mother, I cannot entrust her with a minor for whom I am responsible. She got the point.

We are all on lockdown when trust is broken. The suspicion is taxing on mental space and energy. The process of verification, of having my daughters prove their whereabouts or my confirming their stories by others or checking up myself physically, is not only fatiguing physically but psychically. It’s a lot of negative energy.

So how much more is the bond of spouses severed when one person cheats and deceives the other? Similarly, the faith that each operates on daily, the one that feels like a guarantee that the other will not do injury to his or her loved one, gets shattered. He thinks: “She really does not have my back but is only out for herself.” Not only is that faith gone, permanently or temporarily, but in its place is the pain of betrayal: “I gave her my body, my secrets, my love, my all, and she gave the same to me. That was our bond, something we silently swore is what makes us, us. When she gave her body, shared intimate pleasure with another, shared her secrets, maybe, gave her heart, even for that moment of orgasm, she severed what was our bond of sole sharing. Now I cannot trust her to protect me for my safe keeping, not of my body nor of my mind and heart.”

The injury slices deeply. It is a death. One person kills trust which is the root of allowing the self to deeply connect and surrender. It is a promise between two, to love and be loved.

So when one strays, and the other finds out, trust is broken and the suspicions turn what was once sailing on the calm seas of faith in doing no harm, into the turbulent waters of where is he and what is he doing, feeling, thinking? It is the difference between the peace to pursue one’s own dreams supported by another and the anchor of watchfulness in keeping another.

Most, I suspect, opt not to keep the trust breaker after that wounding and aftermath of recovery. The one I cheated on chose not to keep me. Others learn to trust again after determining that there is a good chance that it won’t happen again and believing in time as healer. Some may also remember that there was something good enough in the first place to keep that person (their others) so close, to let him/her in that far.

When my husband told me early on in our marriage that he loved someone else, a purported friend that he had just gone camping with for a few days, I was devastated. He hadn’t had sex with this person as the friend would not engage, but I believed the love was reciprocated. No matter, the fact that my husband was in love with someone else was the hurt.

The circles of suspicion kept my mind imprisoned. It rolled back to days and months past. Was he anywhere he said he was when he was not with me? What had been said between them to make this happen? He must not love me, and here I was loving him, giving him all I had. It hurt so much that I could not stand to be near him as it felt like the Promethean stab to the liver time after time. I moved out.

I forgave him eventually. I think I did. I accepted that it happened. I also accepted that he wanted to be with me and would get over the other, the outsider. I accepted the risk that he would do it again. There was and still is no guarantee. My heart wanted him, and I accepted that too.

In the 32 years after, he did stray again. However, there were still more practical and impractical reasons to stay together than not, and not only children, despite those others who were in the woodwork, crawling about the gaps in our marriage.

Jealousy, isolation and hurt, large and small, is part of the history of our marriage. If it wasn’t another person, it was his dedication and love for other things he spent so much time and energy on to the exclusion of me: his job, his sport, his music, his friends, his family, his depression. I learned to adapt. I learned about him, and me, how I could not make him something he was not. I took inventory constantly. I weighed priorities.

As long as I could be sure that I was physically protected by my own measures in addition to assurances from him, I had to be okay with the way things were or leave.

Our marriage has morphed over the many years to adapt to the changing individuals that comprise it. As our needs have changed, so has our marriage. What was once the passion of two young people is now the mature steady support and backbone of each of our lives, which also forms the silent sturdy scaffold of many other people’s lives: his, mine, our children, our parents and siblings, our employers.

We are able to perform our life duties and pleasures by virtue of knowing there is someone in each our separate corners. Someone to defend us and pick us up when we feel no strength to get up on our own volition. Someone who will defend us even when we are not deserving, not judge us when we judge ourselves more than anyone else could, make us feel like something when we feel like nothing, love us when we cannot love ourselves and love us even as we are not loving in return. Each does that for the other. Those doings are more important to me than sexual fidelity. But for some, it is all or nothing. And that is theirs to negotiate.

When I carried on an affair with Wayne, I could have contributed to his wife’s injury, only because it would have been me and not someone else that facilitated his infidelity had she found out. And only now I realize just how much. Did I intend to harm her by being kissed that first time so unexpectedly? No. And neither did my kids when they conspired to flout the rules, nor my husband when he fell in love with another. No one declared, “Let’s hurt mom/my wife today.” Did I intend to harm her when I accepted his invitation to meet a second time knowing that it was to continue a clandestine act? No, but the probability of injury was higher. If his wife has not found out to this day, have I harmed her? No. If I had not found out about my kids’ or my husband’s actions, would I have been harmed? No, not then. And I believe that the greater responsibility for her hurt goes to the one who specifically promised not to hurt her in the very manner he would have–by loving another–whether explicitly or implicitly by the marriage contract.

Did I hurt Wayne in carrying on an affair? I did not help him to stay faithful to his wife if that was what he wanted to do. I did not help him if he suffered a bad conscience. Did I cause his suffering of bad conscience or infidelity? Indirectly, I suppose, as catalyst. Had I rejected his advances, I would have protected him from the injury of conscience he may have suffered.

With respect to his wife, I believe I did no harm–in actuality. In fact, I may have even done her a good turn as I have maintained before by causing him to stay in his marriage when all was said and done–if that is indeed a good place for her. It’s all speculation just as much as if she had found out is speculation.

But rules of conduct and the practice of non-harm only make sense as rules and practice in view of potential harm, even if ahimsa was not originally meant to address possibility. Otherwise, rules are not rules but relative applications of labels after the fact. And what of self harm? Did I cause myself injury in engaging an affair? Yes. I suffered the injury of bad conscience and dishonesty. I forewent my principles that structure how I live and how I expect others to live. I did not support monogamy or fidelity, even though I was a believer in them both at the time. In fact, I contributed in some fractional way, to the erosion of those principles.

In light of my use of ahimsa–non-harm–I did harm in engaging in affair, as did my children and my husband to me, though the degree and duration of each specific instance of suffering may differ. And just as I have taken inventory of harm, I could take inventory of the blessings I bestowed and were bestowed upon me, especially if I follow the cause and effect chain far enough. Is it a blessing to love someone and cause him to feel loved and worthy of love? Yes, and more so when he feels unworthy and unloved. Did my children’s awareness of my hurt change them for the better, gear them to be better people, and strengthen our relationship? I believe so. Did my husband’s affairs teach me about myself, make me wiser and stronger? Yes.

Some would judge me as justifying for even considering the benefits since avoidance of harm should be the first principle. Perhaps they are right. I weigh costs and benefits and assess risk in much of what I do by examining facts and the principle of cause and effect. I don’t always believe in that method but I do it, nevertheless. I also aim to behave with compassion and empathy as a general rule. It’s a practice, never finished or achieved as a constant.

Though the tendency is strong to generalize about marriage, cheating, betrayal and hurt, to pay attention to what is universal in the human condition, the specific promises each person makes to another is made upon the particular intentions of the person making the promise, the intentions of the person receiving it and the bits and pieces of their lives coming into the relationship and living their relationship together. Each bond between two minds is unique. It cannot be parsed and judged except on knowing the story of each case. My life as an attorney, teacher, wife, lover, mother, daughter, sibling, friend and citizen has taught me so.

The mistress blog contains many stories. Each who weighs in on the moral, ethical and experiential of her own or another’s story, does so to tell, teach and entertain others–to share. Judging, urgent and unconscious as it is in all of us, curtails or stifles the conversation and may snuff out someone else’s story. Who wouldn’t recoil after being labeled a cheater or having her motives or morals questioned?

While judgment is necessary to a citizenry, to curb behaviors that break down social bonds, there is a time to listen and learn without judgment. There is also a time to judge (discern?) in order to act within one’s own conscience with respect to others, i.e., I won’t date a married man because I don’t want to risk hurt to his wife and me, inevitable with a man who cannot be trusted to be faithful. But too many judge others to silence or control them, using judgment as a weapon rather than as a tool, i.e., if you date a married man, you are as bad as the cheater.

I harp on this point about judging. Without restraint, the importance of the human condition generally and particular human choices specifically do not get revealed and discussed, not only on this blog but in the market place of ideas upon which the American democracy has any chance of survival.

So let’s be scientists or possibilians with respect to stories of love and marriage and mistresses, and suspend judgment until we can definitely rule out certain possibilities. An open mind that does the work of understanding from study, listening, and paying attention, and not knee jerk reaction or bandwagon mimicry (yes, I’m judging) is crucial to preserving awe and wonderment in the world and democracy over militancy and violence in our country. It is not a plea for tolerance as much as for cogent consideration. Ahimsa.

Wearing the Wounds of War in Relationship Breakups

credit: http://schmoesknow.com/war of the roses

“livid, adj.

Fuck You for cheating on me. Fuck you for reducing it to the word cheating. As if this were a card game, and you sneaked a look at my hand. Who came up with the term cheating, anyway? A cheater, I imagine. Someone who thought liar was too harsh. Someone who thought devastator was too emotional. The same person who thought, oops, he’d gotten caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Fuck you. This isn’t about slipping yourself an extra twenty dollars of Monopoly money. These are our lives. You went and broke our lives. You are so much worse than a cheater. You killed something. And you killed it when its back was turned.”
― David Levithan, The Lover’s Dictionary

The breakup of a relationship, for good, bad or indifferent reason, is a death, and like any death is experienced by each singularly yet somewhat uniformly except as to degree or duration. Some breakups are beyond hateful, downright murderous, while some are as near to a handshake and wave goodbye as two acquaintances parting ways after lunch. The degree of hate or hurt or shock seems commensurate with how quickly or slowly someone moves through mourning. I’m sure individual personality also figures in the pacing of the mourning process.

As a lawyer, I used to counsel my divorce clients about the five stages of loss and grief: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I learned of these stages first by observing and listening to clients, but later by reading about them in pop psychology pieces in books and on the Internet. Often I asked my clients if they had a solid support scaffolding somewhere, either in friends or family, and, if not, to seek therapy in whatever form that took, psychological, physical or emotional outlets. Divorce was death, but a slow death.

Most clients came to me in the anger stage, though I did see a good deal of clients in the denial stage, even some in the acceptance.

White dress. Peach roses with baby’s breath. Long Veil. Happily Ever After. That’s the way it was supposed to be. I believed it. I wanted it. I needed it. Then he lied. Then he cheated. Then he left me.

Those in denial were usually hit with a surprise, a husband who announced his love for another or wife who announced hers, and the other spouse was unsuspecting for whatever reason: denial, blindness, self-absorption, busy, children, work, etc.

He left me! I don’t get left! If anyone’s going to do any leaving, it’s darn well going to be me! The betrayal after 17 years of marriage and 2 children was paralyzing. I felt as though my arms and legs had been brutally torn from my body and everything I knew of who I was disappeared in the instant he uttered the words, “I have something to tell you.” I was lost, bobbing in the waters of what remained of my life, certain that drowning was imminent.

These poor souls would come in needing me to tell them what to do as they felt lost and disoriented. I found my job then not so much as legal advisor as counselor and human being, trying to give them the benefit of my years of seeing couples and families go through the process of breaking down and rebuilding. Mostly, I listened, however–the best consolation I could give.

Some clients with cheating spouses came to me in the planning stages of strategic divorce either in calm revenge mode or blind anger, marking both ends of an emotional spectrum.

Then one day it started to change. About 15 days into my paralysis, the shift began. The sadness and loss gave way to unrelenting thoughts taking me back through the prior year revealing the numerous time his behavior didn’t quite make sense. The lies came into focus and I realized that I had not only been betrayed, but a fool as well. And I became angry. I’m not talking about “mad” angry, I’m talking “hunt-you-down-put-a-fork-in-your-face” angry!!! And it was utterly consuming.

Clients who had known about their spouse cheating for a long time whether by admission from the cheating spouse or by evidence, usually came to me to plan how to extract themselves in the most advantageous way. They were in battle readiness stages, so often they were angry and had already gone through the first two stages of trying to figure out what had gone wrong and what could have been done better.

The anger was with me in the daytime, at my job, during the time with my kids, even in my dreams. I felt it in my chest as a gnawing heaviness that demanded to have a voice, demanded to be validated.

So instead of focusing on my own recovery and being strong for my kids, I found myself stalking his Facebook page, looking for evidence of his misery. I wanted him to be miserable. I found myself outside his apartment, fantasizing about putting a rock through his window and going Carrie Underwood on his car. I fantasized about meeting his girlfriend in a dark alley and going gangsta’ on her ass.

Occasionally I would come across people who saw the inevitability of death and had come to some degree of acceptance, though there can never be full acceptance until the divorce is over since it takes so much rehashing and reliving and negotiating with someone who is already or soon to be an ex spouse, who used to share life, dreams and future. Some were just moving out of depression.

My health deteriorated. I couldn’t sleep, drank too much, and gained 15 lbs.

Even clients who were in acceptance, and both spouses wanted the divorce and were cooperative, that final day of judgment and dissolution, when the papers were signed and the judge’s stamped signature dry, usually brought tears of sadness, perhaps relief for the dreaded manifest death in papers and courtrooms shouted out to the world, reminding the parties of their perceived failure. Then again those tears may also be fear in the mix, the fear of moving on and setting new expectations only to have them turned into dashed hopes–the scars of battle.

The wonderful part of being human is that resilience, that ability to be torn, battered and bruised and still risk the same beating and near death experience in pursuit of love and happiness, the need for connection to another so strong. Or perhaps the wonderful part of being human is the inability to recall to the same degree as once experienced, the pain of heartbreak, divorce or childbirth. Thank goodness for that or the human population would not have made it past a single generation.

The next morning when I opened my eyes, the sun was just a little brighter. The sky was just a little bluer. I even felt a little prettier. I had no idea what the next chapter would hold, but I was ready to put my big girl panties on and find out.

This time of year at the office was typically slow, most keeping their acrimony in check until after the holidays–an exercise both admirable for the self-control, patience and concern for loved ones (other than the one who is the future extraction like a rotten tooth in decay) and hypocrisy of necessity. Many intent on divorcing would seek consultation in November, planning for the divorce such as what papers to gather, where to find money and taking inventory, enduring one last holiday with that rat bastard. Then January 2nd would hit and the divorces would come in, followed by the bankruptcies. Such is the life and death of marriage.

With the exception of two five-year plus divorces in my twenty-four years of practice, most people moved through the divorce process within the six months the California Legislature prescribed for the termination of a marital status. Most, like the writer of ‘The Betrayal After 17 Years Of Marriage And 2 Children Was Paralyzing,’ who clearly survived relationship death, also move through the five stages of mourning within that same six months. The death of a relationship, like the death of a loved one, whether sudden or slow, is a trauma most survive, though not without wounds big and small worn on the sleeve, in the heart, or deep in the recesses of the psyche, for a lifetime.

Holiday Mistress Blues: Revising Snow White

credit:  deviantart.com
credit: deviantart.com

Gina Barreca, PhD, has a clear agenda writing about the mistress during the holidays in a 2010 Psychology Today article entitled The Mistress at Christmas. It is under the site section “Show White Doesn’t Live Here Any More”. She paints the profile of a mistress (the proffered everyday mistress), who is single and involved with a married man, and relies on stereotypical mistress-life facts to tell the story of a coming to conscience during the holidays.

Barreca tells the story of the circumspect mistress in whom conscience and self esteem triumph over delusional love, repressed empathy for her lover’s wife, and low self-esteem. She portrays the mistress who realizes that the game is not worth the candle–she has sold herself short. Though this holiday epiphany belongs to a recognizable type of mistress, the one of an over 35 year old who is not married herself but wishes to be, it is not a one size fits all moral realignment applicable to all mistresses.

The persona in the article is the conscience of the mistress, but the psychologist behind the persona is a critic making a case for the misguided one’s recovery. Story crafting is a great way to hammer some message home subtly and clandestinely. The reader gets a story–and who doesn’t love a story?–without suffering the heavy handed pedantic writer’s moral. And there is a clear moral to this story.

The author unravels the details of the mistress’s situation slowly; she is not unlike many other “typical” mistresses who are pining away for their men, lonely and disillusioned or hopeful about marrying her lover–eventually. They are also self-deluded in thinking that they have “the best of him” and of all worlds.

If she’s over 35, she probably suspects she isn’t getting that ring.

Maybe she tells herself she doesn’t want it: After all, she already has a full life and why clutter it up with a full-time relationship? Where would she find the time, the energy, the metaphoric and literal space? She gets the best of him and his wife gets the rest.

But this reflection, the reader soon discovers is a trap. The writer will steer the reader down the path of silently nodding in agreement or grimacing in revulsion with this assessment–best of both worlds–before she undercuts the mistress’s mere self-justification, as it turns out.

But holidays make it harder to find a safe place in her head. It’s as if the world conspires against her from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day.

Innocent enough observation by the mistress, but Barreca’s project is to advocate for the mistress’s rehabilitation, not support her cheating ways. “It’s as if the world conspires against her,” sounds like someone very egocentric and unrealistic. Yes, it is metaphoric and not meant to show the mistress as a paranoid delusional, but it certainly suggests self-absorption, even if as just a passing thought. She feels the outside, uncontrollable forces are responsible for her predicament, her loneliness.

Halloween is her holiday, with masks and disguises, with catsuits and pirate outfits. She’s a shape-shifter, a plunderer, a thief, and she knows it.

Call her all the names you want, and you’ll discover that she’s called herself worse. It’s not like you’re telling her something she doesn’t know. She’s the backstreet girl, the booty call in perpetuum.

She’s Jezebel. She’s Little Suzy Homewrecker.

And there it is: the out-with-it shame and judgment of the mistress by her own internalizing of society’s mores. Yet, while the good doctor is working her reader’s sympathy (not empathy) in reminding the reader that yes, this mistress has a conscience and suffers from it, she is also reinforcing societal notions that the mistress, any mistress, is all of those: shapeshifter, plunderer, thief, booty call, Jezebel and home wrecker. All of those names encompass the socially accepted and reinforced moral dimension of a three-person relationship: deceit, plunder and self-debasement. She cheats the wife of time and money, steals it as her relationship is not legitimated morally or perhaps even legally in the court of public opinion and religious indoctrination, even as she cheats herself of pride, self-respect and open, “valid” public love.

So she makes the round of holiday parties, makes cookies and makes pies, makes jokes and makes new friends. She makes nice. She is nice. It’s not bad, but there’s a blanked-out figure where the man she loves should be.

Why does he need to be there? Is it her need or one she believes she needs because there is a constant bombardment of messages that remind and convince her that the holidays is a time for family and loved ones, and you can not be complete unless you have an other that is acceptably, normatively yours to exhibit. How can you be validated and happy and fulfilled, unless you can show up to holiday parties with a man? Where is the cheer in that holiday cheer?

Now, I am not implying that the mistress is wrong in feeling lonely and lost without a mate she can show up to parties with or that Barreca is profiling a mistress with aberrant ideas and feelings. What I question is how the mistress even knows how much is her belief and picture of herself and how much is her societally derived perception of herself in her unconscious or conscious absorption of the judged self.

Regardless of the speculated cause of her self-vilifying, there is no doubt that the mistress is an outsider and her relationship is inconvenient, frustrating and lonely–in fact.

She can’t call him; too risky. She can’t email him; anything in writing is out. She’s tempted, at her worst moments, to drive by his house in order to catch a glimpse of him through the window when his home is brightly lit after dark. Is his car there? Is she there? The wife?

She is an onlooker from the outside and wishes to be inside. Or does she? What is the measure of the frequency of her wanting to stay on the outside and enjoy the best of him against the frequency of her wanting to give it up for something full time and exclusive? The holidays are a mere smattering of days compared to the rest of the year.

Finally, Barreca shows the weighing mistress mind examining the endearing traits of her lover, what has drawn her to him and had her risk so much to be with him, against the sacrifice on her part to enjoy those alluring qualities.

In the past, she’s always found that little-kid-with-a-secret-look endearing. But today she’s less impressed. Maybe she looks at the wife, a woman more like herself than she’d care to admit. Usually she thinks of her as the woman who has everything and doesn’t appreciate it, but today his wife looks restless, tired, overworked, needy, a little frantic around the eyes. She looks older, but then who doesn’t?

Can this really be her rival? Is this the enemy she cries herself to sleep over on those nights when she can’t convince herself that she has the best part of the deal?

Well, it seems the scales are so obviously tilted that this mistress must be an idiot: “that little-kid-with-a-secret-look” versus crying herself to sleep at night “on those nights when she can’t convince herself” of her good fortune. Her attraction to his cute ways is juxtaposed to her painful self-delusion.

The picture might look different, however, if she quantified how often she lost sleep, one night a year or every night? It would also be another article entirely if the qualities the mistress gloms onto in her crisis of conscience are his traits that complement and fulfill her, like his ability to love her like no other can because of their compatibility in every way except for his being married and not to her. Perhaps she has never met a man who could kiss her in the exact way she could not even have dreamed of before because she didn’t know it existed until he named it with his kiss. Or maybe they love the same movies and find humor in exactly the same situations, let alone that they share the same world vision, values and goals. She may have not met anyone else like him before for the way he makes her feel so deeply loved. Oh, and he has that cute little boy look too.

But this is the doctor’s fiction, her probably anecdotally-derived composite of a certain mistress.. She wants to focus on that mistress who makes poor choices and, in doing the cost-benefit analysis, concludes that the costs to others’ lives and hers are not offset by the benefits because there is no prize–him/marriage–at the end.

She thinks about how the only thing to do when you want to stop going in circles is to stop.

And upon this rational thought, she, like the skaters on the ice before her lonely view on her lonely holiday walk, can joyfully whisk away her troubles and cares to a new life of legitimate love. Which is true, right? She can do better–maybe. But if she wants to have the kids and family like “the wife” has, with all of the drudgery of frictional living as well as the shared painful losses and ecstatic gains that come with coupledom, she needs to move on.

This is a story of a species of mistress, not a specific mistress. It is tailored to fit the message sculpted from the given details, and is merely a thin slice of the mistress pie. What if both were mistresses/misters? Does the distribution of power or deprivation change the equation? The question is not geared to elicit the cliche’d response that two wrongs do not make a right.

If a reader comes to the mistress story, any mistress general or specific, with pre-set notions of absolutes on the question of religiously-induced, societally induced, individually-realized and/or family-enforced rules, the accepted right and wrong of it without further indulgence in details, then those readers are resolved to condemn each mistress without exception. If, however, a mind can meet the material of each case as an unbiased observer of cultural, philosophical, psychological, social, scientific and spiritual facts, she might find that discrete individuals enter into discreet relationships, not types, and that all relationships, legitimate or otherwise, are a cost-benefit analysis.

I want to tell a mistress tale about a woman who is petite and strong with red hair or brown hair and adores both her lover and her freedom, whether she is over 35 and single or 55 and likewise married with children. She understands that the relationship comes with grief, conscience clutches and inconvenience, but she feels the situation is right for her at this time as it adds to her life goals more than it detracts from them. Perhaps she is in a sex-less marriage and her husband secretly or openly wants her to stay with him but satisfy her needs elsewhere because he can no longer do so. Perhaps they have great communication and connection but have outgrown each other as lovers even as they have deepened their well-seasoned friendship.

In this story, the wife of her lover is secretly or unconsciously grateful her husband gets his tiresome sexual needs satisfied elsewhere while she gets the benefit of his name, economic security, friendship and fathering of her children; she closes her eyes to her husband’s dalliances on the side because it takes no noticeable time away from her and the kids. Yes, he is more distant emotionally, but she still gets the day to day rote gestures of affection of the peck on the cheek and pinch of the ass. And from time to time, they do have intensely intimate moments that only marrieds can have by virtue of suffering failures and successes together and raising their kids. She may feel lonely at times, the loneliness that comes with not having all of someone in all ways, but she is not alone.

And he gets the same from his wife and mistress as they get from him. All around, the parties are satisfied for the time being if not for the long run, but none can tell the future, and the kids get to grow up with their parents in truce, or peaceful co-existence if not in marital bliss. The only glaringly volatile risk to everyone involved is the arrangement’s public disclosure with resulting judgement that causes the participants to act according to what is expected of them. Then everyone is screwed.

This is one fictional story of another account that is neither aberrant nor atypical in the human domain of mistress-dom and monogamy. I merely present a competing version to consider. And before I get accused of mere advocacy of a moral relativism, I remind my readers that my campaign, if I can be ascribed one, is for consideration of the specific over the general, the study over the selective moral quipping, and indulgent compassion over unmindful condemnation.

Some people are what they are accused of: a wicked poisonous-apple-toting witch of a stepmother. Some are not, not entirely or not at all. Was Snow White innocent or stupid to trust a stranger? Does she get a free of judgment pass for naiveté, for representing an ideal of innocence pure and sweet? After all, she did steal into the bed of a stranger in an empty house. What was she thinking?

The magic mirror shows you the truth you want to know. The more fruitful option is to question, to work at ‘seeing’ by paying attention to the details as well as the big picture. To withhold judgement until all pertinent facts are present takes strength, a healthy skepticism. The Snow White of my idyllic tale is not the innocent goddess of ignorance but the mistress of doubt, compassion and curiosity.

Those scenarios, hypothetical musings in a magazine or real experiences of the newsworthy, that cause knee-jerk powerful reactions in us are the ones that afford opportunities to test our beliefs and flex our mental, moral and empathic muscles. These muscles need a daily workout to keep them strong and healthy. Stories are the workout gyms in which to sweat it out.

So What if a Couple Agrees to Have a Little on the Side? Chris Ryan on Marriage


The loosing of restrictions outside of marriage might help the institution as a whole, argues Christopher Ryan in his Big Think interview. When our culture responds negatively to natural urges, like seeking sexual satisfaction outside marriage, the results can do more harm to marriages than good:

And one more for the revisionist thinking about the marriage institution in this Big Think interview entitled “Income Inequality Helping to Build ‘Generation Single” with Chris Ryan, author of Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What it Means for Modern Relationships. His words are excerpted above, but the three minute response in the video portion is worth a listen as he radically asks, “Whose business is it if a couple decides they’re going to allow a little casual sexual behavior on the side…it lets the pressure off.” He maintains that marriage has loftier aims and satisfies larger needs like child rearing, sharing a life and getting old with someone. The reality of who we are biologically–titillated erotically–and the expectations of lifelong fidelity, he says, are at odds and marriage expectations need to be changed to reflect the reality rather than “shoehorn” lives into the mold of a marriage concept.

He does not intimate that marriage is doomed. In fact, he specifies cogent reasons for marriage, which are the long-standing reasons anyone gets married: to share a life together. I know I will be reading his book to find out more.

“The 9 Most Overlooked Threats to Marriage”


Kelley M. Flanagan’s Huffpost article isolating the most threatening issues to a long lasting marriage is interesting, hopeful and thoughtful, even if somewhat obvious and common sensical. I especially like the introduction as she reminds me how humans are short cutters and labelers in nearly everything. She comments that communication always takes the rap for failed marriages, which is untrue.

When I have my students write an essay on marriage and counseling, the parroted mantra is marriage breaks down for lack of communication. Counseling helps couples communicate better. Well, that always seemed to be broad to incomprehensibility as well as reductive. Whenever two people show up in a room it’s more complicated than that let alone show up to a supposed life-long commitment.

I particularly like the point she makes about marriage and loneliness:

Marriage doesn’t take away our loneliness. To be alive is to be lonely. It’s the human condition. Marriage doesn’t change the human condition. It can’t make us completely unlonely. And when it doesn’t, we blame our partner for doing something wrong, or we go searching for companionship elsewhere. Marriage is intended to be a place where two humans share the experience of loneliness and, in the sharing, create moments in which the loneliness dissipates. For a little while.

As a 34-year marriage veteran, I can speak to the greatest advantage of marriage, regardless of the perceived strength or quality of the union, which is the frequent haven from loneliness even as couplehood sometimes increases loneliness or at least puts that human condition in sharp relief. Flanagan reminds her readers that marriage is neither a panacea nor a merging. When she goes on to point out the shame baggage marrieds bring to a marriage, she hammers home that point that–and I’m extrapolating a bit–the union is of two individuals not a solitary unit.

The rest of the article underscores the more obvious and familiar about boredom, blaming, not taking responsibility and the like. She does mention another item that resonates with me, two actually: marriage is life and empathy is crucial to survive and thrive in both. True?

The New Millennial Marriage: Idealistic or Realistic?

Studies show that 45 to 55% of people will stray at some point in their marriage. Some marriages may appear monogamous on the surface, but have secret affairs. Some have affairs and recover, moving on to a more committed type of marriage. Some partners negotiate a more fluid type of monogamy with outside partners or sexual agreements that do not threaten their emotional monogamy. The integrity of the relationship is maintained through emotional commitment, not sexual exclusivity.

This passage excerpted from an article entitled The Future of Marriage by Tammy Nelson, PhD, in a Huffpost Divorce section is both a stark reality and a breath of fresh air. The reality gleaned from the cited statistic is that monogamy is hard pressed these days. Over half of marriages or more, depending upon whether the “some marriages” that “appear monogamous” are included in those statistics, involve cheating, straying, non-monogamy–pick a term that appears descriptive or indicting as you please. The hopeful part is the elasticity potential of marriage as a lasting institution–if the participants acknowledge the nature of marriage as a constant set of negotiable points, as a pact of two (most often the case nationally) with constituent parts of emotionality, physicality, mentality and spirituality, and that all of those constitutional needs are not met in one person.

In addition to a more fluid definition of marriage, the article also addresses a concomitant fluidity about divorce, which reflects current trends of “conscious uncoupling” and “divorcing with integrity,” what the doctor asserts is a possibility given the trend toward mediation and out of court options. She states that “Divorce can be heartbreaking, for both partners,” and so, implicitly, couples would want to seek more civil ways, less heartbreaking ways to divorce, she states.

Though Dr. Nelson may be right about the trends toward mediation and less combative ways of de-coupling, most probably due to financial considerations than the foresight to avoid heartbreaking battles, I am dubious of her prognostication about kinder, gentler divorces.

Having been a divorce lawyer for over two decades, I know divorce is devastating, whether the divorce is consensual or non-consensual. Divorce is like death, includes the same stages of shock, denial, anger and acceptance, in most cases. It IS a death of a relationship, a marriage, an expectation, a family, a future, and a life envisioned and lived. Facilitating hundreds of divorces in 24 years, I cannot deny there is heartbreak, but there is also hatred, fear, insurmountable loss, guilt, sense of failure, vengeance and often temporary insanity, among a host of other human emotions.

Divorces destroy men, women and children, a little or a lot. They often leave permanent scars. And it is not only because people do not know how to behave. It just may be due in part to the delusion of what marriage promises historically but not currently–a life-long betrothal of two, dipped in everlasting love and sacrifice. The probability of two people growing in the same direction with static needs is, well, hovering still at about 50%, which has been the steady first-time divorce rate for at least the last ten years of my practicing law.

The ideology of marriage is endorsed socially through media imagery, parental lore and financial incentives permeating the laws of the land (tax and insurance). Perhaps the broken promise of societal “norms” and the deception of popular television and magazine images are reasons for the incendiary explosion that divorce is oftentimes. Until that ideology changes, divorces will be experienced as they are–the death of a dream.

So, I agree with the doctor that there needs to be revisions to the myth of marriage; it needs adjusting to reflect the realities and trends she outlines in her article. Perhaps a revised marriage concept will lead to corresponding divorce expectations and thereby less destruction. But it’s not there yet.

The article is interesting; the following passages are particularly intriguing, even if perhaps a stretch:

In the future, in order to avoid this, marriage will be defined by shorter, more renewable contracts, in five year increments, or smaller two year contracts with options to renew. These agreements will be revisited at the end of their lease, and either renewed or ended, depending on how the requirements and expectations of the contract are being fulfilled. Both partners will make the decision to stay and renew or both will agree to move on. We renew our license every four years, why not renew our marriage contract?

In the future, gay marriage will have been legal for decades. More arrangements between couples will include open marriages with sexual agreements, polyamory will be more common and perhaps even polygamy will be visited in the legal system.

More of us will be bisexual, transexual and even more sexually androgonous than ever before. More babies will be born without clear gender identity and will not have surgery to assign a sex. We will judge less on sexual identity and more on how we treat one another

Since the majority of her predictions are based on a definition of marriage, she must be right about that definition or the conclusions she draws from those premises fail. Is she right about the five components of marriage?

Jenna McCarthy’s “What You Don’t Know About Marriage”

credit: drbrendawade.com

“Love, n. A temporary insanity curable by marriage.”
― Ambrose Bierce, The Unabridged Devil’s Dictionary

In a short, amusing TED talk video, journalist Jenna McCarthy offers some fun facts from studies conducted on predictors of long-term marriage. One of the quirky items is the smile in childhood photos as indicator of propensity to lasting marriage. How do these researchers even imagine examining that connection?