A Fairy Tale

This is a story only made simple in the telling, but complex as the reality unfolds.

I met my new mediation clients as they entered the office. Their smiles were broad, no sign of the apprehension usually seen on the faces of those who arrive to unravel the fabric of their marriage.

As they became comfortable seated on opposite ends of my long couch, she said: It’s hard to believe we’re here. It was supposed to be happily ever after.

I smiled, for I too grew up loving fairy tales.

After the preliminaries, he said: We just want to be fair to each other. I want her to be financially secure and she wants me to be able to start a new career.

They glanced at each other with approval, conveying gratitude for their mutual understanding. Then they sat forward eager to begin work.

I asked her: what does financial security mean for you?

She: Well, being able to stay in the house with the kids. We both want that.

He nodded, and I asked him: Will that be possible if you leave your current job?

He: Sure. By drawing on her share of my retirement account and supplementing that with what she can earn, they’ll be able to stay put for quite a while.

She, appearing confused: Wait, that’s not my plan. That’s not fair.

He: Why not? What about being fair to me?

I’d not yet heard their full story, but I knew that another myth would soon be proved false, another fairy tale forsaken: that they would agree on what was fair.

Their plans no longer meshed. Although they shared many values, there were some they did not share. It was already clear that what one thought would be a fair outcome, was not close to being fair from the perspective of the other,

I offered my view that seeking a mutual sense of fairness when a marriage is ending is an ever-elusive goal, one best abandoned. Puzzled, they sat back, disheartened.

I wanted to reassure them but not create false expectations, so told them that I urge mediation clients to adopt a flea-market mentality. Finding an item you wish to purchase, you ask the dealer: How much?

And if told the price is twenty dollars, you don’t say: But that’s not fair.

You might offer to pay ten dollars and then settle for fifteen. The deal is not struck by arguing the fairness of the price, but by reaching an acceptable one.

Trying to convince someone to agree with your sense of fairness when their values (or perceptions) differ from your own, is futile. The key to success is to probe the positions your negotiating partner has taken and try to fully understand each others’ underlying interest in achieving a stated goal. Why is it important to her to remain in a home now too large and expensive? Why is the immediacy of his leaving his present job important? That conversation will unlock the imagination.

I know they will soon develop many options to consider.

Sooner than planned, she may seek to provide some additional income. He may postpone leaving the job, while looking for another. They may decide to sell the house after all.

When I tell this story to a friend, she chides me for being cynical.

I respond: Not cynical, but pragmatic.

She persists: Fair is when you’d call it fair if you were in the other person’s shoes. That’s achievable and worth striving for.

I’m unconvinced.

To  yearn for fairness, that may be a good thing, if it promotes compromise. But to expect agreement on what a fair outcome would be is folly. Realistically, there is no such thing as objective fairness, except perhaps in tales from the Brothers Grimm.


 

The Thoughtful Question

I often share meals with close friends. The talk is our sustenance, the food incidental. And the conversation flows, unguarded. We are skilled players of the verbal ping-pong that carries us forward, inquiring and learning about the other, disclosing what is important about our lives at that moment, Ours is a dance with the steps so practiced, there is no need to be mindful about the questions we pose. We risk little, even with a misstep.

But consider different settings where this is not so, when a question asked without sufficient forethought turns a conversation awry:

The cardinal rule taught in law school is to never interrogate a witness in a courtroom without knowing the answer in advance. The temptation can be so great. One last probe to emphasize the essential winning point: “And why is that Mrs. Jones?” Then a response issues that surprises and wipes out earlier testimony.

But that is the courtroom where the choreography of words spoken is critical. Need this be so in our personal lives? In our professional lives? Is the art of asking questions so important? In mediation sessions, as I observe the impact of the questions the parties ask each other, and the responses to those that I pose, I’ve come to think it is.

When negotiating, or even just conversing with a loved one, a question can either bring someone to a desired destination or evoke a defensive response that creates a barrier, sets the players apart, and prevents, or at least postpones, a positive outcome. And mindfulness is especially called for when there is tension in the air. Is the inquiry, the tone of voice, even the quality of eye contact, free of criticism or judgment? Experience has taught me that when I’m simply reacting without much thought, without consideration of the goal I’m seeking, opportunity for agreement, or an intimate connection, is often lost.

The distinctions can be subtle. Here are some suggestions:

Ask: Can you tell me more about that? (open, accepting)
Not: Do you really believe that? (veiled belligerence)

Ask: Would it be helpful for me to explain my reasoning? (respect, consultation)
Not: Do you understand my point? (intelligence called into question)

Or in a more personal vein:

Ask: Feel like talking about what happened last night? (an invitation)
Not: Isn’t it high time we talked about what happened last night? (command performance)

If a professional or intimate relationship is troubled, and discussion of an important issue avoided, — either fearing a negative reaction which will only make things worse, or because embarrassment impedes honesty — consider first saying: we need to have a difficult conversation.

The respect shown by not taking another unaware, offering even just a moment to prepare, may set the stage for willing consideration of the issue at hand, There are times when both conversation partners will be off balance. Just acknowledging this at the outset can avoid a defensive response, or a closed door.

And here is another rule it might be sound to consider: Some questions are best left unasked.

Do you think these pants are too tight?
How many calories in this banana cream pie?
Do you still love me?


 

The Anniversary

    [I posted this commentary some years ago as the end of August approached, a time both dreaded and savored.]     …………………………………

Should I write of this? Of uninvited, unwelcome images that intrude as I lose my hold on purposeful thought.

The anniversary of Len’s death is here.

Twelve years ago, as summer was ending, the man who was my love, my companion for more than fifty years, left me. Sometimes that is exactly how it feels. And each year as August approaches I tell myself: not this time, gloom will not have a place at my table. Surely I am wise enough and strong enough not to succumb to these unbidden thoughts.

During that last year, even as his health steadily declined, we shared an incomparable intimacy. Caring for the body so well known and loved. Touching him, being touched by him, pretending we had many years to go. Sadness and joy so entwined.

Our marriage was perfect.

Our marriage was imperfect.

Exquisite times of closeness

Brooding times of silence.

Always respect.

Always caring.

We were bound, but free.

At the end of that August, as soon as my family departed, I returned to my world of work, and at home welcomed solitude and long postponed relaxed times with close friends began again. I busied myself with the tasks that attend such a loss. Notifications sent. Accounts closed. Books, papers, clothing sorted and disposed of or gifted. To one son the music collection, to another the tools, to a grandson the fishing rods and lures. Kept for myself the treasured letters and a few favorite warm shirts.

Then, as the first anniversary of his death approached, my steps slowed, my throat tightened, and my quiet times became more somber.

Disbelieving, I silently wailed: why should this foreboding of the calendar cast me down? But it did, and it has each August since. Can it be that I’m not the wise and strong person I insist I am? Unable to rise above this annual malaise?

I consult with a counselor and she says: the very angle of the sun as the same date approaches, casts shadows reminiscent of the days you choose to forget. The leafiness of the trees, the heat, the hour of first morning light, all of these images appear unbidden, and take you back to the heartbeat of that time.

This I can understand and accept. And can share with others whose intimate losses are known to me. For them too, anniversaries presage low times.

And I tell them that I now mark the anniversary each year in a significant way. I do not let it pass unnoticed, as once I hoped it would.

A picnic with friends in the park we used to go to as a young family

Revisiting art galleries we wandered together

A special dinner with an intimate

Breakfast at the home of dear friends with some old pictures in hand

Len and I seldom gave each other gifts, although we often urged the other to buy something yearned for, but that would not be purchased without a push. A painting. An airplane!

So each year, as the day approaches, I buy myself an anniversary gift, a thing of beauty:

A small sculpture of a horse’s head

A Marino glass sphere

Beautiful Italian soup bowls

A tiny Netsuke cat

An iPad

It was a new home three years ago, which I molded to please my aesthetic eye.

He would have insisted.


 

Pass The Salt

As our mediation session ended and he rose to leave, Mark turned to me and asked: So, can we now tell our daughter what we’ve decided?

I mirrored his smile, recognizing the relief he felt following a tense hour of talk, and his wish to cement the agreement he and his wife, Ginny, had just made about how they would share time with their daughter once they separated.

I said: Sure, but remember you’re telling her, not asking.

Unlike in years long past when most mothers were full-time parents, and fathers relatively uninvolved, these two were fully engaged in their careers, and both played an active role in the life of their ten-year-old daughter. They were of one mind about the wisdom of ending what had been an unhappy marriage, but both feared a loosening of the bond with their child that sharing time might bring.

Mark had suggested that they simply ask their daughter to choose a plan. Ginny, wisely in my view, argued against this. Although to many parents this seems a sound approach, a few present the question to their child purposely seeking to undermine the other parent, anger winning out over reason. Then the child’s response in their favor is proudly presented, even quoting the specific language used, and conflict is fueled as the other parent cringes at the hurtful phrases attributed to their son or daughter. For example:

“She says she’d be scared to stay with you and won’t be able to get to sleep.”                   “He told me that he would much rather just stay at my house all the time.”

When I hear such taunts, I quickly interject: Best take those comments with a grain of salt.

But most parents ask with good intention. Then they are comforted by an apparent special alliance sought by the child. A neutral listener would readily recognize the child’s need to please each parent, if indeed the quoted remark is even accurate. Very likely it is not.

During mediation with Mark and Ginny, I told them about research findings reported some years ago in The Journal of Experimental Psychology. The conclusion: that adults are likely to remember incorrectly whether information was offered spontaneously by a child, or elicited through questions. And perhaps even more telling, adults are likely to confuse specific statements they made themselves, with statements made by the child.

Dr. Maggie Bruck, a psychologist and McGill University professor, had 24 mothers with preschool children take part in a study in which the children spent 20 minutes playing in a room without their mothers present. Then the mothers were taped interviewing their children about their play.

Half the mothers had been told the research was focused on mother-child conversations. The other half was told they were participating in a memory experiment and should try to remember the conversation with their child as accurately as possible. Three days later all the mothers were tested.

Even the mothers who were warned ahead of time, often incorrectly attributed statements they had made themselves, to their children. And all were unaware of how many questions they had asked to elicit information. Repeated questions, even to an older child, suggest, and often evoke, a sought after response.

I don’t assume malevolent motives. To some extent we all hear or elicit from children what we want to hear. But healthy skepticism is particularly warranted about the reported words of children caught in the middle of parental conflict. Pass the salt.


 

Solitude

August approaches, the month in which Leonard died. Each year it is a time of looking back and summing up, a time that used to bring me low. Less so with each passing year, as gratitude overtakes the sadness of loss.

How many of us ever seriously contemplate the likelihood that when older we will spend  years living alone?

Long ago I read May Sarton’s “Journal of a Solitude”, a chronicle of her year of self-imposed isolation after an important relationship had ended. She described in great detail how she spent the days, her grieving and then her renewal. I loved that book and still remember the pleasure of vicariously sharing her daily experience. At the time, I was so completely engaged with my growing family and work life, such solitude could only be imagined. Now, it is here, though not by choice.

Or is it?

When friends, or even family, invite me to join them for more than a few hours of socializing, I decline. Even if little else is on my calendar that could not easily be put off, for I know that I will not willingly give up the solitude promised by time to myself.

I moved from my childhood home to the college dorm and on to marriage without missing a beat. Children, law school, the practice, life with Len. There were rarely moments, even if temporarily alone, that were not spent preparing for the next work or family activity.

So, I did not give serious thought to this time. The empty nest was never entirely empty. Even during my husband’s last months, I didn’t allow myself to imagine being without him. Life was the studied placement of one foot in front of the other. Goals were pursued, moments of reflection dealt with the present.

Now, for twelve years, I’ve been living alone. I find it quite a remarkable, even wonderful time of life. Are there anxious moments? Of course. Are there times of intense yearning for my past love? Yes. Occasional waves of grief wash over me, but I now know they will recede in time, usually with the coming of daylight.

I surprise even myself with how much I treasure my solitude.

Would that be so if I did not continue to engage with clients and colleagues, often share meals with close friends and wake many mornings to find a new email or text from a distant child? Likely not, for the human contact I have is a cherished part of my life, and always will be.

And I’m well aware of how my experience differs from those who are widowed or divorced in their middle years. Carrying on in the absence of a loved one, especially if feeling rejected, must be daunting, at least for a time. Then, I imagine, the need to start anew and build a different future fills the days.

Years spent living alone are ahead for many. For most, is the thought not even allowed to enter consciousness? So it was for me, to only later discover that this time of life affords an independence of spirit never before known, a time to live without pretense, completely authentic, a time to be savored.

I know not everyone finds my destination, this peaceful place. A more troublesome past might harbor demons. I feel such gratitude for those who loved me so well that solitude is a reward, rather than a sentence, and offers time to occasionally look back and distill and put into words that which seems worth passing along.


 

Insulted

Every media source and social network is reporting on the extended work life anticipated by the boomer generation as they approach what used to be an assumed retirement age of 65. Some seem eager to continue working, to recoup retirement portfolio losses, or simply because they’ve hit their stride in a fulfilling career. I’m with them, and frankly happy to have their company, not to feel like such an outlier. The thought brings back to mind what happened to me on a windy March day a few years ago.

I was then living downtown. Walking home from my office, I met two young lawyers with whom I had a passing acquaintance. We paused on a busy downtown corner waiting for the traffic light to change. They were empty handed and carefree, dressed in sweats. I carried a briefcase, my heavy winter coat open to the warming spring air.

We smiled in greeting and one of them said, in a jocular tone: Bea, you still working?

I answered: yes.

Then the other said: Come on, it’s about time you packed it in and got out on the golf course.

The light changed. Side by side we crossed the street. They walked on, and I turned toward home, saved from having to respond. In the days that followed, I chewed on their words as a dog might worry a bone. Every friend I chanced to talk with heard about this insult.

But why did I think it was?

After much thought and conversation, I came to see their remark as friendly needling. Would it have been an irritant if I were not already sensitive about my age, expected to retire, to move over. Is that the message I chose to hear? Not play golf, but get out of the way? I think so.

My husband joyfully retired at the age of 63, after thirty years of college teaching. Disillusioned with a university administration that valued successful research grant applications over skilled teaching, he contentedly entered a new phase of life and spent the next fifteen years engaged with family, our household, and trips to wilderness fishing spots he could reach in his small plane. I happily continued practicing law.

Both Len and I were raised by parents who became parents as stock markets crashed and the Great Depression followed. Len’s father yearned for retirement to escape from the crushing physical hardship of his blue-collar life, longed to fill his life with music, travel and raising beautiful flowers. My father, also having risen from poor beginnings, joyfully gave up the competitive business world to enjoy leisure, to listen to music and read.

Our mothers never really retired, Len’s offering daily care for each new grandchild she could hold close, and mine, an artist, was still seriously painting just weeks before her death at 89.

Dare I generalize from this small sample?

Perhaps those of us who are in control of the work we’ve chosen to do, answerable to neither productivity demands or the discordant values of a system we no longer share or feel able to influence, can cheerfully soldier on, fulfilled by bringing to bear competence learned over a lifetime.

And after all, aren’t the eighties the new seventies?


 

Threatened By Fantasy

I wish I could think and write more intelligently about adult pornography. The very word pornography looms large on the page or when spoken, and is rarely mentioned in mixed company, even among good friends. I’ve read position papers by some well known academics, women for whom it is an unmitigated evil, but the very existence of an industry that draws in many billions of dollars a year reflects a demand these authors do not address, except to seek censorship. Does prohibition ever work?

Admittedly, my vantage point is narrow. The few films I’ve actually seen, I found seriously wanting, without a context that would provide women, at least, with any sustainable interest.

In the 1970s, my public defender years, the Courthouse was my bailiwick. From the sidelines I followed the criminal trials of the producers of pornographic films (after all, we do know it when we see it), some notorious. Eventually, as juries began to return not-guilty verdicts, prosecutions dwindled, and in 1975, the VCR arrived in the market place and theatergoers retreated into the seclusion of their homes.

The shift to the internet offers viewers even greater privacy, until discovered.

Pornography enters my present world when it is seen as a factor contributing to the disintegration of a marriage. But as a cause or an effect? Listening to the stories some wives in mediation tell about their husband’s internet exploration, I still don’t know.

What is clear is that for some women it becomes a defining issue, convinced that their partner’s vivid fantasy life weakens the marriage bond, and believing that their own desirability is called into question. Unable to talk of this together, the intimate dance that brought them together is now in reverse, and she withdraws to a self-imposed isolation. Had he reassured her, would the outcome have been different?

Not for some, for whom the issue is a moral one. Their upbringing or religious belief affords them absolute clarity of judgment, allowing for no accommodation, a position that must be respected, even when not shared. But for many, their partner’s clandestine and solitary involvement, evokes concern that what is viewed creates a yearning that erodes commitment. Is that true? Is that inevitable?

Because open discussion of this taboo subject is rare, I have little knowledge of those couples who successfully address the issue with a counselor, or those where the viewer’s interest is not condemned, may even be joined, or simply treated lightly, tolerated, or just ignored.

The conversations I have with the husbands in mediation, the accused watchers, are typically brief and superficial. They’ve been “outed”, are somewhat embarrassed, but neither deny their interest nor make excuses, unwilling to submit to an inheritance of guilt. In all respects known to me, they are honorable and healthy men, supporting their families, devoted to their children. Their exterior life in the community is openly on display. But their interior fantasy life allows them to secretly travel wherever they wish, until now, when they are met with rage or sullen silence, accusations of perversity, and find their family falling apart.

About more familiar fantasies, I can think and write intelligently. There is probably not a married person alive who has not, in their interior life at least, envisioned the “what ifs?” What if I’d married someone else? What if we separated or divorced? What if in ten years I live with regret for having missed important opportunities? What if I seek some major changes in my life right now, and give them primacy over the accepted patterns that have developed in my marriage?

I remember some of those times when the “what ifs?” were on my mind, and times I imagined my husband asking himself similar questions. Some of those moments were scary.

But those daydreams turned out to be healthy, even if unsettling. For eventually we talked. They provoked change, small steps that gently shifted established ways, or even major moves that altered life’s course.

These are speculations we can honor, whether enticing or frightening, whether about intimacy, a job change or even global disaster, and when one day comfortable doing so, a conversation can begin. Is that also possible in the realm of explicit, deceptively idealized sexuality?

Is porn inevitably a destructive force? May it also bring important questions into the open? If, rather than unwavering judgment, a more nuanced discussion could be had, without blame assigned, might changes then be made to improve upon the reality, the fantasy world accepted as just that?

Or is that a fantasy?


 

Fathers Past And Present

I’m sure it’s true for all of us: Our personal past informs our professional present.

The father seated in my office weeps without shame. He and his wife have not yet told their 11-year-old daughter that their marriage is ending. For both of them this looms as a painful task, but he is the parent who feels most at risk of losing or diminishing the precious connection to this child. Although much more involved than fathers in years past, because of his work commitments his wife assumed the primary parenting role. Would he continue to have a secure place in his daughter’s life when living on his own and no longer with her for part of every day? He fears he will not. I empathize and want to reassure him, but how?

Later, I search for childhood memories of my own father and realize that, except for his place at Sunday dinners, I have few, for he was usually absent as I was growing up. To keep bread on the table during the Depression years, my father left home before I woke and returned after dark. Then, as our financial fortunes began to ease, came the horrors of the Holocaust, World War II, my older brother’s entry into the army, and the detonation of atomic bombs.  These are the events that I remember commanded our attention when the family was together during my teen years. I left home for college just after the war ended, to return only for brief visits.

Yet, some personal memories remain vivid. One comes to mind. When 11 years old, I cut my own hair, snipping off long locks to create bangs. My mother did not hide her utter dismay. But when my father came home and was brought to view the damage, even in the face of my mother’s frowning disapproval, he said: I like it very much. She’s very pretty.

My spirits soared.

An important moment for me, if remembered so many decades later.

The perhaps idealized memory I hold of my father is of a quiet kind man, always with a newspaper in hand, who seemed pleased whenever he saw me. I grew up believing he loved and approved of me unconditionally, a gift fully appreciated only much later in life as I witnessed the struggle of a close friend whose abiding memory is of her father’s relentless disapproval.

I told my client this story in a private moment when next we met, and suggested that his daughter will never forget the important kindnesses he has shown her in the past and will in the future. Though no longer a constant presence in her life, there will now be moments just the two of them will share. Some will be memorable. He smiles but retreats into silence.

The other father I have known well is the man I married. Len strove to be a father like my own, and mostly he was, until he wasn’t. In the early 1970s, as the Viet Nam war raged, the conversation at our dinner table, and on the campus at which he taught, roiled with dissent. The sexual revolution was in full sway just as our teenagers came of age. As parents we sought to a adjust to the swiftly changing times, but were in turmoil, trying to understand but still hold to the standards we then thought sound.

When Len came home one day and found one of our sons upstairs with a girlfriend, in anger he told him it must never happen again, or he must leave. It was our house, so our rules. I silently acquiesced to his edict, agreeing with his reasons, if less sure about the threat, but alert to the anger with which his quick decision was made, knowing some but not all of the sources.

Unwilling to agree, our son moved to a tiny apartment (guess who paid the rent?) until he left for college some months later. But the child grown to maturity learns to place parents in the context of their times and unique personal history. In the years that followed, apologizes were spoken, and the relationship became relaxed and loving once again. I share this story with my client as well. Our missteps can repair.

And what is the message from fathers today: anything goes, just stay safe?


 

The Art Of The Deal

My older brother and I maintained a close connection through long meandering phone conversations every other week or so. We’ve lived a significant distance apart since leaving our childhood home, and meet infrequently.

As we talked, we sometimes unearthed childhood memories, and told stories which the other never heard, or had forgotten. So I marveled when I discovered our similar ways, especially when they were unlike those of our parents.

The remembered incidents I’m about to describe came to mind when we compared notes about the incredible amounts charged for medical tests, compared to the lesser payments ultimately made by insurance carriers in apparent satisfaction of the provider’s bills. Then my brother spoke of his internist telling him of breaking his leg while skiing in Vermont, and later receiving a large invoice from the “out of network” hospital where he’d been treated. The doctor called and bargained with a financial administrator there, until they concurred on an acceptable sum.

My bother and I agreed that while we might have sought an explanation of such charges, we would never have thought to negotiate a lesser cost. Out of embarrassment or ignorance?

This brought to his mind two stories about our parents in times past.

My mother’s story: with my brother in tow, he about thirteen, she was shopping for a dining room table at Macy’s (already a NYC institution in the 1940s). She selected one that came with six chairs, and then noticed two identical chairs set aside in a corner. Said my mother to the salesperson: I’ll take this dining room set if you throw in the two additional chairs. (My brother recalls wishing he could disappear.)

Said the saleswoman: Madam, Macy’s does not bargain.

My mother suggested that the saleswoman consult with the buyer, and not long after, she returned and said: Madam, Macy’s bargains.

The purchase was made.

My father’s story: again back in the 1940s, he and my mother had invited a few friends to be their guests at an upscale restaurant. At the end of the meal, when the waiter presented the bill, my father discovered he’d forgotten his wallet. He spurned the offer of others at the table to pay in his stead, and took out his checkbook (before credit cards).

The waiter told him that checks were not acceptable. So my father asked to speak with the manager, who soon approached, and with curt assurance said: Sir, this restaurant does not extend credit.

My father glanced down at the table, now covered with the remnants of the meal just consumed, and responded: Sir, you already have.

His check was accepted.

Despite these fabled tales known to my brother, like me, he paid most bills without question, and never sought to negotiate the price of an item he was purchasing except, of course, for cars and real estate, when to bargain is the expected dance.

Our parents lost their home to foreclosure in the aftermath of the market crash of 1929. My brother was six and I was three and somehow they protected us from ever feeling deprived during the hard-bitten years of economic struggle that followed. Is this why they did, and we don’t, bargain?

With these new stories in mind, I’m wondering if my long gone parents have taught me something new. Perhaps they’ve given me the courage to now engage in the art of the deal.


 

 

 

Unrealistic Expectations

It was clear to her the marriage should end. He disagreed, but reluctantly he acquiesced, and they entered mediation.

Oddly, when describing the nature of their day-to-day lives, he and she did not differ. I puzzled over how they could portray even the details of their circumstances in the very same way, yet reach such different conclusions.

They have two youngsters. That was reason enough for me to probe, to question whether another direction might still be taken. Perhaps they’d be open to working with a counselor.
I first met alone with the husband. He acknowledged there had been some rough times and told me, without any obvious emotion, that there had been no physical intimacy for well over a year. He reported that they talked little, but that they seldom fought and rarely were at odds about the children. In a somber tone, he said: so, it isn’t all that bad.

I shared this view with his wife when next we met privately. Her response was immediate and animated. She told me that his parents remained married, although the entire family knew they were miserable with each other and had been for years, sleep in separate bedrooms, and hardly speak. She said: that’s their life, but not the life I intend to live.

I asked about her own parent’s marriage. She smiled and sat back, her taut body relaxing, and described it as comfortable and loving, telling of tender moments between them she often witnessed as a child.

These partners who had reached such opposite conclusions about the viability of their relationship, brought the marriage in which they had grown up into their own.  Now it was not hard to understand why their present situation was assessed so differently.

Marriages fail for varied and complex reasons. Here, neither was willing, or able, to perceive and come to appreciate the other’s view of what a marriage should be. We see the world through our own lens and only with deliberate effort look through the lens of another. Would things have been otherwise if they had sought help early on and come to recognize the importance of their unique family histories, and with that understanding then made the effort to recapture and build upon what had initially drawn them together? Impossible to know. Perhaps theirs is an extreme example of what everyone making a commitment to another faces, whether aware of it or not: the model of marriage that seeped into their partner’s consciousness when young.

Here’s something to consider when a loved one communicates disapproval or unhappiness. Before disappointment ripens into disdain, with genuine interest (free of sarcasm), ask: tell me what you expected.

And really listen to the answer. Let it be the basis for self-disclosing conversations, talk of what was hoped for, and what accommodations might be made once the other’s outlook is understood. Or perhaps make a well-considered decision not to accommodate, but to simply learn how to live with differences.

It is said the road to hell is paved with good intentions. More likely it is paved with unrealistic expectations, never explored until it is too late.


 

A Failed Effort

My professional failures stay with me. Wakeful at 4 a.m., I conduct the postmortem.

The case began when a mother petitioned the Court to terminate the Plan she and her former husband had been following as they shared the task of raising their 8-year-old daughter. For years these parents had been working well together and their daughter was flourishing.

Then a disturbing event tipped the balance.

The father had remarried. His daughter and new wife gradually became acquainted and formed a comfortable bond. But, one evening there was a troubling exchange between his wife and daughter. He promptly phoned the child’s mother and asked her to come promptly and get their daughter. In haste, the mother drove over and picked up the frightened youngster. On the trip home, she heard a tearful story: the step-mother had been drinking and when a glass of milk was spilled at dinner, she’d lashed out at the child, verbally, but excessively.

The next morning the mother shared this story with members of her family. She was strongly urged by her sister and her own mother to immediately call her lawyer and do whatever was necessary to prevent such an event from ever happening again. Days later, she did just that. Soon after her motion seeking sole custody was filed with the Court, both parents were referred to mediation, and a week later they arrived in my office.

Now more calm, and in a problem solving mode, the mother knew well that even if she were awarded sole custody, her daughter’s visits with her father, although lessened, would continue. The child’s exposure to his new wife would not end. Father, in turn, offered evidence that both he and his wife took this lapse very seriously. She had reentered a counseling program, had apologized to the child and expressed sincere regret. In the weeks that followed, there had been no further incidents, and the youngster seemed relaxed, as eager as ever to spend time in her father’s home.

When the mother and I talked privately, another reality also became clear. Her greatest assurance that her daughter would be protected in the future, was her former husband’s earlier decision, reacting so quickly to call and seek her help. Should there be another troubling event, would he likely turn first to her again if she went forward with Court action seeking to deprive him of his status as a joint custodian?

Our discussion in mediation continued and both parents explored additional ways to enhance their daughter’s future well-being. The father had already scheduled a family therapy session. He talked of how hurtful it would be to feel disenfranchised as a parent. The mother was understanding and seemed to recognize the damage likely to be done to their parenting relationship if she entered a public arena with allegations of fault and poor character. There was even tentative talk about the mother and step-mother taking steps to become better acquainted.

So, was the custody litigation dismissed? It was not. I urged a return to mediation but it was refused.

The mother’s family maintained their pressure on her to proceed with Court action, calling into question her devotion to her daughter if she did not, and her need to meet the expectations and approval of her own family won out.

No one makes decisions in a vacuum. We seek the support and acceptance of our “constituency”, friends and family. Agreements need to be developed with this in mind, and in this instance I had not given that enough consideration. Although aware of her family’s initial involvement in her decision to seek legal redress, I had not focused on helping the mother develop strategies for sensitizing her family to the likely consequences of bitter and prolonged litigation. Now everyone was poised for combat. The youngster was even to meet with the Judge in chambers.

It is so easy for extended family and friends to hold onto a winner/loser mentality without fully understanding the ramifications of parents undermining each other publicly, and in the eyes of their child.

I chalk up this experience for future use. But it still feels like my failure.


 

The Rule of Two

After decades of yielding to the social plans of those friends more gregarious than I am, my practice of furtive early departures from group events evolved into my Rule of Two. I rarely visit out of town friends or family for more than two days. And if I’m part of a convivial gathering for more than two hours, it’s only because I haven’t found an acceptable way to escape.

I did enjoy the spirited get-togethers of my high school years, but even then, after the first couple of hours, I was content to become an observer, never the lasting life of the party. In college, pairing off began in earnest, for me a lovely respite from collective fun seeking. Marriage followed and soon thereafter came graduate school for Len, when there was little time for the festive company of friends, no money and babies to care for. Home became a safe haven from the social whirl.

Was I anti-social as some suggested? I thought not, but then why the discomfort?

Then, one day a friend wise in the teachings of Carl Jung tagged me an introvert. Surely not, was my immediate thought, for I love working with people and treasure many friendships. But with this idea in mind I began to read about the distinctions between extroverts and introverts, and gratefully accepted the label.

Author and journalist Jonathan Rauch, an introvert himself, wrote about this personality dichotomy for the Atlantic Monthly (an article which for years drew more traffic to the magazine’s website than any other). He affirmed that we introverts need hours alone every day. We love quiet conversations with intimates about how we are feeling, what they are thinking. But when our attendance at social gatherings of more than three or four others cannot be avoided, we need days to recuperate. We are not shy as may sometimes be assumed, and can even be comfortable making formal presentations to large groups. Not anti-social, not depressed. But when the jovial schmoozing starts, we yearn to sneak away as unobtrusively as possible.

Rauch writes: for introverts, to be alone with our thoughts is as restorative as sleeping, as nourishing as eating.

Extroverts are energized by being in the presence of others, whereas for introverts the opposite is true. Brain scan research even suggests that the two groups process information differently. So, this is the root of my Rule of Two. I need no longer feel deficient or make excuses. I can walk into a room feeling no obligation to be who I am not, allow myself to be a listener, comfortable (usually) to be alone within the crowd, then leave.

A question raised by friends and the disappointed marriage partners who are my clients: are introverts better off partnering with extroverts, or selecting someone of their own orientation? No simple answer, but I’m sure that for opposite types to be happy together, there needs to be a recognition and acceptance of each other’s bent.

At some point Len and I voiced our shared reality that dinner parties were a dreaded chore rather than an anticipated good time. For the first two hours, fine, but then our furtive sidelong glances conveyed a mutual yearning to go home and have the rest of the evening to ourselves.

We were both introverts. I do wish I’d had a better understanding of this early on. I would have worried less during his retreats into silence. But over the years, as we became so well known to each other, there were many times we were comfortable alone, even when together.

 

Suffer The Silence

How readily we blame others when our conversational styles don’t match. I used to be a master at this.

For me, thoughts translate into speech with virtually no time delay. But when I talked with my husband, especially if saying something I thought important, frequently I was met with silence.

Then it took me but a nano-second to question the reason for his lack of an immediate response. Was it anger, or boredom, or even worse, disdain? And in the instant it took me to speculate about his possible motives, there seemed a purposeful lack of eye contact as well. So, need I even say, I faulted him for this communication impasse?

I learned early in life, by observing my mother, to respond to rejection (for this was how it felt) by receding into silence. My loved one had also learned well how to protect himself at such times. In response to my pointed withdrawal, he might studiously refocus on something he was reading, or quickly react to a welcomed interruption, the phone, a child, birds on the feeder.

And all of this avoidance, our disconnect, could be complete in less than a minute.

It took me about twenty-five of my married years, and a bit of professional help, to figure a way out of this communication quandary. Happily, in other respects we were doing well.

The problem that actually drew us into counseling was my insomnia (and a twitching eyelid), when Len began taking our young grandchildren flying with him in the small plane he piloted. My speculations ran wild, vividly picturing emergencies that could befall them high in the sky. Attempts to talk about this failed miserably.

Here is what I later learned: Some people, and clearly Len was one, seek more time than others to process their thoughts before committing them to speech. Perhaps some day scientists will identify the very neural connections that govern such differences, but for whatever reason, whether innate, cultural or simply due to parental modeling, it’s important to recognize and honor the reality that there are many different communication styles. The blameworthy motivations I had long been assigning made no sense.

With this new understanding, I would still carefully choose my times for significant conversations, when there were no obvious distractions and we could talk for a while. The best time for us was breakfast at a restaurant or traveling in a car in easy traffic. When I started an exchange of importance to me, after speaking, I simply remained quiet. I no longer asked rapid follow up questions in pursuit of an immediate reply. Nor did I pout. Several moments might pass, sometimes even an intervening comment made (by him) about something appearing on the landscape. But, I still waited.

A meaningful answer always came.

The lesson was eventually well learned: suffer the silence.
. . . . . . . . . .
Note: Len agreed to take a pilot friend along when flying with the grandchildren.


 

My Mother-in-Law

I have told this story before, but today, the first day of Spring, is also the date in 1900 that my mother-in-law was born. She is on my mind so the story will be retold.

I was 18 years old when I was introduced to Leora Larsen by Len, my husband-to-be, little realizing then the major influence this woman had already had on shaping my future life.

Leora was only five years old when her mother died of tuberculosis and speaking of the memory of this loss was one of the few times her eyes would tear, for she disdained self-pity. Her father, unable to cope with his young family on his own, placed her in the care of two kindly women who owned a bakery and took in foster children.

Attending school only until the eighth grade, she helped out in the shop and at a very early age began to care for the younger foundlings who followed her into foster care, many of them babies. At the age of 18, she met and married the man who was her husband for over fifty years, and together they raised four children, living for all but a few of those years in small mid-west prairie towns, which during their lifetime became suburban Chicago.

Leora’s role as the full time caretaker of the family was never in question, although stretched to the breaking point when numbers around the dinner table grew during the depression years, when several displaced relatives moved in under their small roof. Her husband, Merrill, who throughout his work-life was an electrician for the railroad, was a stolid and quiet man, who established the boundaries and direction of their life together, her influence quiet and subtle. As a visitor, I rarely witnessed either of them touch the other, or become engaged in but brief conversations, yet I never had cause to question their mutual devotion or respect, their feelings always closely held.

When I came to know her, Leora wore print cotton dresses of no particular style, hair pulled back to a bun, face free of makeup. She was devoid of vanity. Without flourish or pose, she managed the family’s world. A cup of hot coffee was always on offer in her warm simple kitchen. Only minimal creature comforts in their home were deemed important, except for the babies. Although displays of affection were absent, except for the babies, any family member in need had her swift attention.

Leora expressed a quiet scorn for the messages feminists began to voice in the sixties, a time when I was moving into a profession and away from my singular role as wife and mother. Of that she neither expressed approval or disapproval. Her son’s visible admiration and support for the changing role of women, and of his wife, evoked no comment. Yet, despite this, I thought of her as having the strength of a pioneer and could readily imagine her driving a covered wagon across the plains.

Len and I and our growing brood visited his parents several times a year. Conversations around the table as the extended family gathered were about the route chosen for the drive from Cincinnati (and the planned route for return), local activities of the day and the weather. Theirs was a like-minded, insular ultra conservative community, which before the sands of cultural change began to shift after World Was II, was purely white and Christian, outsiders suspect.

Throughout my own long marriage, as I came to know his mother better, through Len’s stories of his childhood and our visits over the years, she continued to hold firmly to the political and cultural values of her earlier time and place. With my New York City liberal roots, she and I, a generation apart, were as different in background and world view as two people could be, but from the day we met and ever after, she welcomed me without reservation or criticism as a loved member of the family. An extension of her love for her son?

I’ve often wondered, marveled, how this woman raised the free thinker I married, a man who reveled in and welcomed human differences and disdained exclusivity in any form. No doubt his intellectual curiosity, which perhaps drew him to become a scientist and enabled his throwing off of prejudices taught to him as a child, was a gift from his minimally schooled but intellectual father, yet I’ve always known it was at her knee that he learned kindness, which she offered to all without reservation. And from her he learned to expect great things from women, to respect and admire their strength, traits he found desirable in the woman he chose to marry.

How grateful I am.


 

Taking The First Step

She sits on my office couch and speaks as if she is not even a participant in this drama, weeping and angry: This divorce is his idea, not mine.

I understand her tears. Her marriage has fallen apart, and facing that reality is bleak. But this is our second mediation session, and I must swallow my impatience as she resists my efforts to move her past this focus on her misery, and talk of a plan for the future. Although reluctant to indulge her mood, I know she needs more time, so I continue to listen, and I hear:

If only he would be reasonable . . . .

Somehow I need to make him see . . .

I never wanted this, so it’s up to him to . . .

I want to tell her to stop howling at the moon, but remain silent.

Her words are like those often spoken by people whose lives have been tipped off balance, and are desperately seeking to regain equilibrium. The words are actually a plea for change. But it is the other who is expected to alter their ways.

So, is it possible to shift, even reverse, another’s point of view? Maybe so.

Here is her story which illustrates the point:

This divorcing husband and wife were negotiating financial issues. He was adamant about only paying support in the amount his attorney told him a Court would likely order, not a penny more. She insisted, and probably rightly so, that he could well afford to provide a greater sum, which would allow her and the children to remain living in their current home.

On the other hand, awash in her own misery, the wife had made no effort to shield their teenagers from the conflict in which she and her husband were engaged, and had portrayed their father as the bad guy who was forcing them to move. Not surprisingly, his relationship with the children was seriously eroded. He was hurt and incensed and blamed her for their alienation.

They were at an impasse, and at the end of our last session, both walked off in a storm of irritation.

The next morning, when I returned a call from the wife, she reverted to her now familiar refrain: if only he would be reasonable and provide enough for us to stay here just for the next four years, the kids wouldn’t resent him so.

This time, wanting to keep her engaged, but moving forward, I asked for and received her permission to offer some advice: Sometimes when parties are deadlocked, if one person acts, unilaterally, takes even a small positive step, it can cause an important shift in the relationship. Can you think of something you might do to break this logjam?

Her silence suggested she was finally ready and had heard me.

The next weekend, without requesting anything in return, she invited the husband to dinner with the children, and in their presence she apologized for having unwisely and thoughtlessly placed them in the middle of their parent’s conflict. She said she and their father were both struggling to create good outcomes. He relaxed his stiff posture and by the time dessert was served, tensions visibly eased.

Will this magically bring about the hoped for solution? Hard to say. But there will be an important change in the nature of their conversation, of that I’m sure. There are many bargaining chips still on the table. Talk will recommence. Impasse is averted.

Giving up on trying to persuade another to change, when a dialog has broken down, and taking a relatively small forward step oneself, without requiring anything in return, often generates a positive shift in another’s perspective, and a new conversation can begin.


 

 

Swimming With The Tide

I am often the oldest person in the room.

But if I happen to be with a contemporary, an initial judgment is quickly made: are they “with” the technology or avoiding it?

Being senior to everyone else at a dinner party I attended a few years ago, I was seated next to the guest of honor, a Federal Court Judge visiting from another state. I’d been told she was 70 and expected to meet someone sedate and reserved. Not so. Her very first question as she turned to face me was: Do you have an iPhone?

I do!

Hers was already in hand, and with obvious delight she said: I’ve got to show you my newest app.

Equally unrestrained about telling her personal story, she spoke of her immigrant family’s struggle and her own path to such high status. We saw clearly her determination to remain a relevant force on the Bench, willing to question traditional views.

I too am resolved to not get left behind, but how do those of us who are the parents of baby boomers, adjust and grow and still maintain our equilibrium, as social mores seem to change almost as much, If not quite so rapidly, as the technology. Here are some facets of my journey:

Small black and white television sets were just starting to appear in living rooms when my generation came of age. Sentimental family sit-coms and romantic movies set the standards for our marriages. No women “at work” except for Katherine Hepburn. And Spencer, so long suffering.

Enter Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem and MS magazine and law school.

So much TV and movie fare is marketed to the young, the population most closely monitored by advertisers, is often dizzying. Those growing up in the computer age have mastered the speed of online games, and thirst for fast paced entertainment. Perhaps the population bubble of aging baby boomers, at least those still in consumer mode, will cause something of a slowdown? In the meantime I’ve given up gathering news from a TV screen. I read the print press or online, at my own pace and with selectivity. I avoid and believe myself immune to the quickened beat of entertainment, but am I?

A movie classic I may watch, even an Academy Award winning film, now seems to move along so ponderously. I often give up before the end, wishing I could fast forward, not the film, but the script. Has the impatience of youth invaded my brain uninvited?

And, in what other significant ways have I joined society’s new order, jettisoned long held values? My sexual awakening (accompanied by delicately coded parental warnings) preceded the development of the pill. Values born of fear as much as morality were sorely tested when as parents ourselves we were thrown headlong into the confusion of raising adolescents during the social revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. I well remember how we and our friends struggled with the decision of whether our young adult children would be allowed to share a bedroom with a partner when returning home for a brief stay. Today, if a grandchild brings a loved one to visit, the separate bedroom issue is a non-issue. The discomfort will not even be there. So, I’m coming along.

Except in one respect, the use of crude language. No adjustment there. That is still chalk breaking on a blackboard. Thankfully my younger colleagues, and my family, defer to my tender sensibilities, at least in my presence. For this, I thank them.

But the Judge, she swore like a sailor.


 

An Ethical Quandry

Sometimes when reading, I come upon a phrase so delightful, I jot it down to savor it at another time. It may perfectly describe a place or depict an emotion I have known. I momentarily yearn to make it my own, all the while fully recognizing it as the creation of another writer’s talent. Is my fantasy the seed of plagiarism? Even some of the mighty have fallen. These meanderings lead me to a story.

Last year a friend called to request a favor. Her daughter had drafted the required college application essay. Would I be willing to read it over and make editing suggestions? Of course.

I remember well asking my mother, when I was quite young, to review something I’d written. When she pointed to some misspelled words before offering the hoped for praise, I snatched the paper from her hands. My retaining this memory of something that happened so long ago, confirmed the wisdom of my friend seeking help for her teenager from someone unrelated.

Days later I sat with her daughter at their dining room table. We were only slightly known to each other, so there was some discomfort, but little tension. I read her essay and it brought tears to my eyes. She had written about attending the wedding of an older cousin some months before, and then learning of his sudden death just weeks later. The joyous event, with the coming together of family from many parts of the country, was followed closely by the tragedy of an early death, and another coming together at the funeral. She wrote about life’s uncertainties, and her need to recognize and value what was precious to her, and taken for granted.

The structure was awkward in places, and certain words over used, but it was, in essence, simple and beautiful. I suggested the reordering of sentences, the removal of some phrases, and some different word choices. In the end it seemed quite perfect. We were both pleased. I thought little more about it until months later when my friend called to report that her daughter had been accepted at her chosen college, and I was gratified.

Then just weeks later, I read an article by Randy Cohen, an ethicist I admire, who used to be published weekly in the NY Times, responding to a question about whether a teacher should help a student seeking editing assistance with a college application essay. Unequivocally, Cohen said no.

For just a moment, I wondered whether I had participated in a fraud. I choose to think not, but I’m not sure.

Virtually every book published contains a credit that lauds the author’s editor (and new best friend). Writers, thereby, appear to be more accomplished than they are, and no doubt reap the financial benefits of another’s skill. Lawyers routinely place their names on briefs written, in large part, by associates who remain unidentified. How many judicial law clerks go unnamed? True, book editors are acknowledged, and the brief writing practice is well known, and I was not. But are there any college admissions officers who are unaware of the assistance given to applicants, all sorts of coaching along the way?

I comfort myself with the knowledge that I in no way altered the substance of the essay. I think if asked again for this kind of help, I would accede to the request.

But an ethical question is presented, if not the consummate answer.


 

Don’t Assume, Ask

Too often I’ve assumed others shared my point of view, only to later learn how wrong I was.

Why does it matter?

If communication is the heart of a good relationship, and our perception about how another is thinking or feeling is “off”, and we don’t know it (or choose to avoid knowing it), we’re starting the slide into misunderstanding, away from intimacy.

An almost comical (if not so poignant) example often comes to my mind. In 2000, my husband and I sold the home in which we’d lived for over 40 years, and where we raised our family. Len had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s three years earlier, and although his symptoms were still mild, he was finding climbing stairs ever more arduous. Hence the decision to move.

Our great good fortune was to find a sunny apartment rental with a river view, a parking garage and no stairs. Our house sold quickly, we simplified life by downsizing our possessions, and both of us felt lighthearted to be leaving so much responsibility behind.

For me, raised in and around New York City, the return to apartment life was like putting on a pair of comfortable old shoes. For Len, although he had grown up roaming the open prairies of Illinois, for five years soon after we married, we had lived in one flat or another when he attended Columbia University. And he’d relished city life.

So, we happily settled into our new seventh floor home, only ourselves to please in this latest phase of our lives, quite unencumbered but for our cat, Eleanor. Hers was the major adjustment, for she went from being an outdoor wanderer and hunter, to a life completely circumscribed by the apartment walls and our small balcony.

When our first visitors inquired about how we enjoyed our new living quarters, I readily answered for both of us that it was all quite wonderful. Len just smiled. Then Eleanor padded into the room, and they asked how she was adjusting to being an indoor cat.

“She loves it,” I said.

“She hates it,” Len offered on the heels of my comment. “She feels trapped and confined.”

I was shocked. We had both projected onto our inscrutable cat, how each of us was actually feeling. Quite unconsciously, I’d attributed to my emotional state an objective reality we shared, when that was anything but the case. My comfort and delight with our new surroundings was in no way matched by Len’s unspoken despair, in a world that continued to narrow as his physical limitations advanced.

I should have asked, instead of assuming he experienced my positive response to our move.

Ironically, openly assigning our feelings to our furry pet launched important conversations. I needed to face what he, until that moment, had hidden, and what I’d preferred not to know.

Intimacy was renewed.


 

Look For The Longing

They were seated on opposite ends of the long couch in my office. He spoke forcefully, complaining, critical of some recent choices she’d made for their children. Divorced for a number of years now, she listened with an air of detachment. Occasionally she met his angry gaze with a gentle smile, as if drawing a protective cloak about her, immune to his verbal assault. Her calm presence denied, or at least refused to attend to his emotional state.
 In the face of his fervor, she appeared to have the upper hand, but neither was winning.

Since their marriage ended, these parents worked reasonably well together, but from time to time tensions built, and they sought help in the neutral space of my office.

On this day, they identified multiple issues for discussion, and in doing so made obvious their mutual need for cooperation and accommodation. But what energized this father’s current lament was not even put on the list. He bemoaned losing the close connection he’d had with their youngest daughter. She was entering adolescence and lately was making excuses to avoid spending time with him. As he spoke, his words gained momentum and he became accusatory, blaming. His language escalated: alienation, conspiracy.

These are two intelligent and caring parents, and if viewed with another’s eyes, they are doing a fine job raising their children who are well loved. Their parenting styles, and some of the values they seek to instill, differ, as is often true in intact families. Until recently they’ve adjusted to each other’s requests in an easy manner.

I tried to bring him back to their agenda, and asked them to design some new options, suggesting a need for the give and take and understanding they’d offered each other in the past. He ignored me, too upset to pay heed. The session drew to a close and he left, angry and in haste.

I could not put him out of mind. At some level I was sure he knew that his badgering and accusing would accomplish nothing. What was going on in his life, professionally, or personally, that caused this train wreck of a conversation? Did his anger serve to suppress his tears?

If I had a magic wand, on return he would give voice to his worries, without criticizing and blaming his parenting partner, which simply aroused her opposition and resistance. Under my spell he would request her help, and give sincere consideration to what she was seeking.

And she would look for the longing behind his complaints.

Then, in an ideal world, they would express appreciation for the many good things both are doing for their children.

We will meet again. Lacking magical powers, I will offer them this advice, but with humility, for I know that I have seen only the tip of the iceberg which is their relationship, and much remains unknown to me.

Yet, no matter how complex the dynamics of any alliance: to voice complaints without criticizing the other, and to look for the longing behind a complaint, is bound to further good outcomes.


 

Soul Mates: Myth or Reality?

I shared dinner at my home with a friend I’ve become close to in the years since the death of my husband. She never knew him, but I often spoke to her about him, about us.

On this evening, I showed her a collage of photos taken at different stages of our marriage: in our college years, with small ones on our laps, family vacations, and after our children were grown and we were once again on our own. As with most family photos on display, they show us smiling, attractive children, arms entwined, all of us happy together.

She commented: You two were soul mates, weren’t you?

I was surprised by this, and don’t remember my response, probably just a somewhat hesitant nod. We had also been talking about her marriage, which seemed fine overall, but on this night her words were tinged with disappointment.

Weeks went by before we met again. In the interim, I thought often about her use of the term “soul mates,” and was troubled. Not a phrase I would ever have used.

For over fifty years, Len and I were loved well by each other, most of the time. But we were not soul mates, as I understand the meaning of this new age term: being the totally compatible perfect other half, fated to be together, intimates speaking the same language.That was not our reality.

In his absence, and missing him so, it is the better times that are most often brought back to mind and talked about. But I didn’t want my friend to look to us as an ideal for comparison, against which she might find cause to be discouraged about her own marriage when they were cycling through a trying time.

I needed to tell her that the ideal is a fiction.

Michelle Obama has done this well. Untold articles are written about the Obama marriage. Pictures of them holding hands and smiling are beamed to every corner of the globe. How my admiration for her grew on reading a 2010 NYTimes Magazine article in which both she and the President were candid about unhappy interludes: “The image of a flawless relationship is ‘the last thing that we want to project,’ she said. ‘It’s unfair to the institution of marriage, and it’s unfair for young people who are trying to build something, to project this perfection that doesn’t exist.’ ”

As the years went by, Len and I came to accept that many of our interests were not shared. We set aside the romantic dream that somehow we could be all things to each other. Over time we became more autonomous as we alternately fostered each other’s careers and longings. Our mutual attraction, respect, and our growing family, this was the glue that carried us through the difficult days.

Most often when we were out of sync, we muddled through on our own, all the while struggling with very different communication styles (a special debt of gratitude is owed to Professor Deborah Tannen for writing “You Just Don’t Understand”). But occasionally, a therapist was enlisted to offer a different lens, a new perspective. Invariably, confronting unhappiness brought us closer.

Now, looking back, it’s tempting to generalize from our personal experience when friends comment on or ask about our long successful marriage. But respecting the unique personalities and circumstances of others, I desist. It suffices to say we were lucky to have met, to have shared a determination to problem solve, and to have had a love that carried us through the scary times.

But we were never soul mates.


 

The Evil Twin

She called to apologize and left me this message: Forgive my miserable behavior. It was my evil twin, Skippy, talking.

I smiled, remembering a bit of wisdom often spoken by my husband: No one ever sees themselves as evil.

Earlier that day, Jenny, a mediation client, had unleashed angry accusations at her partner. Now, on reflection, she assigned them to her imaginary evil twin, Skippy.

Jenny and Bruce had lived together for ten years and then, sad but amiable, decided to go their separate ways. Both were previously divorced and were raising teenagers when they first came together and blended their families. They’d come to mediation to design an agreement for an equitable parting.

Legal ramifications of their decision were few, for despite large numbers of couples living together today, unmarried, few laws govern their separations. They spoke of honoring their past contributions to the years spent together, and hoped to maintain the close parental relationships each had formed with the other’s children, now grown.

Not surprisingly, as their negotiation began they soon discovered they had begun mediation with different expectations. Although they shared the goal of seeking a fair outcome, each defined “fair” in accord with standards they did not share.

Both had been salaried employees when they first got together. Bruce, with a far greater income, paid the mortgage and most of the day-to-day household expenses. Jenny, subsidized by Bruce’s steady support, decided to start her own business, which over time became a consuming passion.

The early years were lean, but Bruce’s generous loan of $50,000 for the capital to get her started had since been fully repaid. Now her earnings were significantly greater than his. Six employees had been hired, and overtures were being made for purchase of the company.

The matter under discussion when the evil twin, Skippy, intervened, was Bruce’s belief that he should share in the present value or receive an ownership interest in Jenny’s business. He maintained that his emotional support, financial investment and advice had been crucial to her success. Shocked by this request, Jenny disparaged the worth of his contribution. Their discussion became heated, Jenny accusatory. In essence:

Jenny:This is sheer greed on your part!

Bruce: But for me, you would never have made it.

And on and on. They left my office angry and upset.

I returned Jenny’s earlier phone call. Calmer now, she again expressed regret. I asked if she could consider that Bruce did not speak as a greedy evildoer, but from good intention, even if from her perspective, mistaken?  Could she quell her anxiety about the perceived assault on her venture, her very independence?

She told me she was aware that if they had married, Bruce’s entitlement to share in the value of her business would have been his legal right. So, I posed: was that a public policy worth taking into account, even if she was not legally bound to do so? And most important, what actions would best meet their shared long-term goal of continued family friendships?

Accepting that no one perceives themselves as evil, calls for an important shift in perspective, the offer of a measure of respect for the other’s point of view. While this won’t present immediate solutions, the development of settlement options becomes possible.

If Skippy can be kept at bay.


 

A Melancholy Day

When my kids were young, Halloween was my favorite holiday. With little spent in time or money, the night ended with costumes askew and each child’s candy hoard spread out and sorted on the living room floor. Apples disdained, chocolate eaten with abandon.

It seems right that Thanksgiving should be next in line for favored holiday status, a time to remember all that is most treasured, friendships and family, and savor favorite recipes. Seems right, but is not quite true.

Later today I will join with loved ones and we will all be smiling as a sumptuous meal is presented, but I know I will have to purposefully hold myself back from a focus on who is no longer at the table. Perhaps I will talk about him, casually, even telling funny stories about his carving exploits, and I will be able to breathe again. But after a time I know I will want to go home, be alone with my thoughts, and allow my practiced smile to dim.

Last year my older son phoned and sensed my mood as the day waned, a mood which he said he shared. We reminisced about years long past, the annual early Thanksgiving morning drive to the Chicago suburbs, the kids snug under blankets dozing in the back seat, then waking as dawn lightened the sky. On reaching the halfway mark, we pulled into a familiar roadside restaurant for pancakes and hot coffee.

The aroma of the feast filled the air when we reached our destination. Cousins fairly tumbled over each other in joyful reunion, as the Larsen clan gathered in the small prairie town where some still live. Too many of us to all sit together except around the ping pong table in Aunt Joan’s basement, hot dishes carefully carried down a dimly lit steep cellar stairway. Babies passed from arms to arms, giving new parents respite.

How many times did this scene replay? Until one day our children returned to their childhood home with their own small people carried aloft on shoulders grown broad and strong. The familiar aromas were then in my kitchen, which was soon crowded with helping hands. As the day waned, Len and I would leave for an evening walk, hand in hand in the cold winter air.

Soon another Thanksgiving Day will have passed. Everywhere I’ll hear: How was your Thanksgiving?

The response: Great!

My response: Fine.

In this answer there is both truth and undisclosed sadness, and I know not just my own. For every family there is a story to be told that the holiday evokes, remembered pleasures and joys, some sadness, some regret.

Oddly, I almost savor my melancholy mood, for it intensifies the moments remembered. Would the losses be so mourned, if less precious?

But, if I were king of the world, once the expressions of gratitude Thanksgiving brings to our thoughts and our words are again a memory, we would now fast forward to the first of next year, and bypass all the holiday merriment of December. How humbug is that?


 

How Dare You Ask!

A fable: On a lovely fall day, they drove away from the city, admiring the leaves turned crimson and gold. But the thoughts of our players were on a soon to be enjoyed romantic interlude at the Cozy Country Inn. Jan and Joe had been seeing each other for a few weeks, and the time seemed right for greater intimacy.
Their instincts were true. Their liaison was passionate and satisfying.
The next morning, they entered the dining room feeling optimistic about their future, born of their new closeness. Over blueberry waffles they talked:
Jan: So, tell me more about your job.
Joe: You mean what do I do, day to day?
Jan: Well, what do you earn?
Joe was silent and raised his hands to his chest, palms outward in the universal gesture of: back off.
 They traveled home in silence.
An exaggeration? Perhaps, but perhaps not.
Why is it so difficult, even with an intimate, to talk about money?
Except for close family, I have few friends with whom I talk freely about our finances, what we each earn and what we have accumulated. I’ve inquired of others and learned that most have even fewer confidants for such talk, some not any. Even family members are often kept essentially in the dark, and know better than to ask. And if someone does pose a question, doubts arise.
What is the questioner’s motive?
Will I be judged inadequate, unworthy?
Will I build a false expectation of largess?
If she earns more than I do, will I be diminished in her eyes?
We comfortably talk about the money of others, often scoffing at those who’ve accumulated millions and continue to relentlessly strive for more. We ask: when is enough enough? Money doesn’t buy happiness, or so we reassure each other. But we do not turn to our conversation partner and ask about their finances, unwilling to risk undermining an ego, theirs or our own. Personal talk about money is the ultimate taboo.
Does what we earn or own define our intrinsic worth in the eyes of others? Is that the essential fear? 
It is easier to share in the exquisite privacy of the sexual realm, and reassure both ourselves and our partner of the potential for mutuality, and of our value to the other, than to expose our ability to compete for dollars, judged by the external standards of society. Then our ego strength is in the hands of others, the fickle marketplace. So we hide?
The moral of the fable: The one gleefully stripped bare in the bedroom, in the counting room must be afforded ample cover.


 

When Argument Is Futile

Although Dave and Jayne mutually decided they needed the intervention of a mediator, once seated in my office they ignored my presence. Their conversation quickly became an argument, their voices raised and strident. After a time I interrupted and asked: has this worked for you in the past? Do you manage to change each other’s minds?

They responded in unison: never!

As their marriage crumbled over recent months, their lives had spiraled out of control, their teenage son a reluctant bystander. Now his grades were in free fall.

A friend had referred Jayne to a doctor who diagnosed their son as having attention deficit disorder and prescribed medication. But Dave had grown up with an aversion to the use of any drugs, particularly those he saw as “fooling with the brain”. He believed the problem was psychological, and he urged that all three of them enter family therapy, or at least have their son work with a psychologist.

Jayne had no faith in Dave’s approach, and was derisive about talk therapy and’”shrinks”. She trusted the doctor who made the ADD diagnosis, and had spoken with other parents who described their child’s miraculous turnaround on medication.

When I asked, both acknowledged that they were echoing beliefs held by the family in which they had grown up, although on this day they were armed with internet research supporting their divergent views. Neither gave the other’s data even cursory attention.

The question: would they be able to give up their determination to change the mind of the other and agree on a plan to rescue their son? If not, would they have to let a judge decide? This was a path dreaded equally by both.

Although we may reject some of our parent’s convictions, how often do we discard the viewpoints we adopted when young, in light of later life experience? Do we discount as exceptional the evidence that doesn’t fit with our basic assumptions? Often, I think we do.
We took a break for coffee, and when calm they agreed to try a more pragmatic approach:

First we reviewed their present circumstances. Even if restating the obvious, this placed them firmly in the here and now. I said:
-You’re both still hurt and angry, just beginning to heal.
-Your son is struggling to keep his head above water in school.
- So far, you can’t agree on a plan, but you’ve each developed some possible strategies.
- And you’ve decided not to turn the decision over to the Court.

Next we considered their choices and the possible consequences. The discussion that followed was less blaming and with fewer references to the past. Eventually they developed these options:
- Dave agreed to meet with the doctor Jayne had chosen, if she would join him to talk with a psychologist he selected. She consented.
- Jayne suggested a joint meeting with their pediatrician, always trusted in the past. Dave agreed.
- Jayne had already met with their son’s teachers but offered to go again, with Dave.

We talked about where these steps could lead if both were committed to listen with an open mind. Either might change their view and proceed with the choice of the other, or not. But in any case, they would have more data, have heard it together, and been able to ask questions of the “experts”.

So, a plan was in place.

The actual solution: Jayne decided to avoid the delay needed to schedule and keep all these appointments, and agreed to start family counseling right away, and Dave agreed that if after three months their son was still struggling with school, medication would be given a try. After family counseling began, they met with the doctor Jayne had seen, and with their pediatrician.

Conclusion: Once recrimination about the past is set aside and the futility of argument is recognized, this process can work for many:
- clearly state the current circumstances which must be faced
- develop possible choices for moving forward
- analyze the likely consequences of each choice

Sometimes, as with Dave and Jayne, just going through these steps can cause a shift from impasse to movement.


 

Nothing But The Truth

My eyebrows lift as my friend says, “I can tolerate anything but being lied to.”

Noting my skeptical glance, her irritation shows. Honesty, as an absolute, has been a topic of contention with us over the years, she regarding my outlook as far too tolerant of those who fail to tell the truth, or even those who hide behind ambiguity.

My belief is that most people, including those of essentially good character, lie when the stakes are high enough, especially if the ends appear to justify the means. She was a Bill Clinton fan, until he was trapped by the blue dress. Since, she has never forgiven his failure to tell the truth, even though she readily forgave his sexual transgressions.

I decide to probe, put her convictions to a test. I ask, “ would you hire a professional who believed it ethical to perpetrate an important deception?”

Her quick response, “ of course not.”

My question was a set-up.

I told her I’d heard about a study done some years ago by Dr. Victor Freeman (when he served as a Research Fellow at Georgetown University Medical Center). Freeman surveyed 167 doctors, internists from around the country, and asked, “if an insurance company initially refuses to pay for a patient’s medically indicated treatment, is it ethical for a doctor to lie to get the coverage authorized?”

Forty-five percent of those asked, answered “yes” and, not surprisingly, the more potentially life-saving the coverage, the stronger the support expressed for lying. The results underscored the fundamental conflict that many doctors have with insurance companies, particularly in markets where there are severe constraints.

It’s not hard to place myself in the shoes of a physician willing to practice deception, if they saw no other way for their patient to receive medically indicated treatment.

So, I asked my friend, with a certain smugness, “which physician would you select to treat a loved one?”

Her lips stretched tight and she said, “not fair.”

But, hardly a moment passed before she rejoined, “and you, would you hire a lawyer who acknowledged regularly practicing outright deception?”

I was silenced, for I would not.

So, now it is my stance that calls for an explanation if I am to support the distinction posed: Does securing a patient’s physical well-being trump the social or financial advantage, or even the liberty, that deception might yield for the lawyer’s client? Even if the illness was not life-threatening and the threat to liberty great?

Apparently so.

Food for thought, and further discussion.


 

Fear That Does Not Fade

When I decide to write about violence between intimate partners, my heartbeat quickens and I am tempted to stop. I’ve never been subjected to physical intimidation, so don’t fully understand why I so readily insert myself into the picture painted for me by others.

As a mediator I have to provide a safe setting, one in which both parties feel empowered and able to speak freely. To assure this design, I always talk with each person alone on the day of our first meeting. One question I ask is a veiled one: How did you resolve disputes during your marriage? The most common response: I just went along to get along.

Not often, but on occasion, grievous assaults are disclosed.

My initial thought, which I never speak, is: if this was happening to you, why didn’t you leave? Many others must actually have posed this question, for without prompting, excuses often follow:

I knew I could handle it.
The children needed their father.
He would have lost his job.
I didn’t want anyone to know.
He was going through a bad time and promised it would never happen again.

Oddly enough, the speaker of the unspeakable remains calm. Practiced? I too appear composed, and am actually relieved and ready to accept these reassurances so as to end this discussion and move on. In fact, over the years I have successfully concluded a number of cases in which threats and rough treatment were reported. I took at face value that the past could be set aside, perhaps not forgiven, but forgotten.

Now, I know better, and I ask myself how many of those prior agreements were motivated by fear?

For today, I am better schooled and wiser about the lasting impact of being the target of purposely inflicted pain, of living in fear of an intimate partner. Now I know I must look behind the superficial responses, and when I do, the anxiety, theirs and mine, appears anew. I no longer listen passively to the rote explanations, but press for details and this is what I hear:

We were on a Sunday drive on a winding road and I asked him to slow down. His arm swept across the space between us and he broke my nose.
We were in the cellar examining the furnace which had gone cold. I checked the sticker and noted the inspection was overdue. He broke my arm.
After crushing my cell phone underfoot, he stood in the doorway and wouldn’t let me leave the room.
He hasn’t struck me in years, but the day after I told him about my promotion, he attempted suicide.

Now I probe: are you still afraid? Do your friends know? Are you in counseling?

In almost every instance, residual fright is admitted and tears flow. And except in rare cases where significant therapy and the passage of time have provided new strengths, my skill as a mediator cannot overcome the power imbalance generated by enduring fear.

Mediation must end.

I’m told those who grow up in a home where there is raging and coercion, often seek to connect with a controlling partner. Perhaps this is so. But when they are finally ready to leave, there must be an advocate present to assure a safe escape and a well reasoned settlement, forged in a secure setting, free of fear.


 

Secrets Are For Telling

” Secrets are never kept. Everything eventually becomes known.”

These words surprised me. They were spoken by an old friend to whom I’d been describing the plight of a family I’m close to, in which secrets are eroding the relationship of mother, father and adult daughter.

The couple I spoke of was ending their unhappy marriage. Their adult children had been told, and although disheartened, they were buoyed by the caring, respectful, even loving way their parents were making plans to keep the family well connected. While they each moved on to separate lives, they voiced no recrimination or placing of blame. Protective of their privacy, friends and family were simply told, ” we’ve just grown apart”.

Late one evening the husband wrote an e-mail to his wife detailing his distress about her infidelities over the years, kept as a secret just between them. His message contained no rancor, just disappointment and sadness, while remembering things he continued to value about their past.

She sent a reply e-mail, expressing remorse for having hurt him, and told of her sadness.

Some days later, their out-of-town daughter arrived for a visit. Before leaving the house to pick up some groceries, her mother asked her to access a neighbor’s recipe sent by e-mail that morning. Directed to her mother’s computer, the daughter found not only the recipe but opened the e-mail messages her parents had exchanged days before. These secrets were out. But later, rejoining her mother, she said nothing about this breach of her parent’s trust.

That evening, she told her father about her discovery, and made known her anger and disillusionment with her mother. But she committed him to keep her confidence, adamant that her new knowledge not be divulged, fearing her mother’s reaction.

The family, already in a delicate balance, now seemed poised for disaster, privacy boundaries crossed, their previously presumed open communication with each other shut down. A hidden bond between two family members excludes and distances others. And in order to maintain secrecy, the truth has to be distorted.

Did the husband’s initial e-mail, by its very writing, suggest some intent to reveal the previously undisclosed reason for the divorce? Was the daughter’s detection, when sent by her mother to access the recipe on her computer, accidental? My friend thought not, and confirming his point said, “secrets are for the telling”.

I questioned that judgment, as we talked about what had been concealed in our own families. I told him that I often write in a journal, especially when troubled. Writing helps me sort things out. But, I insisted that what I write is private, without any covert plan for disclosure. His response, “Oh, really, and then do you destroy or save what you have written?”

I save. Never consciously thinking about future discovery.

High profile politicians most visibly prove the point, leave a letter to a new soul mate where a wife can find it, pay for furtive sex with a check or traceable bank transfer, meet for an assignation with the press hard on their heels. Believing themselves to be invincible, or an invitation to exposure?

We keep some secrets in the sincere belief that others will be hurt more than ourselves in the telling, to the benefit of no one. But by turning a truth into a secret, is it always a truth we wish could be known? Is it only if we are known, secrets and all, and then accepted, or forgiven, that we feel loved for who we really are, or were?

Do we hide, all the while wishing we could pop-out like a jack-in-the-box and be greeted with approval, no longer keeping the lid on?

So, if the box is wound, the music plays and the catch is released, well, accidents happen. Right?


 

Magical Thinking

A friend tells me: “I had been thinking about a former college roommate not heard from in years, and moments later she phoned. Amazing, isn’t it? ” (Meaning: my thinking about her precipitated the call.)  My eyebrows rise and my smile is indulgent. But really I’m impatient with those who see a mystical plan where all I see is random coincidence. I am a realist, not superstitious.

But, there is a disconnect.

The story: For many years my husband piloted his own small plane. I was never a relaxed passenger, and after a number of years of pretending otherwise, I ultimately decided to remain on the ground when he was aloft.

As adults, our sons accepted invitations to take trips with their father, and I found that my small plane anxiety extended to them. They had young families at the time, but their wives offered no objection. I thought I had no right to intrude on their plans.

So, I purchased substantial life insurance policies insuring each of them. Of course, there was a rational aspect to this, but secretly I knew this was really magical thinking at work. I comforted myself with the belief that once the insurance was in place, the odds greatly increased that they would come to no harm.

Almost daily, new brain imaging research is reported locating a specific area where a particular thought process occurs. Recently I read about the locale of magical thinking, my sometimes secret nemesis. Experiments with college students showed how easy it was to elicit such thoughts in well educated young adults .

Quoting the article: “In one instance, the researchers had participants watch a blindfolded person play an arcade basketball game, and visualize success for the player. The game, unknown to the subjects, was rigged: the shooter could see through the blindfold, had practiced extensively and made most of the shots. On questionnaires, the spectators said later that they had probably had some role in the shooter’s success.”

One researcher, a psychology professor at Princeton, was asked why people create this illusion of magical power. Emily Pronin responded: “I think in part it’s because we are constantly exposed to our own thoughts, they are most salient to us, and thus we are likely to overestimate their connection to outside events.”  Gloria Keinan, a professor at Tel Aviv University, who has also conducted research on this subject, reported: “Magical thinking is most evident precisely when people feel most helpless.”

All makes sense. Protecting my adult children is quite beyond the control I had when they were small, but the yearning to do so remains. My magical thinking offers comfort. I wonder how many others who see themselves as rational at all times, covertly seek similar comforts, and avoid “stepping on the cracks . . . . .”

Although it is unsettling when my beliefs don’t guide my behavior, almost as if one part of my brain is master over another, my irrational self was unwilling to tempt fate.


 

Howling At The Moon

She rages and I just listen. When spent, I tell her she is howling at the moon, but say so with a lilt in my voice, with understanding. There are those times when frustration rules, and venting in a safe venue makes sense. I even suggest that it could serve her well, ward off depression and allow her to move on.

Married for over twenty-five years, she and her husband traveled the long road to mediated agreements and now the end is in sight. It has been a difficult trek.Their motivations so very different, he relieved, eager for a new start, and generous financially as he departs. She bereft, alternately silenced by anxiety, and vocal, resentment fueling demands.

Now the design of the last puzzle piece, the contribution each would make for their youngest child’s college education, was about to fall into place. Just the day before, he’d sent a proposal that she read as being so equivocal in its language as to be meaningless, at best unenforceable. So in her phone conversation with me she fumes. I wait out the storm.

She reports that the goodwill they’d begun to rebuild as parents living apart, had waned, and that they are less able now to share joyful moments witnessing their children’s endeavors. Although the evidence is scant, she fears he will reverse course on agreements already made, and is sure she knows why he’s being so guarded, perhaps retreating. His friends are cast as amoral and mean spirited players, come belatedly to stand by his side.

It was not difficult for me to understand her fear. His early favorable offers, made in the privacy of my office, were thankfully received. But when later disclosed and reviewed by outsiders, he was chided, his decisions called into question. Those coaching from the sidelines had little understanding of how thoughtfully this pair had worked to achieve their shared vision, for themselves and their children’s futures. Nor did these allies share any responsibility for, or knowledge of, the ramifications of the new path they urged him to take. In his latest communication his wife only saw his capitulation to the boorish view of his posse, a primitive need to assert his manhood in the face of this heedless crew, a sentiment she spat out, each word clipped for emphasis.

It was then that I compared her to a wounded animal proclaiming its misery, howling at the moon. I said: “Fine. It’s smart to taste your anger. But now that you have, can you recognize that, however inartfully, he is still coming toward you in an effort to reach agreement. It’s time to look at your choices and consider the consequences of each:

You can give in to the temptation to throw down the litigation gauntlet, but then likely put at risk the benefits already worked out.

Or you could respectfully confirm past agreements and acknowledge this effort on his part regarding college expenses, and state your concern about the vague language used. Then propose another option, which you might develop together, until you both find it acceptable, even if not perfect.”

The significance of this choice needed no further analysis with this now seasoned and mature negotiator. Once again calm, she recognized that a verbal assault with accusatory words of anger might do damage difficult to repair.

The moon has no inner light source, only reflects what is sent, without memory or comment, so one can howl without risk, if only heard by the wind.


 


 


 

 

A Thoughtless Greeting

It used to be at forty, then fifty, now maybe even fifty-five, before women start to notice that no one is noticing. Add an additional ten years for men. Most of us make peace with advancing invisibility as we age. We can take pride in what we’ve become, what we’ve learned, what we are still able to achieve. Then, surprisingly, even a small stab can deflate a well-earned sense of self.

Here’s my story:

I am visiting a new doctor, a well-reputed specialist. The waiting room is crowded, many of the patients are past middle age, some very elderly with another in attendance. The office staff exudes efficiency and a friendly ease.

Before long I am ushered into a small examination room, one in a row of six or seven. Eye drops are administered and some basic questions asked by an assistant, my answers noted for later review by the busy physician. A smile, a magazine and a not too long a wait is promised, and I am left alone.

Soon I become aware the doctor is in the examining room next to mine. He is talking to someone about the process of reapplication for a driver’s license which has lapsed, the tests to be anticipated, how to avoid likely obstacles. I conjecture that the patient is hard of hearing as the doctor’s voice is raised. But his tone is gentle, unhurried and indulgent. The listener’s responses are barely audible.

I find this doctor’s caring way heartwarming, and appreciate the sensitivity with which he addresses the elderly patient who I assume is vulnerable and confused. I will praise this kind doctor, soon, when we meet.

He knocks and enters, smiling, and with his hand outstretched in greeting and says: “Hello, young lady, how are you doing?”

I feel diminished, categorized, even disrespected. I am not young. “Please, doctor, do not call me ‘young lady’. This strips me of dignity. Young women are 35 and under. You can use my full name, or no name at all.”

But these words, although screamed, are unspoken. I simply say: “Hello.”

My rehearsed words of praise for him are swallowed.

I have lived many years and value the richness of my experience. Joy, and sadness, both in good measure, and good health, allow me to look to the future with optimism, accepting the deficits of aging, if somewhat grudgingly. But I want my status recognized, not made a foolishness.

Did he view his manner of greeting me as a kindness, or was it simply thoughtless ineptitude? And does it matter in the larger scheme of things?

Yes, it does.


 

A Fable For Today

As a child, I was intrigued by Aesop’s Fables, simple stories that ended with a moral. I didn’t look for hidden meanings, seek to understand why the tortoise plodded on at such a steady pace to win the race. I just recognized that he had a tactic that worked. Here, I present a fable, the tangled web of the players motivation unexamined. Yet the message, the tactic that worked, is clear.

Paula and Jim were once intimate partners who revealed themselves to each other, perhaps one moment brave, another vulnerable and frightened. No pretense, no hiding.

But no more. Seated on opposite ends of my long office couch, both faced forward and avoided eye contact. Throughout the mediation session, their discussion seemed almost dispassionate, their emotions well controlled. Except for veiled anger that occasionally flared, their protective walls are invisible but real.

Paula hopes to return to school and work just part time. To make this possible she needs to move to a nearby state and rely on her extended family to help care for the children. Jim intends to remain in their former residence to provide a familiar home when the children are with him. But to pay the amount of support Paula requires to implement her plan, could thwart his.

They’re on a collision course. Paula says she’s unwilling to accept any less financial support than she believes the Court would order. Her husband’s defensive response to the very mention of Court, delivered in clipped tones, is that her wish to move to another state (even though less than two hours away) would not be allowed by the Judge. They recognize the power of the other’s threat, but continue to brandish their own.

Our session ended with nothing resolved.

From my earlier private meeting with each of them, I knew what they left unsaid when together. Paula, determined not to cry and appear weak in Jim’s presence, did not disclose what she’d told me, that to go from relying on someone she’d loved to someone who had become a stranger and now loved another, filled her with terror.

What Jim declined to reveal, was that he’d taken steps which now called into question his value as a father, even as a man, surely as a provider. He was consumed with fear over the losses he faced.

The Court rulings that each might well achieve, would frustrate them both.

Did what they left unsaid stand in the way of a successful negotiation? I couldn’t be sure, but I knew that as matters now stood, reason would not prevail.

About a week before our next session, Jim called with a question about some requested documents. I asked him if he knew how his wife was feeling. His response was immediate: Sure she’s scared.

He added: And frankly, I am too.

I suggested he consider giving voice to those feelings, letting Paula know.

Soon after our next meeting began, Jim turned and faced his wife. Although her eyes remained averted, he spoke in a gentle tone and her shoulders relaxed: I have some inkling of how scared you’re feeling. I’m really worried too. I want us both to get a good new start, and I know having your family close will be reassuring and helpful. I’ve decided not to stand in the way of your move.

He acknowledged her insecurity and expressed his own. A less tense, although tearful, conversation followed. Sadness and anxiety about the future did not dissipate, but both parties were able to take tentative steps forward, and compromise now seemed possible.

Moral of the story: Anger is often driven by fear. Fears openly faced and shared may soften resistance to reason.


 

Mindfull Questions

When I talk with a close friend or a colleague, our conversation flows unguarded. We are skilled players of the verbal interchange that carries us forward, asking questions, learning about the other, disclosing what is important about our lives or work at that moment. Ours is a dance with the steps so practiced, there is no need to be mindful about the questions we pose. We risk little, even with a misstep.

But consider different settings.

The cardinal rule taught in law school: never interrogate a courtroom witness without knowing in advance what the answer will be. The temptation is there. One last probe to emphasize the essential winning point: And why is that Mrs. Jones? Then a response that surprises and wipes out gains earlier made.

But, if on the courtroom stage the choreography of words spoken is critical, need this be so in our personal or professional lives? Is the art of asking questions so important, requiring us to be mindful and deliberate?

Often it is. The manner in which a question is posed can evoke a positive emotional response, an opening up, or just the opposite, a resentful apprehension. Here are some of my hard learned lessons, which often I must relearn.

When negotiating, seeking to bring someone toward a desired destination and avoid a defensive response that prevents, or at least postpones agreement, the tone of voice of the inquiry, even the quality of eye contact needs to be free of all criticism or judgment. The distinctions can be subtle.

Ask: Tell me about that (open,accepting). Not: Do you really believe that (veiled belligerence)? Ask: Would it be useful for me to explain my reasoning (respect, consultation)? Not: Do you understand my point (intelligence called into question)?

When a professional or intimate relationship is troubled, and discussion of an important issue has been too long avoided, either fearing a negative reaction which will only make things worse, or because embarrassment impedes honesty, before the question is asked, consider saying: we need to have a difficult conversation.

Offering another even just a moment to prepare, the respect shown by not taking one unaware may set the stage for willing consideration of the concern at hand. For those times when both conversation partners may be off balance, just acknowledging this at the outset can avoid a defensive response, or a closed door.

A new addition to my repertoire is a question I pose to myself. If a particular event triggers anxiety and disturbing thoughts flood my brain with a prediction of fearful outcomes, I ask myself, and take the time to slowly ponder: what would I say to a trusted friend who told me the very story in which I am actually the star player? Switching to this role of advisor, I find that I can offer a useful perspective (to myself). I do not dismiss the concern, but test my imaginary friend’s reality by seeking specific evidence for the fears that have been aroused, and then speculate whether a distorted thought process evoked what may well be erroneous conclusions. Reason is restored.

And here’s another rule it might be sound to consider: Some questions are best left unasked:
Is this dress becoming?
Think I’ve put on weight?
Do you still love me?


 

Who Else Is In Bed?

Many moons ago, I read a clever observation by a psychologist, that there are always six people in every marriage bed: husband, wife and both sets of parents. A recent experience reminded me that we never travel down the path to any decision truly alone.

The story: A young couple was slowly working their way through all of the trauma and difficult choices for planning their lives as parents when no longer married. Their very young child seemed to be adapting to the sea change in their lives with greater ease than either of them, they so much more aware and worried about life without love, and with financial hardship.

Although divided about many things, from the outset of mediation they were completely in sync about their goals for their child, and even for promoting each other’s chances for future well-being. Splitting up their accumulated assets was easy, coping with their high mortgage payments less so. Yet, some decisions for the short term were possible, because for a few years the husband, a medical researcher, was willing to contribute the lion share of his income to retain the marital residence for the sake of stability, and to avoid a fire sale in a weak housing market. And as their child was so young, he readily agreed that his wife should not seek a job until their daughter was school age. He would rent a small apartment nearby and live frugally. The chips were all falling into place.

And then they weren’t.

His lawyer strongly objected to the level of support he proposed to contribute for the next two years, saying: No court would ever make you pay so much. She’s bleeding you dry. She needs to get a job and help with the mortgage, or sell the house. I can’t let you do this.

On their return to mediation he announced he had changed his mind, and his wife was soon in tears. He asked to speak with me alone.

His words: It isn’t just my lawyer, although she says I’m being a fool, but it’s everyone else too. Since I’m the one who’s leaving, I’m made out to be the bad guy. But trust me, we’ve both been miserable for a long time. My friends, and even my parents, say I’m crazy, letting my guilt get ahead of my reason. I want her to keep the house, and be a full-time mom, but maybe it’s just not possible.

I took note of his use of the word maybe, recognizing the pull between where his heart led him, and the dictates of his lawyer, and his need to seem forceful in the eyes of those in his camp. These bystanders, who likely saw themselves as fulfilling their role as advocates and as loyal supporters, fueled an anger and resentment he’d not previously expressed.

Ironically, selling the house now, likely at a loss, might well leave them less financially secure. Could his wife, a graphic artist, find a job earning enough to even meet the cost of their child’s day care?  And most important, what would happen to the ease that had evolved as he and his wife related as parents? He nodded his understanding when these questions were raised, but said only that he needed more time to think it over.

Would he be strong enough to withstand the judgment of others, who portrayed him as impotent and his wife as domineering?

His compatriots, invisible contributors to the decisions he faced when negotiating in my office, were sabotaging his better judgment. A group decision was being made. Could he pull himself away and stand alone?

His wife was out of the marriage bed, but many others had climbed in.


 

 

 

 

 

A Father’s Day Wish

A small porcelain bird sits on a shelf in my bedroom always in view if I glance away from reading the morning paper or when I check the illuminated dial of my clock. It’s not something I would have purchased for myself. Too cute, too sentimental. But it was a gift from my father.

He brought it to my home over fifty years ago when he traveled to my city on business, a rare visit unaccompanied by my mother. He probably purchased it at an airport kiosk, the only present I, as an adult, ever received from him that hadn’t been handed to me, and likely chosen, by my mother.

After our marriage, Len and I lived quite some distance from both sets of parents. We visited them several times a year, and in that pre-internet era wrote often, and had weekly long distance phone conversations. The letters I received were in my mother’s hand and she did most of the talking on the phone, with my father listening on an extension. When my parents were together, it was my mother who filled the air with her presence.

My father died in 1977. I regret not having sought to know him better when an adult, after leaving home at 17 for college and then marriage. He was a kind, quiet and reserved man who readily answered questions about his views on politics or world affairs, but even those conversations when visiting, were often interrupted by one of my youngsters or by a practical concern of the moment raised by my mother.

Thinking back, I knew little about the feelings hidden behind the gentle smile of this man who immigrated to this country as a teenager, struggled to get a foothold and then lost virtually everything after the 1929 crash and had to start over. He rode the Grand Central railroad into N.Y.C. early every morning, usually returning well after dinner, working long hours to rebuild his family’s security.

My husband’s experience with his parents while growing up was not too different, a vibrant mother at home who held the family together, while his father commuted to long and arduous work days in Chicago, returning home weary and often wordlessly retreating into a world of music, his piano.

Born of this past, many years ago, Len and I realized that we wanted our adult children to really come to know their father, another quiet man, in ways we both had missed. So, when we phoned our grown kids, we did not share the conversation. One of us would talk and then the phone was handed off. The more verbal of their parents, me, did not eclipse the other.

And Len went a step further.

He took our oldest grown son on a wilderness canoe trip, and flew his small plane across the country with our second son to revisit towns in which the family had spent summers many years before. And he went to Alaska with our daughter, then 15, for a flying camping adventure neither would ever forget.

At least once a year we visited our adult children separately, traveling alone to their distant homes. Even without witnessing the quality of the interaction they had when I wasn’t there, I knew it was a more significant connection for them in my absence. I, in turn, enjoyed being with them on my own.

Len wept bitterly at his father’s funeral for what never had been.

And I wish I’d been wise enough, so many years ago, to be more aware of what I was missing.


 

To Be A Man

As Father’s Day approaches, a story I heard on the radio comes to mind. It was told by a listener in California who called the station when this question was posed: What does it mean to be manly today?
The caller was a Mexican American who had come to this country at the age of seven, and was now in his thirties. He told of a family gathering with several generations in attendance. As evening approached, his wife rose and called to him across the room: Honey, it’s time to leave.
He joined her and they said their goodbyes.
The next day he was confronted by his father who disdainfully questioned him for allowing his wife to tell him when to leave, reminding him that it was the man’s place to make decisions, not to take orders from a woman.
In advance of the next family gathering, the caller asked his wife to silently signal him when she wished to go home. So, on that occasion, as the evening waned she glanced at him and arched her brows, and he announced that they must depart. His father smiled.
I love this story. The intimate complicity between husband and wife, just as it should be, not an inter-generational triangle lessening the strength of their connection. Yet, even though the son was not willing to accept what was for him an outdated standard, his father’s allegiance to his own code of conduct was not disparaged. Secure, the younger man had no need to return to adolescent push-back.
Over time there were shifts in the concept of manliness in my family. My father, and my husband, Len, though of different generations were similarly self-assured in their masculinity, gentle and respectful. No machismo, although when first married, they both assumed the traditional roles of their time.
My mother loved to tell of my father’s prideful insistence at the time of their marriage in 1922, that his wife would never go to work (meaning: for money). Laughing, she said she ignored this edict, already having been the sole support of her widowed mother for a number of years. And once the Depression hit, the point was moot and ignored by my father as well.
Len and I, married even before our college graduation, were members of the post-war “silent generation”. He began graduate school and I, with zeal, entered my first career: motherhood. Our division of responsibility was unexamined and unremarkable, he preparing to become the breadwinner and I the family caretaker. Then the tide turned and in the 1960s, I attended law school three nights a week for four years. On those evenings, Len returned from work at day’s end to feed, bathe and put our three young children to bed.
Was he exhibiting his feminine side? Actually, that’s not how we thought of it. He was just helping out. We didn’t characterize these tasks as unmanly. Nor do most men today, and the constraints of sexual stereotypes continue to loosen.
In later life, Len was grateful for having been cast into the richness of the caretaker role, often commenting to friends: the woman’s movement was the best thing that ever happened to men.


 

 

Haunted by Uncertainity

He is smiling, casually dressed and appears relaxed. She is grim. He is the one who over a year ago lost his job, a well-paid executive position. She is the one now working two part-time jobs but earning little. Severance pay is spent, unemployment compensation soon to end, savings dwindling. Retirement funds are next.

They’ve long since come to terms with ending their marriage, both emotionally ready to move on without rancor about the past. But her frustration with his apparent easy acceptance of being unemployed is clear. She thinks he is not worrying enough, no longer making a serious effort to find work, too comfortable receiving gratuitous benefits, playing golf, drinking too much.

He listens and does not react, arms spread wide across the back of the couch. But to me his enduring smile seems a nervous cover, and I wonder if he is immobilized by repeated rejection and his anxiety hidden but high. Her anger, fear really, flows form their unknown financial future, for college costs loom for both of their children and ongoing expenses erode their hard won security. They are mired in uncertainty.

So many with jobs are worried about losing them, and so many who’ve already lost them are worried about when another will be found. A number of my clients are afloat in both boats.

Here’s what I’ve recently read: Worry about the unknown is what does us in. Although it’s counter-intuitive, bad news is easier to take than the possibility of bad news. Researchers have shown this to be true.

Consider a study conducted at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. The members of two different sample groups were informed they would receive twenty electrical shocks. One group was told that each shock would be intense. The other group was told that three of the shocks would be intense, seventeen mild. Those told there was a small chance of receiving an intense shock sweated more profusely, and had a more rapid heartbeat, than those who knew for sure that all of the shocks would be intense.

A University of Michigan team studied patients whose colostomies were permanent and compared them to a group that had been advised there was a chance their colostomy could some day be reversed. It was the first group that tested as being happier than those who lived with a hope for reversal.

Another finding: Those who opt for genetic testing and get a negative result fare better than those who know their family history places them at risk, but decide not to find out where they stand.

It seems that once we get bad news we adapt to our changed circumstances and work at making the best of it. But waiting for the bad news that might come keeps us in a worrisome state that undermines well-being.

My personal solution when unsettled by disturbing news: I give myself over to fretful rumination for about twenty-four hours, imagining the worst possible outcome, contemplating what survival will look like, what consequences might have to be faced. Next, over the days that follow I connect with my trusted friends and loved ones  and  tell them about my worst fears. Why sharing in this way lessens my anxiety, I’m not completely sure, but the relief and the strength to move on purposefully is real.

Then I gather as much reliable data as I can about the problems that might have to be confronted, (but not absolutely everything that Google has to offer), learning only as much as I need to develop a course of action for the present, and I write it down. Uncertainty is banished to another day, and my plan is available for rereading when it sneaks back in.


 

One Path to Intimacy

     When I married at the midpoint of the twentieth century, marriage manuals were replete with graphic drawings and cautiously chosen words describing what lay ahead. Fast forward to the introduction of the pill in the early 1960s and publication of The Joy of Sex in 1972. A different world. Today, how-to books for those entering into committed partnerships address relationship issues, likely with a section on communication skills. If these books are read at all in the glow of ardor, I suspect the chapters on how to talk to one another are only skimmed. From my vantage point, observing marriages that are ending, those may be the most critical pages.

     The complaint I hear so often, from friends, clients, and colleagues, is of unhappiness due to a lack of partner intimacy, the close personal sharing that makes livable all the inevitable ups and downs. Many suffer in silence, but others become vocal, even demanding. Counseling with a skilled professional often seems the logical approach, and some agree to take that path, although one of them often reluctantly.

      I was not immune.

     Years ago, Len gave me the responsibility for drawing him out when I asked for greater disclosure of feelings about what was going on in his life. I was to ask the right questions, at the right time. I tried. It didn’t work. And he was missing the point, or at least so I thought. This give and take had to be offered freely, even sought, by him.

     We were once offered a communication exercise, told to repeat what the other had said so as to assure that each of us had indeed been heard. That lasted less than a week.

     But we were given some suggestions that did actually work. No revolution, but a change for the better. When I asked a question to elicit feelings about one thing or another, I was to choose a time when there were no obvious distractions, and a place where we could talk for a while. TV commercial breaks wouldn’t work, half-time maybe. For us, breakfast at a restaurant was best, or traveling in a car in light traffic. He couldn’t get up and drift away.

     But most important, once my question was in the air, I needed to stop talking. That was the key. So many women, hungry for intimacy (and it seems to be mostly women), don’t wait long enough for a response and simply rephrase their question. Some men, I suspect many, need to formulate their thoughts before they speak, unlike many women for whom the spoken word gives birth to the next thought and the words that follow.

     And consider another insight, from the lament of an unhappy friend: When I’m upset, maybe about something at work, and I walk in the door feeling down, she asks me what’s wrong. And when I explain, she offers comfort with a story of her own, telling me she knows just how I feel. She doesn’t. I shut down for the rest of the evening.   

     It’s all too natural to assume that feelings generated by our own past history are the same as those experienced by another. That may be true, but may not. The slightly different, empathic, but more respectful words that invite disclosure: I think I know how I might feel if I were in your shoes . . . but tell me more.
    

     Though no particular approach applies to all, I’ve become convinced that the art of conversation can be learned, and unlock the door to intimacy. But the longer left closed, the harder to open.


 

Just Mumble

Some years ago I clipped a favorite cartoon by Koren, and I keep it on my desk. It shows two middle aged couples visiting in the living room of one of their homes, with a huge hairy monster looming behind the smiling hosts who are seated together on a couch. The wife addresses their friends sitting opposite, who are staring at the monster, and says: We deal with it by talking about it.

This is a concept I hold dear, the idea of coping with our demons by talking about them with those we trust, thereby lessening their power to effect our lives. Surely this is the best way to foster understanding and intimacy.

Professionally, I often urge clients to face and perhaps question their fears, or concerns about the future, bring them out in the open, and share different perspectives and opinions with friends or loved ones.

So, it was with some surprise that I recently came across a quite opposite view that I find appealing.

I wish I could, but cannot remember the source of these words I quickly scribbled on the pad I keep by my bed: Curiously, it helped us not to talk things out. Confusion cannot be challenged if there is no finality. In a marriage there is always tomorrow, the apology, the explanation of bad behavior, the kiss.

Weeks later when I gathered up my collection of bedside notes and reread this quote, I realized more fully the wisdom it held. Those whose relationships have survived long term have all probably learned this lesson, to pick and choose which incidents, which thoughts or daydreams, which monsters need to be talked about and which are best left to confusion, to uncertainty, to apology, or just to the kiss.

And here’s another strategy.

Brian Lamb, my favorite C-SPAN host, interviewed Colbert King, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the Washington Post.  Asked about his wife, King said: We have a mixed marriage, she’s a registered Republican, and I’m a Democrat.

King and his wife of over 50 years, Gwendolyn King, both held a number of high government positions, he as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Carter administration, she as a Deputy Assistant to Ronald Reagan and as Director of the Social Security Administration under George H.W. Bush.

Lamb asked how they handle their disagreements. King, who will soon be 73, responded that he just goes with the flow and added: You have to learn how to mumble if you’re going to keep the marriage going . . . that you don’t have arguments . . . because if you‘ve got to say it  . . . five years from now when you’re about to brush your teeth, she’s going to get the last word . . . I don’t disagree with my wife about anything, I just enjoy the moments.

So, perhaps there are times to throw a blanket over the monster, cultivate confusion, and mumble.


 

 

Verbal Jujitsu

If you believe that it’s important for intimate partners to work through conflicts as they arise, it is probably counter-intuitive to be told that there are times when conflict avoidance may be the better course. But such can be the case when faced with words meant to intimidate. I develop this premise here in the context of a divorce but believe it holds true in any personal negotiation.

The story: The timbre of the voice of my caller conveyed the intensity of his emotional state. Not bothering with any pleasantries, in curt tones he said he was only calling to inquire about mediation at his wife’s insistence. For a few moments he allowed me to describe the process, but soon interrupted to express his skepticism and told me that his wife was inflexible about the issue most important to him, concluding: I’ll only consider mediation if she agrees in advance that she’s willing to share time with our children equally. Otherwise I’m filing for sole custody.

I was reasonably sure that this warning was born of his anxiety in anticipating that divorce would seriously diminish the precious connection he had with his children so, while empathizing with his concern, I gently urged him not to throw down the gauntlet and suggested:Threats beget threats. And often lengthy litigation.

Silence at first. But then I learned that he and his wife had been attempting to negotiate terms on their own. Talking had begun in a relaxed way, for their past relationship had been a respectful one. But with their marriage bond now frayed, frustration mounted over the tone in which something was said, or over a proposal made, and anger was triggered. Their discussion escalated into dueling ultimatums.

Can the effort to intimidate just be ignored? It rarely is but actually, that may be the wisest course. Step aside without striking back. Verbal jujitsu.

Most threats are born of fear, and it is the fear that needs to be explored and understood rather than the menacing words. But the “fight or flight” response too often takes over precluding rational discourse.

In the divorce context, verbal threats are legion. As here: I’ll sue for custody before I ever accept one minute less than equal time with the children, or: I’ll go to jail before I pay a dime of alimony, when you’re the one who wants this, or: I’ll disclose the pornography I found on your computer if you fight me on this point.

If the sincere goal is to move a partner towards agreement, which it almost always is, to oppose a threat head on, or to counter in kind, may well destroy the chance of settlement, for responses to such statements made in the heat of the moment only makes the speaker’s later retreat more difficult. Both parties need to buy time.

There are other options:

If sufficient calm prevails, and a mediator or dispassionate mutual friend is involved, an analysis in private with each party to discuss the possible or likely consequences of the threatened action can be an important reality check. Most helpful is the catharsis that occurs when the party having issued the challenge is drawn into a discussion (often a tearful interlude) about why they feel so strongly about the issue.

But if the amount of tension already generated precludes either person being able to really listen to the other with understanding, an equally useful tactic is to move on to a discussion of a completely unrelated topic, allowing passions to cool. Step aside. Verbal jujitsu.

As the mediator, this is the choice I usually make if the parties will accept the diversion. And it is a choice individuals can make on their own, without announcement. The passage of time will likely allow for a return to reason, especially if the fear underlying the threat, usually of some loss or perceived loss, is acknowledged and addressed. And taking a moment to express sincere compassion at such times can cause incredible shifts in position.

It often behooves the threatened party to recognize that it is in their own best interest to allow the other to save face, by continuing to ignore, (and certainly to refrain from repeating the threat to allies on the sidelines), to simply step aside from the menacing words earlier spoken, so that both can refocus on what each hopes to achieve in the long term. Verbal jujitsu.


 

 

 

Off Balance

I have become reluctant to travel on my own. I find reasons to put off planning a journey, despite anticipating pleasure once at my destination, and even though I am well accustomed to traveling alone. For Len and I often chose to visit our distant children separately, knowing we were able to connect with them more intimately in this way.

So what’s going on?

In my determined effort to think this through (at least what’s available to me on a conscious level), and get beyond this self imposed limitation, the source of my aversion is becoming more clear. It is humbling to realize, and then acknowledge, that it is embarrassment that is standing in my way.

For years I’ve adhered to a personal rule never to visit anyone for more than two days, so I always travel light. But even lifting a small rolling suitcase into an overhead compartment with ease, has become a challenge, and is at best awkward. And now I envision arriving at an unfamiliar or ever-changing airport, getting temporarily turned around in a crowded maze, and not being absolutely sure which ground transport to use to get to my final destination. All of these imagined difficulties magnify and give me pause.

Of course, none of this makes any sense. There are always kind people more than ready to give assistance in myriad ways, and I know that well. But, somehow when on my own I need to feel and appear completely competent and in full control.

Now additional life changes are getting in my way. A pinched nerve in my back (vertebrae do tend to collapse in on each other a bit as we age) causes one of my legs to occasionally feel unreliable and walking any distance is no longer comfortable, so not only do I limit my travel out of town, but I walk far less on my home ground and choose destinations with parking close by. (Friends encourage me to rely on the cane I was told to purchase and recently did, but still am reluctant to use.)

In some way, I know this new reticence relates to the loss of my partner. I could disclose any vulnerability or failing to Len, and in the telling suffer no embarrassment at all, and receive comfort and reassurance. After confiding in him, or even just knowing I could later phone and report some misadventure, my travel troubles lost significance.

So, recently I’ve begun to disclose my thoughts about these personal weaknesses, for so they seem, first to my children and then to close friends. Doing so has generated a most welcome camaraderie of intimate disclosures and interesting conversations about the unique sources of embarrassment for others, some quite unlike my own, but equally limiting.

This emotional state, embarrassment, is not shame for some hidden moral wrong, but simply a witnessed loss of dignity, seeking to avoid drawing unwanted attention to some physical flaw and then be judged less competent in other ways as well. Apparently for others, as for myself, this need to avoid exposure influences decisions that objectively make little sense, but allow us to hide our “defects” from public view.

An important truth I recently read sparked my decision to put these thoughts into words: embarrassment is the death of possibility.

So, with these insights at hand, is there a trip on the horizon? No, not yet. And has the cane been unfolded (a folding cane so much easier to hide away) and used in public? Well, once, accompanied by a very dear friend in an anonymous mall.

But perhaps my public admission is a the next step, quite literally, to acceptance and the defeat of embarrassment.

And here’s another useful truth: to take a step forward, you have to momentarily lose your balance.


 

 

When There Is No Trust

She sat as if braced for a blow, unsmiling and on her guard. At the other end of my long office couch, he was her reverse image, comfortably relaxed.

It was not until I met with her alone that she gave voice to her anxiety. In despair she said: He wants this divorce and I don’t trust him anymore.

Her husband, a businessman, had taken the first step and walked away from what she acknowledged was not a happy marriage. The roles they took throughout their 25 year union were well-defined, he the breadwinner and she in charge at home. They rarely crossed over into the other’s world. He knew so much more than she did about finance, about their finances. How could she possibly negotiate with him, when she felt she couldn’t rely on his having concern for her well-being anymore?

Trust had been their bedrock, even as their intimacy faded. No longer.

She went on: I do all the bill paying so he says I have a good grasp of money matters. Not so. He assures me I’ll be fine, but I no longer have confidence in what he tells me.

My response: Why should you?

She looked up, surprised.

I continued: When an intimate relationship ends, trust flies out the window and anxiety sweeps in. Betrayal, broken promises or shifting moral standards, and a partner so well known becomes a stranger. The pain of loss and fear of the unknown dominates the emotional landscape. Then all that’s needed is a spark, a canceled credit card, a barbed letter from an attorney or finding out that a separate bank account has been opened. If there was any residual trust, it vanishes. Being assured that everything will be all right offers little solace.

She listened intently and asked: Do I need to hire a more aggressive lawyer?

My response: That’s one option, although I would recommend you take the time and collect the information you need to become stronger and wiser yourself. An attorney committed to settlement might help you figure that out.

Her eyebrows raised but she was smiling.

To those who’ve survived this early stage of divorce without declaring war, and have found their way into a mediation setting, or who’ve hired lawyers who can advocate for them while seeking consensus, and who recognize the need to address the interests of both parties, this is what I say: Let’s just assume that your spouse is untrustworthy. This is your current perspective. You may be wrong, but you may be right. So, why not simply accept the absence of trust, and design a settlement that doesn’t depend on faith. Assert your power to say a respectful “no” to anything that is suggested, until you are ready to say “yes”. Ask for documentation and test proposed solutions assisted by carefully selected experts, lawyers, financial planners. Decide to make no decisions until they are fully informed decisions.Let doubt serve you. No call to be accusatory or disrespectful. Just smart.

In marriage we expect trust, assume that we’ll always be told the truth and our well-being given priority. That perfection may not always exist, but it’s a reasonable expectation.

When an intimate relationship ends, aggression is not the answer, but trust need not be assumed. Unless and until it is regained.


 

 

 

 

“Forget You”

When my kids were very young, the ultimate putdown they could deliver to each other was “forget you”.

This came to mind when rethinking a mediation session with a high–conflict couple. One felt betrayed, the other misunderstood. The conversation I witnessed was tense, each frequently interrupting the other. Their words assaulted with contradiction, were denigrating, blaming. It was as if the other’s viewpoint had absolutely no legitimacy, their feelings no merit.

By the end of the meeting, I felt like a traffic cop, holding my hand up to silence first one and then the other, so a thought could be completed. Eventually they calmed, tired, and made an effort to comply with my no interruption rule. But by then they were dispirited and eager to leave.

As each in turn had taken control and silenced the other, the underlying message was “you don’t really matter”. Perhaps when an intimate partner has withdrawn their love, this is what we want to believe, but, of course, they do matter, to each other and to their children, the current subject of their bitter discussion.

Had I accomplished anything with my no interruption mandate? Perhaps greater efficiency in addressing the issues before us. But would this intervention actually take them to a place of better understanding? Or agreement? Not likely.

What I need to do, and will attempt when we next meet, is to somehow get them to stand in each other’s shoes, to develop some empathy for what the other is feeling, and in turn, to be understood. If I had a magic wand, this is the gift I would help them give to each other. The future benefits would be immeasurable. Even if only one of them was willing or able to take this step, there would be an important shift in the nature of their negotiation. I am quite sure of that.

The ability to empathize and thereby offer respect to a departing partner (even if continuing to disagree with their positions), and a willingness to honor their past contributions to the family (often privately acknowledged to me), call for words some conflicted partners seem unable to speak to each other. When it is possible, myriad conflicts evaporate. And it is wonderful to witness.

I plan to ask these two to speak as if they’ve exchanged identities, to tell the truth of the other as they know it. Initially it will be awkward, but if they are willing to persist, it will be revealing, even exciting.

Can I accomplish this without it seeming too contrived? Will they resist? Or will they make the effort to imagine what their partner is feeling when repeatedly criticized for past deeds? And will they then be willing to ask if they are on target, to really know the other’s misery and not just their own?

If they can do this, I think they’ll be able to move forward. If not, their children will inherit their pain and learn well from them the art of accusation and blame.


 

Borrowed Clothes

I delight in my Sunday morning ritual. I forgo the usual exercise routine and return to bed with coffee, my cat and the New York Times. But last week, as I hefted the paper onto my lap, I felt a gentle giving way of the fabric at my elbow. It wasn’t because this iconic newspaper was so weighty, but because my sleepwear is threadbare. It used to belong to my husband, Len.

I alternate between wearing the light blue and maroon pajamas he used to wear and have a clear memory of buying them. We were together at a large department store. Although still robust in many ways, Len’s legs were no longer taking commands from his Parkinson’s compromised brain and he rode in a wheelchair, his overall health in steady decline. Our eyes were wide open, but somehow purchasing new clothing was a way of challenging fate. We sustained each other with every touch and at times like these embraced normalcy, pretending there was no end in sight.

Within weeks after Len’s death, I packed up almost all of his clothing and took the collection to Goodwill, keeping only some favorite shirts and the pajamas.

A number of the shirts I’ve kept have leather elbow patches I attached a long time ago, and on some the cuffs have begun to fray. But it is the pajamas, worn nightly, that may be on their way out. I will not give them up easily, for with all of this borrowed clothing I have become something of a cross dresser, cloaking myself with fond memories of the intimacies we shared.

As I write about wearing Len’s clothes, I consider why it is that today women can wear men’s clothing without comment or scorn, no raised eyebrows, while men borrowing women’s styles would immediately raise questions about their sexuality. Do men take a step down when they soften their appearance in any way? While women in men’s garb take a step up? For in my long-ago high school days, it was the fashion for girls to wear out-sized men’s sport coats paired with pleated plaid skirts, bobby sox and saddle shoes. And in the romantic movies of that time, which were rife with innuendo, risqué or adventurous females wandered yawning and barefoot from the gentleman’s bedroom attired in his shirt and apparently little else.

Was a statement being made? As World War II was drawing to a close and women had little choice but to relinquish the important roles they’d filled working on the home-front, replacing men who had marched off to war. Rosie the riveter wore slacks to work. Were the teenage daughters of mothers who had moved into the workplace, if only temporarily, borrowing the power clothes of men a full two decades before Betty Friedan picked up her pen and the second wave of the woman’s movement was launched?

And in the seventies and eighties, when professional women began to enter the marketplace in ever increasing numbers, did they take a step up by trading shapely garments for the cover of severely tailored suits, a visible claim to the authority and power previously ceded to men?  And now, having arrived and more secure in their own right, the feminine figure is again on display, occasionally even a hint of décolletage in the boardroom, and in the Court room. What is that about? For me it is a humorous puzzlement, remembering my early days in Court when even well-tailored pants suits were not allowed.

But with my borrowed clothing today, it’s quite simple. No political statement, just sweet moments of remembering his presence.


 

Slowing Down To Go Fast

They entered my office smiling, an amiable couple in their early fifties. After my introductory comments, I was told that even before deciding to mediate their divorce they had pretty much worked things out. Many agreements were already in place, and I was assured they would make quick work of the issues that remained.

Approaching the end of our second session, Dave, a successful businessman, spoke with authority as he presented the financial plan he’d devised for his wife, Kate, for when she would be on her own. Apparently listening, but quiet and no longer smiling, Kate did not react or respond. I invited her comment. She just shrugged her shoulders. So I asked: need more data?

No answer. I continued: Perhaps you’re feeling apprehensive about what the future holds?

No answer.

Dave turned to me, making no effort to hide his irritation: Wait a minute. You’re putting words in her mouth. She’s fine with this plan. We already talked it over.

At that, Kate came to life:  You don’t know how I feel! I’ll never find a job earning what you say I can earn. Now she is sobbing. Dave sits back, displeased and exasperated. He is a man on a mission who thought the end was in sight.

So, why this breakdown now?

All along I’d been aware of Kate’s struggle to fully understand Dave’s explanation of financial matters that had previously been left completely up to him. Earlier he had pointed out that it was Kate who always paid the monthly bills, suggesting she was therefore savvy about finance. But did this follow? Although her husband treated her with respect and she did not appear distrustful, her anxiety was palpable. Not an uncommon response when the reality of going forward alone is no longer inescapable. And Kate as yet had no job in sight.

Dave’s inpatience would not serve him well. That day he came to realize, as Kate fully revealed her fears about the future, that unless she felt more competent to engage and reason with him, and had employment she could count on, she would likely turn to a surrogate power source: a lawyer, a gladiator, to do battle with her stronger opponent. This could be a very long journey.

We took time out from mediation for Kate to meet with counsel wise in the ways of settlement, and a financial planner with special knowledge of divorce, to take whatever time she needed to fully understand the deal she was about to negotiate, and to become assured she could successfully manage her financial future. She would get the help she needed, but not from Dave. And the job search would proceed before finality was achieved. Kate would even research the possibility of additional coursework to enhance her employability. It meant a delay of some months while these steps were taken, but she was excited now, still wary but optimistic.

I’ve never been comfortable with the cynical comment that if both parties walk away equally unhappy, a good bargain has been struck. Rather, I think, if both are given sufficient time to address their concerns, fully empowered, either alone or with a wise advocate at their side, sound agreements can be reached.

I was confident that before long Kate would find her own voice. And Dave, reluctantly, came to realize that sometimes to go slow is to go fast.


 

 

 

No Need To Explain

How can I explain this to my folks?

This was the question posed by a young friend. Following her husband’s disclosure of infidelity she had sought shelter and solace with her parents. Now after a month-long separation, she’d decided to return to her own home. She and her husband had gained important insights in counseling sessions, both together and on their own, and were ready to repair their relationship.

But in both subtle and direct comments, her parents cast doubt upon her decision. They pressed her to answer their questions. Their anger toward their son-in-law was great, and although at the outset their daughter found this comforting and supportive, she now regretted having shared such a private matter.

My immediate response was: you don’t owe anyone an explanation.

I’ve said this countless times to friends and clients. But her startled reaction gave me pause. Was I just playing out some old rebellious script of my own? My tendency when younger, shared by many women, was to attempt to legitimize my personal decisions with a well-reasoned rationale, particularly if I was rejecting another’s request or opinion. Even declining a dinner invitation seemed to call for an extended explanation. Never a simple: sorry, I can’t make it.

Looking back, I think I failed to note an important distinction between simply giving voice to my choices, stating what I believed to be the best path to take, and the need to justify my choice, to meet some norm of social acceptability. Often I’d hedge, be less than forthright, resenting my need to comply with the standards of others, and wanting to avoid the invasion of my private thoughts. I’d end up feeling somehow at fault.

No longer. Stating a personal preference or decision need not be followed by an effort to legitimize the choice. Responding to a request for an explanation may or may not make good sense, depending on who is asking and how important it is to share underlying motivations with another.

An example of the blurring of this distinction grew to mythic proportion when some prominent feminists faulted Hillary Clinton in years past when she offered what they saw as excuses for her husband infidelities. As I read her words, although attempting to understand what had happened by referring to his early years, she was not seeking to justify his behavior. Nor to seek approval from others for her decision to remain in the marriage.

As for my friend, in the weeks that followed she resolved her quandary. The essence of her considered response to the insistence of her parents that she provide reasons for her decision to rejoin her husband was: I appreciate your concern. I’ve given it a lot of thought and in my judgment it’s the right thing to do. Whatever problems we have will be ours to solve together.

Their questions persisted. She did not waver.

Seeking to explain one’s own or another’s actions in the personal realm, invites appraisal by those whose standards or values may well differ from our own. That is something we can be open to, or not. Our choice, not someone else’s due.


 

An Unrealistic Expectation: Fairness

It’s wonderful to engage with someone who has worked their way out of despair and become optimistic about the future. The enthusiastic woman I met with was preparing a proposal for her departing husband. After months of obviously useful therapy, she had given up lamenting the past and was facing her impending divorce with new found courage, determined to convince her soon-to-be former spouse to amend his most recent support proposal.

The story: this wife had earned a library science degree a decade ago, but now that her status as the stay-at-home parent was ending, she had a new career goal, one that required a return to school. To implement this plan, her husband needed to contribute to her support for a longer period than he had offered.

Her plea to him some months ago was: before the kids were even born, we agreed that I would leave work and stay home full time, to give them a good start. Now it’s only fair for you to pay for my return to school.

His response at that time was: true, that was the agreement we made, but it was never assumed that you would switch careers. The fair thing is for you to help bring in income now.

When fairness is the goal and each party asks the other “to be fair”, what they are really saying is: if you saw the world as I do, then you would agree with me. Since you don’t, you’re unfair.

Pleas for fairness typically fall on deaf ears. Bargaining for subjective concepts of fairness simply pushes people further apart, less likely to reach agreement. So, when you know where you want to go but keep tripping up along the way, it’s time to take a different tack, to be strategic.

This newly empowered woman was no longer stuck in the fairness trap. Still legitimately negotiating to meet her self-interest, here is what she now said: consider this. I know I could return to work in the library, but with 18 months of retraining, I could likely achieve a better salary and feel a sense of real satisfaction in my work. If this is something you’d be willing to help me accomplish, I’d be willing to commit to paying some portion of the kid’s college tuition, as you’ve been asking.

Maybe we all regress to some extent when life is turned upside down, and as a child might whine, with a stamp of a foot, insist: it’s just not fair.

The strategic approach is: here is what I want and here is what I am willing to do, or better yet: if I offered you ABC, would you be willing to give me XYZ? This latter approach has the added benefit of offering to consult on the solution, and acknowledges that the other person has a position worthy of respect.

Advanced consultation, respect for another’s outlook, and a reciprocal offer trumps a plea for fairness every time.

A Perfectly Good Frog

The woman, in her mid-50s, told a familiar story. After much thought, she decided to end her 30 year marriage. Disappointed, she yearned for a truly intimate relationship, one that offered greater sharing of feelings and experiences. The husband she described was someone she still respected and cared about, and there had been neither infidelity nor a clash of values. But she was so lonely, in what outsiders saw as a happy marriage. As I listened, I wondered about the expectations with which she grew up.


          Do young people today believe that the person they choose as a lifetime partner will for ever after meet all of their needs? That was the myth of my youth, literally the fairytale first heard from the Brothers Grimm, then perpetuated by romantic films, and certainly by parents, fearing (before the pill) that their daughters might not wait for Prince Charming. Has that premise changed now that most marriages are postponed a few years, and partners are more mature and relationship savvy? Not from my vantage point.

          Before Len and I were married, when we walked hand-in-hand on the sidewalks of our small college town, I would edge ever closer to him, until before long he was walking on the grass verge. It became a shared joke, the metaphor for my expectation of perfect togetherness. It didn’t happen.

          Although we never stopped seeking the comfort and pleasure of physical closeness, over time, and not without significant angst, (and an occasional resort to the talking cure) we learned to appreciate our differences, and to actually foster each other’s independence. Although we had a rich life together, we also enjoyed many friends and experiences we did not share. My earlier assumptions faded. And a good thing too.

          When a friend or client tells me they are thinking about ending an otherwise good relationship because intimacy is lacking, their contemplation of moving on is so often coupled with the hope, even the anticipation, that the complete closeness they are yearning for will be found with a new partner.

          Hearing this, I harbor a concern that the search for the idealized love will fail.

          We put such a great burden on our mate, to be all things to us, to fill each and every need, when we might be better served by calling upon others when lonely times arise. The road to hell is paved with unrealistic expectations.

          On my desk I have a cartoon I share with some clients, in which Madame Gilda, the fortune teller, is being asked by the seeker of her supernatural powers: how can I save my marriage?

          Madame. Gilda answers, as she consults her crystal ball: stop trying to turn a perfectly good frog into a prince!

Anger: Serve Us Well?

For some of those that I work with, anger is too constant a companion.


          Therapists have helped many to recognize and legitimize their anger. Depression begins to lift and a new sense of self and autonomy is achieved, all to the good. But for a few, who I suspect give up exploring the source of their feelings too soon, a new found acceptance of their outrage is worn as a badge of courage, and it can do them in.

          A mediation example to consider: wife has been betrayed. Husband met a new and now preferred partner. Wife, who had remained at home, had fostered her husband’s successful career, provided fultime care for the children and kept the home fires burning brightly. (For the purpose of this discussion, who did what to whom over the years of the marriage is irrelevant, for as is almost always the case, both parties contributed to the relationship failure.) Wife’s acrimony is now given free reign and fuels her days.

          In the negotiation setting, tempers can flare, quite understandably so. This wife bristles and reflexively rejects her husband’s generous financial proposals, born of his remorse. She meets my cautionary words with: my therapist said I have every right to express my anger. 

          I meet with the wife privately and suggest that her indignation expressed in a therapeutic setting, or to a friend, may well serve a valid purpose, but does not serve her well when negotiating. Whether or not one has the right to be furious is not the point. Reaching a favorable result is. So, I advise: taste your ire, but then become strategic.

          My words, however, fall on unreceptive ears. A quick turn about appears impossible. I urge a return to therapy with a focus on taking care of herself in the immediate situation. But, I know that it may take months of litigation before she is able to recognize that her bitter stance is self-defeating, if then.

          My personal epiphany occurred many years ago when a book by a self-help guru got me on the right track by pointing out that holding on to anger hands over tremendous power to an adversary. The target of our indignation, in a sense, takes control of our life. That was the last thing I wanted.

For me, acknowledging, but then letting go of anger, and seeking an effective solution to the issue at hand, takes back the control I need.

And breathing deeply helps.

When Life Just Happens

Too often it is only after years of sidestepping talk of discontent, that the thwarted desires of partners are openly and seriously explored. So much that might be timely expressed goes unsaid, until it is too late.


          Here is the story a divorcing couple recently told: seventeen years earlier, she’d become pregnant, they married, and she gave up her college plans. He achieved career success, making it unnecessary for her to take a job for pay. As the family grew, they moved to an upscale suburb where the children attended private schools.

          Although she yearned to return to serious study, little was said of this, as obligations at home and in the community filled her days. After a time, he felt trapped in a career he would happily leave, but for the need to support their expensive lifestyle. The immensity  and seeming impossibility of their dreams overwhelmed them, so, although occasionally the subject of aimless late night talk, their dreams were put aside.

Now, with the decision made to part and all passion spent, they didn’t blame each other for the disappointments they openly discussed, both suggesting: it just happened.

Some years ago, a friend introduced me to a small volume, “How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life” by Alan Lakein. It’s one of the many books I never finished, but the early pages contained a suggestion I took to heart.

Following the author’s instructions, each year, usually in January, I sit before a blank piece of paper and without allowing any time for rumination, spend no more than two minutes writing the answer to each of the following questions:

1) What do I want to accomplish over the next five years?
2) What do I want to accomplish over the next year?
3) How would I spend the next six months if I knew I only had six months to live?

I keep my annual lists and from time to time I look back. Sometimes with pleasure I note goals that have been met. Other times I realize that year after year the same objective is repeated without much forward movement. My answers to the third question are least likely to have been implemented. Denial?

I never share my lists with anyone, but many conversations with friends and colleagues are spawned with my aspirations in mind, and projects are designed. Trying to enlist my husband in this specific question and answer process failed. Wasn’t his style. But over the years, my formalizing of goals, long and short term, often led to talk about our dreams and miseries. We gave each other permission and support to initiate change, and many important changes were made.

But what happened to the two people seated on my office couch who spoke of their regrets as they made plans for lives apart? At an earlier time they had great attraction for each other and probably shared many values, yet they failed to seriously talk about or suupport each other’s longings. Their imaginings about a different way of life were defeated before they were realistically explored. What if they had asked each other how steps in new directions might have been taken over the next six months or the next year?

Perhaps each couple, or at least one partner, should go through an annual assessment of what they wish they could do or be, to see if articulating what one hopes to achieve might lead to important disclosures by both of them and support for those ends. Together.

When Talking Is Difficult

Cold weather approaches and reminds me of the recent winter when my car broke down, which proved to be not only a failure of the mechanism, but of my spirit, at least temporarily. For I felt ill equipped to cope with the decisions that then had to be made. This had always been Len’s domain, not mine.  

         I managed well enough with the help of friends, and those who towed and repaired with kind tolerance for my ineptitude, but what a stark reminder of the division of responsibility in our marriage. Although we often consulted with each other, decisions about the purchase or repair of anything with moving parts were left to him, interior design left to me. Insurance, his. Kid’s clothing and wellness care, mine. With career decisions, he made his and I made mine. But major concerns, a possible move to another city, a home purchase, a child’s blue mood, were always talked through to resolution. If memory serves me well, our shared values usually made these conversations easy. But not always.

         When Len, who piloted his own small plane, began to take our young grandchildren aloft, I developed a twitching eyelid and my sleep was seriously disturbed. We tried to talk about it. He was hurt and angry that I would question his judgment, and thought my fears irrational. I thought not, but even if they were, I needed to find a healthy way to cope. We knew this was an issue we had to confront and resolve, but my anxiety and his defensiveness made it a difficult conversation that went nowhere.

         Eventually, we sought professional help, and along the way learned a lot about each other and ourselves. The outcome we reached was a compromise which I gratefully, and he somewhat grudgingly, accepted: he would take another pilot along.

         What the breakdown of my car and these meandering recollections brings to mind is how often, in private, both partners approaching divorce maintain that whenever conflict loomed, too discouraged or unable to talk it through,   they were the one who abdicated the decider role and simply gave in to the other. The moments most clearly remembered are those when dreams were compromised, eroding a sense of self, thwarting authenticity.

         I am aware of this because on the first day I meet with a mediating pair, I speak with each of them alone and ask how they resolved disputes during their marriage. How did they negotiate? Here is the interesting twist. Often each perceives themself as the one who most often capitulated and accommodated to the other’s wishes or demands. As impossible as this would seem, I think the belief is sincerely voiced.

         My friends whose relationships are working well readily acknowledge those areas in which they most likely have the prominent decision making role and those they are willing to leave to their partner. So, talk usually comes easy.

         But in a relationship where hope for a future together is ending, self-disclosure feels risky and talking is difficult, and the yearning to better understand the other is trumped by anxiety or disappointment. 

         Without some intervention, preferably an experienced counselor, dissatisfaction then just grows and grows.  So, of course, the earlier the better.

Contemplate Winning

A confusing truth: when family issues are litigated, it is not always easy to distinguish a win from a loss.

The story: Unhappy together for some time, once the decision was made to end their marriage, the husband moved out of the family home, but he remained determined to have a significant role in the life of his six year old son. The wife, angered by her husband’s infidelity and rejection, repeatedly thwarted his efforts.

Since the child’s infancy, she had managed all of the day-to-day details of their son’s life. She attended the school conferences and met with the pediatrician. Now she resisted the father’s wish to share the status of legal custodian and to spend significant time with their child.

There was a time, however, when she, a registered nurse, was dependent on prescription drugs she obtained illegally. He responds to her resistance by threatening to raise the issue of her addiction in Court.

Both parties have ample ammunition ready at hand to publicly display their private misery, and some of their friends and family urge them on. Each met with counsel reputed to be tough and relentless in their advocacy. A custody contest looms, when a counselor refers them to me.

In mediation, both parties privately acknowledged that the other is a loving and responsible parent. And since his departure, the husband has proven that his new attentiveness to his son has staying power. The wife has already completed a drug treatment program and, through still regularly monitored, has been reinstated in her hospital position. She is the one now called upon to compromise, but she needs time and additional professional guidance to get beyond her bitterness and sense of having falied as a wife. Not easy. He needs to remain involved but slow down, ease up on the pressure and stay calm. Also not easy.

Anxiety is always high as an intimate relationship ends. Will I be forever financially strapped? Will I ever find love again? Will I lose my precious connection with my child? Will another woman take my place with my son? Preparing to do battle may temporarily quiet these voices. Fear sharpens the focus of both parties on all they stand to lose.

This is the perfect time to take a deep breath and a longer view. So, I invite them both to switch gears and turn away from the pain of losing and imagine winning the fight, either through threats and tough bargaining or by convincing a Judge. Contemplate the aftermath of triumph.

These questions emerged:

Will the loser-parent back away from the parenting role?

Will there be a tightening of the purse-strings, less generous support now, and as college plans are made?

Will parental alienation darken the life of one parent or the other, as they continue to denigrate each other?

Will their child, forever caught in the middle of their conflict, be permanently damaged, his loyalty always questioned?

Will their savings and future income be depleted by repeated litigation battles that resurface again and again?

A sobering exercise. And more work remains to be done.

In the effort to regain control during the chaotic times of our lives, it is easy to become mired in misery, anticipating painful losses. Contemplating the results of winning a battle (or even a relatively minor argument), not just the fallout of losing, can actually restore some balance and lead to compromise, and sometimes significant gains.

Howling At The Moon

She sits on my office couch and speaks as if she is not even a participant in this drama, weeping and angry: this divorce is his idea not mine!

I understand her tears. Her marriage has fallen apart, and facing that reality is bleak. But this is our second mediation session, and I must try hard to swallow my impatience as she resists my efforts to move her past this focus on her misery, when I want to talk about her developing a plan for her future. Although reluctant to indulge her mood, I know she needs more time, so I continue to listen, and I hear:

          If only he would be reasonable . . . . .

Somehow I need to make him see . . . . . . .

I never wanted this, so it is up to him . . . . . .

I want to tell her to stop howling at the moon, but remain silent.

Her words are like those often spoken by people whose lives have been tipped off balance, and are desperately seeking to regain equilibrium. The words are actually a plea for change. But it is the “other” who is expected to alter their ways.

So, is it possible to shift, even reverse, another’s point of view?  Maybe so.

Here is her story which illustrates the point:

This divorcing husband and wife were negotiating financial issues. He was adamant about only paying support in the amount his attorney told him a Court would likely order him to pay, and not a penny more. She insisted, and probably rightly so, that he could well afford to provide a greater sum, which would allow her and the children to remain living in their current home.

On the other hand, awash in her own misery, the wife had made no effort to shield their teenagers from the conflict in which she and her husband were engaged, and had portrayed their father to the children and the villain who was forcing them to move. Not surprisingly, his relationship with them was seriously eroded. He was hurt and incensed and blamed her for their alienation.

They were at an impasse, and at the end of our last session, both left in a storm of irritation.

The nest morning, when I returned a call from the wife, she reverted to her now familiar refrain: if only he would be reasonable and provide enough for us to stay here just for the next four years, the kids wouldn’t resent him so.

This time, seeking to keep her engaged, but moving forward, I asked for and received her permission to offer some advice: Sometimes when parties are deadlocked, if one person acts, unilaterally, takes even a small positive step, it can cause an important shift in the relationship. Can you think of something you might do to break this logjam?

Her silence suggested she was finally ready and had heard me.

The next weekend, without requesting anything in return, she invited her husband to dinner with the children, and in their presence she apologized for having unwisely and thoughtlessly placed them in the middle of their parent’s conflict. She said she and their father were both struggling to create good outcomes. He relaxed his stiff posture and by the time dessert was served, tensions visibly eased.

Will this magically bring about the hoped for solution? Hard to say. But there will be an important change in the nature of the conversation, of that I’m sure. There are many bargaining chips still on the table. Talk will commence. Impasse is averted.

Giving up on trying to persuade another to change, when a dialog has broken down, and taking a relatively small forward step oneself, without requiring anything in return,  often generates a positive shift in another’s perspective, and the dust settles in a new configuration.

Apology: Remorse or Maneuver?

A mediation client recently phoned after a session and politely but firmly accused me of favoring a plan put forward by his wife, displaying a bias, not the neutrality I’d promised.

Although I thought his perception wrong, I knew I had likely contributed to this misunderstanding, so I simply apologized. That seemed to clear the air, and we were then able to listen to each other’s view of what had taken place. Defensiveness fell away, for both of us.

But it could have gone quite differently, for I almost mindlessly, and defensively, responded to him by saying: I’m sorry you see it that way.

I didn’t do so because of my heightened awareness of other expressions of regret gone awry: a celebrity, a politician or a radio talk show host places foot squarely in mouth and indicts an ethnic group or gender with evil or foolish intent, and when once again sober or contrite, with great apparent sincerity apologizes by saying: If my words resulted in discomfort or pain, I’m very sorry. Responsibility for the incident is thereby shifted away from the speaker and to the listener, who is presumed to be overly sensitive. Not really an apology at all.

Working with people who have hurt each other in egregious ways and decided to divorce, I don’t often hear an apology spoken. When the decision has been made to part, and anxiety about the future is high, perhaps this is not surprising. Yet, I regret this constraint, for expressions of remorse that take responsibility for acts or omissions, can be so healing and open the door to understanding.

Even under less stressful circumstances, in secure times, some can say they are sorry with ease, perhaps even be too apologetic, when for others, the words of regret remain unspoken.

The different ways each of us convey ideas or express feelings is dependent to some extent on ethnicity, nationality or a special dynamic in our family of origin. These are disparities that too often go unrecognized. The apology also presents an important gender distinction.

Here’s an interesting insight from Debra Tannen, a linguist, author and professor at Georgetown University. She’s written a number of books pointing out the differences between the communication style of most men and women, differences which she observed even in nursery school age children at play. She notes how willing women often are to apologize when things have not worked out well. I’ve noticed that myself, and assumed it simply grew out of women’s greater ability to express feelings, and the reluctance of many men to display emotion. But, according to Tannen, there is more to it than that.

Tannen observes that women tend to focus more on the question: is this conversation bringing us closer or pushing us further apart? Men, on the other hand tend to focus more on the question: is this conversation putting me in a one-up or one-down position?

For women, she concludes, apologies are to be embraced because they reinforce connections, but many men are attuned to the symbolic power of an apology to advertise defeat.

I find this to be a meaningful distinction, although, to be applied fully recognizing that generalizations don’t always fit.


 

Empathy Redefined

To gain insight from experience acquired over the years and pass it along, that is satisfying. But, when applying such wisdom to events in my own life doesn’t work, that is sobering.

            The wisdom: when another’s point of view or behavior is problematic, upsetting or even unacceptable, quiet the tendency to be reactive and stand in their shoes. Empathize. View the situation from their perspective. As a professional helping others, I can do this in a reasonably dispassionate way. And many times I’ve said: once you empathize, you can sympathize with their point of view.

             Not always easy if I’m emotionally involved, but I thought I even had these situations figured out.

            Example: My son and daughter-in-law divorced some years ago. I loved her dearly and still do. She lives far away so we only occasionally visit, but we continue to correspond and speak on the phone. Often she shares her concerns with me and our words flow easily, unless she makes a negative comment about my son. I simply ignore these words if they are written, or remain quiet if they are spoken, and attend to the rest of her message. She is a quick study, so takes my silence into account and we move on, each of us accepting a well-established boundary that only occasionally is crossed, but then renewed.

            So empathy works, until it doesn’t.

            Here’s what happened: I received an email message from a dear friend who lives some distance away, with whom I’ve maintained a close connection over the years. I consider both she and her husband intimate friends, he a former professional colleague of my husband. But now the wife wrote complaining bitterly about her husband’s behavior and attitude. The tone of her message clearly assumed my alignment with her, seeking both my sympathy and asking my professional advice. I was upset, resented being drawn into their personal lives in this way and expected to take sides.

            My initial reaction was not to respond at all, but soon I knew that totally ignoring her message would be too unkind a rejection.

            After mulling it over, I shared my quandary with a trusted colleague: I could not simply accept the wife’s perception of events and offer sympathy and advice without feeling disloyal to the husband, nor was I willing to be drawn into the details of their intimate angst and make judgments about what went on.

              As we talked, some new wisdom emerged: I was confusing empathy with the need to sympathize and become an actor in their play. Empathy, a willingness to understand, does not require agreement or even sympathy, only a readiness to hear and attempt to comprehend what someone has to say, not to embrace it. With that distinction clearly in mind, I was able to frame a heartfelt response that was empathic and not rejecting.

            A bit wiser now, I stepped back into my own shoes. Taking care of myself, I also asked that I be seen only as a friend, which made giving professional advice to either of them untenable. An important boundary was established.


 

Does Love Trump Privacy?

When our youngest child grew up and moved some distance away, I claimed her room and fashioned a space all my own. It was quite small, on the second story of our home with leafy tree branches almost touching the windows, a nest of sorts. There were times my husband came and stood at the threshold to ask me a question, but he didn’t walk in. He never entered uninvited. It was our unspoken understanding, as natural as breathing, that our separateness was respected. This personal background sets the stage for my describing a mediation session in which a privacy issue arose.

     The couple working with me was seeking to preserve, not end their marriage. They had come for help in negotiating some well-defined concerns, because discussions at home had proven difficult and divisive. In the prior week, without consulting his wife, the husband had installed a lock on his home-office door, She was hurt and angry.
     His story: when he was away from home, his wife opened mail addressed only to him. It was nothing of a highly personal nature, but in doing so she learned that his business debt was considerably greater than she had been led to believe. On discovering this, still in his absence, she looked through his desk and files, and eventually explored his computer, where she made discoveries of a more personal nature. When she confronted him upon his return,
he was outraged, and no doubt chagrined. That’s when the lock went on.
     Her story: She firmly believed there should be no secrets between marriage partners, and that she was, therefore, perfectly justified in her actions. He was the one who had much to explain.
    The response I addressed to her was spoken without hesitation, or sufficient forethought. With some fervor I said: But everyone is entitled to a zone of privacy.

    This statement and my tone surprised them, and myself as well. With hindsight I regret the unprofessional way I spoke. I should have posed some neutral questions, not been judgmental. Predictably, the issue did not get resolved in my office, and later, when the wife called to cancel their next scheduled appointment, I learned that after further discussion, her husband had removed the lock from his office door.

     I recalled another client who discovered that her husband had read the journal in which she wrote each morning on waking. She was incensed, even though she’d kept it tucked in her nightstand drawer, readily accessible. Her question: how could he not understand that it was for my eyes only?

      Will these unwelcome intrusions continue to rankle over time? My guess is that insistence on full disclosure, and by some even a demand to know their partner’s innermost thoughts, is more likely to erode than to foster harmony. Are these wounded loved ones likely to become more or less secretive?
Why is privacy so important? We speak of someone “invading” our privacy and the very use of that word suggests a violation of significance. It is an assault on our autonomy, a piercing of that protective skin we seek to keep in tact (so many words of aggression!). Privacy keeps us safe, free of judgment until we are ready for exposure, and then, only to those we trust.

The Anniversary

Should I write of this? Of uninvited, unwelcome images that intrude as I lose my hold on purposeful thought.

            The anniversary of Len’s death is near.

             Ten years ago, as summer was ending, the man who was my love, my companion for more than fifty years, left me. Sometimes that is exactly how it feels. And each year as August approaches I tell myself: not this time, gloom will not have a place at my table. Surely I am wise enough and strong enough not to succumb to these unbidden thoughts.

            During that last year, even as his health steadily declined, we shared an incomparable intimacy. Caring for the body so well known and loved. Touching him, being touched by him, pretending we had many years to go. Sadness and joy so entwined.

            Our marriage was perfect.

            Our marriage was imperfect.

            Exquisite times of closeness

            Brooding times of silence.

            Always respect.

            Always caring.

            We were bound, but free.

            At the end of that August, as soon as my family departed, I returned to my world of work, and at home welcomed solitude and long postponed relaxed times with close friends began again. I busied myself with the tasks that attend such a loss. Notifications sent. Accounts closed. Books, papers, clothing sorted and disposed of or gifted. To one son the music collection, to another the tools, to a grandson the fishing rods and lures. Kept for myself the treasured letters and a few favorite warm shirts.

            Then, as the first anniversary of his death approached, my steps slowed, my throat tightened, and my quiet times became more somber.

Disbelieving, I silently wailed: why should this foreboding of the calendar cast me down? But it did, and it has each August since. Can it be that I’m not the wise and strong person I insist I am? Unable to rise above this annual malaise?

             I consult with a counselor and she says: the very angle of the sun as the same date approaches, casts shadows reminiscent of the days you choose to forget. The leafiness of the trees, the heat, the hour of first morning light, all of these images appear unbidden, and take you back to the heartbeat of that time.

            This I can understand and accept. And can share with others whose intimate losses are known to me. For them too, anniversaries presage low times.

            And I tell them that I now mark the anniversary each year in a significant way. I do not let it pass unnoticed, as once I hoped it would.   

                        A picnic with friends in the park we used to go to as a young family

                        Revisiting art galleries we wandered together

                        A special dinner with an intimate

                        Breakfast at the home of dear friends with some old pictures in hand

            Len and I seldom gave each other gifts, although we often urged the other to buy something yearned for, but that would not be purchased without a push. A painting. An airplane!

             So each year, as the day approaches, I buy myself an anniversary gift, a thing of beauty:

                         A small sculpture of a horse’s head

                         A Marino glass sphere

                         Beautiful Italian soup bowls

                         A tiny Netsuke cat

                         An iPad

            It is a new home this year, which I am molding to please my aesthetic eye.

            He would have insisted.

The Pleasure of Touch

My cat likes to have her ears pulled. Her eyes narrow, and she arches her neck with pleasure as she awaits the next gentle tug. This feline resists being picked up, but curls up in the crook of my arm when I am reading, propped up in bed. She nudges, seeking my touch, and the pressure of her warm purring body is a sweet reminder of the relaxed heft of a sleeping baby.  

             Some months after Leonard died, one of my younger friends took on the role of caring daughter and gave me an unusual gift, a massage by a therapist she admired. When I told her this was something I’d never done before, she said: everyone needs to be touched, and you are now alone.   

            I went, and continue to go every now and then, welcoming this time of complete ease and pleasure. The therapist always begins by massaging my feet, and though I only spoke this thought aloud after many months, when her skilled fingers knead these muscles, I wish I had done this for Leonard, especially in his last six months when he was in bed more hours than usual. For this man whose feet were almost always on the go, it would have been a special way to express the sweetness of old love.   

            It is easier to write of my cat and a masseuse than to write of the sensual pleasures of my marriage, but perhaps there is a point in doing so. For us, the promise of touch was ever present. The gentle pressure of my fingers on the back of his neck as he drove, his hands easing my tensed shoulders as I sat at my desk, holding hands in the movies or nestled together when watching TV. Intimate touching renewed our appetite for life.

            Now, alone, though engaged with others during the day, my patterns and pleasures have changed. I enjoy my solitude, but it differs from a past shared with another. Evenings, I no longer watch programs or movies that I suspect will cause me to feel anxious. When we watched together, leaned into each other, no matter how fraught the media coverage, I was safe, moored. Now I check the internet for newsworthy events the next morning, in the light of day.         

          Often on Sundays I spend some time listening to music we loved, and reread a few old letters. His words and his handwriting almost feel like a touch, a lingering memory of the pleasures we shared, which can quite take my breath away. Then I close that door and reenter the present with a sigh, but no anguish, and knowing I can return.   

            Comfort with touch is tied to family history, and there are those for whom casual touch is foreign, even uncomfortable. Mine was a family in which physical affection was open and easy. Leonard’s family was just the opposite, touching rarely seen. When we were first together, seeking physical closeness I consistently walked him off the sidewalk onto the grassy verge. A lasting joke between us that spoke volumes. I eventually converted him.   

             Lest this become a maudlin description of an idealized marriage, I also well remember the hours, sometimes days, when we didn’t touch, lay back to back and distant in bed, or silently left the house for a solitary walk. But being deprived of touch inevitably brought us to talking, so much was it the glue of our marriage.       

             So why write of this? There is wisdom to be passed along. The importance of touch if infants are to thrive is well established. Now studies are proving the same is true for adults. Breaching the chasm of being alone in one’s skin and experiencing pleasure, or giving pleasure, can lower blood pressure, reduce stress hormones and improve immune function.     

            So, a reminder for those with a loving partner at your fingertips: massage their feet.

Small Talk

I avoid most large social occasions, explaining, or complaining, that my tolerance for idle chat, small talk, is low.
           The friend with whom I shared this view on a recent afternoon as we strolled to our City’s Convention Center, nodded in silent understanding. We were headed for what we knew would be a crowded event and I expected it would call for considerable insignificant chatter before the program began. So, already I was looking forward to the time I could retreat and have the remaining hours of the day be of my own design.
          There was every good reason to be in attendance at this grand gathering honoring eight career women for their major achievements and contributions to our community, for these were people I genuinely admired. Yet, as we wove our way through the arriving crowd and found our assigned table, if I had been asked, (which my more extroverted companion did not ask) I likely would have pontificated that talk should either be intimate and disclosing or purposeful. All else a waste of precious time. My mantra.
         But even before luncheon forks were lifted, I surveyed the festive crowd and took note of how many of those in attendance, including my companion, seemed to be really enjoying greeting and chatting, and seeking to discover connections when introduced to new acquaintances. Thinking about it after returning home, and in the days since, this gave me pause. Should I reconsider my negativity? Was I the one out of step, missing the point? Discounting and avoiding something of value?
          These thoughts brought to mind notes I’d made some time ago after reading about a surprising research finding. An experiment was conducted with law students. Each was paired with another student at a distant school, given only a name, phone number and a set of facts presenting a fairly complex problem to be negotiated during a long distance call. Half of the group at each school was told to conduct a brief (no more than three-minute) conversation on the day before the telephone negotiation session was to take place. In this initial call, they were not to refer to the facts of the case in any way, but simply make small talk, get minimally acquainted, talk about the weather in their respective cities, if they chose, but nothing particularly purposeful.
         Data was later collected from both groups on the settlement success rate of those who had had insignificant friendly conversations the day before, and those who had not. The rate of successful settlements was much higher in the “small talk” group.
         Revisiting the results of this study, I thought back to my idle conversations of the afternoon, and wondered about their impact if those with whom I’d exchanged banter were to meet soon again, with a particular goal in mind.
          In his most recent book, Beyond Reason, Roger Fisher (of Getting To Yes fame) and his co-author Daniel Shapiro, both of the Harvard Project on Negotiation, address the emotional components, both positive and negative, which can be used to advantage, or avoided, when seeking to negotiate agreements. They give significant importance to “affiliation”, the building of personal connections, reducing personal distance with one’s negotiating partner. This is what seemed to have happened with the brief casual exchanges of the law student group with the greater success rate.
          As we were leaving the Convention Center, gliding smoothly along on elongated escalators, I noticed one of my close attorney friends in what appeared to be animated friendly chatter with another attorney who for many months has been her negotiating counterpart in a very difficult dispute. I don’t know how much time they’ve had for idle talk when attending meetings around massive formal conference tables. For now, I’ll hold out some hope their small talk may make a difference. I’ll find out. I may have to shift gears, stop complaining and improve my affiliation skills.

To Go Or To Stay?

Alice rummages in her purse but then pauses, smiles, and remembers that she no longer smokes. It’s a tense moment and she wishes she still did. After a deep sigh, she says: Tim tells me that he just needs some space and is suggesting we try living apart for awhile. What do you think?

For some months now, I’ve been aware that the marriage of my friends was troubled, although Alice was sure they both still valued their bond. Counseling was rejected, her husband determined to protect their privacy and insisting, not without some bitterness, that he didn’t need to “get fixed”. My cautionary words were: if respectful conversations are still possible, give it more time. Separations usually become permanent.

I realized as I spoke, that although invited to give advice, I had no sound knowledge base for my statement, no actual data to support my conclusions, so I added that caveat.

All of the evidence from my professional life was anecdotal. Those who separated and then reconciled did not end up on my office couch, so my evidence was not only anecdotal but also skewed. Yet many of my divorce mediation clients reported having separated for a trial period, sometimes for as long as a year, only to later decide to end the marriage. For many, I surmise, a proposed temporary parting was often a way of letting their partner down easy, suggesting only the need for space, but knowing that their decision to end the marriage was made, and for them was the right one. For others, I believed that the motive was more sincere, a testing time. But what was being tested? Whether solitude was preferable?

I quizzed a friend who had been a Magistrate in the Domestic Relations Court and got another perspective on separations. She commented on the number of dramas that had played out informally in her courtroom where it was revealed that one spouse had asked, even demanded, that the other leave, only to later acknowledge that their real intent was to test the commitment of their partner, The departed spouse had then become happier living on their own, and declined to return. A risky request probably made impulsively at a moment of hurt or anger. I too had heard this scenario a number of times.

I shared my personal experience with my friend, for I well remember those times during my marriage when we were both unhappy, though not always at the same time. It was toughing out those difficult days, struggling for understanding, and to be understood, that repeatedly brought us to a new and better place. Long walks were taken, sometimes together, sometimes alone. There were tearful but also loving times, because we had opportunities to reconnect with spontaneity. While still together we could reach out and touch, smile, or fix a favorite meal, do something to bridge the gap and then begin again to talk. But I know others within my own family who took a different path, lived apart for a time and came back together.

On balance, I’ve come to believe, even without reliable evidence, that when unhappy partners remain committed and respectful, most problems are best worked out in close proximity, ideally with professional help.

Although I know here are exceptions that prove, or probe, this rule, is it not also true that nature abhors a vacuum? How often does the intimacy vacuum created by a separation get filled with new directions, new confidants, and new connections?

Fathers, Present and Past

I’m sure it’s true for all of us: Our personal past informs our professional present.

The father seated in my office weeps without shame. He and his wife have not yet told their 11-year-old daughter that their marriage is ending. For both of them this looms as a painful task, but he is the parent who feels most at risk of losing or diminishing the precious connection to this child. Although much more involved than fathers in years past, because of his work commitments his wife assumed the primary parenting role. Would he continue to have a secure place in his daughter’s life when living on his own and no longer with her for part of every day? He fears he will not. I empathize and want to reassure him, but how?

Later, I search for childhood memories of my own father and realize that, except for his place at Sunday dinners, I have few, for he was usually absent as I was growing up. To keep bread on the table during the Depression years, my father left home before I woke and returned after dark. Then, as our financial fortunes began to ease, came the horrors of the Holocaust, World War II, my older brother’s entry into the army, and the detonation of atomic bombs.  These are the events that I remember commanded our attention when the family was together during my teen years. I left home for college just after the war ended, to return only for brief visits.

Yet, one personal memory remains vivid. When 11 years old, I cut my own hair, snipping off long locks to create bangs. My mother did not hide her utter dismay. But when my father came home and was brought to view the damage, even in the face of my mother’s frowning disapproval, he said: I like it very much. She’s very pretty.

My spirits soared.

An important moment for me, if remembered so many decades later.

The perhaps idealized memory I hold of my father is of a quiet kind man, always with a newspaper in hand, who seemed pleased whenever he saw me. I grew up believing he loved and approved of me unconditionally, a gift fully appreciated only much later in life as I witnessed the struggle of a close friend whose abiding memory is of her father’s relentless disapproval.

I told my client this story in a private moment when next we met, and suggested that his daughter will never forget the important kindnesses he has shown her in the past and will in the future. Though no longer a constant presence in her life, there will now be moments just the two of them will share. Some will be memorable. He smiles but retreats into silence.

The other father I have known well is the man I married. Len strove to be a father like my own, and mostly he was, until he wasn’t. In the early 1970s, as the Viet Nam war raged, the conversation at our dinner table, and on the campus at which he taught, roiled with dissent. The sexual revolution was in full sway just as our teenagers came of age. As parents we sought to a adjust to the swiftly changing times, but were in turmoil, trying to understand but still hold to the standards we then thought sound.

When Len came home one day and found one of our sons upstairs with a girlfriend, in anger he told him it must never happen again, or he must leave. It was our house, so our rules. I silently acquiesced to his edict, agreeing with his reasons, if less sure about the threat, but alert to the rage with which his quick decision was made, knowing some but not all of the sources.

Unwilling to agree, our son moved to a tiny apartment (guess who paid the rent?) until he left for college some months later. But the child grown to maturity learns to place parents in the context of their times and unique personal history. In the years that followed, both father and son apologized, and the relationship became relaxed and loving once again. I share this story with my client as well. Our missteps can repair.

And what is the message from fathers today: anything goes, just stay safe?

On Being Conflict Avoidant

Why is it that being conflict avoidant works quite well for some, and spells disaster for others?

Len and I typically dealt with conflict by retreating into silence. Both of us grew up in homes in which voices were rarely raised. Perhaps intuitively we knew how threatening short-tempered or critical comments would feel. I think that when we withdrew, we were able to mull over and better define what was at stake, and avoid impetuous hurtful remarks which would be difficult to forget.

But before long the yearning to once again be close drew us into intimate talk. Important questions were asked with each of us becoming better known to the other. Compromise, or even yielding completely, became a gift of sorts. And by the time one of us reached out with a tentative touch, the steam of resentment or anger had escaped.

But here’s the twist. With many divorcing couples, their story begins in the very same way.

On the day I first meet with a mediating pair, I talk with each alone and ask how they resolved disputes during their marriage. Frequently both partners say that they hardly ever dealt with differences as they arose. Disputes were pushed aside and either ignored or only brought up in passing, as one or the other was leaving a room. But for them, resentments were stored away for far too long. Important questions were not asked. The steam did not escape.

Another twist. When pressed further about how issues finally did get resolved, very often in private both parties describe themselves as always being the one to give in. The thought each expressed: I just went along to get along.

How can this possibly be the reality? Yet, I think the perception is sincerely voiced. By the time their conflicts are fully acknowledged and take center stage, and they plan a future apart, each believes they accommodated to the other’s wishes or demands, and now look backs and regrets having been submissive, not seen as proof of love, but as a denial of their true identity. And for some, in the days, weeks or months of conflict avoidance, with only polite or mundane exchanges at home, a more sympathetic ear is found, away from home.

What of those whose childhood experiences are completely different, one raised in a home in which disputes were freely aired, the other in a home devoid of confrontation? Do they have an especially difficult time reaching a level of comfort in dealing with discord? Is this something discovered before a commitment is made? Talked over? No doubt it should be.

Oddly, even in relationships that work, both partners often perceive themselves as having been the most accommodating to the other’s wishes. Is it because these are the moments we most remember, when we submerged our own desires, forgetting when the gift of compromise or victory was received? And, when we gave in and just went along, did our loved one always know?

Many divorcing or troubled partners speak of having slowly and silently drifted apart, avoiding difficult conversations. Learning to “fight fair” is sometimes touted as the road to success. Maybe so for some. But conflict avoidance can be a prelude to sweet reconciliations, for those who timely attend to each other’s need to be better known.

Becoming better known to an empathic partner, which ever path is taken, would seem to be the key.

An Unquiet Mind

Can simply reading another’s personal history significantly impact our own?

Kay Redfield Jamison’s book “An Unquiet Mind” was given to me by a friend when I confided that a member of my extended family was exhibiting extreme behaviors. I’d begun to wonder whether I was witnessing the normal range of craziness that accompanies the breakup of a marriage, or a serious mood disorder, perhaps of long standing.

Jamison, a psychologist on the faculty of Johns Hopkins Medical School, is an expert on manic-depressive illness. The remarkable twist in her story is that she has suffered with this disorder since her late teens, although not diagnosed or treated for many years thereafter.

Publication of this revealing memoir in 1995, was made by a woman who had previously gone to great lengths to conceal her condition, knowing exposure would likely sidetrack her career. Then, at some considerable cost, she surrendered her privacy. Although “outing” herself was less risky than it might have been, as she was by then a tenured professor, writing about being psychotic and delusional did cause some of her colleagues, who mostly were supportive, to treat her differently. Some questioned her motivation and objectivity. But not for long.

Her book, expected to draw a limited audience, remained on bestseller lists for five months and sold over 400,000 copies, proving what great hunger there is for understanding when a loved one goes off the rails, and the ripple effect of mental illness on related lives. Others sought insight to their own troubling behaviors.

Jamison describes a time when although medicated, she was within the throes of the dreadful agitation of a manic state. Her work required she back away from these feelings in order to focus on analyzing research data she was preparing for a publication deadline. She needed to gain control over her irrational distorted thoughts.

Her words describing this effort had special meaning for me:

Over many years, I’ve found that asking questions, tracking down answers as best I can, and then asking yet more questions is the best way to provide a distance from anxiety and a framework for understanding.

Jamison’s method can be a prescription for us all. Even those spared the devastation of mental illness fall into periods of mild or moderate depression and anxiety. For me too, asking myself the right questions, and in this way becoming more self-aware, allays anxiety.  So, the answer to the question I posed at the outset of this commentary is surely “yes”, another’s history can have significant bearing on one’s own future.

At this advanced stage of my life, CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), a therapeutic approach I can practice all on my own, actually helps me figure out which questions to ask to manage those emotions which otherwise sweep away rational thought.  But more of this another time.

The Folly of Giving Advice

I’m watching a young family self-destruct. I cast caution to the wind and offer some advice. A foolish move.

The story: Two young physicians are taking part in mediation, ending their five year marriage, and in the process are building a reservoir of misery for themselves and their child. After just one meeting, I thought I knew how they could avert disaster.

He is smart, charming, articulate, qualities that attract, attracted her. But though soft spoken, he is a very angry man. Now that their marriage is ending, his anger, sometimes covert, subtle, disguised, has taken center stage. She says it is what has driven her away, and she sees herself as the victim in their drama.

When his verbal saber slices the air, as he thrusts, she parries. They are frozen in this dance, and are on the brink of waging legal warfare. Their child is young, so they have many years ahead to play their parts.

My ego gets in the way of wisdom, so in private I give him advice: get therapeutic help. Seek the source of your rage, try to understand and overcome it.

My advice to her: with your ardent defensive reactions to his anger, you’re turning control of your life over to the very man you’re trying to escape. Get some help to figure out how you can change your responses. Don’t live with the hope or expectation that you can best him at this game, or that he is the one who will change.

Neither acknowledges nor attends to what I urge upon them. Just the opposite. She pays no heed and changes the subject. He’s resentful and withdraws. My advice may have been sound. Offering it was not.

I step back and examine my folly, and bring my failed experience to a thoughtful colleague. And she says: you’ve stepped across a boundary and taken on a role that is not yours to play. You can’t change their lives with motivation that is yours, not theirs.

Words I might have spoken to another, but did not speak to myself in my rush to rescue them. They had not come to me for salvation.

Good advice may be a great gift, but giving it in a constructive way is an art.   My knowledge of this pair was superficial, their situation far more complex than it initially appeared. An empathic listening connection had barely begun. With meager acquaintance, one cannot know what is best for someone else.

Even with close friends or family members, unsolicited advice is an unwelcome intrusion into another ‘s personal life, suggesting that they are not capable of working out their own issues, a lack of due regard. At least, I should have asked whether my advice was wanted, and posed the question in a way that allowed for either a yes or no answer.

There are some things I can do in the role of mediator (not savior), or as a friend or family member, that might be helpful, and which I may still have the opportunity to do with my young clients. I could share my experience in dealing with anger, my own and in responding to that of another, information they could choose to make use of or simply ignore, but which would not be a show of disrespect. And I could ask questions that would help them arrive at their own solutions, explore possible options and the likely consequences of each path that could be taken.

We all act on what we think is our best course of action, not on what someone else tells us to do. (Especially not on what a parental figure suggests!)

Best we share our own experience, give of ourselves, not advice, and offer our analytical skills. The rest is up to the listener.

The Shame of Illness

Minor ailments were barely acknowledged in my family as I was growing up. Sickness was spoken of as something which, with proper living, could be avoided. The illness of others was often deemed psychosomatic, not without sympathy, but with the underlying message of some hidden weakness that should be overcome.

In my husband, Len’s, final year, I became intimately involved with his persistent pain. He was stoical, but when he left the house for an adventure with a friend, I would assist in placing the Parkinson’s meds he needed in a small pocket container. I noticed when the number of tablets he added for pain relief increased. It made me uneasy.

On our regular visits to physicians, the initial question was often: on a scale of one to ten, how’s the pain? I would be dismayed when Len answered: nine. Scans had shown that compression fractures in his spine were the apparent cause. Although I was silent, I was embarrassed by his admission.

Then, a few years ago, I came across a study which concluded that many people are ashamed to talk about pain, whether it be a passing headache or something more chronic. However, the findings of the investigation were counter-intuitive. Those persons who made the effort to describe their pain in some detail were better able to cope with the pain.

I suspect this relates to emotional pain as well, and I had the research in mind when I was consulted by a young friend whose husband had suffered a mental collapse. The man she dearly loved had become a stranger to her, and was resisting treatment.

I asked whether she had talked things over with family and friends. She had not. Remaining hopeful that somehow her nightmare would reverse itself and all would be set right again, she was protecting their privacy and avoiding the embarrassment of disclosure. And, she reasoned, she did not want to worry her family before her own future plans became more clear.

My suggestion was that she not put off sharing her story. If asked about future plans, she could simply express uncertainty about what lay ahead.

I told her about another friend who, some years ago, had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Within hours she began to tell those who were close to her. I remember being surprised, in part because I suspected my own reaction would have been just the opposite: to tell no one until it became essential that I did so. Upon hearing her news, many rallied ‘round expressing concern and support. That outpouring of attention and care buoyed her well-being. A valuable lesson learned, and now shared.

But, some years ago, at a routine physical, I had a scare. An ultrasound was ordered, followed by an MRI. Then, of course, the wait for results.

Despite my friend’s experience and my advice to another, I made the decision to share this information with no one, rationalizing that any disclosure was premature. But my facial expression belied this determination, and when a close colleague asked why I seemed so distracted, my story poured forth. The next day I told other intimate friends. That evening I e-mailed my kids, giving them the details.

The reduction in stress was palpable.

Soon the reassuring news came that all was well.

Why the initial reluctance to tell anyone?

Was I still responding to the old parental message that illness was in some way a moral flaw, not being the person “mother wanted me to be”?

Well, there is bound to be a next time. The study results, and my recent experience, will hopefully silence my childhood script that illness is somehow shameful, to be denied. Unexpressed fears, and pain, can loom larger than life.

The marvelous truth is that by being self-disclosing to friends and loved ones, we invite others to be equally disclosing when their need arises. It’s a gift to ourselves and others to be able to share bad news as well as the good. We send the message that we will be there for them when it is their story that needs to be told. And, in the meantime, it lightens the step and makes it easier to breathe.

The Intimacy Plea

We’ve all heard it, from friends, colleagues, clients, our own inner voice: the expression of unhappiness because of a lack of the intimacy yearned for, that easy exchange of confidences that validate and smooth out all of the inevitable ups and downs of any close relationship. Some suffer in silence while others become vocal, even demanding. Joint counseling with a skilled professional often seems the logical approach and some partners agree to take that path, even if one of them reluctantly, anticipating criticism for being a wrongdoer, or at best inadequate.

I was anything but immune.

Years ago, when I faced my husband with this concern, he suggested I take the responsibility for drawing him out, since I was the one seeking a greater display, not of affection, but of shared feelings about whatever was going on in his life, and mine. I was told I needed to ask the right questions, at the right time. I tried. It didn’t work. And anyway, he was missing the point, or at least so I thought. This sharing had to be freely given, even sought, by him.

We were once presented with some communication exercises, basically told to repeat what the other had said so as to assure that each of us had indeed been heard. That lasted less than a week.

But here is what did actually work. Not revolutionary, but a definite change for the better. When I asked a question to elicit feelings about one thing or another, I chose a moment when there were no obvious distractions and there was enough time to talk for a while. Not during TV commercial breaks, half-time maybe. The best time for us was breakfast out at a restaurant or traveling in a car in light traffic. He couldn’t get up and drift away, start identifying the birds on the bird-feeder or answer the phone (before the ubiquitous cell phones of today).

But most importantly, I learned that once my question was in the air, I needed to stop talking. That was the key. So many women, hungry for intimacy (and it seems to be mostly women), don’t wait long enough for a response. Some men, (and I suspect many), need to formulate their thoughts before they speak, unlike many women for whom the thought and the spoken word are almost simultaneous.

We have to learn to ask the question and then remain calm in the quiet, and for a time, endure the very vacuum we yearn to have filled.

There Are Other Choices

When I’m with someone bemoaning their past mistakes, I look for the nearest exit. But when I witness folks on the brink of what I believe is a poor decision, I try to keep them in the room and urge consideration of other choices. If they are willing to take the time to listen, I’ve found an approach that usually works.

Here’s the story: Parents whose divorce was final several years ago returned to mediation to decide how best to help their thirteen-year-old son. Previously a fine student, his grades were now sliding, and a new self-consciousness was evident. Eating habits were changing. He was sleeping too much one day and awake all hours the next. More secretive.

The mother is sure that their youngster is seriously in need of psychological counseling and specialized tutors. The father thinks they are witnessing normal behavior and wants to avoid turning their son into a “patient” needing to be fixed every time he stumbles.

He says: He’s fine. Let him make some mistakes and learn from them. I worry that your plan will convince him there’s something wrong with him.

She says: We should be doing everything we possibly can to assure he gets a good start in high school. He needs this help.

Although their focus and concern about their son is genuine, in listening carefully to the nuances of their conversation, I’ve become aware that the mother’s new male companion is a source of as yet unacknowledged tension between these parents.

Back and forth the exchange goes, each presenting reasonable arguments, but steadfast in their own position. By the end of the session, their frustration with each other brings them to despair, convinced they are unable to resolve matters in mediation with a former spouse whose values and view of reality is not shared. Both suggest a return to Court is their only option.

Before they leave my office, I urge them to come back for one last visit, and reluctantly they agree. In the meantime, I’ll talk with each of them privately about what I perceive is adding to the difficulty of their discussion. I could be wrong, but if not, another conversation needs to first be held. Then, as a last ditch-effort, I’ll take them through an exercise taught to me by another mediator: exploring the three Cs. It may seem formulaic, but time and again it has worked, even personally, when I’m faced with a difficult decision.

On a large chart we will actually write down the answers to the following questions:

Circumstances: What facts are actually known about their son’s situation? From trustworthy sources? What additional information could be gathered? From teachers. From their pediatrician. (Can they attend meetings together to avoid later sharing biased interpretations of what they hear?) What changes in their personal lives may be having an impact on their son?

Choices: In light of these circumstances, what choices are open to them? The path mother proposes and father rejects is only one possible choice. What other next steps could be taken? Now they need to be free-wheeling, generating ideas without passing judgment prematurely. That comes next.

Consequences: What are the likely outcomes of each identified choice? Here they may not agree, but the calm deliberation in answering the earlier questions often supports a willingness to experiment and see what happens.

For if, instead, they give up their effort to resolve their issues together, will the Courthouse outcome, many months and thousands of dollars down the road, be more satisfying, even for the winner?

Certainly not for their son, who will have become the heart of his parent’s conflict.

My Mother-In-Law

Wise folks say that gratitude chases away the blues, and for me that brings my mother-in-law to mind, and the promise of spring, for she was born on the 21st of March at the turn of the last century. I was 18 years old when I was introduced to Leora Larsen by Len, my husband-to-be, little realizing then the major influence this woman had already had on shaping my future life.

Leora was only five years old when her mother died of tuberculosis and speaking of the memory of this loss was one of the few times her eyes would tear, for she disdained self-pity. Her father, unable to cope with his young family on his own, placed her in the care of two kindly women who owned a bakery and took in foster children.

Attending school only until the eighth grade, she helped out in the shop and began at a very early age to care for the younger foundlings who followed her into foster care, many of them babies. At the age of 18, she met and married the man who was her husband for over fifty years, and together they raised four children, living for all but a few of those years in small mid-west prairie towns, which during their lifetime became suburban Chicago.

Leora’s role as the full time caretaker of the family was never in question, although stretched to the breaking point when the numbers around the dinner table grew during the depression years, as several displaced relatives moved in under their small roof. Her husband, Merrill, who throughout his work-life was an electrician for the railroad, was a stolid and quiet man, who established the boundaries and direction of their life together, her influence quiet and subtle. As a visitor, I rarely witnessed either of them touch the other, or become engaged in but brief conversations, yet I never had cause to question their mutual devotion or respect, their feelings always closely held.

When I came to know her, Leora wore print cotton dresses of no particular style, hair pulled back to a bun, face free of makeup. She was devoid of vanity. Without flourish or pose, she managed the family’s world. A cup of hot coffee was always on offer in her warm simple kitchen. Only minimal creature comforts in their home were deemed important, except for the babies. Although displays of affection were absent, except for the babies, any family member in need had her swift attention.

Leora expressed a quiet scorn for the messages feminists began to voice in the sixties, a time when I was moving into a profession and away from my singular role as wife and mother. Of that she neither expressed approval or disapproval. Her son’s visible admiration and support for the changing role of women, and of his wife, evoked no  comment. Yet, despite this, I thought of her as having the strength of a pioneer and could readily imagine her driving a covered wagon across the plains.

Len and I and our growing brood visited several times a year. Conversations around the table as the extended family gathered were about the route chosen for the drive from Cincinnati (and the planned route for return), local activities of the day and the weather. Theirs was a like-minded, insular ultra conservative community, which before the sands of cultural change began to shift after World Was II, was purely white and Christian, outsiders suspect.

Throughout my own long marriage, as I came to know his mother better, through Len’s stories of his childhood and our visits over the years, she continued to hold firmly to the political and cultural values of her earlier time and place. With my New York City liberal roots, she and I, a generation apart, were as different in background and world view as two people could be, but from the day we met and ever after, she welcomed me without reservation or criticism as a loved member of the family. An extension of her love for her son?

I’ve often wondered, marveled, how this woman raised the free thinker I married, a man who reveled in and welcomed human differences and disdained exclusivity in any form. No doubt his intellectual curiosity, which perhaps drew him to become a scientist and enabled his throwing off of prejudices taught to him as a child, was a gift from his minimally schooled but intellectual father, yet I’ve always known it was at her knee that he learned kindness, which she offered to all without reservation. And from her he learned to expect great things from women, to respect and admire their strength, traits he found desirable in the woman he chose to marry.

How grateful I am.

A March Blizzard Remembered

Can this year’s mild winter possibly pass without a surprise blizzard in March? It happened in 2008. Warm and cozy indoors, I watched the outer world whiten, filled with memories of another March blizzard over fifty years ago.

My 28th birthday was near as Len and I and our two young sons, six and three, moved into our first home that was not a rental apartment. Although barely settled in, what better occasion to show off our prize, so a party was planned.

When the day dawned, heavy wet snowflakes belied the promise of spring. An unexpected storm, but my Eagle Scout husband was up to the task of greeting our guests with a welcoming blaze in our first ever fireplace.

Minutes after a match was put to the kindling, we knew all was not well. The scent of wood burning, evocative of past romantic campfires, began to fill the house. A delight at first, but soon ominous. Smoke billowed into the living room, little to none drawn up the chimney. As the tiles and mantle began to blacken with soot, doors and windows were thrown open.

I was immobilized. Not so Len. Somehow he wrestled the burning logs into a galvanized tub and carried them to the front yard, now buried in eight inches of snow. Tipping the glowing logs out, great bursts of steam arose, just as our friends arrived on foot from their nearby homes, agog at the drama that greeted their entry into our chilled smoky house.

I’ve often laughed over this memory, but now I’ve been thinking about why this look back brings both pleasure and insight.

Len was always ready to act in a crisis, and it was his nature to be both a protector and a caretaker, which was welcomed by this avowed feminist. The time soon came when he made law school possible for me. As, for three evenings each week, for four years, he took over nighttime child care. Then once I entered the professional world, he listened to my daily stories of victory and defeat. If I felt unfairly treated, he was ever ready to confront my adversaries, actions this avowed feminist declined.

Len, far less verbal than I was about his own feelings and struggles, was sometimes despondent about his career. A scientist who loved university teaching, he felt thwarted by the ever present pressure to seek research funding. I, the more optimistic, would urge him to take paths to alternate satisfactions.

For me, the purchase of our home symbolized stability and commitment to place. He, possessed of a wanderlust and a lover of the wilderness, remained tentative about urban home ownership in the mid-west. Then came the time when my income, from the career he’d fostered, made possible the purchase of a small two-seater plane in which he frequently flew away to yearned for fishing lakes and mountains. Our home became more of a haven, and remained so until his death in the fifty-third year of our marriage

What is the opposite of losing? It is finding. Lost is the delicate balance achieved with a loved partner which the blizzard memory brings into sharp focus, how we grew to rely on each other’s strengths, compensated for each other’s shortcomings, some passions shared, others not.

Found was the ability to perform a new balancing act on my own, while still protected by the love and promise of safekeeping offered by children and close friends, and warmed by gratitude renewed by  reflections on a remembered March blizzard.

Word Power

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, staunch defender of the First Amendment, never wrote a free speech decision I didn’t like. So why do I recoil when certain words are spoken in my presence?

From my perspective, even symbolic speech, armbands worn by protesting high school students, flag burning, etc. should be protected. Expose all that is spoken or written or symbolized to the light of day, and encourage conversation in the “free market place of ideas”. I reject not only government censorship, but most institutional voluntary censorship as well. Of course, I make exceptions for speech or symbols that create a clear and present danger (i.e. shouting “fire” in the theater), and also allow for protection of youngsters from that deemed too frightening or perverse, but little else.

When a young friend urged me to watch George Carlin’s seven unspeakable words routine (a YouTube favorite), I did so and cheered his audacity. And during the last presidential election when Jesse Jackson made angry crude remarks about the then Senator Obama, and his whisper was picked up by a live mike unknown to him, I thought it wrong and silly for the New York Times, applying their stringent criteria calling for “civility in public discourse”, to bleep Jackson’s comments, leaving their readers in the dark (and scurrying for alternate news sources). When obscene language is not relevant to the story, leaving it out makes sense. In that instance, it did not.

So, that’s my public stance, but there’s another aspect to my story:

When two of my colleagues sat chatting in my office discussing a judicial ruling to which they strenuously objected, referring to the judge one of them said “He didn’t have the balls to. . . .” and for two seconds I stopped breathing. I turned to the non-speaker and asked: Were you surprised when she used those words?

His jovial answer: Of course not, although I was surprised she used them in front of you.

By then we were all consumed with laughter, but mine was a bit uneasy.

Yes, I know all the words, even suffer through their endless use in modern film, literature and overheard cell phone conversations, but they have never been part of my vocabulary. Consider that as a youngster all that was allowed by the adults in my world was “heck” and “darn”. Somehow I must project my sensibility, for without ever being asked, perceptive friends and family protect my ears.

My public position and my private reaction do not match. A good illustration of cognitive dissonance. A disconnect between what I believe and how I act. My emotional response belies my intellectual outlook.

Will I be perceived as protesting too much by insisting that I am not a prude. I am not. So, why this inconsistency?

Swear words that don’t reference an almighty being, typically allude to sexual or bodily functions. For those generations younger than mine, repeated use of these words has robbed them of all shock value and probably of any real meaning. Just a way to let off steam. Formerly the province of boys and men, are those girls and women entering the fray letting the world know they are “one of the boys” or has it just become second nature to them as well?

For me, each “forbidden” word is more than an expletive. When spoken in my presence, my privacy boundary is crossed. Unwanted, uninvited crude images are evoked. In some instances the beautiful is made ugly. Is this why for me, but not for those who are younger, they carry the negative impact they do? Perhaps.

Will my new insight bring about a shift, a relaxation? Actually, after viewing George Carlin’s hilarious seven words shtick, I have loosened up a bit. But will those words ever fall easily from my lips?

Not likely.

Speaking of Love

A phone conversation ends in my presence. The final words spoken: I love you.

These three words have become a ubiquitous sign-off, often to a child, but  also to a spouse or partner. There must be a generational divide, for such farewells (except possibly when whispered) were rarely heard in my youth, or even in my middle years. And they leave me feeling somewhat disquieted, the same unease I experience with every passing: Have a good day.

Inwardly, I chastise myself for my cynicism and also wonder at my own awkwardness when my response is expected to these parting words from a dear friend. I usually smile but remain silent.

I was married for so many years to a man who rarely said, but did write those words from time to time, and admittedly I saved the letters and the cards that came with the anniversary flowers. But not being told by my spouse that he loved me rarely gave me much pause, for love was conveyed by both of us in so many wordless ways. The absence of the spoken phrase was not of much import.

But as a sensitive relationship topic, it is pervasive. Witness the number of stand-up comedians and television sit-coms that deal with the apparent inability, or great difficulty, of males to put those three words together in consecutive order when talking with a loved one face-to-face.

Some years ago, I made note of a remark by the stellar actor and playwright, Wallace Shawn. He said: The difficulty of saying I love you is that it presupposes that you know who “I” is and that you know who “you” is. A thought provoking comment.

Does saying the words I love you make you feel a little crazy if just hours later you find yourself greatly annoyed because once again your spouse has failed to meet you on time, or if moments after you speak the words to a child, you display what seems like irrational anger at a disrespectful remark? What if these words of endearment spoken in the morning, are followed by your partner bringing a friend home for the evening without advance consultation, and you have neither the energy nor the inclination to be entertaining.

The scenarios are infinite. Who “I” am keeps shifting and who “he” or “she” is does as well. Which is the real “you”? Which are the true feelings? Is it safer to avoid the verbal commitment and not later have to meet ambivalence head on?

If the words are spoken too often, do they lose their meaning? Or do they serve as an important reminder, especially in the bad times? Does saying those words come more easily to those of different heritage? Do the French, do the Italians, speak more freely of their love, and if so, does that mean they are indeed more sincerely loving, or less?

A world of questions. I can only conclude that for some the words bring discomfort and for others great pleasure and reassurance. And for many they may have lost all special meaning and become as proforma as simply saying “good-bye”.

By me, the words are rarely spoken, though sometimes written, and then meant most sincerely. I, after all, was married to a man named Larsen, whose ancestors came from a northern land of short days and long winter nights. I fondly recall the day he turned to me with a wry smile and asked if I’d heard the one about the Norwegian farmer who loved his wife so much, he almost told her.

Just Don’t Ask

My husband was of Norwegian descent. He wrote with eloquence, but except when teaching was a man of few words, and could comfortably go for long periods without speaking at all. In the early years of our marriage, I was often unsure whether his silence conveyed unhappiness. So I would probe, ask a question, and then another, but at these times his sparse responses served to close not open the door to understanding.

I talked of this with a psychologist friend, describing my inability to penetrate his mood. Her response: you need to learn some new dance steps. Stop asking questions. Just tell him something about yourself, only a few sentences, and no accusations and see what happens.

It worked. A brief back and forth began and he shared a few important words. The next day, my new steps were repeated and a bit more disclosure followed, and we both were more at ease.

Recently the occasion arose to offer this wisdom to another.

The newly separated father and mother seated on my office couch came in to address his accusation that their seven-year-old daughter was being turned against him. Despite his efforts to engage her in conversation, she was unwilling to talk with him in any meaningful way. He believed this was all his wife’s doing.

So, I suggested: You need to learn some new dance steps.

At the start of his assigned weekend, the father picked up his daughter at her school. We deconstructed the usual conversation they had as she climbed into his car.

He: Hi sweetie, how was your day?
She: Fine
He: Learn anything new?
She: Not much.
He: Any good friends in your class?
She: Um hum.
He: So, play with them today?
She: Yes.
He: What sort of games?
She: Oh, just stuff.

Now frustrated, he would shut down, angry and hurt, and they rode along in silence until reaching his home where his daughter would shower affection on the dog, turn on the TV and cuddle with her pet. He felt the outsider. This conversation dance would repeat many times during the visit.

Bringing to mind my past experience with a sometimes silent partner, I suggested: Try this: Stop asking questions. Just talk about yourself, nothing too profound and not accusing or in any way critical. Maybe talk about what happened to you earlier in the day. But no questions.

He was smiling upon return for their next visit to my office and reported: Amazing! Picked her up at school. No questions. Told her about the pizza I had for lunch, made with anchovies, which I hate, and what a time I had dislodging them from the layers of cheese. She told me about the yucky salmon patties served in the school cafeteria and how one of the boys started tossing them around and got into trouble and that she knew his older sister who was stuck up. So, I told her about a woman in my office who was stuck up, and she asked why I thought people got that way. We had a great talk.

Hard to know what this youngster’s feelings were when she left school with her father instead of returning to the parent with whom she was perhaps more comfortable. What subliminal message did she carry from her mother? Did his being the one who left their home feel like abandonment? Was she at fault for what had happened? No easy way for a seven-year-old to address these issues even for herself. Was closing the door on his questions a perfect defense against revealing a confusion of emotion?

No monumental disclosures were made, but tensions eased and the possibility for real talk was there again. So, refraining from asking questions of those who are withdrawn, young and old alike, and telling your own story, may be the best step to take.

Some Thoughts To Reconsider

Never a fan of televised sporting events, there was a time in my past that I pretended to be, just as a way of sharing cozy moments with my  husband. I wasn’t a complete fraud. I could get caught up in the ballet of basketball or the graceful beauty of skiing and skating. And, although I found football a bore, I loved watching the post touchdown hugging, and even the congratulatory slap of the rump.

I’m used to seeing women embrace when they greet each other in a social setting, while most men show greater reserve and shake hands. Something about seeing men lose their restraint with other men, joyously sharing a celebratory bond, I find heartwarming. Sporting events used to be the only time I witnessed this, except among close family members. And in many families, the male embrace, even between fathers and sons, remains awkward or absent.

But over the past ten years or so, this stereotype, that women are more physically expressive in a joyous moment, began to fade. I still vividly recall when, in the televised view of millions, President Bush, just before addressing a joint session of Congress, exchanged bear hugs with both Senator Daschle and Representative Gephardt. Those hugs were worthy of comment on the front page of the New York Times the next day, so at least then, men hugging in public outside the sports arena, was remarkable. Less so today.

Other gender stereotypes have also fallen by the wayside. Here are some I now often witness:

As more and more women entered the marketplace over the last 35 years, many men began to significantly share the care of infants and young children and found the role of nurturer as natural and rewarding as women have over time. These fathers are modeling for their sons and daughters that men and women alike can provide tenderness and comfort.

Many of the women who happen to have the higher income when couples divorce are no happier paying alimony than most men ever were. Those who’ve accumulated larger pension funds than their divorcing husbands often fail to see the fairness in having to share them with their spouse. They are likely to use the exact same rationale so often previously expressed by men: I’m the one who worked so hard to earn it, surely it is mine alone to keep.

Clearly, economic savvy and self-interest is not gender specific.

Women entering scientific fields so long dominated by men are proving, just as those who entered the legal profession have done, that they are as able as their male counterparts. Whether women are equally comfortable in the competitive arena is far less clear. I think not yet.

How often do we thoughtlessly accept, even act upon, stereotypes distinguishing the characteristics of men and women, the generalizations we grew up with, that men are more analytical and less emotional, that women are more nurturing, more intuitive? I leave it to scientists now bent upon identifying those sectors of the brain that light up to display different functions to catalog the impact of male and female hormones on behavior. For now, our assumptions bear reexamination.

I hope that women don’t diminish the importance we place on being expressive and fostering intimate relationships, as we break through the glass ceiling and become more politically visible. The negative impact of social isolation on both brain and body is scientifically well established. So far better, from my perspective, for it to work just the other way round, with men more comfortable expressing their feelings and loosening their hold on cool reserve.

The Throwaway Line

I did not realize anger was in the room until they were walking out the door. A step ahead of her, looking away and with an edge to his voice, he said: It’s time for you to just get out.

Was I meant to overhear these words? I wasn’t sure, but they surprised me. Only moments before, as their first mediation session ended, they had reached an agreement to postpone the decision about which parent would remain living with the children in the marital residence. In my presence, they concurred that for the time being they would both remain under the same roof.

For fifteen years these marriage partners had struggled to draw closer, but the husband’s bout with depression tipped the balance and appeared to be the catalyst for their mutual decision to end the relationship.

During the first hour we all met together, and they were amiable and calm, nodding and smiling in affirmation as each spoke. This negotiation would go smoothly, or so I thought.

Then I met alone with each of them during our second hour. With chagrin, the husband revealed that over the past year his wife had literally turned her back on him, even cringing at his touch. He knew it was time to move on. I asked about counseling, but although he’d sought treatment for depression, now they both rejected that path. He was sure that with autonomy would come the return of his emotional equilibrium.

The wife’s immediate concern, spoken in confidence, was her husband’s outbursts aimed at their troubled adolescent son. She feared that when she was no longer present to step between them, their belligerent exchanges would escalate.

The comment he made as they left my office, almost as an aside, confused me. On its face it made no sense, a perplexing contradiction of how they had presented earlier. The situation was not as it seemed, both of them on their good behavior in my presence, but in turmoil just below the surface.

I’m no stranger to an apparently casual but cryptic message that actually carries import. My husband’s oft spoken throwaway line was usually addressed to my back as I worked in the kitchen or sat at my desk: I’m going out for a walk.

Was that an announcement or an invitation? Unable to read his mind, I would nod, silent but hurt, feeling excluded. Over time and after some difficult conversations, I learned to ask: On your own or do you want company?

He usually did. But not always. When he returned from a solitary time away, he was often ready, even eager, to talk things over. His earlier statement, as he turned to leave, was more than a casual aside. Obliquely it let me know that either companionship was being sought or that he needed to mull over an as yet unspoken concern. An important though unclear message when, for whatever reason, more direct communication was difficult. For the two of us, ever seeking a balance between connection and autonomy, this somehow worked.

My clients are not seeking a way to come together but a way to part. When they returned, I asked the husband to clear up the meaning of his hostile words. It opened the door to important stories and even provided an opportunity for each to empathize with the depth of the other’s disappointment.

Throwaway lines. Spoken into the air as someone is walking away, offhanded and ambiguous. Attention should be paid.

Mother Always Loved You Best

The woman’s name announced over my office intercom was vaguely familiar. As I lifted the phone, she said: You may not remember me. It’s been seven years since I, my mother and my sister worked with you. Now my sister is dying and refuses to see me. Can you help?

My failed mediations remain a more vivid memory than my successes, and as soon as she offered this bit of background, I remembered her well.

Some years ago, a friend of a friend had called me to ask if I could mediate a problem that was tearing her family apart. Months earlier, having reached the age of eighty-five, she had disclosed to her daughters that she planned to leave her sizable estate to them in equal shares.

The older daughter was incensed. Living on the west coast, divorced and without children, she had achieved considerable success in the film industry and was financially secure. Although fully engaged in a demanding career, she maintained close contact with her mother.

Her sister, a gifted student in high school and college, married young. She and her professionally trained husband raised five children on a small subsistence farm, home schooling their youngsters and neither had pursued paid employment. The mother lived nearby so witnessed the unmet needs of her younger daughter’s family and regularly helped out financially, eventually even paying the college expenses of her grandchildren. A substantial sum, never tallied, had been contributed over many years. The older sister had always accepted her sibling’s life choices without rancor, but believed, from comments her mother had made in the past, that in the end a balance would be struck. She expected to receive a larger share of the estate.

Now her memory of that commitment was questioned. Family discussions became bitter. The mother wavered. Her every effort to soothe or develop compromise solutions only evoked more anger from one daughter or the other. She was distraught.

I agreed to try to help and the three women came to my office. The chill between the sisters, both in their early sixties, was starkly evident. Grim faced, they avoided eye contact and looked past each other even when in the same room.

Two lengthy mediation sessions were held but to no avail. Despite developing a number of options that could to some extent address the unequal gifting, the sisters remained positional, both insisting they were standing on principle. The older demanded a year to year accounting of the contributions to the younger and her family. The younger flatly refused to develop such a record, and was adamant there be no change from the plan for equal shares. Each addressed their mother’s anxiety and sadness with loving gestures, but no deference. My suggestion that they meet with a family therapist was spurned.

I raise a cynical eyebrow when someone says: It’s not about the money, just the principle involved.

But in these circumstances, it really didn’t seem to be about the money. It seemed to be about preferential love, about allowing old childhood jealousies and rivalries for affection and approval to sweep in and supplant mature behavior, even at the expense of the physical and emotional well being of a loved elderly parent.

Barring mental incompetence or significant evidence of undue influence, neither suggested here, aren’t parents entitled to autonomy and respect for whatever decisions they make about how they choose to use assets during their lifetime, and the disposition of their estate?

The story I tell here does not have a happy ending.

I learned that the mother had died some years before my being contacted once again, and that she had not changed her plan to leave her estate in equal shares. Since then neither daughter had spoken to the other.Then came news of the younger sister’s terminal illness. My offer of intervention at the request of the older sister was not accepted.

I try to stand in the shoes of each daughter and wonder why they found it impossible to look beyond the immediate conflict, and make choices less destructive of the family. Is this simply not possible when overwhelmed by the belief that “mother always loved you best”?

The older daughter called again before leaving town. The reconciliation she sought had been refused. I did not ask whether she looked back at their bitter contest with regret, but I know the answer.

A Troubled Friend

One of the great joys of getting older are friendships that span decades, being so well known, without the need to defend when feeling vulnerable or when weaknesses are exposed, and able to offer the same unqualified acceptance to another.

Paul and I talk often since the death of his wife four years ago, she a good friend as well. In his early seventies, retired and in robust health, last year he’d become intimate with another woman, and reveled in his new found love. She, eight years younger and still engaged in her work, had also expressed delight about their coming together.

But now the bloom was fading.

We met to share a meal and his description of their recent conversations was disturbing. Her angry outbursts, not experienced early on, were now frequent. His phone calls were not returned for days and should he call a second time, he was berated for being too intrusive. Yet, he persisted. He seemed completely captivated, and unwilling to give up this connection, but the puzzling unpredictability of her behavior was causing him anguish and many sleep-disturbed nights. He’d been losing weight and wasn’t looking well.

I offered only a listening ear having learned long ago not to take on the role of armchair therapist with troubled friends, though I urged him to consult a skilled professional. Initially he resisted the idea of seeing a “shrink”, but eventually he did and let me know he found the experience both reassuring and enlightening.

Yet, the abusive (my unspoken view) relationship continued.

When we met again, he talked of having gained insight into her behavior. This awareness allowed him to view her actions as less a function of who he was, and more as a serious deficit of her own. He and his counselor were also exploring why he accepted such harsh treatment so willingly. The question he asked me was: How does becoming more self-aware translate into being better able to cope?

For he was still often miserable and mired in the past, reviewing and dissecting their conversations and the pain of rebuke.

Now I did have something I wanted to offer, so all caution put aside, I told him that some years ago I was introduced to and read widely about cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and over time learned how to practice it for myself at times of anxiety or mild depression. About this I unashamedly proselytize, so I said: You claim your emotions have been pretty much out of control. Now that you are more self-aware, you can examine your reactions to disturbing events and identify the thoughts that arise and determine your mood. The trick is to question whether those thoughts are flawed in some significant way. For example, are you drawing conclusions by assuming you know what is in the minds of others? Are you predicting the likelihood of future events without sufficient evidence? Does a single event push you into all of nothing thinking? These are distorted ways of thinking, not rational thoughts that can lead to a sound plan for the future. You may now be ready to do this analysis.

It all sounded good to me, even if a bit academic. But from Paul I just received a quizzical look and a cautious: Maybe.

Weeks passed before we met for an early breakfast. I learned the relationship was finally dwindling, though not yet ended. But my friend has a new tone in his voice, his bearing is more erect and I note that the future tense has crept back into his conversation.

No mention of CBT as part of his repertoire. I will give up on that pitch for him, as I have with others who smile and nod at my ardor and soon change the subject. A lesson learned, again.

Take It Or Leave It

The eyes of the woman seated on my office couch brimmed with tears. At my request her husband left the room for a few minutes.This was their third mediation session and they’d been making steady progress, inch by inch, working out the terms for ending what had become a joyless marriage.

The decision to part had not been made lightly. For a time they see-sawed back and forth, and tried with a skilled counselor to reverse the downward slide. But now both seemed sure they were making the right decision. And once that direction was clear, a measure of calm had returned to their home.

So, I had no reason to believe that their negotiation would not continue to evolve in a positive way, although their property settlement was complicated by the need to assess the worth of the husband’s business. They had chosen a valuation expert but he had not yet submitted his report.

On this day, it became apparent at the outset that the husband’s patience was spent. Just moments into the session, he abruptly presented a global settlement proposal and then forcefully said: This is it, take it or leave it!

His wife was surprised, remained silent, and looked to me for rescue.

When we were alone, I asked: do you know what brought on this change, the ultimatum?

She shrugged, but understood my question. She reported that after breakfast that morning, he had opened the invitation to their college reunion which had arrived the day before. Her husband had been a star athlete, the proverbial big man on campus. That was twenty years and thirty pounds ago.

While he steadily climbed in the corporate world, nothing had matched those glory days. The reunion invitations sometimes triggered a few days of gloom. Now it appeared to have enhanced his “is this all there is” mood, which was, in part, the rationale for ending the marriage. Perhaps, she thought, this was what had sparked his change in  demeanor.

We explored her choices in light of his having thrown down the gauntlet:

1) Reject his proposal outright, which might mean terminating their negotiation.

2) Present the argument that his position was unreasonable and try to convince him to await the valuation report.

3) Let his demand pass without comment and help him find a way back to the table.

After my brief chat alone with the husband, in which he disclosed little, I invited him to return to the room where his wife awaited. He sank heavily into the other end of the couch, his large frame somewhat more relaxed. She turned to face him and said: I’m not sure, but I think I understand how you’re feeling.

The slightest nod of the head from him.

I shifted to talking about documents that still needed to be collected, and we made a plan for appraising the house. No mention of his edict was made by either of them, or by me.

The temptation is so great when we are verbally threatened with a “take it or leave it” demand, to respond in kind, sparking further escalation. The emotion that triggers such a thrust may be provoked by a barbed remark or perceived slight during the negotiation. But, sometimes, as was the case here, outside events cause an emotional state that can be ignited by a seemingly innocent comment. Here it had happened so early in our meeting, an outside source seemed likely.

Meeting an ultimatum by probing to understand the underlying cause, rather than confronting it head on, can preserve the path to eventually reaching agreement. Then taking a short time out and simply evading or side stepping the challenge, allows the belligerent one to calm and save face. Forward motion can then resume.

As they rose to leave, the wife addressed her husband: Thanks for thinking things through to the point of designing a proposal. Talk it over next time?

His response: Works for me.

No smile, but I knew we were back on track.

Parental Debate Cancelled

He said: If only I could make you see, convince you of the harm you . . . . .

In frustration he stopped talking, his jaw clenched. Seated on one end of my office couch, he turned to face his ex-wife, eyes pleading for her understanding. Staring straight ahead, her body rigid and poised to respond, her words were clipped: you just don’t get it!

This father of two pre-teenage children complained that his ex-wife was so overly protective that their youngsters were growing up fearful about taking even the slightest physical risk. He had arranged for them to go on a canoe camping trip, which he assured her would be well supervised. She remained anxious and refused to give them her permission to go.

In an effort to convey to me the irresponsibility of his past decisions, she reported that he repeatedly ignored the children’s serious health issues, citing a recent example: when their daughter had a temperature of 101, he had allowed her to go swimming.

Our standards for child rearing usually mimic those of our own early experience. No doubt, if motivated, we can open ourselves up to learning new ways, but being willing to change is not likely when defending against verbal attack, or even a gentle disparagement of our behavior.These parents really needed to sit back and listen to each other’s concerns and give up on the thankless task of reversing another’s decision by forceful argument.

Both parents were on the brink of returning to Court, but for now were willing to try talking about their differences. Several years earlier they had spent a few months mediating to resolve their divorce issues, and had built up some reserve of trust. So, maybe they could find a way to get the other to shift their thinking. And once calm was restored, they did.

Reminded that their own self-interest lay in meeting the interests of the other, after some venting they were able to relax a bit, listen and look for ways to stop the alienating debate. They came to an understanding, if not acceptance, of each other’s point of view.

Ultimately here was the compromise:

Father agreed to provide detailed information about the supervision the children would have during the adventure he’d planned. He would collect the names of all the parents whose children had taken the trip the year before and help mother contact as many of them as she wished. She was also to have the opportunity to speak directly with, or actually meet, the adults who would be in charge.

Mother agreed to provide a list of illness symptoms that would trigger father’s obligation to check with her before allowing the children to take part in special activities he had organized. Then, if unable to reach an accord, they would follow the advice of their pediatrician.

Were these parents changing their views in any essential way? Hardly. But they were accommodating to each other’s interests in a way that ultimately met their own. Not perfectly, but close enough. Until the next time.

And they presented an example for me to recall the next time I think I can change another’s mind by simple force of what I believe is a sound argument.

The Second Question

I talk to people in elevators. Even unfamiliar faces open to a smile with a passing comment on the weather and the question: How are you?

Almost invariably the answer is: fine.

And we part wishing each other well.

A graceful verbal pas de deux.

When shopping some weeks ago, a woman approached me, familiar, but out of our usual context. In but a second there was recognition, she a physician I see annually, I a patient of long standing.

My smile met hers and she asked: how are you?

My response: fine.

Then she asked the second question: Really fine?

No longer an elevator conversation. She moved beyond the pro forma query and the automatic response, not settling for the dance.

As it happens I was in good spirits, so reaffirmed my initial answer. But later, I recalled her second question and realized I was grateful for her persistent interest. It caused me to consider how often I ask only the first question, even of close friends and family. Too busy, or self absorbed, or maybe would rather not know?

Why rather not know?

On reflection, I’ve gained some insight: when our kids were young and became ill, I snapped into action, and took charge of their recovery with a purposeful ease. I had the power and control to select the right doctor and administer the care that would make them well. This was the role a mother should play and I did. Taking over in this way, my anxiety eased.

But years later, when our children were grown and independent, a major medical issue arose for an adult son. It was my husband, Len, who became the more attentive parent when surgery was scheduled, traveling alone some distance to be with our son. It was Len who frequently called to ask how the recovery and follow up treatment was going. I waited to be told and was to some degree avoidant. No less concerned, but now with the decisions ceded to others, my anxiety grew.

I think this is why: Len could listen and be empathic about a problem faced by one of our kids, without believing he had to influence the outcome. Not me, I slipped back to my old mother script, longed to protect even grown children and reestablish their equilibrium. But now I had no ability to do so. A new boundary was acknowledged, and no longer in charge, worry took over. My withdrawal at the time of crisis was self-protective.

It has taken me far too long to learn that simply listening, seeking to understand and expressing sympathy is enough. No need to offer the right advice and take responsibility for the outcome. And giving up that mandate, which still requires a mindful pause, in time restores calm.

Now I ask the second question more often, of friends and family, Sometimes, I will even ask the third question: anything I can do?

I expect the answer will probably be: no, but it’s good to talk it over.

Just the asking brings comfort, for both of us. And on these new terms, I really do want to know.

Remembering My Other Mother

I write in the month that my other mother died at the age of ninety-nine. Vicki was my father’s kid sister, the aunt who was happy to take me in when I ran away from home.

When I was twenty-two, she was in her early forties, ten years younger than my mother. Len and I, already married for two years, had just graduated from college and he was soon to embark on an advanced degree. For both strategic and financial reasons, he was spending the summer in the Nevada desert as field assistant for one of his soon to be Columbia professors. I was newly pregnant so this was not a good time for us to be apart, but I had a safe haven, parents who happily welcomed me home to await my husband’s return.

This college graduate, wife and soon to be mother, became a child again, worse still, an adolescent. My mother was a loving and generous woman and in recent years, with miles between us, we got along very well. Now, returned to living under the parental roof, I bristled as she suggested improvements: a haircut, perhaps a blouse of a more becoming color, a more cheerful presence.

Of greater moment, I was unable to put aside feelings engendered just weeks before when Len and I, pressed together in a street corner phone booth, had called with the exciting news of our expected baby, a first grandchild. Vivid in memory was the question she asked: was it planned?

I fled to the small white cottage of my aunt in Lakeville, Connecticut. Vicki was then employed as an editor at Doubleday, and commuted weekly to New York City, returning home laden with manuscripts of aspiring authors. Recently divorced from her doctor husband (he still beloved in our family), she was raising her young son on her own. Divorce was then a rarity, and though unspoken, the family assumed she must have been at fault.

My mother and my aunt were loving competitors, first for my father’s affection (and of course, my mother won that round) and then for mine. Vicki was delighted to harbor her runaway niece, no doubt pleased to be the winner of this tug of war. I was offered entry into the excitement of the publishing world and a glimpse into the life of an independent career woman, sophisticated and defiant. But most of all, I was given unconditional acceptance.

Over the next thirty years, our relationship thinned as we each moved to distant states and she remarried. We became close again many years later, after my mother’s death, but my mother won the middle rounds.

How grand to be welcomed and loved without reservation by an other mother, with the accumulated wisdom of the generation before. Tender care without the admonitions or questions that all mothers must labor to suppress once their children are grown.

I expect many can identify those adults, aunts, uncles,neighbors or teachers, who have taken on the mantle of wise elder without the tensions inherent in the ties that bind parent and child.

Love and protection, offered while having no investment in another’s perfection, can be a wonderful gift.

An Anniversary

Should I write of this? Of uninvited, unwelcome images that intrude, as I lose my hold on purposeful thought.

The anniversary of Len’s death is here.

Nine years ago, as summer was ending, the man who was my love, my companion for more than fifty years, left me. Sometimes that is exactly how it feels.

Our marriage was perfect.

Our marriage was imperfect.

Exquisite times of closeness.

Brooding times of silence.

Always respect.

Always caring.

We were bound, but free.

During that last year, even as his health steadily declined, we shared an incomparable intimacy. Caring for the body so well known and loved. Touching him, being touched by him, knowing, but pretending we had many years to go.

Sadness and joy so entwined.

At the end of that August, I returned to my world of work, and at home welcomed solitude. Relaxed times with close friends, long postponed, began again.

Then, as the first anniversary of his death approached, my steps slowed, my throat tightened, and my quiet times were somber.

Disbelieving, I silently wailed: why should this foreboding of the calendar cast me down? But it did, and it has each August since. Can it be that I’m not the wise and strong person I insist I am?  Unable to rise above this annual malaise?

I consult with a wise counselor and she says: The very angle of the sun, as the same date approaches, casts shadows reminiscent of the days you choose to forget. The leafiness of the trees, the heat, the hour of first morning light, all of these images appear unbidden, and take you back to the heart beat of that time.

This I can understand and accept.

I now mark the anniversary each year in a significant way. I do not let it pass unnoticed as once I hoped it would.

A picnic with friends in a park we used to go to as a young family

Revisiting art galleries we wandered together

A special dinner with an intimate

Breakfast at the home of dear friends with some old pictures in hand

Len and I seldom gave each other gifts, but often urged the other to buy something yearned for, but which would not be purchased without a push. A painting. An airplane!

So each year, as the day approaches, I buy myself an anniversary gift, a thing of beauty:

A small sculpture of a horse’s head

A Marino glass sphere

Beautiful Italian soup bowls

A tiny Netsuke cat

It’s a new home this year, which I’m molding to please my aesthetic eye.

He would have insisted.

The Dream Divorce

They were smiling when they walked into the room. As mediation began, each echoed the other’s commitment to be fair and amiable throughout the process.

Fantasy.

After months of anguished talk, tears, recrimination, and efforts to be forgiving, they made the decision to end their marriage. Together the night before, they told  their children. The kids said little but both parents thought it had gone pretty well.

Maybe.

Alternately, with similar phrases, they described a new found sense of well-being. The scariest of demons had now been confronted. Facades maintained at great personal cost could be dropped. There was nothing more to lose.

Surrender.

I was reluctant to be the one to bring them down, but I knew the crazy-making days were not over. Difficult issues were bound to arise. The standards of fairness to which each of them aspired would diverge, even clash.

Reality.

As the weeks passed and their negotiations continued, they were able to agree in almost every respect about how they would share time with and take responsibility for their children, proving my predictions flawed. But then the issue of support arose. How would he provide for her from his considerable income, and for how long? Lips tightened and faces grew grim. We shifted the discussion to the  preparation of budgets, looking to the future. He, who had rarely shopped for groceries and never for children’s clothing, scrutinized her figures and saw ways that she could cut back. Her response: you’ve got to be kidding! His response: get a job!

Anger.

I knew they would work through this difficult phase and told them so, but it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. They were moving into their separate lives. He needed to give up his past ability to influence her spending and be realistic about her earning potential. She needed to give up her determination to maintain her financial status quo without reentering the market place.

Autonomy.

Now they faced the reality of their contrasting values and plans. Multiple options were proposed and discussed, signifying greater understanding, although sometimes still tinged with anger. Slowly they moved towards compromise.

Bargaining.

Then this insignificant but seemingly insoluble issue raised their ire, and blocked completion of their task: pending sale, who would maintain the monthly fee for the time share neither now wanted.

Impasse.

Experts describe this shift as an attempt by one or both to actually put off ending the relationship. The devil you know may be better than the devil you don’t know.

Hesitation

Anxiety about the future was real. Would she find a meaningful job? Would either ever find love again? When their children were absent, would loneliness pervade their lives? Their dream divorce really was a dream. But when they woke up, they moved on.

Acceptance.

And in their waking world, she found a part-time job and returned to school. He postponed golf and is leaning to cook. They will visit their children’s teachers together.

Courage.

Negotiation By Threat

A caller sought advice that in the moment I could not give. He told the following story: Four years earlier, when separated from his wife, he sought solace in the arms of a sympathetic co-worker. But within days they abandoned their brief affair, she not wanting to put her marriage at risk.

Later the caller and his wife reconciled and during an intimate moment, he disclosed this misstep. Now once again they were living apart and their divorce action was pending. His soon to be ex-wife was demanding an excessive financial settlement and threatened, if thwarted, to tell all to the husband of his former co-worker friend. The caller was in turmoil, imagining painful, perhaps irrevocable consequences.

This left me in a quandary. The issue of extortion, which I deemed this to be, had never arisen before.

Then, oddly, within days of this call, a professional colleague also sought advice about a similar event. During a mediation session, an ex-husband seeking to end his long-term support obligation, issued a challenge to his former wife: He knew that some years ago she’d had prior knowledge that a former co-worker, who was also her close friend, had breached the trade secret policy of their employer. His ex-wife had never disclosed to anyone else what he now threatened to reveal. Although no known harm had come of his former wife’s silence, she feared that her earlier disloyalty would damage her own reputation and likely imperil her job.

After considerable thought, my suggestion to both persons threatened in this way, was to consult with legal counsel. Perhaps a letter sent to each of those seeking financial gain by intimidation, questioning whether they were aware of the possible criminal nature of their proposed actions, would be a sufficient deterrent.

Yet, even if these threats were initially withdrawn, could not this pressure be renewed at any time, perhaps in a more subtle fashion?

And if not deterred, then what? Call their bluff? Are bullies closet cowards?

Or, capitulate to the demand being made? Would other demands follow?

Or, try to understand the motivation for the desperate measures being taken? Could the threatened party step back and with genuine interest question why such scare tactics were being used? Explore compromise? Or is this sheer folly?

In an ideal world, would it not make sense to become a truth teller and take back personal power? Is this perhaps the only secure ending? Alert the friend who had ended the brief affair to preserve her marriage, and offer the option of her maintaining the secret, or not. And in the second situation, own up and take the risk that the employer, when belatedly told of the failed espionage, would understand, even respect the conflicted loyalty of a valued employee?

Each possible course of action carries risks difficult to weigh, but taking responsibility for past actions wrests control from the unprincipled aggressor. Even if a high price is paid, would less troubled sleep be the reward when the balance of power is restored?

Going Along To Get Along

How many of us deal with conflict by avoiding it? To foster and preserve a valued relationship, we forgo the challenge and hope that by morning all will be well. Many times this worked for me and harmony became the new reality. Pretending could make it so, especially if there was other glue to hold things together. A caress. Or the distraction of a child’s laughter, or tears.

To a certain extent, we all play this game, until the rules of the rules of the game change.

Divorcing partners, when alone, often sing the very same tune about how they managed disputes: I just went along to get along.

With complete sincerity each sees themself as the one who always gave in. But now, when the ties that bound them to seek accommodation are broken, the greater need is for authenticity and autonomy, and respect for their new role as a former partner.

Picture this scene: a mother and father of a young girl are in conflict over how they will share her time when living in separate homes. In the interest of what the mother deems “stability”, she wants the child in her home most of the time. Father is equally determined to have his daughter with him at least half the time. This is today’s classic impasse.

As their mediator, I will shift the discussion away from the immediate issue at hand and ask: are there other concerns we can identify?

There are many. Some examples:

Mother: He never helps out with her homework, and never brings her home on time.

Father: I’m never told about teacher conferences until they are over.

Mother: When I phone to talk to my daughter, I’m told she is not available.

Father: When I have to travel on business, I miss out on the time I’m entitled to.

Mother: He signed her up for soccer without ever telling me.

Actually, the longer the list of grievances, the better. Grist for the negotiation mill.

I send them off to each develop answers to these two questions:

What options can I offer to her/him to get my proposal accepted?

What conditions do I require before agreeing to what is proposed?

With luck, they will return with many answers. Perhaps in anger they will be stated as demands, but as small agreements fall into place and they begin to trust that compromise is possible, demands may be presented as requests.

Perhaps, if willing, even those still nurturing a harmonious relationship can learn to risk conflict, can lift the rug under which differences have been hidden and bring them out into the open, to play the game of: let’s make a deal.

Is There Still A Chance?

Often a husband and wife who are scheduled to meet at my office to share their sad story and negotiate a plan for their future, arrive together. I greet them as they step off the elevator and note the tone of their voices, or the silence. It is telling.

Some are already living apart, others soon will be. Most are quiet and choose to not even meet the other’s gaze as they settle on either end of my long couch. Misery and anxiety hangs in the air. But a few chat in a friendly way, ignoring the lack of privacy. They speak of their children, the soccer schedule, report cards. These safe topics may even elicit smiles, or perhaps the sharing of photos.

As our formal talk begins and we become acquainted, occasionally partners tell me that they’ve been unable to engage in a meaningful conversation for years, but that after the agonizing decision was made to separate and divorce, tensions lessened and slowly they began to have the very disclosing and important talks that had eluded them for so long.

Each situation is unique, but it is easy to conjecture that now that they are parting, even though there is considerable fear about what the future holds, neither feels quite as emotionally vulnerable, less exposed or threatened by the other’s judgment and disapproval, so they can relax and be more authentic. Perhaps they even once again display the very qualities the other found attractive years before. A romantic might suggest that these folks have found the answer and can now live together happily.

How often is that the case? Although ease of intimate communication surely contributes to a successful bond, can it be counted upon to rejuvenate a relationship that has seriously faltered? No doubt the answer to this question is both “yes” and “no”. Those who have answered “yes” do not walk through my door, so I cannot speak to their lasting success.

But, I recently worked with parties in mediation who were cordial, seemed to have an easygoing friendship, and an ability to problem solve together about their children which was so effective and affirming that, when alone with the wife, who had initiated the ending, I decided to ask whether she had sufficiently examined the possibility of reconciliation.

With a weary smile she assured me that she had fully considered that option in the work she had done in therapy over the past year. Quoting her therapist, she likened her marriage to a plant that had died for lack of water over an extended period of time. To now pour water over the dead plant could not bring it back to life. Both she and her husband were now ready to move on, apart.

Ironically, the decision to end their marriage had allowed them to risk finding new ways of telling each other truths. This did not rekindle the interest or passion they both now hoped to find with another, but their lucky kids would always have two parents who could talk in a meaningful way, and who would support each other over bumps in the road ahead.

Impossible to know what the outcome might have been if the truth telling had come sooner.

Talking Things Over

I’m trying to make a difficult decision, which often has me awake for hours in the middle of the night. But as I share my concern with close friends, some calm begins to return. Long ago this became my way of coping when troubles arose, but It calls for a measure of self-disclosure, a sharing of vulnerabilities, which I know is hard for some

I’m remembering a time when an old friend began phoning more often than usual. Her son was divorcing and her distress about the breakup of his family brought her low. She was my frequent talking partner when angst was in my life. It was my turn to listen.

My husband and I had lived through a similar time when a child’s divorce became part of the air we breathed, often the last thing we talked about at night and the first upon waking. But when I say we talked, not quite. I talked, he listened. For longer conversations I turned to my friend.

One evening, overhearing us on the phone, Len gently berated me. He urged me to think and talk less about the plight of our loved ones, as a way of quieting my concerns. We did not argue. I simply ignored his advice, as he knew I would.

Len grew up in a home where feelings, even if recognized, were not talked about. In my childhood home, emotion was welcome grist for the mill. Not surprisingly, we each adopted ways we learned as children. He was able to put trouble out of mind and metaphorically go fishing. Not me.

We knew this about each other. Even though over time, and with deliberate effort, talk came more easily for us, we also learned to honor our differences. I probed less to unearth the feelings behind his moods, and he sought less to divert or dampen my need to talk when upset. When not in sync for conversation, a comforting touch or a loving embrace allowed us to speak without words. Now my friends, those who talk and those who mostly listen, fill the void.

One dear friend who listens well and is a particular comfort when things go amiss in my life, or when I’m faced with a challenging decision, has herself suffered major losses and faced difficult choices. But she keeps her feelings hidden beneath  an exterior of cheerful chatter. She willingly talks of her professional life and the problems she is working to solve for her clients, but when friends inquire about her well being, after a few reassuring words, she artfully changes the subject. I find this worrisome. Did her family meet distress with silence, and she now follows the avoidance pattern of her early years? I try to respect the boundaries she has drawn. But I am sad for her, and wonder when a self-imposed boundary becomes a cage, even a prison.

For years I’ve kept a wonderful Edward Koren cartoon on my desk. It shows two couples enjoying a companionable evening in the living room of one of them. Behind the host couple, who are seated on their couch, stands a huge hairy monster. “We deal with it by talking about it”, reads the caption.

I do too, and count myself lucky to know others for whom demons are diminished by talk, even if sometimes they just listen.

Awake At 4:00 AM

My professional failures stay with me. Wakeful at 4:00am I conduct the postmortem.

The case began when a mother petitioned the Court to terminate the plan she and her former husband had been following to share responsibility for raising their 8-year-old daughter. For several years these parents had been working well together and their daughter was flourishing.

A disturbing event tipped the balance.

The father had remarried. His daughter and his new wife gradually became acquainted and formed a comfortable bond. Then, one evening, when the daughter was at his home, the father phoned the mother and asked her to come promptly and get their child, as there had been a troubling exchange between his wife and daughter. In haste, the mother drove to his home and picked up the frightened youngster. On the drive home, she heard a tearful story: the stepmother had been drinking, and when an argument arose after dinner, she had verbally lashed out at the child.

The next morning, the mother shared this story with members of her family. She was strongly urged by her sister and her own mother to immediately call her lawyer and do whatever was necessary to prevent such an event from ever happening again. Days later, she did just that, and soon after, her motion seeking sole custody was filed with the Court. Both parents were then referred to mediation and arrived at my office the next week.

Now more calm, and in a problem-solving mode, the mother realized that even if she were awarded sole custody, her daughter’s regular visits with her father, although lessened, would continue. Her exposure to his new wife would not end.The father, in turn, assured her that both he and his wife took the lapse very seriously. She had reentered a counseling program, had apologized to the child and expressed sincere regret. In the weeks that followed, there had been no further incidents.

When the mother and I talked privately, another reality also became clear. Her greatest assurance that her daughter would be protected in the future was her ex-husband’s earlier behavior, reacting so quickly to call and seek her help.Should there be another troubling event, would he likely call upon her again if she went forward with Court action seeking to deprive him of his status as a joint custodian?

The discussion continued with both parents, and they explored additional ways to enhance their daughter’s future well-being should other issues arise. The father had already scheduled a family therapy session. He talked of how hurtful it would be to feel disenfranchised as a parent. The mother seemed understanding and to recognize the damage likely to be done to their future parenting relationship if she stepped into a public arena with allegations of fault and poor character. There was even some tentative talk about the mother and step-mother becoming better acquainted.

So, was the custody litigation dismissed? It was not. Mother’s family maintained their pressure on her to proceed with Court action, calling into question her devotion to her daughter if she did not. The mother’s need to meet the expectations and approval of her family won out.

No one makes decisions in a vacuum. We seek the support and acceptance of our “constituency”, friends and family. Agreements need to be developed with this in mind. I had not given that enough consideration. Although aware of her family’s initial involvement in her decision to file, I had not focused on helping the mother develop strategies for sensitizing her family to the likely consequences of bitter and prolonged litigation.

It is so easy for extended family and friends to hold onto a winner/loser mentality without fully understanding the ramifications of parents undermining each other publicly, and in the eyes of their child.

Mediation sessions ended and I do not know the final outcome, as such cases take many months to resolve. It still feels like my failure.

Sponging

He said: So, I hear you got the promotion. Another woman sleeps her way to the top.

Silent at first, unnerved by this sarcastic taunt, she took a moment to consider her response and then said: You think that’s what folks in the office generally believe? Can you help me track that rumor down?

Surprising. Not even a hint of a defensive reaction. That’s because she was sponging, a technique I learned some years ago from Deborah Pearce, a teacher, coach and master of the art of communication.

The concept of sponging is so valuable, I eagerly describe it to colleagues, friends, mediation clients and anyone else who will listen. It’s a way of responding when verbally attacked that turns a conversation in a positive direction instead of allowing it to spiral into negativity.

To experiment with this approach, this is the mindful direction that is called for: When confronted with a hostile remark, or an insult, even veiled sarcasm, avoid an immediate response. Instead, consciously absorb the belief of the speaker, soak it up like a sponge. Frame your answer from that vantage point, and watch the wind empty from your rival’s sails.

Some examples:

Divorced mother to her former spouse: When the kids leave your house for school, they look like they got dressed in the dark or slept in their clothes.

Father’s likely automatic response: I haven’t noticed them looking so great when they come over here from your place.

But father when sponging: It’s a problem. By the time they get to breakfast, it’s too late to make them change. How do you handle it?

Divorce lawyer who represents a husband anticipating a sharp decline in income conveys this information to his counterpart. Wife’s lawyer’s likely automatic response: Give me a break. That’s what they all say.

But when sponging, she says: Of course he’s anxious about paying support. Who wouldn’t be? Show me how he has documented his income projections.

Wife to husband taking part in mediation: For years you never had time for the kids. Now you’re Mr. Mom.

Husband’s likely automatic reply: When’s the last time you actually cooked them a meal?

But when sponging, he says:You’re right. I relied on you more than I had any right to. I’m going to need your help learning the ropes with the kids.

Caustic remarks raise the temperature of any discussion and once a defensive response is made, antagonism escalates and little gets accomplished. Conflict needs to be diffused, not escalated. But this takes practice, hence the need for the critical pause in order to remember to bring the technique to mind when emotions are stirred, for responding self-protectively, even aggressively for most of us is still the first line of defense.

I recently received an email from a disgruntled mediation client suggesting that he was wasting his time and money in our sessions, as few agreements had been reached. My initial reaction was resentment at being devalued, and I wanted to point out his negative contributions to the experience so far. But, after a pause, I sponged and acknowledged his frustration, and the difficult emotional climate, only then offering some suggestions for progress. He expressed gratitude and eagerness to continue.

In all of the examples above, exchanges that actually took place, a useful, calm discussion followed. Skilled negotiators work to set a positive emotional tone. Yet discord often seeps into even the best planned conversations.

The next time, if the goal is understanding and agreement, pause, and visualize a sponge.

My Friend Dona

When spring finally arrives and the forsythia gives way to the daffodils and tulips, my thoughts return to another spring nine years ago, to vivid and poignant memories of events that occasioned insights that continue to serve me well. This is the story:

On an April afternoon, I joined a companion for a leisurely lunch. As we greeted each other, she noted that I looked troubled and asked how I was. I responded: Confused.

She gave me her full attention and I explained that shortly before our meeting I’d spoken on the phone with a friend who had been coping with breast cancer for many years. For several decades Dona and I were the closest of friends. We talked often during the week and took a long walk together almost every weekend, whatever the weather. There was little about our lives we did not share.

Over the past year she’d been on a downward slide. The narcotics used to dull her pain left her debilitated and sleepy much of the time. On this day she asked me what I knew about hospice care. So, I told her of my experience gleaned from another friend and offered to help her research the issue further. Then, without a pause or response, she changed the subject to the birthday of her beloved 7-year-old granddaughter. Funny stories followed about the gift that she’d sent and the phone call later received. As her voice grew weary, we agreed to get together later in the day, if she felt up to it.

Part of my confusion was the very ordinariness with which we approached and then avoided the discussion of her impending death. I loved this woman very much and could easily focus on what her loss would mean for me, but said nothing of this to her. I observed the unspoken taboo of acknowledging that the end of her life approached. The very calm nature of our talk seemed both right and absurd. The somber unspoken question that remained was whether my friend really needed to talk more purposefully about dying and the plans she was considering. Her having pointedly changed the subject to tell stories about her grandchild left me unsettled. We had shared so openly with each other in the past, without barriers. Should I collude with the avoidance of such a serious but perhaps painful discussion? This was the quandary I posed.

The wise woman with whom I was lunching said: Why not just ask her whether she would like to talk about her need to cope with the weeks ahead, and how you might help?

Of course. I realized that was exactly what I needed to do.

Later that day, Dona and I did get together. I sat close to her as she lay on her couch and I held on to her warm smooth ankle. We chatted amiably about mundane events and a medical test scheduled for the next morning. Our words were alternately light and serious. She grew tired, but before I left, I leaned close and said: I love you very much and want to help you through this in any way I can, so whenever you want to talk about making plans, or anything else, will you call me?

She responded: I love you too, and I will call, but you call too, if I don’t.

I assured her I would.

I left, no longer confused, knowing that the awkwardness of discussing death was gone, had been breached by my request, and her invitation. We would be able to talk openly once again and be loving till the end. And a number of important and meaningful conversations did take place before Dona died. We no longer had to avoid what was uppermost on her mind, and on my own.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Days after her death, Dona’s husband invited me to select anything I wished from her personal belongings and I left with a bottle of the scent she always wore, and which I have worn ever since.

Permission Granted

Her eighty-eight year old father, hospitalized for over two weeks, was not expected to survive, but he did. His clear instructions: if this happens to me again, no more heroics, too much pain and too great an expense. Just let me go.

She was quick to respond and reassure: But, I’m not ready to let you go.

Her father: This is not your decision to make.

She realized he was not only stating his wishes, but also giving her permission to carry them out.

The daughter in this case is a nurse, trained as a geriatric care manager. We had talked over lunch about her work and she shared this view: We are so conditioned by the “shoulds” and “oughts” of the culture, religion and times in which we were raised, that sometimes we need to be given permission by another to make the wise rational decisions to best care for ourselves and our loved ones.

My  naive question about her father: But didn’t he have a living will?

He did. But what her professional experience has taught her is that despite properly executed living wills, when confronted with end of life decisions, the designated decision maker is frequently unable to act in accord with the legal document, is immobilized. Permission must still be granted.

Another example: A sixty-eight year old woman, the sole caretaker for her eighty-four year old mother, entered the care manager’s office saying: I hate my mother.

Despite a childhood endured with an alcoholic abusive parent, and a troubled distant relationship with her as an adult, when her mother could no longer live independently, the daughter felt she had no option but to provide care in her own home. Both were miserable. The advice given: the obligation to honor a parent presumes having been honored, as a child and as an adult. The mother was moved to a nursing home. Permission granted.

And another example: The care manager attended a conference for fellow professionals who were addressed by a renowned Rabbi educator. He suggested it was time to reconsider the concept of adultery. His shocked audience was then told about a seventy-two year old man whose wife, two years earlier suffered a major stroke that left her physically and mentally impaired, and resident in a nursing home. Over time he sought and found the companionship of another woman, but denied himself the fullness of the relationship he desired. Permission was granted.

The “shoulds” and “oughts” of life are programmed into our DNA, or so it seems. There are times when the greatest gift a friend or counselor can bestow is to sanction our setting aside restrictions and obligations we have internalized, but which no longer make sense.

Even for those with the wisdom of years, permission must be granted.

So, to my dear children: If and when the time arrives when I am no longer able to care for myself, utilize my long term care insurance to house me in a decent facility, not in your home. If you don’t live nearby, only occasional visits will be just fine. If you are close by, once a week will do. And should I no longer recognize you or treat you lovingly, just check on me once in a while. Permission granted.

Fingers Crossed

She said: How can I negotiate with someone I no longer trust?

When an intimate relationship ends, trust flies out the window. Anxiety sweeps in. Someone who was so well known becomes a stranger. The resulting pain dominates the emotional landscape. Often, for one person the focus is the other’s misdeeds, a betrayal, a failed promise, while their partner centers on the unfairness of the blame. Both become defensive. Then all that is needed is a spark, a canceled credit card, the closing of a joint account, or a barbed letter from an attorney, and if there was any residual trust, it vanishes.

How can these two people, now on their guard, have any hope that if even the least concession is made by one, the other will reciprocate? Positions harden.

Consider my response to this concern in mediation: In marriage we expect to be told the truth and supported emotionally. It may be a dream, not always the reality, but not an unreasonable expectation. When divorcing, it is a premise we have to give up. A trusting relationship may later be reestablished, incrementally, but until it is, a “show me” attitude is completely appropriate. So, without giving voice to the accusation, just assume your spouse is untrustworthy. You may be wrong but you may be right. So, why not simply design a settlement that doesn’t depend on trust. Require documentation for facts alleged and test conclusions with the involvement of counsel and other experts. Make no decisions until they are fully informed decisions.

But does this reasoning apply when the issues are not financial, and children are caught in the middle between parents with conflicting views and unforgiven grievances? It does not. Just the opposite is true.

Not long ago I worked with parents of an 8-year-old, both highly educated professionals. They continued to litigate parenting issues year after year. Four years post-divorce, the Court required they enter mediation before filing the additional motions both now threatened. At every turn they frustrated each other’s efforts to develop a sense of ease and predictability in their relationship with their young son. Everyone paid a high price. But now their son had begun to exhibit physical symptoms believed to have a psychological component, so they could no longer deny that their continued mistrust and blaming ways threatened the health of the child they both loved dearly.

I consulted with a psychologist friend, unable to fathom these parent’s behaviors. The professional conjecture: some parents are unable to individuate. They see every slight they have suffered as also experienced by their child. If rejected by a spouse, they transfer the sense of betrayal to their child. If denied love or respect, in their view, so is their child. They are simply unable to step back and view their child as a person with needs different from their own.

And social psychologists argue that normal people can do terrible things when put in a terrible situation, but that amazing things can happen when the focus is not on altering another’s character, or punishing another for a breach of trust, but on creating settings in which people’s better selves can flourish. Could I create such a setting?

I told them I assumed that each of their stories had some validity, part of the truth. They visibly relaxed. Then I mandated that our sole focus be on measures each could take to enhance their son’s well-being. Trust issues not only had to be set aside, but they had to offer each other the benefit of the doubt, a measure of trust, and not assume the worst of the other when things went wrong. No easy task.

Each was asked to make new requests for changed behaviors, small steps, readily achieved and committed to writing: Be on time. Call well in advance of a need for a change of plans. When things go awry, don’t accuse: how could you be so  . . . Instead, ask: what happened? And listen.

Reciprocity became the byword. Eventually settlement options were developed and accepted, if somewhat grudgingly. Both were satisfied, not perfectly, but well enough.

I’ve not heard from this pair for almost a year. Fingers crossed.

Standing Alone

In a recent phone conversation with my college professor brother, he spoke about his graduate students struggling to make important decisions about their futures, and the stress of indecision was taking its toll. One plight: take the not quite right job, or continue with their education and incur more debt? Rather than make a choice they might later regret, too many drift, not realizing, from my brother’s perspective, that rarely is there only one right answer, and that even wrong decisions can be dealt with and corrections made. Still in their twenties, most of his students stand alone in the face of uncertainty.

So different from my experience. When I consider the significant choices I made on my own, once outside the orbit of parental influence, I can think of only two. First, at seventeen: where to go to college. Then, at twenty: whether to marry.

Once married, for the next fifty-three years, I made virtually every major choice in concert with someone equally invested in my future. Not that the issues Len and I faced were thus made simple, but each decision had a shared impact, and we knew we could fall back into each other’s comforting ways if things went awry. And that made a difference.

Now I’m once again making decisions on my own, but comfortable doing so, drawing upon a lifetime of experience. Not so for most young people today who postpone serious personal commitments and remain independent far into their twenties or even thirties, called upon along the way to make important choices without much decision making experience.

So, my brother tells his students these two simple stories from his past:

His first paying job, when he was only fourteen, in the 1940s, was sorting potato chips. Hard to imagine in this automated age. He was told to grade the chips as to quality and size, pushing each into one of four separate bins. During early days on the job, he repeatedly approached his boss, unable to decide on the proper category for a particular chip. He was told: Bruce, you are simply going to have to make these decisions. So, he did, without any negative ramifications.

Many years later, with a recent PhD in hand, he worked in a physics laboratory in Princeton, N.J. and took part in the interviewing process for a new hire to join his research team. He approached his superior and urged the selection of a particular candidate, only to have his choice rejected. He persisted, arguing the merits of his favorite applicant, and his boss was finally worn down and said: OK, but I’m telling you here and now, Bruce, you will have to take full responsibility for this decision.

My brother agreed. He reasoned: if this guy works out well, I’ll get all the credit. If he doesn’t, what’s my boss going to do, go to his superiors and tell them he turned the hiring decision over to someone else? Not likely. At worst he would be told he’d made a bad call. That was a risk he was willing to take.

These stories, and the conversations they generate with his students, are his way of encouraging them to get their feet wet in the responsibility waters, wanting to assure them it’s not nearly as frightening as it seems from dry land.

Since my brother’s early decision-making days, and my own, risk analysis has been elevated to a science of sorts. Will it help these young folks who stand alone leave the edge of the future abyss and choose next steps? Perhaps, but how nice it would be if there were loving arms to break a fall.

Invisability

The publishing world is shrinking. So, friends question why I still talk of writing a book. Striving to be truthful, I answer: to avoid becoming invisible.

They object, especially those who are younger, not wanting me to feel diminished by growing old. They would like to talk me out of this concern. But they cannot. For I’m a realist, and know that aging eventually brings a retreat from center stage.

One particularly close friend pursued the point and asked: do you mean invisible as a woman or in a more general sense?

And I responded: both.

As women grow older, we accept a measure of invisibility. Advancing beyond the ever-expanding stretch designated mid-life, it threatens in earnest. We walk down a sidewalk and male heads no longer turn, no eye contact sought. But with family and friends, and professionally, we can continue as vibrant, seasoned, and more accomplished players, years after feminine allure has faded somewhat. Not a bad trade-off.

Only a Pollyanna would insist that nothing has changed, the step slows and maintaining sound bone and muscle is an ever-greater challenge. Many hours are spent in developing future plans, with the knowledge that even the wisest plan may go awry.

For me, both work and writing keep the stage lights on. And recalling memorable experiences, both personal and work related, exploring and crystallizing their meaning and crafting a story, offers a new role, a revival, a second act. Is this a universal dream for those growing older, to pass along what life has taught? And even a dream for the not yet so old?

What apparently I’ve failed to communicate to those dear friends who seek to reassure me of my continuing relevance, is that becoming less visible is not all bad. So here’s the good news for me, which will eventually be true for them:

I’m no longer burdened by ambition. Though eager to continue to enhance my ability as a mediator and as a writer, I have no more mountains to climb.

Skills developed over so many years of professional practice allow me to serve the needs of clients caught up in distressing times with calm assurance. My advice is often sought by younger colleagues whose expressions of gratitude warm the heart.

Volunteer projects of past importance have been taken over by a new generation, and I’m permitted to enjoy the role of spectator and sometime valued advisor, without committee or leadership responsibility, leaving me precious hours for my own design.

Never again will I wear uncomfortable shoes.

The clothes in my closet are classics, by my own definition. Being in tune with fashion matters not at all.

Without guilt, I no longer attend social events I think will be tiresome.

Now responsible only for my own timetable, I can talk with a friend for hours, even in the middle of the day, should we choose.

I’m no longer a consumer of anything other than consumables. (Not entirely true as I am part of the Apple world.) Simplicity of want allows for greater focus, and the time to become technologically savvy.

I don’t have to pretend so as to be perceived in a favorable light, don’t have to hide who I really am. Invisibility has morphed into transparency.

Less visible, perhaps, but not marginalized, only centered.

Marital Espionage

With WikiLeaks, The Social Network and the Steig Larsson trilogy, the very air is replete with fact and fiction about the art of computer hacking. How aware are we that our personal zone of privacy has become more tenuous? I resist becoming hyper-vigilant, but know there are times to be wary.

The story: My mediation client, John, had been betrayed. But he sat before me smiling, eager to tell me that he now knew that Jan, his wife, had bought a plane ticket and would soon travel to Texas to meet her childhood sweetheart. Had she told him this? No. But he knew.

John worked as an I.T. specialist. After Jan moved out of the family residence, he’d obtained software originally designed for parents to keep tabs on their children’s internet explorations, and used it to surreptitiously tap (hack) into her email. Upon making this disclosure, he quickly reminded me that he was revealing it to me in confidence, as promised by our mediation contract. It put me on high alert.

I said: You’d best consult with your attorney, John. You may be committing a crime.

His smile faded, and I knew he would follow my advice.

This seventeen year marriage had unraveled. Although John earned far more that Jan did as a preschool teacher, he thought he now had found the ammunition he needed to avoid paying alimony. He would soon learn that his premise was flawed, but more importantly at that moment, the way he’d been collecting his information was a time bomb, for him, and  possibly for me. In some circumstances, it is also a crime not to report a crime.

When John returned for our next session, he asked to meet with me privately and soberly divulged that indeed, according to his lawyer, it could well be that his past actions were criminal. Chastened, he assured me that his sleuthing was over, that he would no longer read Jan’s email. But how could I be sure? He might in this way even invade the privileged relationship between his wife and her attorney, if this was how they were communicating, and likely it was.

Perhaps I should have taken more time to think things through, but on the spot I told John that unless he disclosed his search of her computer files to Jan in my presence, so she could take protective steps, mediation would end.

His immediate response: No way.

He feared she would seek revenge by reporting him, or use the threat of disclosure as a bargaining tool. These were reasonable concerns and I could not mandate his confession. So, I terminated our mediation sessions.

With Jan back in the room I told them both that I didn’t think their support issues would best be addressed in mediation. Jan was compliant. I assured them I would call both of their attorneys and describe the agreements they had already made for the design of their parenting plan, and ask their counsel to manage settlement discussions regarding support.

John’s attorney now knew the score. Jan’s did not, and I was not free to be explicit with him. When we spoke the next day, I decided to weave into our conversation that I’d recently  spoken with an attorney who urged all of her divorcing clients to change their email address and password. Silently I hoped that he would advise Jan to do the same. I needed to walk a fine line, determined to say just enough to protect Jan’s privacy, while upholding my contractual and legal obligation to maintain John’s confidentiality.

Far from a perfect solution.

For those of us who’ve picked up computer skills only as-needed, but have no advanced literacy in this new language which daily becomes more essential to the business of life, legal and ethical challenges emerge like the tips of icebergs in uncharted waters. It is chilling.

The Art of Asking Questions

I often share a meal with a close friend. The talk is our sustenance, the food incidental. And the conversation flows, unguarded. We are skilled players of the verbal ping-pong that carries us forward, inquiring and learning about the other, disclosing what is important about our lives at that moment, Ours is a dance with the steps so practiced, there is no need to be mindful about the questions we pose. We risk little, even with a misstep.

But consider different settings where this is not so:

The cardinal rule taught in law school is to never interrogate a witness in a courtroom without knowing the answer in advance. The temptation can be so great. One last probe to emphasize the essential winning point: “And why is that Mrs. Jones?” Then a response issues that surprises and wipes out earlier testimony.

But that is the courtroom where the choreography of words spoken in critical. Need this be so in our personal lives? In our professional lives? Is the art of asking questions so important? In mediation sessions, as I observe the impact of the questions the parties ask each other, and responses to those I pose, I’ve come to think so.

When negotiating, or just conversing with a loved one, a question can either bring someone to a desired destination or evoke a defensive response that creates a barrier, sets the players apart, and prevents or at least postpones a positive outcome. Mindfulness is especially called for when there is tension in the air. The inquiry, the tone of voice, even the quality of eye contact, needs to be free of criticism or judgment. If simply reacting without much thought, without consideration of the goal sought, opportunities for agreement, or an intimate connection, are often lost.

The distinctions can be subtle:

Ask: Can you tell me more about that? (open, accepting)
Not: Do you really believe that? (veiled belligerence)

Ask: Would it be helpful for me to explain my reasoning (respect, consultation)
Not: Do you understand my point? (intelligence called into question)

Or in a more personal vein:

Ask: Feel like talking about what happened last night? (an invitation)
Not: Don’t you think it’s high time we talked about what happened last night?
(command performance)

If a professional or intimate relationship is troubled, and discussion of an important issue avoided, — either fearing a negative reaction which will only make things worse, or because embarrassment impedes honesty — consider first saying: we need to have a difficult conversation.

The respect shown by not taking another unaware, offering even just a moment to prepare, may set the stage for willing consideration of the issue at hand, There are times when both conversation partners will be off balance. Just acknowledging this at the outset can avoid a defensive response, or a closed door.

And here is another rule it might be sound to consider: Some questions are best left unasked.

Do you think these pants are too tight?
How many calories in this banana cream pie?
Do you still love me?

Warning Signs

As the mediation session ended, Elizabeth put her arms around her husband and hugged him. He stiffened, but did not pull away.

The marriage of this handsome older couple was ending, at the wife’s insistence. John, the husband, made no effort to hide his anger, albeit controlled. Earnestly he questioned the morality of having to share assets with a wife who chose to leave him, when he had done nothing wrong.

Both parties are highly educated professionals, she a retired college librarian, he a well compensated corporate executive, their children grown. No infidelity. No hint of physical abuse. In my presence they spoke to each other respectfully. I was told they had worked with a counselor a number of times, but they agreed, unsuccessfully.

Elizabeth’s behavior confused me, but when I met with her alone she explained: I simply have to get away, even though in some ways I still love him. He’s been a good father and wonderful provider. But for 32 years, I’ve been subjected to his scorn. When no one else is there, I’m constantly belittled, even told that I’m stupid. Of course, he knows I’m not, but he needs to feel superior. No more. I’d rather be alone.

Had I not previously read about the work of the psychologist, John Gottman, I might have probed further. Gottman and his colleagues, renowned for their work on marital stability and divorce prediction, have actually developed mathematical models* that allow them to record, and then analyze, three minute video clips of couples talking about a serious matter. They then forecast which of the couples will split up at some point in the next fifteen years. And with follow up studies they’ve proved their ability to make this prognosis with 90% accuracy!

Two hundred marital therapists and graduate students of clinical psychology also viewed the three-minute clips, but could do no better than guess right 54% of the time, just above pure chance.

This is no parlor trick. Gottman and his team apply their equations to 20 separate emotional states witnessed in the brief videotaped conversations, by those specially trained to see them.

The scientific work is complex and beyond my ken, but the conclusions are not. Gottman says he can find out much of what he needs to know by focusing on four predictors of marital failure: defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism, and contempt. And the one he considers most important is contempt, which he says is qualitatively different, and far more damaging than the other three.

Contempt shows in words tinged with sarcasm, a glance that conveys disgust, personal insults, all delivered from a superior plane. The expression of contempt is hierarchical. An assertion of power over another. Standing alone, this is the greatest predictor of marital collapse.

Interestingly, women tend to be more critical, men more likely to stonewall. But contempt is gender neutral, as many women as men manifest that power stance.

One up, one down. It drains away love.

. . . . . . . . . . . .

*for those so inclined, you can Google John Gottman. Even the intricacies of his scientific work are available.

A Gift From A Stranger

Friends no longer ask: what did you get for Christmas? Their children are grown, their shopping ventures minimized and simplified, a check, a book, or something sweet and consumable.  And I’ve become something of a humbug, holiday presents important only in memory, when my family was young and their excitement contagious. I much prefer receiving the unexpected gift, unrelated to a ceremonial day, delivered as a simple token of affection.

But around this time a few years ago, I had an experience (which I relate below) that brought to mind a moving story of gifting, by the famed Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. He wrote about an early childhood encounter when he lived in a house separated by a high fence from that of a neighbor. One day the small hand of a child he did not know, but who lived next door, pushed a toy through a hole in the fence, a tiny white sheep made of faded wool. Wanting to return the favor, the young Neruda pushed his most favored pine cone through to his unknown benefactor. He and the other child never met, but many years later Neruda wrote that this mysterious gift exchange stayed with him, gave his poetry its light.

This is an accurate but incomplete quote,  “To feel the affection that comes from those that we do not know [is] greater and more beautiful because it widens the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things. [ . . . ] Just as I once left the pine cone by the fence, I have since left my words on the door of so many people who were unknown to me, people in prison, or hunted, or alone.”

. . . . . . . .

My remembered experience happened when leaving the local branch post office.  I witnessed a near collision in the busy parking lot just as I reached my car. I left, a bit shaken, and then upon arriving at my next destination discovered that my wallet was missing. Thinking back, I realized that when distracted by the close call, I’d placed my wallet on top of the car when opening the door, and driven off. In haste I returned to search the lot, but to no avail. Dismayed by the foolishness of my lapse and the loss, I began to mentally catalog all those facets of life contained in that zipped leather packet, the hours I would now have to spend alerting credit card companies, applying for a new license and membership identifications, the lost cash almost inconsequential.

Home to my laptop, I began the notification process, wresting some control from chaos. The phone rang. Caller ID revealed an unfamiliar name and number which I was tempted to ignore, but then did not.

It was Lateefa Kituku. She’d found my wallet, which had fallen to the roadway several blocks from the post office. Knowing I would be upset, she quickly assured me that everything was intact and safe. Instantly my gloom gave way to relief and gratitude. It was agreed I would pick it up the next morning at the office of the school where she is a kindergarten teacher. When I did so, I left a note of thanks and a gift for her classroom.

My elation went far beyond retrieving important bits of paper and plastic, my identity restored. Like Neruda’s gift of the small toy sheep, this kindness from a stranger was more meaningful in many ways than a present received from a good friend, even one beautifully wrapped and thoughtfully chosen.

Neruda’s words echoed. This gift, the kindness of a stranger, widened the boundary of my being. I felt united with a vast caring community.

A Fairy Tale

I met my new mediation clients as they stepped off the elevator, and guided them to my office door. Their smiles were broad, no sign of the apprehension usually seen on the faces of those who arrive to unravel the fabric of their marriage.

As they became comfortable seated on opposite ends of my couch, she said: It’s hard to believe we’re here. It was supposed to be happily ever after.

I smiled, for I too grew up loving fairy tales.

He said: We just want to be fair to each other. I want her to be financially secure and she wants me to be able to start a new career.

They glanced at each other with approval, conveying gratitude for their mutual understanding. Then they sat forward eager to begin.

I asked her: what does financial security mean for you?

She: Well, staying in the house with the kids. We both want that.

He nodded, and I asked him: Will that be possible if you leave your current job?

He: Sure. When she cashes in her share of my retirement account and adds to that what she can earn, they’ll be able to stay put for at least a year.

She, appearing confused: Wait, that’s not my plan. That’s not fair.

He: Why not? What about being fair to me?

I’d not yet heard their full story, but I knew that another myth would soon be proved false, another fairy tale forsaken: That they would agree on what was fair.

Their plans no longer meshed. Although they shared many values, there were some they did not share. It was already clear that what one thought would be a fair outcome, was not close to being fair from the perspective of the other,

I offered my view that seeking a mutual sense of fairness when a marriage is ending is an ever-elusive goal, one best abandoned. Puzzled, they sat back, disheartened.

I wanted to reassure them but not create false expectations, so told them that I urge mediation clients to adopt a flea-market mentality. Finding an item you wish to purchase, you ask the dealer: How much?

And if told the price is twenty dollars, you don’t say: But that’s not fair.

You might offer to pay ten dollars and then settle for fifteen. The deal is not struck by arguing the fairness of the price, but by reaching an acceptable one.

Trying to convince someone to agree with your sense of fairness when their values (or perceptions) differ from your own, is futile. The key to success is to probe the positions your negotiating partner has taken and try to fully understand each other’s underlying interest in achieving a stated goal. Why is it important to her to remain in a home now too large and expensive? Why is the immediacy of his leaving his present job important? That conversation will unlock the imagination.

I know they will soon develop many options to consider. She may start to provide some additional income. He may postpone leaving the job, while looking for another.They may decide to sell the house after all.

When I tell this story to a friend, she chides me for being cynical.

I respond: Not cynical, but pragmatic.

She persists: Fair is when you’d call it fair if you were in the other person’s shoes. That’s achievable and worth striving for.

I’m unconvinced.

To  yearn for fairness, that may be a good thing, if it promotes compromise. But to expect agreement on what a fair outcome would be is folly. Realistically, there is no such thing as objective fairness, except perhaps in tales from the Brothers Grimm.

The Fear That Does Not Fade

When I decide to write about violence between intimate partners, my heartbeat quickens and I am tempted to stop. I’ve never been subjected to physical intimidation, so don’t fully understand why I so readily insert myself into the picture painted by others.

As a mediator I have to provide a safe setting, one in which both parties feel empowered and able to speak freely. To assure this design, I always talk with each person alone on the day of our first meeting. One question I ask is a veiled one: How did you resolve disputes during your marriage? The most common response: I just went along to get along.

Not often, but on occasion, grievous assaults are disclosed.

My initial thought, which I never speak, is: if this was happening to you, why didn’t you leave? Many others must actually have posed this question, for without prompting, excuses often follow:

I knew I could handle it.

The children needed their father.

He would have lost his job.

I didn’t want anyone to know.

He was going through a bad time and promised it would never happen again.

Oddly enough, the speaker of the unspeakable remains calm. Practiced? I too appear composed, and am actually relieved and ready to accept these reassurances, end this discussion and move on. In fact, over the years I have successfully concluded a number of cases in which threats and rough treatment were reported. I took at face value that the past could be set aside, perhaps not forgiven, but forgotten. Now, I know better, and I ask myself how many of those prior agreements were motivated by fear?

For today, I am better schooled and wiser about the lasting impact of being the target of purposely inflicted pain, of living in fear of an intimate partner. Now I know I must look behind the superficial responses, and when I do, the anxiety, theirs and mine, appears anew.

I no longer listen passively to the rote explanations, but press for details and this is what I hear:

We were on a Sunday drive on a winding road and I asked him to slow down. His arm swept across the space between us and he broke my nose.

We were in the cellar examining the furnace which had gone cold. I checked the sticker and noted the inspection was overdue. He broke my arm.

After crushing my cell phone underfoot, he stood in the doorway and wouldn’t let me leave the room.

He hasn’t struck me in years, but the day after I told him about my promotion, he attempted suicide.

Now I probe: are you still afraid? Do your friends know? Are you in counseling?

In almost every instance, residual fright is admitted and tears flow. And except in rare cases where significant therapy and the passage of time have provided new strengths, my skill as a mediator cannot overcome the power imbalance generated by enduring fear. Mediation must end.

I’m told those who grow up in a home where there is raging and coercion, often seek to connect with a controlling partner. Perhaps this is so. But when they are finally ready to leave, there must be an advocate present to assure a safe escape and a well reasoned settlement, forged in a secure setting, free of fear.

Solitude

How many of us ever seriously contemplate the likelihood that we will spend some years living alone?

Long ago I read May Sarton’s “Journal of a Solitude”, a chronicle of a year of self-imposed isolation after an important relationship had ended. She detailed how she spent the days, her grieving and then her renewal. I loved that book and still remember the pleasure of vicariously sharing her experience. At the time, I was so completely engaged with my growing family and work life, such solitude could only be imagined. Now, it is here, though not by choice.

Or is it?

Several weeks ago, two of my dearest friends extended an invitation to join them for the weekend at their family cottage on a lovely lake, a four-hour drive away. The weather and company promised to be perfect, but on thinking it over, I declined. Little was on my schedule that could not have easily been put off, but I soon knew that I would not willingly give up the solitude promised by a weekend to myself.

I moved from my childhood home to the college dorm and on to marriage without missing a beat. Children, law school, the practice, life with Len. There were rarely moments, even if temporarily alone, that were not spent preparing for the next work or family event.

So, I did not give serious thought to this time. The empty nest was never entirely empty. Even during my husband’s last months, I didn’t allow myself to imagine being without him. Life was the studied placement of one foot in front of the other. Goals were pursued, moments of reflection dealt with the present.

Now, for eight years, I’ve been living alone.  I find it quite a remarkable, thoughtful and even wonderful time of life. Are there anxious moments? Of course. Are there times of intense yearning for my past love? Yes. Occasional waves of grief wash over me, but I now know they will recede in time, usually with the coming of daylight.

I surprise even myself with how much I treasure my solitude.

Would that be so if I did not continue to engage with clients and colleagues, often share meals with close friends and wake many mornings to find a new email from a distant child? Likely not, for the human contact I have is a cherished part of my life, and always will be.

And I’m well aware of how my experience differs from those who are widowed or divorced in their middle years. Carrying on in the absence of a loved one, especially if feeling rejected, is daunting, at least for a time. Then, I imagine, the need to start anew and build a different future fills the days.

Years spent living alone are ahead for many. For most, is the thought not even allowed to enter consciousness? So it was for me, to only later discover that this time of life affords an independence of spirit never before known, a time to live without pretense, completely authentic, a time to be savored.

I know not everyone finds my destination, this peaceful place. A more troublesome past might harbor demons. I feel such gratitude for those who loved me so well that solitude is a reward, rather than a sentence, and offers time to occasionally look back and distill and put into words that which seems worth passing along.

Troubling Fantasies

Even when alone I can almost hear the sharp intake of breath I share with others on learning of recent teenage suicides. How especially harrowing it must be for parents who suspect or know of their child’s confusion or anguish about their sexuality. Fear of that unknown bully who may tip the balance and court disaster. I’ve experienced the suicide of two friends, but as adults. After the shock, and sometimes a sense of betrayal, one comes to accept a well-considered mature decision, as painful as it is to contemplate the desperate sadness that must have accompanied the act. But never acceptance of the young having taken this path.

What now comes to my mind is that time about fifteen years ago, when our family court was rocked by two teenage suicides, one following the other by only months, their parents locked in War of the Roses combat. Shocked and saddened, a colleague of mine was galvanized to action. The result: the expert from out of town was invited to come and steer us in some new directions. Our collective sorrow led us to seek greater understanding about children experiencing this traumatic time. We yearned for knowledge that would draw us back from hell and into the light.

Neil Kalter, a research psychologist and author of “Growing Up With Divorce”, addressed a large group of lawyers, mental health professionals, and virtually all of the Court personnel, judges, magistrates and parenting specialists. Some things he said that day, I continue to repeat to all parents I meet with, usually on the very first day of mediation.

He said: all children of divorce experience two fantasies.

I remember being surprised that this well regarded social scientist was willing to be so universal in his approach. Taking note that divorcing parents eventually separate, he described the first fantasy: children who have only experienced a home with both father and mother present, fantasize that if one parent can leave, what’s to keep the other parent from leaving? The fear imagined is of complete abandonment.

Kalter suggested that we tell our clients about this and urge them to reassure their kids, who rarely speak of this fear, that despite their separation, both parents will always be there for them. And these encouraging words should not be spoken only once, but repeated often during the difficult early days, and beyond. Each time I think about this and mention it to others, I’m surprised anew that it was not more obvious to me before that day, but it was not. Do parents of gay youngsters offer that support?

The second fantasy Kalter described was far less easy for me to understand. And it was this: children of divorce blame themselves for the divorce. I remember thinking, how, or why, can this be? Perhaps, I thought, this might be true of adolescents, acting out in negative ways as they pushed away from childhood, but otherwise it made little sense. Well, I’ve become a believer, for as I tell parents about this, I often see them shake their heads in sad acknowledgment.

The father of a seven year old once told me he overheard his son tell a playmate: if only I had done my homework, my parents would not have split.

Almost funny, if not so sad.

Most divorcing parents agonize over the impact on their children. But children of divorce, however difficult their transition to parents living apart, are not these days likely to be shamed by their peers. What a much greater challenge to somehow build a protective shield around gay young people who do fear being exposed to public humiliation.

Do they also fear abandonment and blame themselves?

The Talking Cure, Unfinished

It was some time ago that Evelyn phoned. Unhappy for several years, she was contemplating divorce, but remained unsure. Her speech was halting and her tone subdued. The children were grown and on their own, and she spoke of being seized with anxiety imagining a future alone.

Her husband, Hank, was described sympathetically, a good man who was downhearted as well, although unwilling to consider marriage counseling. I encouraged her not to leave the counseling decision to him alone, and to consider working with a therapist on her own.

Months later, Hank called to schedule mediation, reminding me of the earlier call from Evelyn. He said he was actually the one who had finally made the decision to end the marriage.

A week later when they walked into my office, to my surprise Evelyn presented as very self-assured. She soon proudly announced that she had completed therapy, and that her self-respect had been restored. An apparent success story, but it was not.

Evelyn’s posture, and the words she now chose, spoke of a determination to be assertive on her own behalf. This hardly seemed the same woman I’d talked with before, so my smile, although congratulatory, was not quite wholehearted. Something was off.

As we explored the data they had gathered and identified the issues to be resolved, Evelyn laced her comments with sarcasm, and a few sharp personal insults were directed at her husband. Hank’s jaw tightened, his face grim. Therapy, and perhaps other events of which I had no knowledge, had certainly fostered change, but for the better?

I often meet with divorcing parties who have worked with a counselor, gained confidence, and come to honor their new sense of self by speaking in a new way. Sometimes their statements are tinged with anger long repressed. Their determination to no longer simply endure unhappy circumstances suggests a significant catharsis. Many are then better able to serve their interests well. But for some, their new found assurance edges into belligerence, and their effort to negotiate a good outcome fails.

I’m tempted to offer Evelyn unsolicited advice, but I know this would neither be welcome nor wise. We all see the world through the lens of past experience, that known to us and that hidden from view, but influential nonetheless. It would be presumptuous of me, looking through my lens, to advise. But next time we meet, I will pose some questions for Evelyn and in private share my experience. As she expresses her new found strength, I ask myself, must Hank be diminished, denigrated?

Therapy often helps us to recognize and dissect actions of our parents that we may have translated into grievances. With maturity we come to accept, even forgive, their human frailties, along with our own. But being able to forgive when love fails with an intimate partner, especially if feeling rejected, is more of a challenge, the wounds so exposed and in the here and now.

The most valuable resource for achieving a positive negotiated outcome, which costs nothing in a monetary sense, is respect for the other. Yet, so often it is the most difficult thing to offer when a marriage is ending.

I will ask Evelyn: would she be willing to return for additional counseling, to seek an understanding of the roots of her anger, to go beyond personal validation.

Respect is the key, but not just self-respect.

The Unobserved Life

How many of today’s young are first stirred to shared sexual arousal in cars? For my generation this was often the case, for these were the years before coed dorms, and before the pill. We were able to slide across the bench-like front seat, whether moving or parked, and snuggle close. No bucket seats or cup holding consoles to form a barrier.

But, this brief essay is about cars, not sex. It’s about private space, the unobserved life that cars offered then, and in some important ways still do.

A few years ago, I was reading Richard Ford’s latest novel, “The Lay of the Land”, when shock-jock Don Imus made front page news with his mean spirited verbal assault on a young women’s sports team. For those like myself, who had never been part of the Imus audience, a window opened on this brand of controversial and often offensive talk-radio program. Many expressed surprise on learning that hundreds of thousands of listeners make these commentators a lucrative source of advertising income for the broadcasting networks.

I’d read about the profane rants of Howard Stern, but never actually listened, not even to our homegrown counterpart. Apparently every major venue has one.

But first, back to the book. Ford’s everyman protagonist, Frank Bascombe, is a realtor. In his car, either alone, or with colleagues or clients, he conducts both business and many meaningful personal conversations (often with himself) when driving the New Jersey countryside.

Ford’s query was: Why do so many things happen in cars? Are they the only interior life left?

Maybe so.

Many attempts have been made to analyze the audience of those angry white (mostly) men who make up the cadre of shock-jock radio personalities. They don’t simply provide the eroticism of a Lenny Bruce or a Hustler type display of blatant sexuality, although sexual innuendo is pervasive. Specific groups are targeted. Women, blacks, and gays are those most often denigrated.

One explanation for their popularity made sense to me. This is the rationale: time was when gathering to share sports talk or gossip at the office water cooler, or to ogle nude pinups in the back room, also afforded an opportunity to exchange the latest sexist or racist joke or slur. Even the surreptitious pat on the rump. Perhaps for some this was innocent fun. For others it was a way to assert their power and status as superior to those being ridiculed, workplace behavior which at least until the 1980s went unchallenged.

Then when women employed outside of their homes achieved a critical mass, behaviors previously acceptable were called into question. With the backing of supportive men, receptive legislators and the concurrence of jurists, the definition of  sex discrimination, as experienced in the work setting, was expanded and the word “harassment” entered our common vocabulary. The term “politically correct” was also born and bespoke a new standard, received with delight by some and with a cynical sneer by others.

Now, to return to the analysis I found persuasive: it is suggested that many of those tuned into drive-time radio, listening to mocking racist and sexist put-downs,  while resenting society’s new rules, are happily unrestrained, and free to guffaw or gloat in the privacy of their cars.

No doubt some wince. But all are secure in their unobserved life on wheels.

And do some hear the message on their ipod? The unobserved life on foot.

About Fathers

Time was, and not all that long ago, father brought home the bacon, and mother (while rocking the cradle) cooked it in the pan. But neither fathers nor mothers are who they once were. As new doors opened for women, men’s lives changed as well.

Some of my close friends are coming for brunch on Father’s Day to talk about our fathers, the part they played in who we became, how they influenced our relationships with our partners, our children and authority figures. Did we strive to perpetuate what we thought positive, and mindfully try to avoid repeating the negative? Were we successful?

The three fathers in my life were my husband’s, mine, and of course, Len as a father.

Len faced adversity many times, but I only witnessed his unrestrained tears at the funeral of his father, a man of Norwegian heritage, usually stern of face. He’d grown up poor with a commanding work ethic, an intellectual with only an eighth grade education. In the years I knew him, he was an electrician for the railroad and even in his sixties labored outside in Chicago’s cruel winter temperatures. Devoted and loyal to his wife and family, but undemonstrative, he was a man of few words and those often critical. A self-taught pianist, photographer and grower of exquisite flowers, in these endeavors he expressed pleasure and a sensuality that otherwise, even with close family members, seemed absent. I always thought of him as trapped, inside himself.

His son’s tearful regret was never having told his father he loved him.

With his own children, Len was a tender and affectionate father when they were young. He fed, bathed and got them to bed three nights a week for four years, while I attended evening law school classes at Chase. Later, as the 1970s approached, he struggled to adjust to the social turmoil: his sons’ hair length, raucous protests on the University campus and sexual mores turned upside down. Tensions rose in our family, especially with our adolescent sons. Len’s anger was visible, but repressed. He was, in a sense, at war with himself, believing in two opposite truths, the standards with which he was raised and the new freedoms unfolding.

Years later, in our children’s early adulthood, Len purposely sought to reestablish closeness. He took each of them, alone, on canoeing treks into the wilderness or on cross-country flights in his small plane, resolved to speak of and assure the parental love and approval he had so longed for, and wanting to be known for who he was in the present.

My very different experience, but also regret, is not having come to know my father better. I asked too few questions. Self-absorbed as an adolescent and then preoccupied with my own growing family and developing career, there were seldom private moments for intimate conversations when we visited. My mother was ever present, her persona more vivid. As a young teenager, my father traveled to America on his own to join other family members escaping the pogroms in Russia. He arrived speaking no English, but ten years later earned a law degree at N.Y.U. Off to work early and returning late during the depression years, and even thereafter, most of my childhood memories of him are indistinct, just of a kind and quiet presence, often humming some unrecognizable tune. When at home, I remember him reading, away from the center of activity. My parent’s love for each other seemed to me ever present, in the way they spoke and often touched. Troubling words either went unsaid or more likely were voiced behind closed doors.

I never told my father I loved him, but for that I have no regret, only gratitude for our having been so secure in our love for each other. His approval of me was evident in the warmth of his smile each time we met, even if unspoken.

Some of my friends tell of fathers who were autocratic, disapproving, and even cruel. Today I watch them with their loved ones, and witness tenderness, devotion and respect. I marvel at how they have reversed the tide, and wonder if their fathers were trapped, inside themselves.

The greatest gift the women’s movement gave to men was to move over and make room for them in the lives of their children. To nurture and know them, and be known by them.
But how many of us think we know our father as well as we know our mother?

The Little Notebook

Some time after my husband’s death, I emptied a deep top drawer of his desk and found, jammed into the very back, a small spiral notebook apparently long forgotten.

Written on the first page was a date in April, five years earlier, followed by the name of the neurologist who had diagnosed Len as having Parkinson’s Disease.

We had both noticed a slight drag of one of his feet, but just weeks before, he had fallen when snow-shoeing in the Cascades with our son-in-law and turned an ankle, so it was easy to discount his awkward gait. What I did not know at the time was that Len had become aware of a significant change in his handwriting, the letters becoming small and cramped. This symptom was one key to the initial, later confirmed, diagnosis.

Under the name of the doctor, Len had written:

“Make Changes:

“Live by the water”

“Wilderness fishing”

“More joyous times”

I stopped reading after those last three words, and for a moment was uncertain about turning to the next page. But mere seconds passed before my decision was made. Without further exploration, I tossed the notebook into the large trash bag at my feet, which already held the detritus of the other drawers.

Over our years together, unless offered, we never read each other’s mail. Sporadically, I wrote personal reflections in a journal. I didn’t hide it away. Without ever speaking of it, we honored each other’s privacy.

But was his privacy any longer a consideration? Was that really the cause of my decision, or was my hesitance to continue reading born of something else entirely? Might “more joyous times” imply a hidden dissatisfaction with his life, with our marriage?

Len, usually a man of few casually spoken words, in writing expressed himself clearly and with insight. Each of us would, from time to time, put on paper what was troubling us, and later share either what we’d written, or the concerns that had in this way been crystallized.

Eventually we talked and talked. Sometimes wept. Always, we came together.

No longer possible.

Looking back, I believe this was my thinking as I briefly held the small notebook in my hand:  Whatever secret yearnings Len wrote down on first learning of his diagnosis, might later actually have become part of our conversations, perhaps led to some meaningful shifts in our lives. There were many. Five years had passed since the writing. But perhaps he’d decided not to reveal the private thoughts he then had in mind.

We owe no one complete disclosure. Control over the measured sharing, the daily dance of enriching a relationship, is ours alone.

The memory of him I wanted was of how he chose to be known to me.

. . . . . . .

(Note: Len did indeed spend four of his last five years flying off to go fishing every chance he got.)

A Turn Around

He phoned after his first mediation session, and said he was considering withdrawing, having come to believe that I was biased against him. Although I apologized for creating that impression, I did not offer a denial. For I knew he was right.

Yet, silently, I excused my professional lapse. He had worn his arrogance like a badge. Self-righteous and proud, he had blamed the failure of his 22-year marriage entirely on his ungrateful departing wife.

Covertly, I had cheered her on.

Arrogance has always aroused in me a confusion of emotions. Scorn, heightened anxiety, perhaps even tinged with fear.

But his perception could not be ignored and as a mediator, I had failed. Could I reestablish my impartiality and bring him back to the table to negotiate the terms of their agreement, and avoid his simply throwing down the gauntlet? Or would my reaction to his show of conceit and disdain send them off to combat?

I consulted a colleague. Her advice: Try to genuinely empathize with how he’s feeling, and if you can, let him know that you do. Unless you connect with him in this way, simply educating him about reasonable settlement options won’t work.

Wondering if I could do so with sincerity, I determined to try.

I met with each party alone at the beginning of our next session. In his early fifties, a vital, attractive and financially successful man, he exuded both great assurance and despair. I deliberately put aside my previous mission of bringing him to recognize and accept the legal realities he faced. I focused on how he was feeling at that very moment and simply asked: Tell me how things are going.

He returned to the same story of disappointment, innocence and blame that I had heard before, but having deliberately removed my attorney/mediator mantle, I listened as might a friend, and found I could genuinely empathize with what he was feeling: wronged, betrayed, misunderstood and overwhelmingly sad. I did not, as I had before, try to get him to put aside these feelings. I actually felt a fondness for him. Sympathy required only understanding, not affirmation.

I apologized for my previous failure to fully appreciate his experience. And then asked: how can I be helpful to you?

We talked at length.

He posed all the right questions, and now, working with someone who recognized and accepted his genuine angst, he could hear what I had to say. He was ready to be pragmatic.

I’ve learned something important.

We develop ways of successfully performing our many roles, as parent, spouse, friend, and in our work life. Over time, what seems effective and comfortable becomes part of our standard script. Sometimes we respond having made an accurate assessment of the behaviors we witness. But how often, without conscious thought, or the wisdom of restraint, do we react in response to our own past experience, to emotional triggers that have little to do with the person before us in the present? Then, if our communication fails, we blame the other.

If a reflexive response to the actions of another derails the conversation, questioning the source of our own emotional reaction, and putting it aside, to listen with understanding and empathy, may cause a meaningful and positive shift in how we communicate and relate.

Which is how I hope to be received, when it is my crisis on center stage.

Soul Mates: Reality or Myth?

Some weeks ago, I shared dinner at my home with a friend I’ve become close to in the years since the death of my husband. She never knew him, but I often spoke to her about him, about us.

On this evening, I showed her a collage of photos taken at different stages of our marriage: in our college years, with small ones on our laps, family vacations, and after our children were grown and we were once again on our own. As with most family photos on display, they show us smiling, attractive children, arms entwined, all of us happy together.

She commented: You two were soul mates, weren’t you?

I was surprised by this, and don’t remember my response, probably just a somewhat hesitant nod. We had also been talking about her marriage, which seemed fine overall, but on this night her words were tinged with disappointment.

Weeks went by before we met again. In the interim, I thought often about her use of the term “soul mates,” and was troubled. Not a phrase I would ever have used.

For over fifty years, Len and I were loved well by each other, most of the time. But we were not soul mates, as I understand the meaning of this new age term: being the totally compatible perfect other half, fated to be together, intimates speaking the same language.That was not our reality.

In his absence, and missing him so, it is the better times that are most often brought back to mind and talked about. But I didn’t want my friend to look to us as an ideal for comparison, against which she might find cause to be discouraged about her own marriage when they were cycling through a trying time.

I needed to tell her that the ideal is a fiction.

Michelle Obama has done this well. Untold articles are written about the Obama marriage. Pictures of them holding hands and smiling are beamed to every corner of the globe. How my admiration for her grew on reading a recent NYTimes Magazine article in which both she and the President were candid about unhappy interludes: “The image of a flawless relationship is ‘the last thing that we want to project,’ she said. ‘It’s unfair to the institution of marriage, and it’s unfair for young people who are trying to build something, to project this perfection that doesn’t exist.’ ”

Len and I came to accept, as the years went by, that many of our interests were not shared. We set aside the romantic dream that somehow we could be all things to each other. Over time we became more autonomous as we alternately fostered each other’s careers and longings. Our mutual attraction, respect, and our growing family, this was the glue that carried us through the difficult days.

Most often when we were out of sync, we muddled through on our own, all the while struggling with very different communication styles (a special debt of gratitude is owed to Professor Deborah Tannen for writing “You Just Don’t Understand”). But occasionally, a therapist was enlisted to offer a different lens, a new perspective. Invariably, confronting unhappiness brought us closer.

Now, looking back, it’s tempting to generalize from our personal experience when friends comment on or ask about our long successful marriage. But respecting the unique personalities and circumstances of others, I desist. It suffices to say we were lucky to have met, to have shared a determination to problem solve, and to have had a love that carried us through the scary times.

But we were never soul mates.

The Introvert’s Dilemma

Picture this David Sipress cartoon: two couples meet on a street corner. One of the men has placed his hands over his eyes. His female companion says: It’s too late, Roger . . . they’ve seen us.

This image has me chuckling each time I think about it. It brings to mind how I felt upon moving to Cincinnati in the late 1950′s, relocating from New York City when Len completed his graduate studies.

At times, what I loved most about life in that bustling coastal metropolis was being anonymous. When I went out of my immediate neighborhood to shop or just meander, I was almost certain to meet no one I knew. Already a wife and mother, when I had time to myself, I wanted no intrusion into ­­that private world in which I could be one of the many, but solitary and unobserved.

True, once settled in our new community I enjoyed becoming known, chatting with other parents as we strolled with our babies, or dropping a youngster off at school. But when I ventured out alone to the grocery, or was able to escape downtown or to a library, if I caught a glimpse of someone I knew (as often seemed to happen), I wanted to hide and sometimes did. I yearned to recapture my treasured anonymity.

Even in my twenties I was well aware of these feelings, so now if I wish I could disappear from view to avoid an unexpected meeting with an acquaintance, or opt out of a social meet and greet, I know it’s not simply a factor of growing older. Some suggest it is the mark of the introvert. Initially I found this hard to accept for I’m not an unfriendly sort or indifferent to the world about me. Nothing satisfies me more than a leisurely conversation with someone I’m close to, or fully engaging with people at work.

Friends and family have offered their analysis of my wish to avoid the social whirl.

Says my daughter: rarely does a brief chance meeting result in a conversation worth having. Just a how are you, fine, what’s new with you, in a hurry, so must dash. Mom, you just have no tolerance for being bored.

True.

Says my son: you are addicted to the work you love to do, so want to complete those other tasks life requires without distraction, so you can return to what you’d rather be doing.

True.

Says my friend Bob: You take responsibility for helping to solve the problems of those who share their plight with you. By avoiding them, you avoid being pulled into their world, a self-protective move.

Perhaps true.

I know there are many others who feel the way I do, always seeking to evade the requisite cordiality of the social chat, wishing to completely control our own time. And, I also know that for many, the balancing point of this push-pull of yearning for both human connection and autonomy is quite different. For them, the extroverts, I imagine even a chance encounter is seen as an opening to unknown and welcome possibilities, energizing.

Yet, all too often for those of us who are introverts, the unplanned meeting or the mandated social gathering finds us bemoaning the fact that:  It’s too late, Roger.

When Argument Is Futile

Although Dave and Jayne mutually decided they needed the intervention of a mediator, once seated in my office they ignored my presence. Their conversation quickly became an argument, their voices raised and strident. After a time I interrupted and asked: has this worked for you in the past? Do you manage to change each other’s minds?

They responded in unison: never!

As their marriage crumbled over recent months, their lives had spiraled out of control, their teenage son a reluctant bystander. Now his grades were in free fall.

A friend had referred Jayne to a doctor who diagnosed their son as having attention deficit disorder and prescribed medication. But Dave had grown up with an aversion to the use of any drugs, particularly those he saw as “fooling with the brain”. He believed the problem was psychological, and he urged that all three of them enter family therapy, or at least have their son work with a psychologist.

Jayne had no faith in Dave’s approach, and was derisive about talk therapy and’”shrinks”. She trusted the doctor who made the ADD diagnosis, and had spoken with other parents who described their child’s miraculous turnaround.

When I asked, both acknowledged that they were echoing beliefs held by the family in which they had grown up, although on this day they were armed with internet research supporting their divergent views. Neither gave the other’s data even cursory attention.

The question: would they be able to give up their determination to change the mind of the other and agree on a plan to rescue their son? If not, would they have to let a judge decide? This was a path dreaded equally by both.

Although we may reject some of our parent’s convictions, how often do we discard the viewpoints we adopted when young, in light of later life experience? Do we discount as exceptional the evidence that doesn’t fit with our basic assumptions? Often, I think we do.

We took a break for coffee, and when calm they agreed to try a more pragmatic approach:

First we reviewed their present circumstances. Even if restating the obvious, this placed them firmly in the here and now. I said:

-You’re both still hurt and angry, just beginning to heal.

-Your son is struggling to keep his head above water in school.

- So far, you can’t agree on a plan, but you’ve each developed some possible strategies.

- And you’ve decided not to turn the decision over to the Court.

Next we considered their choices and the possible consequences. The discussion that followed was less blaming and with fewer references to the past. Eventually they developed these options:

- Dave agreed to meet with the doctor Jayne had chosen, if she would join him to talk with a psychologist he selected. She consented.

- Jayne suggested a joint meeting with their pediatrician, always trusted in the past. Dave agreed.

- Jayne had already met with their son’s teachers but offered to go again, with Dave.

We talked about where these steps could lead if both were committed to listen with an open mind. Either might change their view and proceed with the choice of the other, or not. But in any case, they would have more data, have heard it together, and been able to ask questions of the “experts”.

So, a plan was in place.

The actual solution: Jayne decided to avoid the delay needed to schedule and keep all these appointments, and agreed to start family counseling right away, and Dave agreed that if after three months their son was still struggling with school, medication would be given a try. After family counseling began, they met with the doctor Jayne had seen, and with their pediatrician.

Conclusion: Once recrimination about the past is set aside and the futility of argument is recognized, this process can work for many:

- clearly state the current circumstances which must be faced

- develop possible choices for moving forward

- analyze the likely consequences of each choice

Sometimes, as with Dave and Jayne, just going through these steps can cause a shift from impasse to movement.

Change That Did Not Just Happen

This is a true story about a courageous lawyer who forty years ago, at a time when bigotry was still disguised as the natural order of things, refused to accept the status quo.
In the mid-1960s, the man I write about was a partner in a medium sized Cincinnati law firm. Although at the time I shared many of his beliefs and values, I did not know him, nor share his legal acumen, or his courage.
We lived in the same neighborhood when this story began. I’d heard a lot about the controversy into which he boldly stepped, as it was actively followed by local newspapers for several years, and was a daily topic of conversation, pitting neighbor against neighbor.
Here is what occurred: In 1964, Robert O’Brien, a Unitarian Minister, sold his house on a desirable tree shaded street to a black family, a first, since ours was then a middle-class exclusively white part of town. The purchaser, Dr. Nelson Perry, had been hired to be a faculty member at the University of Cincinnati School of Medicine. Accompanied by his wife, Agnes, and their three children, our community was surely the most reasonable place to settle, in close proximity to the campus and many hospitals. Reverend O’Brien was vilified, the leaders of his church besieged with angry calls.
There were neighbors who welcomed the Perrys and those who responded to their presence with hostile acts. But it was an incident surrounding their youngest son, Mike, a fifth grader, which caused the greatest stir. A classmate invited him to be his guest at Clifton Meadows, a private club to which many residents belonged. This is where many of our children, both members and their guests, learned to swim.
Joan Seaman Robinson, the parent who accompanied her son, Jeff, and the friend he’d brought along for a swim, was not allowed to take Mike past the entrance to the pool. Not easily put off, before leaving she insisted on speaking with the Club manager, who told her that Club policy did not permit Negro guests, a stance that was subsequently confirmed by a vote of the Trustees, and later by a majority vote of the entire Club membership. A white-guests-only policy was formally adopted.
History lesson: These events took place some fifteen years after President Truman integrated the armed forces, ten years after Brown v. Board of Education, six years after the color barrier was removed at our local Coney Island’s Sunlite pool (following wide-spread and highly publicized demonstrations and arrests), and one year after the assassination of JFK. Voting rights legislation was enacted in the year that followed.
Word of the pool incident quickly spread and sides were taken.
A personal story of my own: My family, Len then an Assistant Professor of geology at the University, did not belong to the Club, as we spent our summers in Montana where Len taught and studied the origin of mountain ranges. Some years before the Perry’s arrived, we had moved with our young brood to a quiet cul-de-sac, and were warmly welcomed. Then, about the time Mike Perry was turned away at the pool, a neighbor of ours invited all of those who lived nearby into his living room to tell us of his decision to sell his home on the “open market,” code words denoting that it would be offered for sale without the standard non-white exclusion.
The reaction to his announcement was explosive. For over an hour vitriolic language and warnings of reduced property values filled the air. The angry shouts directed at the host shocked me into silence, Len as well. I did not, nor did anyone else, speak up in support of the homeowner, who subsequently changed his mind. Len and I walked home that evening feeling sad, but impotent, and frankly frightened by the level of rage expressed. Yard-side talk was hushed in the days and months that followed. A year later I entered law school. Fair housing legislation did not pass until four years later, in 1968, one week after the assassination of Martin Luther King.
Until the Mike Perry incident, the fact that Clifton Meadows was for whites only was so unremarkable, there had been no need to state the obvious in writing. When the Trustees adopted a formal policy banning Negros as guests, some were benevolent and accepted that the Perrys might be fine people, but insisted that they were exceptions to racial type.
Those of good will were not completely silent, but most expressed their disapproval to like-minded friends in the privacy and safety of their living rooms. Repeatedly heard was the suggestion that “these things take time.” There were exceptions. Judge Gilbert Bettman, outspoken in his opposition to the discriminatory policy, stood for election to the Board, but was soundly defeated.
So, segregation triumphed. And several years later, the Perrys moved to another city. But the crisis did not dissipate. If anything, tensions escalated. There were parents who would not allow their children to play with the children of those who’d taken the opposite side. Eventually forty member families (who came to be known as the “furious forty”), having failed in an attempt to change Club policy, decided to resign in protest. That decision further defined the role of the man of courage I describe.
After his graduation from the University of Cincinnati in 1942, he served in the Pacific as a captain in the Marines during World War II, and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1948. In the spring of 1968, he stepped beyond his advisory role for the “furious forty” and with a U.C. Professor of psychology as the named plaintiff, filed an action in the Federal District Court, challenging the white-guests-only policy. But Clifton Meadows was a private club, not a public accommodation, so victory was certainly not assured. Yet, ultimately a Consent Decree was negotiated prohibiting discrimination against any guest on the grounds of race, color, religion or national origin. Two Board members later changed their minds and filed to set aside the Consent Decree, unsuccessfully. They then appealed to the Sixth Circuit, which affirmed the trial court.* The fight had lasted five years.
Perhaps some readers have guessed that the man I honor is Art Spiegel, who bravely stood up against the odds in his quest for justice, long before he was appointed to the Federal Bench. In a memoir written some years ago he explained how his own early experiences with anti-semitism led him to fight on behalf of others:
“I had experienced incidents of prejudice or persecution which made me have doubts about myself and which created strong, ambivalent feelings: on the one hand, to feel that something was lacking, to accept being a loser, not to try to succeed or win with a maximum effort because of the fear or expectation of failing or losing, yet, on the other hand to be angered and to be challenged to rise above the insults and prove my worth.”
How many of us can identify, with regret and perhaps shame, those times we could have spoken out but remained silent? Even if few of us today would choose to live in a neighborhood not open to all, or choose to swim in a pool that limited access to whites only, it wasn’t always so. For many, the 1960s are but a dim memory, if a memory at all. But the time of which my story tells is significant when taking the measure of this man.
Before the history of the change-makers fades, attention should be paid to those who stood up courageously to challenge the injustice of the status quo that “decent” people in Cincinnati accepted without question, less than 40 years ago. Change does not just happen.

*Allinsmith v. Funke, 421 F.2d 1350 (6thCir. 1970)
Note: An article published by the Vanderbilt University Press in 2004, written by Michael H. Hoffheimer, Professor of Law and Mississippi Defense Lawyers Association Distinguished Lecturer at the University of Mississippi School of Law, enhanced my recall of these events.The Hoffheimer family lived across the street from the home purchased by the Perrys. Mike H. became a close childhood friend of Mike P., both fifth graders at the time.

Caught Off Guard

Last week, I was knocked back on my heels, not literally, but the impact was real, and recovery surprisingly slow.

The mediation sessions I was conducting had proceeded, at intervals, for several months. From the outset, the husband’s intensity, his determination to control a situation in which he felt out of control, was clear. His wife was seeking a divorce he did not want.

I always question both parties privately on the day we first meet. I ask about their negotiating style, aware of the importance of uncovering a history of past intimidation, whether physical or not.

She reported there were times when during an argument he would shout at her, and sometimes prevent her from leaving a room by blocking the doorway. I did not take this information lightly, even though she assured me that after many months of counseling, she felt strong and believed she could withstand any undue pressure brought to bear by him in the decision making process. Should I have known better than to proceed?

As it turned out, she did well. I did not.

They were almost finished. Relatively minor details remained to be settled. Although pressing to quickly terminate the painful process, he made unrealistic demands she would not accept. Then, something I said in my effort to lead them to compromise triggered a rage I’d never before experienced. He shouted, not at her, but at me. Over and over he told me I was incompetent, didn’t know what I was doing, and loudly insisted they had wasted their time and money.

(When I later tried to recreate a mental picture of the event, I’m seated and he, a large framed man, is standing and looming over me, although I know that was actually not the case. He only stood when he rose to walk away.)

Well schooled in what to do on such occasions, I did just the opposite. When he raised his voice, I raised mine. I ordered him to leave. He would not. I countered his intemperate words with my own. The situation did not calm, but escalated. It went in waves, quiet for a moment and then crashing once again.

Did I fear a physical assault? I did not, even with hindsight. But the verbal blows hit their mark. My heartbeat was rapid, my breathing shallow, and I think it remained so, off and on for days, as I repeatedly brought the scene back to mind.

With hindsight, this is what I should have done: Remain quiet and breathe deeply to calm myself, and take a mental time-out to refocus on my goal. Then try hard to understand what was going on in the mind of the one in the grip of negative emotion, try to calculate what upset him to the point of verbal attack. I took none of these intelligent steps.

Foolishly, I had failed to mentally prepare myself in advance, even knowing of the potential for his volatility.

Roger Fisher, author and negotiation teacher from whom I’ve learned so much, asked a student in a workshop I attended many years ago: what are the three most important things to do in advance of starting to negotiate? The right answer: prepare, prepare, and prepare.

We all negotiate every day, with a partner or spouse, a teenager, the dry cleaner. Most often we do so without much advance thought and no immediate crisis arises, although unhelpful patterns are often repeated and tensions then build in our important relationships.

I saw a picture on the front page of my newspaper this week of a 14 year old in a hooded sweatshirt, slumped on a park bench. She had run away from home after an argument with her mother. I read on to learn that the number of runaways has sharply increased in recent years. Although most of these kids return home within a week, a third of those who do not, end up selling sex in order to survive. In the aftermath of my own experience, I imagined the argument that led to this serious breach, the risk to the child, and the grief of that mother.

Might it have gone differently had that encounter been prepared for in advance?

I plan to be prepared for the next time.

A Thoughtless Greeting

It used to be forty, then fifty, now maybe even fifty-five, before women start to notice that no one is noticing. Add an additional ten years for men. Most of us make peace with advancing invisibility as we age. We can take pride in what we’ve become, what we’ve learned, what we are still able to achieve. Then, surprisingly, even a small stab can deflate a well-earned sense of self.

Here’s my story.

I am visiting a new doctor, a well-reputed specialist. The waiting room is crowded, many of the patients past middle age, some very elderly with another in attendance. The office staff exudes efficiency and a friendly ease.

Before long I am ushered into an examination room, one in a row of six or seven.

Eye drops are administered and some basic questions asked by an assistant, my answers noted for later review by the busy physician. A smile, a magazine and a not too long wait is promised, and I am left alone.

Soon I become aware the doctor is in the examining room next to mine. He is talking to someone about the process of reapplication for a driver’s license which has lapsed, the tests to be anticipated, how to avoid likely obstacles. I conjecture that the patient is hard of hearing as the doctor’s voice is raised. His tone is gentle, unhurried and indulgent. The listener’s responses are barely audible.

I am warmed by this doctor’s caring way, the sensitivity with which he addresses the elderly patient who I assume is vulnerable and confused. I will praise this kind doctor, soon, when we meet.

He knocks and enters, smiling, and with his hand outstretched in greeting says: Hello, young lady, how are you doing?

I feel diminished, categorized, even disrespected. I am not young. Please, doctor, do not call me “young lady”. This strips me of dignity. Young women are 25 and under. You can use my full name, or no name at all.

But these words, although screamed, are unspoken. I simply say: Hello.

My rehearsed words of praise for him are swallowed.

I have lived many years and value the richness of my experience. Joy, and sadness, both in good measure, and good health, allow me to look to the future with optimism, accepting the deficits of aging. But I want my status recognized, not made a foolishness.

Did he view his greeting as a kindness, or was it simply thoughtless ineptitude? And does it matter in the larger scheme of things?

Yes, it does.

Who Else Is In Bed?

Many moons ago, I read a clever observation by a psychologist, that there are always six people in every marriage bed: husband, wife and both sets of parents. A recent experience reminded me that we never travel down the path to any decision truly alone.

The story: A young couple was slowly working their way through all of the trauma and difficult choices for planning their lives as parents when no longer married. Their very young child seemed to be adapting to the sea change in their lives with greater ease than either of them, they so much more aware and worried about life without love, and with financial hardship.

Although divided about many things, from the outset of mediationthey were completely in sync about their goals for their child, and even for promoting each other’s chances for future well-being. Splitting up their accumulated assets was easy, coping with their high mortgage payments less so. Yet, some decisions for the short term were possible, because for a few years the husband, a medical researcher, was willing to contribute the lion share of his income to retain the marital residence, for the sake of stability, and to avoid a fire sale in a weak housing market. And as their child was so young, he readily agreed that his wife should not seek a job until their daughter was school age. He would rent a small apartment nearby and live frugally. Grandparents stood ready to help out a bit financially. The chips were all falling into place.

And then they weren’t.

His lawyer strongly objected to the level of support he proposed to contribute for the next two years, saying: No court would ever make you pay so much. She’s bleeding you dry. She needs to get a job and help with the mortgage, or sell the house. I can’t let you do this.

On their return to mediation he announced he had changed his mind, and his wife was soon in tears. He asked to speak with me alone.

His words: It isn’t just my lawyer, although she says I’m being a fool, but it’s everyone else too. Since I’m the one who’s leaving, I’m made out to be the bad guy. But trust me, we’ve both been miserable for a long time. My friends say I’m crazy, letting my guilt get ahead of my reason. I want her to keep the house, and be a full-time mom, but maybe it’s just not possible.

I took note of his use of the word “maybe,” recognizing the pull between where his heart led him, and the dictates of his lawyer, and his need to seem forceful in the eyes of his friends. These bystanders, who likely saw themselves as fulfilling their role as advocate and as loyal supporters, fueled an anger and resentment he’d not previously expressed.

Ironically, selling the house now, likely at a loss, might well leave them less financially secure. Could his wife, a graphic artist, find a job earning enough to even meet the cost of their child’s day care?  And most important, what would happen to the ease that had evolved as he and his wife now related as parents? He nodded his understanding when these questions were raised, but said only that he needed more time to think it over.
Would he be strong enough to withstand the judgment of his lawyer, and his friends, who portrayed him as impotent and her as domineering?

His compatriots, invisible contributors to the decisions he faced when negotiating in my office, were sabotaging his better judgment. A group decision was being made. Could he pull himself away and stand alone?

His wife was out of the marriage bed, but many others had climbed in.

A Bittersweet Gift

The room was crowded. We’d never met before, but when she learned about my work with divorcing couples, she made her way to where I stood, and after a brief introduction, in a derisive tone she said: I think divorce is far too easy these days. People are so self-centered they don’t even give a second thought to destroying a family.

Her words suggested a bitter personal history. I opted not to respond to the challenge and moved off, ending a conversation that had hardly begun. Perhaps I should have stayed to talk, for my experience belies her remark. I know well that the decision to end an intimate relationship is always complex and emotionally wrenching, especially when children will have their lives turned upside down.

Many ponder, sometimes for years, whether they should stay together for the sake of their children. Some, of course, do, and successfully weather a difficult time. For others, even after seeking professional help, a different answer is reached.

Another question, usually asked by the partner for whom the decision may have already been made, is: What example am I setting for my children if they rarely witness any expression of love or affection between parents living in a sea of unhappiness? Or worse, living with pervasive conflict, a child’s shifting loyalty the prize tacitly sought.

I recently completed mediation sessions with an emotionally mature couple who, after counseling and much thought, decided to end their marriage. It was a melancholy time, particularly for the partner less ready to move on and away, but both struggled to keep their focus on the stability they hoped to provide for their children midst the sea change in their lives. As they negotiated, they compromised on some significant financial issues, avoiding what might otherwise have taken months, or even years, to resolve at the courthouse.

They were still living under the same roof, and tension had been high in their home, with none of the mending moments of intimacy enjoyed in the past. Yet, most of the time they managed to maintain civility and respect, particularly in the presence of their children. Early on in the mediation process, they’d consulted with a child psychologist to devise the best plan for telling the children about their decision, and to help them adjust to the changes to come.

As we prepared to part at the end of their final hour with me, I commended them for their efforts and said: In today’s world, the likelihood is great that when your children are older, they’ll engage in a number of loving, committed relationships before they decide to marry, perhaps some of lengthy duration. A marriage may later fail. You have modeled for them how an intimate partnership can end with caring and dignity, and how parents can continue to provide loving protection for their children. One day yours will be able to bond with another with added courage to be true to themselves, with security born of knowing that their parents worked through the most difficult time of their lives taking good care of the ones they continued to love, and even each other. Saddened, but not destroyed. What a wonderful, if bittersweet, gift you’ve given them.

They left with somber smiles and tears in their eyes.

Valued Only In The Marketplace: Part II

In this commentary I revisit a story I told some time ago. But the ending has changed.

After living in the same home for over forty years, I moved twice, each time to less space, requiring the jettison of many belongings, retaining only the essentials and our most treasured possessions. Len and I were least willing to part with the artwork we’d collected over more than fifty years. Some pieces we gifted to children and friends, but those with greatest meaning still surround me and lift my spirits.  Many have a story to be told.

One such painting is by an artist of some note living in the northeast. My mother studied with him in the 1960′s and a close friendship developed between them. I admired those of his works that hung in my parent’s home, beautifully executed impressionist oils. Some had a haunted quality, understandably, as they derived from the suffering and losses of the artist’s family during the holocaust, and his later return to the remains, the reminders.

As the years went by, his work was displayed in well-established N.Y.C. galleries and sold for ever more substantial sums, greatly enhancing the family’s income, his share soaring well beyond his wife’s salary as a teacher.

I followed the advancing career of this man each time I talked of the art world with my mother. Several books of his work were published. But, after a visit of his family with my mother in the mid-1980′s, he then sixty-seven, I learned that none of his paintings were any longer being offered for sale.

This is the story I was told: The artist had been diagnosed with a serious illness and given a poor prognosis. His response to this grim news was to make a pact, just with whom I’m not sure, that if his illness was arrested and his health restored, he would never again sell another painting. Even before his ominous health forecast, he had begun to question the negative impact of commerce on his own and the work of others, thinking that free of “the market” he could explore wherever his art (or muse) might lead. He decided he would only make gifts of his work, to the museums and schools that sought his donations.

His health was restored. He continued to paint, his work ever more evolved, but never again to be sold.

Some years after my mother’s death, my husband and I were traveling through upstate New York and decided to visit the artist’s home. We were warmly greeted and soon shown into the climate controlled storage facility in his basement. It was filled to overflowing with what appeared to be well over a hundred canvasses, the collection of more than a decade. A remarkable feast for our eyes, but seen only by those who traveled to his modest country home.

As we talked, we learned he had offered his paintings to museums and universities previously eager to have them. Some accepted, but most did not. Puzzling. Apparently, because his paintings were no longer being exhibited in galleries and sold as in the past, at exalted prices, their value was called into question.

What I had to ask: Is it that one’s labor has no meaning unless it is validated by the marketplace? At least in this case, so it appeared.

But there is an addendum to this story. This week I googled the artist, now in his nineties, and learned that his grandchildren had prevailed upon him to display his works online, on a website they created and manage. They are not for sale, but in 2006 an agreement was reached with a Foundation whereby all of his past and future work would be owned, administered and ultimately dispersed.

The Internet and his grandchildren offer a different answer to my question.

The Allure of Self-Justification

Inadvertently, or thoughtlessly, I so angered a colleague that she ended our phone conversation by abruptly hanging up.

I can’t remember another time when someone’s anger played out in this way. Dazed, unbelieving, the dark screen of my phone in hand, I tried to replay the back and forth talk. But except for a phrase or two, at that moment I could not. Something she said had evoked my laughter, which she took as a lack of respect for her, and she said just that. Then despite my quick brief apology, she said a firm goodbye and broke the connection.

I had placed the call with a specific goal in mind, to change my colleague’s thinking about advice she’d given to one of my mediation clients. I considered my position so well reasoned, this hardly seemed a daunting task. But it was. She found no merit in my perspective, and presented her own. I then refuted her thinking as she did mine. Neither of us asked thoughtful questions of the other, only critiques. Until finally, my laugh, and the abrupt ending.

After a few moments I turned to other tasks, unsuccessfully. So I phoned a friend who I knew would lend both her support and humor to my rant, and help me analyze what had just taken place. She was reassuring, concluding that the other’s angry manner was wholly uncalled for, and urged that it simply be disregarded. That was calming, for a time, and eventually I turned to my evening’s planned diversions and put the matter out of mind.

But the morning light brought an unease I could not put aside.

Why was so much tension injected into a call that began with a friendly exchange, both of us expressing appreciation for our renewed contact? As we talked, the difference in our viewpoints expanded. We became adversaries. Did either of us seriously listen to what the other had to say, really try to understand? I had to acknowledge that I had not. If I had, would she have done the same? I’d allowed the consultation I sought, to seek options for resolution of an issue, to evolve into a reckless debate.

I began to see clearly how I had then succumbed to the allure of self-justification, how easy it is to blame another when a conversation goes awry.

By mid-morning, I emailed a sincere apology for my role in the donnybrook, reaffirmed my respect for her, and suggested we get together for lunch, for a more relaxed exchange.

Some hours later she replied: Apology accepted. . . having an extremely rushed week with complications . . . I will call you to schedule lunch. Thanks for your message.

Here’s what I know: We see the issues under discussion very differently, perhaps do not even share the same values on these points. But we can certainly come to better understand and respect each other’s viewpoint, even if we cannot agree. Next time I will really listen, and probe for understanding. Perhaps she will mirror my approach. Perhaps not.

We just might develop some creative solutions. And even if we don’t, I’ll be at ease.

Just Being There

There are times when just being a silent presence, or even the promise of being present, makes a difference. For instance:
……………

As a mediator, sought out by troubled partners, I sometimes find that my wisdom seems all but superfluous.

They are parting ways. Making the decision took many months, but at the end both acknowledged that efforts to change and please the other failed. In preliminary phone conversations each told me that the blaming was over, but important financial decisions were yet to be made. They had tried, sat together at the kitchen table and talked over coffee. But as he probed, she fell silent. Their efforts to reach common ground evoked old miseries and tensions. So, they decided to come and sit with me.

Just my presence in the room, a safe place, released the conversation previously withheld. I directed the verbal traffic, turning first to one, an eyebrow raised at the other, but I remained silent and took notes, as new understandings were reached. I added barely a word here or there, nothing of substance, and quite on their own they talked through their issues and the road forward cleared. The earlier promise of civility, made by both to each other, was kept.

My being there as their sounding board, listening to the ping-pong of their earnest conversation, somehow helped to keep them in check and respectful, provided a structure and placed boundaries on their discourse. My very presence, offering but a hand gesture now and then, allowed them to listen, and really hear what each needed to say.
………….

I sat by the bed of a dying friend who was in and out of consciousness, by turn calm and agitated. Waiting until she opened her eyes and met my gaze, I asked her if there was anything I could do for her. She told me she’d written but not yet delivered a check for her son’s birthday. Could I see that he received it? Of course. Did I imagine that she then eased as we just continued to hold hands until her husband returned? I was comforted just being there, and think she was as well.
………….

Garrison Keillor tells a story about the years he attended Lake Wobegon High School. He had a storm home. Some residents of the town volunteered to provide emergency shelter during the cold winter months. Each youngster was assigned a specific house to go to in the event a blizzard made it impossible to get to their own home in the countryside. He told of the many times he walked past the house selected for him, picturing the people who lived there, who he did not know, hoping one day  he’d be welcomed as part of their family for a day or two. It never happened. But Keillor talked warmly of that safe place, imagining how it would have been, an offer of hot chocolate, a crackling fire in the hearth as the wind howled outside, and he with them, cozy and secure. He said his troubles were more bearable just knowing he had a storm home to go to.
…………..

At times, a friendly non-judgmental person listening in on a difficult conversation provides the gentle restraint that keeps the talk from being derailed by emotion.

Our dearest friends offer to be present should a crisis arise, or at a lonely time. They may never have to be called upon, but how comforting when these words are spoken: Be sure to call if you need me.

They promise to be present, to open their door.

We all need the assurance of a hand to hold, someone to just be there, a storm home.

What’s The Payoff?

Dear M and D:

Were you as relieved as I was when you left my office? Witnessing the animosity, blame and disrespect with which you assault each other, leaves me both amazed and dismayed. Did you feel equally disheartened? Or, perhaps you welcomed having a safe haven in which to publicly expose your frustration and anger. You test both my skill and endurance. Can I possibly help you resolve your issues?

From time to time I’m faced with warring parents, long divorced like you, who’ve never given up the fight. I have only questions, no answers.

You tell me you recognize that your daughters are troubled, and you both acknowledge that in the face of your open conflict this is hardly surprising. Child specialists teach that children internalize the character, the essence, of both parents, and to the extent one parent denigrates the other, the child’s self-esteem is diminished. You both bear witness to the damage being done.

This is what I wondered about you after you left: was yours a studied performance, or were you out of control? Were you playing out a lack of satisfaction in your individual lives? Are you howling at the moon, and not just at each other? Or are you following an old childhood script, never having learned another? It was surely a passionate dance I witnessed, alternately one of you leading, the other in pursuit.

A psychiatrist friend I talk with about conduct I observe and cannot understand, shared his insights by asking: what’s the payoff? What benefits are these parents each receiving by their persistent warfare? He says we revert to those ways that are personally satisfying: the relief of stress, some imbalance set right, or perhaps the comfort of behavior consistent with our early experience, even when hurtful. Likely unseen by another, these rewards support the pattern of actions that repeat and repeat.

I know I see only the surface of your relationship, and I don’t have the analytical skill to draw conclusions. But what’s the payoff? Does keeping your conflict alive serve you in some important way? Perhaps even allow you to remain connected?

Am I wrong, or in the midst of your refusal to give even an inch in the direction of the other, did I glimpse in some offhand comments a hint that there are times, when out of view, you relate with a measure of civility and respect? Or is this wishful thinking on my part? Might there be some remnant of feeling that could be tapped by you as parents, to come to the rescue of your daughters?

When you left, did you feel better or worse?

In both of you, I recognize intelligence and love for your children, a genuine concern for their safety and well-being. But no willingness (or ability?) to protect them from the animosity you express toward each other.

If your kids crash, as I fear they will, is it only their behaviors that will be addressed? For their sakes, might each of you be willing to seek some path to greater self-awareness and ask yourselves: what’s the payoff?

They are learning from you how to live their lives.

Will you one day reap the whirlwind?

They Will Take Another Look

My fantasy: a conversation with each of the Justices of the United States Supreme Court. Since it is make-believe, I will be insightful and articulate, not restrained by awe. The question I’ll ask is: can you be free of bias, old messages, when deciding a case where race or sex discrimination is alleged?

This is a daydream, so there will be no equivocation, and they will each start their response with the same word: Absolutely.

The storytellers among them may then talk of how they became sensitized, by a wife, or more likely a daughter, or perhaps an African-American colleague, and will describe how their consciousness was raised. For many years now, the evolving civil rights and women’s movements have reeducated all of us.

I believe the Justices will speak with sincerity. The State and Federal Court Judges in my own community would surely answer the question in the same way. Perhaps to a confidante some might admit to a residual bias that surfaces in their personal lives. Never on the Bench.

But they would be wrong, even the Supremes. Either lacking in self-knowledge or too well schooled in P.C. I know this because even though I would choose to deny harboring prejudiced thoughts, it is true of me as well, and readily admitted to by my most liberal friends, when willing to be forthright. Biases instilled when we were young, born of a parent’s disdain, or fear of the stranger in our midst, can be reasoned away, but rarely entirely erased.

So, at important moments we need to be reminded, and the presence of someone outside our own group (those we grew up with as equals), provides that reminder.

The nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor is making us take another look, and ask a legitimate question: does it really matter that she is a woman, and an Hispanic? I think so.

Justice Scalia, interviewed by journalist and author Juan Williams, said of Justice Thurgood Marshall, “He wouldn’t have to open his mouth to affect the nature of the conference and how seriously the conference would take the matter of race.”

A 2005 study by Jennifer L. Peresie published in the Yale Law Journal found that the presence of a female judge on a three-judge panel significantly increased the probability that a male judge supported the plaintiff in a sex discrimination or sexual harassment case. In fact, she found that “panels with at least one female judge decided cases for the plaintiff more than twice as often as did all-male panels.”

In another study presented in the Columbia Law Review last year, authors Adam B. Cox and Thomas J. Miles found a similar effect in voting rights cases. Their research concluded that when a white judge sits on a panel with at least one African American judge s[he] becomes roughly 20 percentage points more likely to find a voting rights violation.

So, the very presence of someone different at the table, whether in the kitchen, the corporate boardroom or in Judicial Chambers, makes a difference.

Departing Justice Souter made the point well: “Anyone who has ever sat on a bench with other judges knows that judges are supposed to influence each other, and they do. One may see something the others did not see, and then they all take another look.”

Off Balance

Since my husband, Len, died, I’ve become a reluctant traveler. I find reasons to put off planning a journey, even when I anticipate pleasure at my destination. This is not a response to 9/11. I’ve always been and continue to be comfortable in commercial flight.

And I’ve long been accustomed to traveling alone, as Len and I often chose to visit our distant children separately, knowing we were able to connect with them more intimately in this way.

So what’s going on?

In my determined effort to think this through (at least what’s available to me on a conscious level), and get beyond this self imposed limitation, the source of my aversion is becoming more clear. It is humbling to realize, and then acknowledge, that it is embarrassment that is standing in my way.

For years I’ve adhered to a personal rule never to visit anyone for more than two days, so I always travel light. But even lifting a small rolling suitcase into the overhead compartment with ease, has become a challenge, is at best awkward. Then, I anticipate arriving at an unfamiliar or ever changing airport, getting temporarily lost in a crowded maze, and not being absolutely sure which ground transport to use to get to my final destination. All of these imagined difficulties give me pause.

Of course, none of this makes any sense. There are always kind people more than ready to give assistance, and I know that well. But, somehow when on my own I need to feel and appear completely competent and in full control.

In some way, I think this new reticence may relate to the loss of my partner. I could disclose any vulnerability or failing to Len, and in the telling suffer no embarrassment at all, and receive comfort and reassurance. After confiding in him, or even just knowing I could later phone and report some misadventure, my travel troubles lost significance.

So, recently I’ve begun to disclose these weaknesses, for so they seem, to my children and close friends. Doing so has generated such interesting conversations about the unique sources of embarrassment for others, sources quite unlike my own, but equally limiting, and some of significant import.

This emotional state, embarrassment, is not shame for some hidden moral wrong, but simply a witnessed loss of dignity, seeking to avoid drawing unwanted attention to some perceived personal flaw. For others, as well as myself, these needs influence decisions that objectively make no sense, but allow us to hide these “defects” from public view.

An important truth I recently read sparked my decision to put these thoughts into words: embarrassment is the death of possibility.

And here’s another: to take a step forward, you have to momentarily lose your balance.

Truth Telling

You consider disclosing an important truth, but reconsider when a friend urges caution, that you not take unnecessary risks. You are halted by ambivalence.

We grow up being told to always tell the truth. But parents inevitably send a more nuanced message when we hear them tell a half-truth, or tell an untruth out of kindness, or send a false message by remaining silent to keep a promised confidence.

Is it better to tell or not tell? This is the question sometimes asked by a spouse who has strayed, and now seeks to revive a marriage gone adrift. I have no pat answer. The complexity of people’s lives, always only partially known to others, suggests that giving advice would be unwise. At best, we can ask probing questions for the keeper of the secret to explore.

Sometimes it seems only the teller, not the unknowing other, would be well served by admission. Guilt made more bearable by confession. Yet for some, living with deception is untenable, believing that only through a shared exploration of the past can a genuinely loving and committed relationship be restored.

Risky, either way. And not an easy call when the decision is unilateral, but the potential impact falls on many.

Consider this: A wife, who for some time has been silently enduring her husband’s sustained lack of sexual interest, gathers the strength to ask him if he is gay. Husband answers emphatically and in anger that he is not, knowing that he is. His great fear is that exposure will cause the loss of the precious connection he has with his young children. When asked for advice about this potential disclosure, I’m surprised to find I am comfortable responding that, of course, the truth should be told. And in this case, it was.

All of his worst fears came true in living color. Wife raged. Husband was awash in guilt. The children were confused and frightened, and the family’s community of friends unbelieving, some falling away. Many tears and sleepless nights. Yet, over time, with the support of professionals and loyal friends, acceptance and accommodation evolved as the family was reconfigured. Loving feelings were once again expressed. The world shifted, but righted.

It became clear that this truth needed to be told, for the damaging impact of keeping this secret seemed too serious to justify the lack of honest disclosure. But “clear” is not a good choice of words, for these decisions are often anything but clear. Had this wife been judged to be a vengeful, vindictive person, a different choice might well have been made.

Approaching adulthood and beyond, as self-knowledge and self-acceptance grows, most of us allow ourselves a good measure of authenticity, a willingness to openly share our truths.

But concerns will inevitably continue to arise when we must choose between being a truth teller and protecting our privacy. We strive to maintain the delicate balance of our own well-being and the possible harm to others. Perhaps doing so is one important definition of maturity.

Verbal Jujitsu

The timbre of his voice conveyed intense emotion. He called because his wife suggested mediation. He’s interested but skeptical, insisting that she is inflexible about the issue most important to him. He says: I’ll only try mediation if she agrees in advance that she’s willing to share time with our children equally. Otherwise I’m filing for sole custody.

I suspect anxiety about being denied this most precious connection is motivating his warning, but I urge him not to throw down the gauntlet.

Threats beget threats. And often lengthy litigation.

I learn they have been attempting to negotiate on their own. Their discussions even begin in a comfortable way, for they value each other as parents, but then frustration mounts over something said or a proposal made, and anger is triggered. Their reasonable discourse escalates into dueling ultimatums.

Can these mutual efforts to intimidate just be ignored? Yes. Actually, that is probably the wisest course. Step aside. Verbal jujitsu.

Most threats are born of fear, and it is the fear that needs to be explored and understood rather than the menacing words. But does that happen? Or, does the “fight or flight” response take over, precluding rational discourse?

In the divorce mediation context, threats are legion. As here: I’ll sue for custody before I ever accept one minute less than equal time with the children, or: I’ll go to jail before I pay a dime of alimony, when you’re the one who wants this, or: I’ll disclose the pornography I found on your computer if you fight me on this point.

If the sincere goal is to move a partner towards agreement, which it almost always is, responding to such statements made in the heat of the moment, only makes a later retreat more difficult.

The parties need to buy time. Although I’ll not allow coercion of either party, I know that to oppose a threat head on, or to counter in kind, may well destroy the chance of settlement. There are other options.

If sufficient calm prevails, we could discuss the possible consequences of the threatened action, and the party having issued the threat might then be drawn into a discussion about why they feel so strongly about the issue. But the degree of tension already generated may preclude either party being able to really listen to the other with understanding.

If so, consider this option: acknowledge the strength of the feelings underlying the threat which has been made, and then move on to a discussion of an unrelated issue, allowing the passions of both parties to cool. Verbal jujitsu.

This is the choice I usually make if the parties will accept the diversion. It is a choice individuals can make on their own, without announcement. The passage of time will likely allow for a return to reason, once the fear underlying the threat, usually of some loss or perceived loss, is acknowledged and addressed.

And ideally, the threatened party will recognize that it is in their own best interest to allow the other to save face, by continuing to ignore, to step aside from the menacing words earlier spoken, so that both can refocus on what each hopes to achieve in the long term.

Lost Perspective

The rooms in which I now work are new to me, all of my furnishings reconfigured. Technologies and systems yet to be completely mastered keep me well connected with my professional colleagues, as we adjust to changing times. The space is really lovely, bright and inviting, but along the way to this destination, I lost my way, beset by tension and anxiety.

What happened to my ability to cope with stress with equanimity, to my reputation for remaining calm, even in adversity? As this transition neared, I was jittery, unusually nervous. Sleep disturbed nights became frequent instead of occasional. Preparing for the impending move caused visceral discomfort, tightness in the throat, erratic appetite. As if on shifting sand, I’d wake overwhelmed by the many decisions and tasks to be completed to return to solid ground. Minor issues loomed large.

This has never been my stance when facing change, even seriously troubled times, so in the dark of night I gave my plight a lot of thought. Slowly, I believe I figured it out, at least in part.

Although my husband, Len, is gone, I’m cared about, not isolated. Children who live far away regularly call to ask how things are going and commiserate. Friends offer and give significant help in thoughtful ways. But for so many years, my partner held me close whenever I worried about the unknown, or plans went awry. Now no one is with me at the end of the day to hear my lament, and take my hand as I put one foot in front of the other. His embrace did not just reassure me in the moment, for I sank into the experience of loving so completely that when we drew apart, my perspective on what in my outside world was really important seemed more clear. I relaxed about facing whatever difficulties lay ahead.

I’m surprised to realize the extent to which my ability to calmly think things through, instead of dwell on, even obsess about, myriad details and possible risks, depended on our intimacy, how my balance was regained by having a loving touch at my fingertips, both to give and receive.

Perspective has begun to return.

Some suggest my age is a telling factor here, for I’m soon to leave my seventies. But I think not. Frequently I work with those much younger than I who’ve lost a love through death or rejection, or even mutual decision, who also report crazy-making times, ambivalence, anxiety, difficulty concentrating. I better understand why some who are depressed, disappointed by troubled relationships, or bereft of a familiar intimacy, impulsively reach out for the warmth of skin to skin, hoping to wake restored.

Gazing up at a star filled sky, or into the depths of natural wonders, never brought me the connection with the universe some report, even when in awe of the beauty of the world. But holding on to and loving another did. Now I must hold on to myself.

We all reach this time eventually, unless it is we who are the first to leave another to cope with loss. Breathing deeply, very deeply, helps. And expressing gratitude to those who offer what they can, that helps as well. Even bringing cherished memories to mind fosters a balanced view of future choices.

Loving renews perspective. Being aware of this changes nothing, yet changes everything.

A Pause

I’m taking a brief hiatus from writing for the next few weeks, as all of my spare moments, and those of professional colleagues, are devoted to the creation of a network of new work environments, and the mastery of technologies not even dreamed of a few short years ago. Stay tuned.

A Promise Not Kept

Newspaper wedding announcements draw my eye, especially those that tell a romantic tale of how the loving relationship evolved to commitment. I don’t even read them with a cynical eye, despite my work with those whose bonds are unraveling. But I do wonder if clergy in charge of modern rituals, or the wedding partners themselves, exact the “until death do us part” promise from each other, as in days gone by?

Isn’t it fair to say that every promise we make to another is conditioned on underlying, often unspoken, assumptions? Even marriage vows. And if the life experiences of each party evoke different undisclosed, perhaps even unrecognized, assumptions, then what? These questions came to mind after a recent conversation with mediation clients, and it sparked this old memory:

As a young child, I often woke on Sunday mornings to a silent house, my older brothers still asleep. I’d leave my bed and wander to the door of my parent’s room where I would settle down on the floor, waiting until I sensed the time was right to knock and join them under the covers. Sitting there, I listened to their murmurings. Although unable to detect recognizable words, I could discern the voice of one and then the other, and I imagined them close to each other, warm and cozy. Talking things over.

Many years later, I married a man of Norwegian heritage, in whose childhood home talk was sparse. He grew up well accustomed to silence. Hardly any wonder that the early years of our marriage brought disappointment for me in the talking realm. Yet now, one of my fondest memories is our Sunday mornings, as they evolved over time (with some help from the “talking cure”). Both early risers, once our oldest was in his teens, we left the kids asleep in his charge, and shared a nearby cozy restaurant nook for a leisurely breakfast. We talked of the week past and that ahead, or any worry either of us needed to air. Not always happy talk, I suppose, but now the memory is golden.

Back to the divorcing pair: the husband was adamant that vows spoken when they married bound them to soldier on and maintain the marriage. Neither had been unfaithful. There were no violent arguments. They lived now as if brother and sister, with a pervasive polite coolness. After a year of counseling, sometimes together, sometimes alone, the wife reached an opposite conclusion.

For complex reasons unique to each couple contemplating this tortuous decision, the underlying assumptions of their marital promises, love, passion, understanding and acceptance, sometimes are realized, sometimes not. This wife had carefully considered her response to her husband’s determination to maintain the status quo, however barren. She said: Is it really the loving thing to do? In terms of others, even if not myself, would I be doing a good thing to stay in the marriage? Does it help or hurt us, or our children? I don’t want us to model for them that this is what a marriage should be. We may or may not find new loving relationships, but they will know that it is something that both of their parents deserve.

Often what we witness in our homes as children is what we come to expect, or consciously decide to reject, in our adult lives. Some who grow up with violence, or plagued by persistent parental disapproval, successfully struggle to avoid replicating this for their own families. Yet, many times the cycle of abuse is perpetuated.

What of a determination to perpetuate a cycle of love?

Apology: Remorse or Maneuver?

A mediation client recently phoned after a session and politely but firmly accused me of favoring a plan put forward by his wife, displaying a bias, not the neutrality I’d promised

Although I thought his perception wrong, I knew I’d likely contributed to this misunderstanding, so I simply apologized. That seemed to clear the air, and we were then able to listen to each other’s view of what had taken place. Defensiveness fell away, for both of us.

But it could have gone quite differently, for I almost, mindlessly, and defensively, responded to him by saying: I’m sorry you see it that way.

I didn’t do so because of my heightened awareness of other expressions of regret gone awry: a celebrity, a politician or a radio talk show host places foot squarely in mouth and indicts an ethnic group or gender with evil or foolish intent and when once again sober or contrite, with great apparent sincerity apologizes by saying: If my words resulted in discomfort or pain, I’m very sorry.

Responsibility for the incident is thereby shifted away from the speaker and to the listener, who is presumed to be overly sensitive. Not really an apology at all.

Working with people who have hurt each other in egregious ways and decided to divorce, I don’t often hear an apology spoken. When the decision has been made to part, and anxiety about the future is high, perhaps this is not surprising. Yet, I regret this constraint, for expressions of remorse that take responsibility for acts or omissions, can be so healing and open the door to understanding.

Even under less stressful circumstances, in secure times, some can say they are sorry with ease, perhaps even be too apologetic, when for others, the words of regret remain unspoken.

The different ways each of us convey ideas or express feelings is dependent to some extent on ethnicity, nationality or some special dynamic in our family of origin, disparities that too often go unrecognized. The apology also presents an important gender distinction.

Here’s an interesting insight from Debra Tannen, a linguist, author and professor at Georgetown University. She’s written a number of books pointing out the differences between the communication style of most men and women, differences which she observed even in nursery school age children at play. She notes how willing women often are to apologize when things have not worked out well. I’ve noticed that myself, and assumed it simply grew out of women’s greater ability to express feelings, and the reluctance of many men to display emotion. But, according to Tannen, there is more to it than that.

Tannen observes that women tend to focus more on the question: is this conversation bringing us closer or pushing us further apart? Men, on the other hand tend to focus more on the question: is this conversation putting me in a one-up or one-down position?

For women, she concludes, apologies are to be embraced because they reinforce connections, but many men are attuned to the symbolic power of an apology to advertise defeat.

I find this to be a meaningful distinction, although, to be applied knowing that generalizations don’t always fit.

Empathy Redefined

To gain insight from experience acquired over the years and pass it along, that is satisfying. But, when applying such wisdom to events in my own life doesn’t work, that is sobering.

The wisdom: when another’s point of view or behavior is problematic, upsetting or even unacceptable, quiet the tendency to be reactive and stand in their shoes. Empathize. View the situation from their perspective. As a professional helping others, I can do this in a reasonably dispassionate way. And many times I’ve said: once you empathize, you can sympathize with their point of view.

Not always easy if I’m emotionally involved, but I thought I even had these situations figured out.

Example: My son and daughter-in-law divorced some years ago. I loved her dearly and still do. We continue to correspond and speak on the phone and our words flow easily, unless she makes a negative comment about my son. I can be sensitive to but simply ignore these words if written, or remain quiet if spoken, and attend to the rest of her message. She is a quick study and we move on, each of us accepting a well-established boundary that only occasionally is crossed, but then renewed.

So empathy works, until it doesn’t.

Here’s what happened: I received an email message from a dear friend who lives some distance away, with whom I’ve maintained a close connection over the years. I consider both she and her husband intimate friends, he a former professional colleague of my husband. But now the wife wrote complaining bitterly about her husband’s behavior and attitude. The tone of her message clearly assumed my alignment with her, seeking both my sympathy and my professional advice. I was upset, resented being drawn into their personal lives in this way and expected to take sides.

My initial reaction was not to respond at all, but soon I knew that totally ignoring her message would be too unkind a rejection.

After mulling it over, this is the quandary I shared with a trusted colleague: I could not simply accept the wife’s perception of events and offer sympathy and advice without feeling disloyal to the husband, but nor was I willing to be drawn into the details of their intimate angst to make judgments about what went on.

From our discussion some new wisdom emerged: I was confusing empathy with the need to sympathize and become an actor in their play. Empathy, a willingness to understand, does not require agreement or even sympathy, only a readiness to hear and attempt to comprehend what someone has to say, not to embrace it. With that distinction clearly in mind, I was able to frame a heartfelt response that was empathic and not rejecting.

A bit wiser now, I stepped back into my own shoes. Taking care of myself, I also asked that I be seen only as a friend, which made giving professional advice to either of them untenable. An important boundary was restored.

Confession Of An Outlier

 In 1986, I was the first woman chosen to be President of the Cincinnati Bar Association. Friends, colleagues, and even lawyers I’d never met before, showered me with praise. I smiled and was gracious, but felt like a fraud.

To those with whom I was close, I quietly said: it’s just a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

Some told me I was modest to a fault, and others probably thought me disingenuous. Neither was true.  I knew what I knew. The position wasn’t earned. I hadn’t paid my dues, hadn’t chaired the committees, hadn’t worked in the trenches of the organization to the extent other Presidents before me had.

Here is how and why it came to pass.

In the mid-1960s, less than one percent of my law school class was female. By the mid-1980s, women were entering the profession in significant numbers, the second wave of the women’s movement having gained momentum. And by postponing my career until our kids were all of school age, I began to practice at the advanced age of forty, with an appearance of professional maturity not yet earned.

Another likely factor in my selection was the publicity I received due to press and TV coverage in the late 1970s, as I fought a losing political battle for the survival of the Public Defender Division of the Legal Aid Society. I then ran, unsuccessfully, for a judicial position on an all male bench, with billboards proclaiming “she’s not one of the boys”. Defeats, but perhaps they highlighted that the time had come for a woman to be recognized as a leader of the Bar.

Going back in time even further, I had the great good fortune to marry a man raised by a woman of pioneer stock and strength. So, he wasn’t threatened by my entry into what was then virtually an all male profession, but delighted and supportive. And we were both born to parents who lost everything in the Great Depression, who then survived by dint of long hard hours at work. Our models.

I write this personal history in confessional mode in the wake of reading Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, “Outliers.” It inspired introspection and a fuller understanding of my own outlier status. Here I offer but a glimpse of the author’s thesis, so as not to spoil for future readers the well told tales of this important work.

Outlier is a scientific term used to describe things or phenomena that lie outside normal experience. Picture the outer edges of a bell curve. Those who achieve significant professional or financial success in America are often portrayed as examples of the Horatio Alger story, that talent and exceptional individual effort is the pathway to success. Gladwell suggests this is a flawed concept, at best a half-truth. In his words, “ It is not the brightest who succeed . . . success is not simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities . . . and have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.” I received many gifts and seized the day.

Gladwell examines the early years of some exceptionally successful people, Bill Gates and Robert Oppenheimer among them, but also analyzes the lives of some who are equally gifted but led more ordinary unobserved lives. As a researcher of the social sciences, and a lucid and compelling storyteller, he then places each person or group, those who became outliers and those who did not, in the history of their generation, and that of their ancestors. The circumstances of each family’s social and economic standing are explored, to explain both incredible success and disappointing performance.

There’s no question that a strong work ethic is found to be a common denominator for those high achievers who became outliers, but of equal or perhaps even greater importance was their date of birth and the opportunities they were given, often by chance, to take part when young, in the social and scientific movements of their time.

Gladwell’s message is that strengthening those institutions that nurture young minds would multiply success stories many times over.

My hope? He is in the right place at the right time.

Does Love Trump Privacy?

When our youngest grew up and moved some distance away, I claimed her room and fashioned a space all my own. It was quite small, on the second story of our home, with leafy tree branches almost touching the windows, a nest of sorts. There were times my husband came and stood at the threshold to ask a question, but he didn’t walk in. He never entered uninvited. It was our unspoken understanding, as natural as breathing, that our separateness was respected. This background sets the stage for a mediation session in which a privacy issue arose.

The couple working with me was seeking to preserve, not end their marriage. They had come to negotiate some well-defined concerns, when discussions at home had proven difficult and divisive.

Their story: in the prior week, the husband installed a lock on his home-office door, without consulting his wife. She was hurt and angry.

His story: when he was away, his wife opened mail addressed only to him. It was nothing of a highly personal nature, but in doing so she learned that his business debt was considerably greater than she had known. Then, still in his absence, she looked through his desk and files, and eventually explored his computer, where she made discoveries of a more personal nature. That’s when the lock went on. He was outraged, and no doubt chagrined.

Her story: She firmly believed there should be no secrets between marriage partners, and that she was, therefore, perfectly justified in her actions. He was the one who had much to explain.

The response I addressed to her was spoken without hesitation, or sufficient forethought. With some fervor I said: But everyone is entitled to a zone of privacy.

This statement and my tone surprised them, and myself as well. With hindsight I regret the unprofessional way I spoke. I should have posed some neutral questions, not been judgmental. Predictably, the issue did not get resolved in my office. Later, when the wife called to cancel their next appointment, I learned that after further discussion, her husband had removed the lock from his office door.

I recall another client who discovered that her husband had read the journal in which she wrote each morning on waking. She was incensed, even though she’d kept it tucked in her nightstand drawer, readily accessible. Her question: how could he not understand that it was for her eyes only?

Will these unwelcome intrusions continue to rankle over time? My guess is that insistence on full disclosure, some even demanding to know their partner’s innermost thoughts, is more likely to erode than to foster harmony. Are these wounded loved ones likely to become more or less secretive?

Why is privacy so important? We speak of someone “invading” our privacy and the very use of that word suggests a violation of significance. It is an assault on our autonomy, a piercing of that protective skin we seek to keep in tact (so many words of aggression!). Privacy keeps us safe, free of judgment until we are ready for exposure, and then, only to those we trust.

The Writer’s Gift and Reward

Dear Anne Roiphe,

Your daughter, Katie Roiphe, is a writer whose work I’ve long admired. But until recently I didn’t know that her mother was also an author of note. I’ve just read your memoir, “Epilogue”, so have come to know you well.

    As a lawyer and mediator, I learn about many aspects of the personal lives of my clients, but my insights are shallow. No way to really know what takes place in the head or heart of another, unless the other chooses to take off their protective armor, and few do. I think most of us fully reveal ourselves only to an intimate partner, if then. But you’ve done so, and written with stark honesty, using simple words and beautifully crafted phrases to tell your story, a great gift to your reader. Is it also your reward?

When I read fiction, view films, I search that make-believe world for a person I can relate to. You mine your real world and allow me to experience it as well, to be invisible at your side and live some moments of your life, within the context of my own.

On an early page, you describe the softness of your body as you look at it in a full length mirror, the looseness of the skin of your upper arms, sagging places where once you were taut and firm. Folds under your chin. Ah, yes.

You write of the sadness of loss, the pleasure of birth. Yes.

Beneath the covers, you reach across your bed seeking your no longer present husband, and your hours of sleep are over too soon. Yes.

You say you and he talked in shorthand, left out whole paragraphs, but still you understood. Yes.

After your husband died, you found it difficult to go to the store and buy the barest of necessities. I did not.

You questioned how present to be in your grown children’s lives. I did not.

You found it difficult to return to the discipline of your work. I did not.

I admire the way you describe even apparently mundane events and then explore the emotions and thoughts that flowed, sometimes calming, sometimes haunting, bravely bringing your truth into the open for others to know. I felt validated by those of your thoughts I shared, connected to others, to you. More accepting of those foibles you too confess. And those thoughts not shared reveal my own way of coping with this new time of my life. As you disclose and define yourself, I’m better known to myself. In doing so, do you deepen your understanding of yourself as well? The writer’s reward?

You say by writing you are able to hold yourself erect and know you cannot fail, or fall. Your readers grow stronger as well.

Thank you, Anne Roiphe.

Conflicted

Am I the only parent of grown children who is conflicted about their visits? Two live far off, another several hours away. They lead busy complicated lives so don’t come often, although would come more frequently if I asked. But I do not ask. It is our email and phone connection that is constant, and comforting. Yet, on special days, their arrival is happily anticipated.

Both sons came last weekend, each accompanied by a loving partner. It is wonderful to see them, to hold them close. So why, two days later as they are packing to leave, am I relieved to have them on their way? And why am I lonelier and more troubled after they are gone, than I was before they came?

The morning after our joyous coming together, we sit at breakfast and make plans for a movie and dinner out. We foresee a frolic, an escape, but from what?

On our return home a call is placed to their far away sister, and the phone is passed from one to the other as they walk to a corner of the room to have a more private conversation. I’m reassured by their intimacy, knowing they will have each other to rely on when I can no longer protect them should troubles arise. Of course, this is an absurd thought, for I can’t protect them now, but shouldn’t I, the mother? Or have the tables already turned?

It is a lighthearted day that ends with ice cream.

But the next morning, there is a downcast look on one son’s face. No one appears to take notice. I ask if he slept well and he tells me he did not. Were there disturbing interactions of which I’m unaware? Did some old family tension intrude on the make-believe of our perfect gathering? Perhaps I should ask, but I do not.

Then he rises from the breakfast table and moves to stand behind the woman with whom he is rebuilding a house, and a life. He gently kneads the tense muscles of her neck and shoulders. I am both relieved and pained, for I remember that touch, so often received from my loved one. The message is clear: we are in this together. I’m here for you, to pleasure you, to work with you, a constant presence in your life.

My throat tightens. They know well how I miss him. They miss him too, but do not speak of him. Do they think it would make me sad? It would not.

Lingering over coffee, laptops at fingertips, concerns arise of approaching bad weather, and the leave taking is hastened. Smiling departures are made, with hugs and promises of future visits.

Then my rooms are empty. I go about the satisfying task of returning seldom used items to their well-ordered places. Glad to be alone, I try to push concern aside, and name it as theirs, no longer mine. But it doesn’t work. What triggered my melancholy? An old family trouble come back to life? Was it something I did or failed to do? Should I have probed, asked more questions? Or am I misreading the signs? If I had not glimpsed that look of sadness, would I now be at ease? The thought that follows: a parent should be able to restore a child’s well being. Twisted thinking. He is not a child, and for me to probe, uninvited, would be meddling. How can I help? I cannot. Should not? Conflicted.

There are so many emotional undercurrents when families reconnect. For us, they usually remain unspoken when together, to be sorted out when we return to our separate lives. Is this a failing? Then I recall the boundaries I maintained with my parents as Len and I worked out whatever difficulty each or both of us faced. That felt right. Independent. Mature. I will get on with managing my own life. They will manage theirs. These are grown men with loving partners. I need to let go, and I will.

Tomorrow, or the next day.

Men Friends

It is the week of Thanksgiving. Friendships are my mainstay, and living alone now, after a lifetime of intimacy with a partner, heightens my gratitude for close connections with others. Missing Len’s presence as holidays past are remembered, brings to mind his good fortune, especially his men friends, although there were times I secretly denigrated his friendships as somehow less significant than mine, with women.

My close friends have always been confidantes. His were companions, with whom he joyously went fishing, flying, and exploring the wilderness. Upon his return, if I quizzed him about conversations they’d had or intimacies shared, his answers were brief, relating stories told of other adventures, but little I deemed of substance. Nothing of their marriages, troubled relationships with grown children, problems at work, the essence of my exchanges with women friends, offering support, seeking insights.

Men just talk less to each other. Everyone accepts this reality. Most don’t share feelings with other men, beyond elation or frustration at a good or bad catch. Women smile knowingly, sometimes smugly, and express regret about valued experiences men are missing.

Reasons abound. Raised and nurtured primarily by women, that is our model for intimacy. Men are more competitive, and from boyhood encouraged to be tough, strong. Genetic, hormonal, cultural, likely all three are causes. If there is something to be gained in a competitive environment, power or money, weaknesses are not revealed. No basis for trust if you won’t show me yours.

I know I over-generalize, and some older and many younger men may not fit this paradigm today. At least I hope they do not (and I plan to query my sons about this when they visit). But are most men still missing out on the richness that self disclosure affords, something for which they rely on their attachments to women? It would seem so.

Then why, despite male emotional reserve was Len so fortunate? For four years, he kept his Parkinson’s at bay, not allowing it to impact his life in very significant ways, but in his final year, he had to succumb to the use of a walker and eventually a wheel chair. This meant giving up his treasured pilot’s license, and then his driver’s license as well. Vulnerability previously hidden could no longer be denied. His passion for flying and fishing was defeated, beyond reach. But two of his friends did not let this happen.

Alan Wolfson, the man who bought his small plane, called often and suggested Len meet him at the airport and come along on a flight. It was no mean task to hoist his non-responsive legs into the passenger seat where dual controls allowed him to actually co-pilot on their journey.

Long-time devoted fishing friend, Jim Hoffmeister, remained a constant presence in Len’s life, coming often to pick him up, wheel him to his van and drive off for an adventure. Usually they returned by nightfall, but just months before Len died, Jim became his caretaker as well as companion on a trip north to a frozen lake where they fished through the ice for days on end.

Using female standards to appraise male friendships may miss the mark. Do they become known to each other by their shared experiences, so build trust and caring? Len’s friends may have known little of sharing intimacies with words, but of love they knew everything.

Blame/Guilt

She said: I feel terrible. You’ve ruined my life.

Her husband, silent, sat at the other end of my long office couch, awash in guilt. He had made the final decision to divorce, but his compassion for his wife was sincere. I wanted to somehow calm and comfort them both, reassure him by saying that relationships rarely fail for simple one-sided reasons, and assure her that I empathized with her misery. But I said nothing, and in a few moments her tears lessened and she regained control. She apologized to me for her outburst. I said: no need.

The blaming was over, for now. We returned to talk about their budget, how the family could best share their joint income.

Nine months of marital counseling ended just weeks before they began mediation. Did she really believe that she had no part to play as they drifted apart, moved into separate bedrooms? At times it seemed so. But she was mature enough to hold on to their determination to end things as amicably as possible and preserve as much stability as they could for their children.

Husbands and wives, partners, inevitably both delight and disappoint each other. Delight, that’s easy. But disappointment too often gives rise to both blame and guilt .

With the tearful scene in my office still vivid, I bring back to mind the guilt I felt for many years for having failed Len. From the beginning, he and I talked through and jointly made important decisions. Then as our years together multiplied, we often wordlessly simply accommodated to the other’s wishes, knowing for which of us a particular outcome mattered most. At least that’s the way I now choose to remember it.

Usually worked well. But there was an exception. I knew Len yearned to live his life near water, by the sea or a large lake. Either would do, so long as he could experience its wonders and the tranquility vast waters offered him. And, of course, the fishing potential!

But with his new PhD, a wife and young children in hand, life took us to his job in land-locked Ohio, when college teaching posts were hard to come by. Law school followed for me and some years later my growing successful practice became another anchor. He gloried in his summer teaching work when the family roughed it, joining him in the Rocky Mountains, where clear roiling trout streams filled his every spare hour. But in the grayness of midwest winters, he yearned to move and often seemed sad. Witnessing this, not sharing his wish to leave, I avoided addressing his apparent unhappiness, but my guilt was at times intense.

Today, I still clearly recall a conversation about this, with my wise psychologist friend, that caused me to shift mental gears. She suggested that as adults we are each responsible to make those decisions that are important to our own well being. Of course. Len could have developed a specific plan to move and proposed it. But he made no serious search for other job options, in effect choosing to foster my career over his own.

But he was not passive. He learned to fly, and with the help of my additional income bought a small plane, and (later opting for early retirement) for over twenty-five years flew away with like-minded students and friends to wherever the geology was exciting and the fish were biting, exploring the Great Lakes, National Parks, and Alaska. We each had our cake.

With some divorcing couples, parties maintain that in the effort to avoid conflict, they chose to abdicate the decider role. Then when conflict takes center stage, they look back and resent having lost their authenticity, the power to direct their own life, wishing they had taken other paths. But with certain exceptions, families subjected to violence, and single parents of young children, adults are responsible for designing their own destiny.

The blame game is neither fair nor in the long run satisfying. Nor is the guilt.

The New Black

Champagne corks popped. The mood was festive in my home when we gathered last Saturday evening to celebrate a friend’s retirement and the election of Obama. The invitations went out three weeks ago, when only one of these events was certain, the other nervously hoped for. We were eleven in all, ranging in age from mid-fifties to late seventies, black and white, some friendships of long-standing, some new.

After a time, the conversation grew serious and this question was posed: One year ago, how many of us would have believed the election of an African American as President possible? None of us. Even when the polls turned positive, there was the looming threat of the “Bradley effect” to narrow or erase the point spread. Bias was a reality even if denied, hidden. Then, overnight that fear became a fiction. New York Times science reporter, John Tierney, asked: Where have all the bigots gone?

Theories abound. Most often heard is that the downturn in the economy aroused a self-interest that trumped prejudice. The war. Some (I among them) choose to believe that McCain’s cynical choice of Palin alienated many, men and women. So, what seemed impossible happened.

Along with the political pundits, social psychologists offer enlightening data. Here’s one recent research design: Two strangers, diverse pairs, black and white, Latino and Asian, black and Latino, come together in four sessions, each an hour long. Scripted questions are asked that invite self-disclosure, such as: would you like to be famous? If you could change anything about how you were raised, what would it be?

In the second session, the pair competes in a timed parlor game.

In the third, they talk about why they are proud to be part of their ethnic group.

And finally, one helps the other, who is wearing a blindfold, navigate a maze.

The new relationship formed, which often becomes a lasting one, almost immediately results in a lowered score of prejudice, using a number of programmed measures. But this is not the surprise.

Professor Art Aron, a social psychologist at Stony Brook University, who developed this study with his wife Elaine Aron, reported that these instant relationships not only built trust between the experimenting pair, but also significantly reduced anxiety during encounters with other members of the second group, as gauged by stress hormone levels in saliva.

Building on what is referred to as this “extended-contact effect”, Aron studied some 1000 new students at Stony Brook and found that simply being in the same class with interracial pairs who are interacting, can reduce levels of prejudice in those who are merely bystanders.

And another heartwarming result: awareness of these extended-contact test relationships significantly diminished negative bias toward the other group among each test individual’s close friends. Quoting Aron: it travels like a benign virus through an entire peer group, counteracting subtle or not so subtle mistrust.

Multiply that response by all of those who made connections in the campaign, person to person or online. It became a wave across the nation.

Lest you would now like to wipe the Pollyanna smile from my face, I’m well aware that all the bigots are not gone. And I’ll add another quote, without attribution, for I’ve forgotten where I read it: gay and Latino is the new black.

Neither Friend Nor Foe

I arrived early to attend the last of a series of lectures at which I had encountered a woman from my past who appeared to shun me. I thought perhaps she did so with good reason, for actions I had taken in a legal proceeding many years ago when I represented her husband’s former wife.

She also had come early, and although there were probably fewer than ten people then in the room, she walked past me without notice and joined two others. Determined to find out if I  was correctly assessing some hostility directed my way, I approached her, waiting for a chance to speak. As she made no move to face me, I stepped closer and said her name. She turned and with a faint smile spoke my name in response.

A very brief conversation followed. I told her I was sorry to hear about the recent loss of her husband and asked how she was doing. With hindsight an awkward question, for which there is no meaningful answer to anyone other than an intimate. I had rehearsed other comments and questions, but there was no warmth is her gaze, no invitation to say more, so I left her side.

Soon she seated herself in the front row. I sat several rows back. There was tension in the room as the speaker, a political scientist reputed to be a polling expert, had earlier announced that in this final talk he would offer his prediction about the outcome of the approaching election. Many in the audience were disturbed by what he then said. He declared that the electoral vote tally in the presidential race would be a tie, sending the decision into the House of Representatives. He had suggested this possibility previously, believing it would result in a McCain victory. This evening he was faced with a flurry of questions. In responding he soon veered from his script, became agitated, and in a surprising departure from his stance as an academic, said he thought Obama a dangerous ideologue, a socialist, an empty suit.

He was in mid-sentence when my erstwhile friend abruptly rose and walked off, leaving her jacket behind. I think I later correctly concluded she was too upset to remain in such close proximity to the speaker. At the end of the evening I saw her in the back of the room in an animated conversation, clearly angry. We nodded to one another as I left. Likely we will not meet again.

She is cool to me but apparently willing to be civil.  My concern about what I perceived, or misperceived, as her antagonism due to my past actions, says more about me than it says about her. It appears she responds to others with intensity, and is quick to display her resentments, even rage. Perhaps she is not now concerned with my misdeeds after all. Impossible to know unless I pursue it further, but it is no longer important to know.

Ninety-nine people can praise me and one find fault, and it is on the one that I will dwell. Were I alone in this behavior, I might take myself off to the nearest couch. But I know I am not, for colleagues and I have often laughed about how prone we are to focus on criticism and only fleetingly enjoy praise.

My lesson from this encounter: When faced with an ambiguous angry glance, check it out, offer a kind word, and then let it go and move on. Now I can.

Friend Or Foe?

 I have many friends, a few who are close and intimate. And if asked, I would say I have no enemies. At least that would have been my answer until last month.

I’ve been attending a series of three lectures given by a professor of political science, an expert on electoral polling. The group in attendance is small, perhaps about fifty. As I greeted some old friends on the night of the first session, across the room I glimpsed a woman I’d known long ago. Did she turn away before or after she saw me? I wasn’t sure. I am sure no smile was exchanged.

At the end of the lecture, I chatted briefly with those seated nearby as the room quickly emptied. When I rose to leave, the woman in question was nowhere to be seen. But I left thinking about her, and our troubled past.

I think it was in 1982, soon after I opened my law office. Friends suggested I meet this woman, she also a lawyer. There were few of us then. We met for lunch. A pleasant enough time, but neither of us sought any further contact.

Fast forward a year or so. I was retained by a client whose husband left her after thirty years. She told me he was involved with another woman. When some weeks later I learned her identity, it was my former lunch companion. Our friendship had been so fleeting, I thought little more of it, until my client insisted I find out whether her husband had spent inordinate amounts of money on his new companion. As it turned out, and as I suspected, he had not, but the discovery process I used (and later regretted), was a deposition. Seated in my conference room, I probed sensitive personal matters, which surely did not endear me to either my client’s husband or his new love interest. (They later married and were together for over 25 years, until his recent death.)

Conducting that deposition was an important learning experience for me, still a novice in this field of law. Although completely proper procedurally, I acted against my better judgment, and acquiesced to my client’s need for revenge, to embarrass. A tactic I came to deplore when used by other counsel. My unease, once analyzed and understood, brought me to the realization that I was not simply a “mouthpiece” for a client, required to act in accord with their standards rather than my own. It was an important personal development in my then fledging career.

Now, all these years later, the subject of this long ago inquiry remained angry. Or, so I assumed in the days that followed, when the turn of her head returned to mind, many times.

Some weeks later, as the second lecture in the series began, my adversary seated herself in the chair directly in front of me. She wore a light leather jacket placed over her shoulders. Several times it slipped down. Apparently chilly, she repeatedly sought to put it back in place, turning slightly toward me each time she did so. I stared, but she never met my eyes. It was as if I was not there. And again we departed without speaking.

She is on my mind. I think of her each day, discomfited believing I am the focus of her anger. Were another telling this story I would say they were obsessing. Can she still harbor resentment, hatred even, for something I did 25 years ago? Did she view it as a betrayal? Would that be reasonable? Should I now apologize?

Soon we will both attend the final lecture. I’ve decided to arrive early, approach her in a friendly manner and express sorrow for her recent loss. I cannot leave her apparent dislike of me undefined. My problem or hers?

To be continued.

Out Of Sync

Sometimes partners drift apart slowly, move into separate worlds, failing to disclose to each other the evolving person they’ve become. They may be communicating in subtle nonverbal ways, but is the message getting through? An example:

John and Mary have similar backgrounds and compatible values. When their children were small, they delighted in being parents and assigned themselves the traditional roles of breadwinner and homemaker. As years went by, John, a gregarious man, was increasingly successful in business and developed close friendships in that world. While he spent more and more hours at work, Mary found satisfaction and pleasure in her focus on their daughters, now teenagers.

When he became quiet and withdrawn at home, she asked if everything was all right. She knew it wasn’t. He had stopped going to the gym and was putting on excessive weight. But his answers were vague, and she chose to interpret his equivocation as meaning it was stress at work that was the cause. So she backed away to “give him the space he seemed to need.” They were out of sync and gradually moved apart over the next several years, each dissatisfied, but saying little that was to the point.

John saw his physician and was referred to a psychiatrist. He went on anti-depressants. They helped his mood but not his ability or willingness to share his feelings with his wife. Within months he suggested divorce. How can she have been surprised? But she was.

As their mediator, I concentrate on the decisions they must make about their future, so ask few questions about their past. I gain just a superficial knowledge of their personal dynamic, and little of their early formative years. I listen well, but their messages are often delivered in code.

He says: We used to do things together, although all the planning was left up to me. I have to initiate everything and half the time she has no interest in my suggestions, seems more involved in the social lives of our girls.

She says: He had no time for us. Didn’t even come to school performances. (She then showed me a picture of their attractive daughters, in provocative dress and stance.)

My unspoken questions: Is he saying she no longer found him desirable? Is she saying the day of her attractiveness has passed and now belongs to her daughters?

As with many mid-life parents, might they both, in different ways, be experiencing discomfort with the emerging sexuality of their children? These are stressful times, when divorce rates climb.

I can only make an intelligent guess, and my guess may be way off base. But my guess doesn’t really matter.

The tragedy is that they too were only able to guess, and that really did matter. They lacked the skill to be self-disclosing with each other. About this they now agree. So, did their feelings of discomfort, rejection or inadequacy remain hidden? While still sharing a bed did they become strangers?

If both partners are unable to verbalize their feelings or intuit those of the other, is there any reason to be hopeful about their future?

If even one has the emotional intelligence to express their feelings and draw the other into a non-blaming conversation, there would be reason to be hopeful.

If both were motivated and felt safe enough to talk openly about their desires and disappointments, and early on enlist the aid of a skilled professional, they might get the prize: an intact family.

The Pleasure Of Touch

 My cat likes to have her ears pulled. Her eyes narrow, and she arches her neck with pleasure as she awaits the next gentle tug. This feline resists being picked up, but curls up in the crook of my arm when I am reading, propped up in bed. She nudges, seeking my touch, and the pressure of her warm purring body is a sweet reminder of the relaxed heft of a sleeping baby.

Some months after Leonard died, one of my young friends took on the role of loving daughter and gave me an unusual gift, a massage by a therapist she admired. When I told her this was something I’d never done before, she said: everyone needs to be touched, and you are now alone.

I went, and continue to go every now and then, welcoming this time of complete ease. The therapist starts by massaging my feet, and though I only spoke this thought aloud for the first time last week, when her skilled fingers knead these muscles, I wish I had done this for Leonard, especially in his last six months when he was in bed more hours than usual. For this man whose feet were almost always on the go, it would have been a special way to express the sweetness of old love.

It is easier to write of my cat and a masseuse than to write of the sensual pleasures of my marriage, but perhaps there is a point to doing so. For us, the promise of touch was ever present. My fingers on the back of his neck as he drove, his hands kneading my tensed shoulders as I sat at my desk, holding hands in the movies. Intimate touching renewed our appetite for life.

Now, though engaged with others during the workday, when alone my patterns and pleasures have changed. I enjoy my solitude, but it differs from a past shared with another. Evenings, I no longer watch programs or movies that I suspect will cause me to feel anxious. When we watched together, leaned into each other, no matter how fraught the media coverage, I was safe, moored. Now I check the internet for newsworthy events the next morning, in the light of day.

Often on Sundays I spend some time listening to music we loved, and reread a few old letters. His words and his handwriting almost feel like a touch, a lingering memory of the pleasures we shared, which can quite take my breath away. Then I close that door and reenter the present, with some regret, but no anguish, and knowing I can return.

The comfort with touch is tied to family history, and there are those for whom casual touch is foreign, even uncomfortable. Mine was a family in which physical affection was open and easy. Leonard’s family was just the opposite, touching rarely seen. When we were first together, seeking physical closeness I consistently walked him off the sidewalk onto the grassy verge. A lasting joke between us that spoke volumes. I eventually converted him.

Lest this become a maudlin description of an idealized marriage, I well remember the hours, sometimes days, when we didn’t touch, lay back to back and distant in bed, or silently left the house for a solitary walk. But being deprived of touch inevitably brought us to talking, so much was it the glue of our marriage.

So why write of this? There is wisdom to be passed along. The importance of touch if infants are to thrive is well established. Now studies are proving the same is true for adults. Breaching the chasm of being alone in one’s skin and experiencing pleasure, or giving pleasure, can lower blood pressure, reduce stress hormones and improve immune function.

So, a reminder for those with a loving partner at your fingertips: massage their feet.

Will The Prince Be Charming?

They were young, but had finished high school before they married. That’s the good news. The bad news is that after seventeen years the marriage is over.

But there is much more good news. They take great pride in their two teenage daughters who are gracefully weathering adolescence, saddened by the family turmoil but still high achieving, and with a loving connection to both parents. He lauds his wife as a wonderful mother, and credits her with the children’s success.

After working only at home for fifteen years, she recently found part-time employment. They are in complete agreement that the girls should continue to have parental attention, even now. Especially now. So she will keep her present job and remain available to manage and monitor the girls’ busy after-school hours.

He owns a few shares of a small but profitable family business in which he works, and is destined to take over when his father retires and gradually gifts him the remaining stock. His hard work has yielded income five times his wife’s modest salary, and they are financially solvent.

And still more good news. Although he is the one who has chosen to leave, he speaks of his determination to remain on friendly terms with his soon-to-be former wife and “no matter what it takes, to be fair”. Prince Charming is resolute and insists he will not disappoint.

So, although a bit tearful, sad and frightened about a future alone, she is repeatedly promised, “all will be well.”

But now, for the rest of the bad news: the meaning of “all will be well”.

He assures his wife that her current standard of living will be maintained as long as there is a child living at home, and perhaps for a couple of years beyond that, six years in all. This is a term her lawyer says is generous. And during this time, her husband will provide more support than the Court would order. All of their property will be equally divided, a bit of equity in their home and his modest 401-k. So, why is this bad news?

Calmed and breathing easier she asks: what about the business?

His answer: well, you know it was started by my grandfather and passed down to my father, so one day it will be mine.

Her question: but for seventeen years I took care of everything so you could devote yourself to building the business. We should own that together. Right?

Wrong.

They will both seek advice from their lawyers and learn that the small stock ownership interest already gifted to him may have some marital value to share, but not much, minimal compared to the valuable business asset he will one day own.

The realization dawns. Angry now and in tears, she says: when you were working fourteen-hour days, I didn’t complain because it was for all of us. Now you will always be secure, probably even rich. After six years I’ll barely be able to survive!

This is where the story ends, for now. To be continued, as there are more conversations to be had and decisions to be made.

If I could write the script, this wife, while still being supported will spend the next six years in school, and regain the power she gave away when she auditioned for and landed the role of Cinderella. Her prince is charming, will continue to work hard, and likely pay their daughters’ college expenses.

But now it is up to her to design the rest of her life, so as never to be so wholly dependent again.

Daughters everywhere: are you getting the message?

The Price of Incivility. Who Pays?

I’m a devotee of contemporary fiction, but I’ve been revisiting Jane Austen. The return to the exquisite prose of Pride and Prejudice, and a society devoted to, even obsessed with, social etiquette, serves as a welcome respite from some modern media that jars my sensibilities.

This sharp contrast between genial spoken exchanges and the offhand and sometimes crude phrases of today, came to mind when I was asked to write a commentary for my local Bar Association about civility, so often said to be in decline.

As a woman of a certain age, I questioned whether my observations would have validity for men, or for younger women raised with the same assurance afforded sons, that the world is potentially their oyster, and on their terms.

But, with that caveat, I ask: does the decline in civility between lawyers really matter? Are clients less well served? Or are our shifting social mores and the broad acceptance of a more candid and direct way of speaking, simply benign evidence of a new, less mannerly age? Perhaps upsetting for those of us with expectations born of past reality, or mythology, but of little consequence?

I thought back on those times in my legal practice when I was faced with overly aggressive or insensitive rejoinders, thrown off balance when talked to rudely or disrespectfully. These experiences left me feeling exposed, embarrassed. Possibly even shamed.

The first occurred when I was still a law student in the late 1960s. I sat in the conference room of a prominent firm surrounded by a five man committee of the Bar charged with determining if students were fit to join the legal profession. My essay on why I chose law had earlier been submitted. The well-known attorney seated at the head of the table with my file open before him, held it up and said: Hubby write this for you?

My quiet response: No. (P.C. had not yet been born.)

Fast forward. I stood before a Judge known to be mean-spirited. A plea bargain had been negotiated, and my client was present for sentencing. Although I was a novice at the bar, in a calm strong voice I put forth his better qualities, the sound reasons for his release on probation. The Judge smiled down at me: So, counsel, if he’s such a fine fellow, I suggest you take him home with you.

I was speechless. Embarrassed for him and myself.

A more current incident: I sat across the desk from opposing counsel to discuss the complex valuation issues in a difficult divorce case. My presentation was detailed, carefully researched and well reasoned. No smile this time as he spat the words: This is completely ridiculous, ludicrous!

Did I calmly ask for his reasons? No, again I was momentarily silenced. And when I did respond, I’d lost my focus.

So, what’s happening when incivility is in the room?

Lest the reader conclude that it is only sexism at play here, many times as a mediator I‘ve witnessed the male response to a belligerent comment, sarcasm or threat. First the briefcase is abruptly snapped shut, and then as he rises from his chair these words: Fine! I’ll see you in Court.

Even if I can bar the door and keep the conversation going, the mood in the room has changed, darkened, muscles tensed. And positions hardened.

The underlying message of offensive words, whether they are aggressive, insulting or insidious innuendo, is: you are not worthy of my respect. Sometimes artfully disguised behind a congenial smile, they penetrate the boundaries we all establish to protect our unique private vulnerabilities, the delicate balance we maintain in every adversarial or unequal setting.

Civility welcomes what is best in me, without the protective armor that blocks intelligent intercourse. The offender, a bully of sorts, perhaps is really the fearful one, the verbal thrust of apparent strength a way of hiding weakness. Or the sarcasm an attempt at diversion from the inability to address the issues.

Faced with incivility, we feel attacked and the fight or flight reaction takes over. Neither response is conducive to reasoned progress being made on a client’s behalf.

That’s who really pays the price.

It’s Payback Time

After living together for fifteen years, they married when she became pregnant. Their daughter is now three years old. Two physicians, he an academic, she in family practice.  Neither have remarkable income, but due to the generosity of her wealthy family, their financial lives have been more than comfortable. Most recently, upon the birth of their granddaughter, the gift from her parents was an elegant home.

But their marriage is crumbling, awash in a sea of anger and despair. He is 50, she 43. Another woman, now long gone, turned his head. Unaware of his affair for over a year, blaming herself for his distant ways, she met depression head on.

After many months of marriage counseling, for both of them were motivated to preserve their family, he said he could no longer live the lie that his passion for her was restored, and moved out. She, at first willing to forgive him, now finds he is the one giving up, on loving her. This, rather than the affair, is the source of her rage, and she is emboldened.

It’s payback time.

On his departure, without having consulted an attorney, he believed that the value of all that they owned would be divided, including their very pricey home. Not so. Fortified with legal authority, the house is now claimed, by both his wife and her parents, as a gift to her alone, an advance of her future inheritance. Thus, not marital property to be divided. The couple had not sought to accumulate any significant savings, always reasoning that her inheritance would provide them with a comfortable retirement. So what money they had to spare was gifted to their daughter’s college account. There is no marital property to divide.

So he said: but then I will have nothing!

And she said: right!
(Along with a few other choice words, beginning with: you should have thought of that before you . . . .)

It’s an old story. Almost a modern fable, with a moral easy to write: don’t get mad, get even.

Sort of makes sense. But not for their daughter.

For if her mother’s anger and her father’s rancor pervades the air that she must breathe, how can she love them both without her loyalty always called into question?

My fantasy, but I well know it is just that, is finding and speaking the words to focus both parents on imagining their daughter twenty years hence, how she would then assess the space they created for her childhood, how their treatment of each other warped her future. Might the mother wish she had been more generous? Might the father wish he had been less resentful? Might this vision alter current decisions?

In my real world, I meet alone with the empowered wife, but just ask questions, for it is not my role to give advice or make judgments. What does she think will be the impact on her daughter growing up with parents of such unequal security, and who are unable to be friendly in her presence? She is silent for a long time, but then says: I know, somehow I must get past the anger, but I’m not sure I ever will.

It is said that revenge is sweet, but there is only bitterness here.

Too Much Talk?

Chatting with friends over coffee on a recent evening, I abruptly changed the subject. I have closed the door on S.P.  With the very mention of her name, muscles tighten, my heart rate speeds, my breathing becomes shallow. I’ve decided to withdraw from this aspect of the political conversation. Too much talk to no good end.

And to my surprise, recent scientific studies validate my stance.

Only a week ago, on the very day I was completing the final edit of a commentary about the benefits of self-disclosure, with the underlying message that talking with trusted friends about one’s worries and feelings is a positive thing, my newspaper reported current research on the negative aspect of excessive talk. At first, a counter-intuitive theory that startled me. But I read on.

Psychologists have termed the daily, lengthy problem-dwelling talk between adolescents, “co-rumination”. They talk, they text, obsessively discussing the same issue. The conclusion: that this often leads to increased anxiety and depression, among girls far more than among boys who, no surprise here, tend to talk less.

Amanda J. Rose is a researcher in the field of adolescent psychology, and a professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri. Last year her latest published study, in the journal Developmental Psychology, stated: “When girls are talking about their problems, it probably feels good to get that level of support and validation, but they are not putting two and two together. Actually this excessive talking can make them feel worse.” Not putting two and two together. Not working on solutions. Just commiserating with each other.

And not just adolescents. Today the buzz about S.P. has become a national wringing of hands. Albeit not universal misery. There is joy in the land as well.

Sarah Kershaw, the New York Times reporter of this too much talk phenomena, cites a related mental hazard psychologists call “emotional contagion” or “contagious anxiety” in which one person’s negative thoughts or anxiety can affect another’s mood. She references research showing that people who live with others suffering from depression tend to become depressed themselves. Is this what is happening, but on a much larger scale? I’m struggling to swim out of this miasma by keeping my focus on ways I can have some impact on the election outcome.

So, please, do what you will for the candidate of your choice, but spare me any further talk of S.P.

Three little monkeys sitting in a row come to mind.

The Gift of Self Disclosure

The message left on my phone: Could you find time for an early breakfast? I need some legal advice.

From the tremor in the voice of my young friend, I could tell that something was wrong. We met the next morning, and without preamble she told me that her husband had suffered a mental breakdown. This man she dearly loved had become a stranger to her, and was refusing treatment. Frightened by his mood swings and bizarre accusations, she had left him and moved into the home of a colleague from work. We discussed options, personal and legal. The nervous movements of her hands belied her effort to appear calm.

I asked whether she had talked things over with a counselor, friends or her parents and siblings, who lived some distance away. She had not, and urged me to keep her confidence. Remaining hopeful that somehow this nightmare would reverse itself and all would be set right again, she was protecting the privacy of her marriage, and avoiding the embarrassment of disclosure. Nor did she want to worry her family before her future plans were clear.

Understandable, but I gently questioned her putting off sharing this difficult time with trusted friends and family. Couldn’t she simply express uncertainty about what lay ahead? An insightful person, as we talked she confessed that her silence was, in large part, a way of avoiding revealing something that seemed shameful, both the nature of his illness and her desertion.

Her tears brought the memory of my own past secrets kept too long before the telling.

I told her a story of another friend who, many years ago had been diagnosed with breast cancer, when cancer still carried a stigma and was often borne in silence. Within hours of the diagnosis, she told all of her friends and family. I remember being surprised, suspecting my own reaction would have been just the opposite, to tell no one until it became impossible not to do so. But I learned a lesson from the way she reacted, for upon hearing her news, many people rallied round expressing concern and support, and that outpouring of loving attention buoyed her sense of well-being. The telling brought the comfort of connection with others, dispelling the loneliness of fear.

My friend nodded as she listened, even showed a faint smile, but remained worried as she imagined the reaction to her news. She promised to call again in a day or so, and to consider meeting with a therapist.

The marvelous truth is that by being self-disclosing with close friends and loved ones, we not only secure their support, we invite them to be equally revealing.  Quite literally, it is a gift, to be able to share the bad news as well as the good, sending the message to others that we will be there for them when it is their story that needs to be told.

The Memory Lapse

Is there anyone over the age of 50 who doesn’t experience a fleeting moment of worry when they can’t remember the name of a familiar person come upon in an unfamiliar place, or the title of the book they were reading just the night before?

My former law partner and I meet weekly for lunch. As we walk about town, we are often approached by someone we both know we know. Our forward steps slow, hoping one of us will be able to come up with the first name, for then the other can almost always retrieve the last. Together we have an entire intact memory. We joke about our lapses, but a trace of unease lingers.

Over the past week, my unease grew.

On Thursday I spent time with a friend about six years my senior. We’d been neighbors many years ago. She and her husband now live in a retirement community, and since we meet only occasionally, after we get caught up with the lives of our children, our conversation usually reaches into the past.

On this day it seemed as if every other person either of us recalled, or his or her spouse, had a dementia story to be told. I drove home under a cloud of dread.

A few days later, I traveled with two companions into the Indiana countryside for a Labor Day visit with friends. Sitting around the dining table, we discussed the difficult decisions our host was facing about the care of her 88 year old mother whose memory was fading. I welcomed the intimate and meaningful talk, silently feeling reassured recalling the mental acuity of my mother at 89, until I brought to mind my father’s emerging confusion at the age of 82.

Later that day I was asked about books I’d recently read. I couldn’t remember the title of the one at my bedside, although could describe it as a memoir.  Again unease.

Perspective returned the next day at the office, with competent performance, projects attended to, task lists reviewed and shortened. But did the dread linger somewhere in the recesses of my consciousness? Yes.

As the day was ending, two colleagues walked into my office to talk about a planned new venture. We were all tired and happy to relax in each other’s company. As is my habit whenever I need to dispel worry or want reassurance, I tell my story. So, I described my lunch meeting with the old friend and also told them of my Labor Day memory lapse.

My associates, considerably younger than me, smiled and nodded. Then one commiserated by saying he frequently reads a particularly interesting op-ed article in the N.Y.Times, and an hour or so later recommends it to his wife.

She says: oh, really? What’s it about?

He responds: well, just read me the first paragraph and then I’ll tell you.

What a wonderful friend. At least a temporary reprieve. I walked home smiling.

But, Of Course, He Wasn’t Thinking

 I own a wooden carving that hangs on my office wall. It is a face, eyes wide open. Splayed across the face is a hand with elongated fingers which cover the eyes, but the fingers are spread just far enough apart that the eyes are only partially obscured, conveying the sense that they can see while hidden from view, or are hiding from the view. It artfully portrays hypocrisy, pretending not to see or know what is actually going on right before our eyes, or within the core of our being.

I often glanced appreciatively at this sculpture as I followed Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial, and do so again with the news of John Edward’s fall from grace. It was carved in 1992, long after public disclosure of the sexual adventures of Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and John Kennedy, members of a rather exclusive all male (so far) club, joined by other presidents, and some president wannabes. Then there are the governors, and senators.

We’ve always liked our heroes handsome and physically appealing, but with a chaste public persona, knowing well that when the aphrodisiac of power is added to the mix, the players are primed for dangerous and sometimes disastrous liaisons.

Most pundits predict that John Edward‘s career as a leader is over. But is it?

By noting that he is one among many, I don’t suggest his behavior cannot be faulted, but simply recognize it for what I think it is, a presumed immunity from judgment for one who has risen so high, and mundane human frailty.

Understandable, up to a point.

Surrender to passion, which even if never completely forgiven, or forgotten, by the partner betrayed, can be understood. But thoughtfully making a decision in the cold light of morning is quite another thing. If he wasn’t thinking the night before, what was he thinking when the decision was made to proceed with the campaign, knowing that the time bomb of likely discovery was ticking?

Putting the election at risk, his own, or that of the candidates whose policies he supported, and apparently disregarding the impact of public disclosure on the wellbeing of his loved ones, is harder to comprehend. Yet for me, empathy is still possible when I consider the pain both he and his wife must continue to suffer over the tragic death of their son, her serious illness and other unhappiness they may share. Seeking to be self-protective is a universal human response. He is berated for the folly of believing that the secret could be kept, but we only know of the failures of secrecy. Cover-ups that have succeeded may indeed be legion.

To the surprise of many, given time for the roiling seas to calm, Clinton’s post-Monica rating with the public actually rose rather than fell. Did his weaknesses offer a measure of acceptance for our own? Is this the model Edwards used, thinking he could survive if later discovered? Believing that one day he too could seek redemption and be forgiven, not just by his wife.

What are our hidden thoughts when we view a flawed but otherwise admired celebrity?  Some are forgiving, as Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Edwards appear to be. Supporters are understandably angry and feel let down. But so many are quick to publicly assess Edwards as no longer a person of worth. How many voice disapproval, judge him harshly, all the while pretending not to see who we have been or might one day be? Is this the real secret?

When discussing Edward’s with a close friend, she asked me whether my husband had been faithful. I paused for a moment, a bit surprised by the question, but then answered easily: I believe he was, but like Jimmy Carter, I’m sure there were times “he lusted in his heart.”

The Folly of Giving Advice

I’m watching a young family self-destruct. I cast caution to the wind and offer some advice. A foolish move.

The story: Two young physicians are taking part in mediation, ending their five year marriage, and in the process are building a reservoir of misery for themselves and their child. After just one meeting, I thought I knew how they could avert disaster.

He is smart, charming, articulate, qualities that attract, attracted her. But though soft spoken, he is a very angry man. Now that their marriage is ending, his anger, sometimes covert, subtle, disguised, has taken center stage. She says it is what has driven her away, and she sees herself as the victim in their drama.

When his verbal saber slices the air, as he thrusts, she parries. They are frozen in this dance, and are on the brink of waging legal warfare. Their child is young, so they have many years ahead to play their parts.

My ego gets in the way of wisdom, so in private I give him advice: get therapeutic help. Seek the source of your rage, try to understand and overcome it.

My advice to her: with your ardent defensive reactions to his anger, you’re turning control of your life over to the very man you’re trying to escape. Get some help to figure out how you can change your responses. Don’t live with the hope or expectation that you can best him at this game, or that he is the one who will change.

Neither acknowledges nor attends to what I urge upon them. Just the opposite. She pays no heed and changes the subject. He’s resentful and withdraws. My advice may have been sound. Offering it was not.

I step back and examine my folly, and bring my failed experience to a thoughtful colleague. And she says: you’ve stepped across a boundary and taken on a role that is not yours to play. You can’t change their lives with motivation that is yours, not theirs.

Words I might have spoken to another, but did not speak to myself in my rush to rescue them. They had not come to me for salvation.

Good advice may be a great gift, but giving it in a constructive way is an art.

My knowledge of this pair was superficial, their situation far more complex than it initially appeared. An empathic listening connection had barely begun. With meager acquaintance, one cannot know what is best for someone else.

Even with close friends or family members, unsolicited advice is an unwelcome intrusion into another ‘s personal life, suggesting that they are not capable of working out their own issues, a lack of due regard. At least, I should have asked whether my advice was wanted, and posed the question in a way that allowed for either a yes or no answer.

There are some things I can do in the role of mediator (not savior), or as a friend or family member, that might be helpful, and which I may still have the opportunity to do with my young clients. I could share my experience in dealing with anger, my own and in responding to that of another, information they could choose to make use of or simply ignore, but which would not be a show of disrespect. And I could ask questions that would help them arrive at their own solutions, explore possible options and the likely consequences of each path that could be taken.

We all act on what we think is our best course of action, not on what someone else tells us to do. (Especially not on what a parental figure suggests!)

Best we share our own experience, give of ourselves, not advice, and offer our analytical skills. The rest is up to the listener.

Going Home Again

 I have a decision to make: should I revisit the past, or stay away from the scene of love now lost?

For I’ve been invited to join some former neighbors at a progressive potluck supper, moving from house to house on the street where Len and I lived for over forty years, and raised our family. After leaving eight years ago, we returned a few times for holiday picnics, but now if I go, I go alone.

And, it turns out, the first house on the schedule is our old home. A wave of sadness washes over me when I imagine walking up the porch steps and over the threshold.

Hearing the catch in my voice as I pose my question, friends urge me not to go. Aware of my misgivings, they talk of their own past losses and those they know are yet to come, empathizing with my reluctance to give up the distance already gained from my sorrow. But my thoughts become more clear as they probe and express their concern, and as we talk, my need to overcome this foreboding actually strengthens.

The beauty of these conversations, even if tearful, is meeting the feelings head on, whereas for the past week, I put them away each time they surfaced, unexamined, and simply decided not to go. Now I wonder. Perhaps I can go, and be rewarded in some important way. Facing my unease, not it’s victim, nor later to live with regret.

For once my old front door opens, and I am standing in the entryway, I imagine I will be enveloped in the memory of the many reunions held in that very spot, when I welcomed Len’s return from days or weeks away on a geologic or fishing trip. Those were such sweet moments, when a sensual embrace renewed so much past loving.

I don’t think the changes made by the new owner of our home will keep me from visualizing the favored chair in which Len so often sat reading or listening to music, gazing into the near distance, lost in private thoughts that might, or might not, later be shared. Or my very early morning times in that same chair, either preparing for a challenging work day ahead, or having wakened in the pre-dawn hours to think through and push aside a cloud of unhappiness.

I‘ll approach the wall that held the old upright piano at which our three year old son stood and picked out tunes with perfect pitch, the first signal of his future as a gifted musician.

The location of the kitchen sink will surely be the same, beneath the window view of the ravine-like back yard, yielding the memory of the giant rope swing that evoked Tarzan-like yelps, and drew neighborhood children in droves.

And I’ll walk out to the sun porch where my eighty-nine year old mother spent her last few weeks, cared for so tenderly by Len, then retired.

The hard times, hours of loneliness, worry or discord, might also hang in the air, experienced most often as silence rather than spoken aloud in our home, only later to become food for thought and reconciliation. That too was part of the fabric of our family.

Sooner or later grief sweeps into all our lives. For now, my expectation is that revisiting old memories, while embraced by friendships of the present, will trump the pain of loss, perhaps even enrich past joys.

Experiencing Flow

 I now know what a small blinking question mark in the middle of my desktop screen portends. The hard drive was not responding. It happened without warning, early on a Friday morning, and I knew my fragile grasp of technology was to be tested. Filled with dread at the prospect of a weekend without online access, I was forced to recognize the magnitude of my dependence on this magic box. I knew I had to do everything within reason to regain my balance, this important connection to my wider world.

I arrived at the Apple store before it opened, and soon expert analysis confirmed the worst: repair of my ancient laptop was highly unlikely, and even if possible, would be expensive.

So, a new one was purchased, with the salesman’s assurance that all I need do was take it home and plug it in. Well, not quite. After registration and email accounts were successfully established, multiple complex programs needed to be reinstalled, something others had done for me years ago. I was not without the assistance of good friends this time, but there were many things I had to do on my own, (with the aid of those  unfamiliar voices of far away telephone techies).

Cast adrift, but now determined not to revert to my previous haphazard trial and error methods, I spent time learning some systematic and more intelligent ways to cope, traveling further than ever before towards some basic understanding, and gained some new power, elated by what I was able to achieve. Hours passed almost unnoticed. Only later, when more thoughtful about my total absorption, and the pleasure that followed, my newfound sense of well-being, did it occur to me that I was experiencing flow.

Some thirty years ago I was introduced to this concept, in the book “Flow” by the renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the major contributor to the then emerging field of peak experience, what some athletes refer to as being “in the zone.” I then remembered references to his theories in a book I’d recently read, “Happier” by Harvard professor Tal Ben-Shahar (reported to be teaching the most popular course on campus, on the subject of his title). I returned to this book in order to encapsulate here the essence of the flow concept.

Flow is a state in which one is immersed in an experience that is rewarding in and of itself. (I immediately think of artists and musicians I know.) Hours go by when it seems that only minutes have passed. The focus on the activity is complete. Nothing distracts us or competes for our attention. We reach this zone when the activity provides the appropriate level of challenge, when the task at hand is neither too difficult nor too easy. Having goals and a clear sense of purpose is essential. Says Csikszentmihalyi, “the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” We then experience pleasure and perform at our best. Perhaps this all too abbreviated explanation will lead the interested reader to original sources.

The result for me: a feeling of competence, satisfaction and recognition of growth. My professional work has long offered opportunities to experience flow. For the first time, my nascent computer skills are beginning to as well.

Anger Revisited

As the scientific study of anger evolved, I failed to keep up. Until very recently I continued to believe that suppressing this emotion leads to high blood pressure and depression, and that seeking even physical outlets for one’s anger is the healthy path. Here is how a new understanding unfolded:

A husband and wife began mediation hoping to maintain a friendly relationship as parents, and their conversation in my presence was moderate, if guarded. In private both described unhappy years as they drifted apart, and each blamed the other for the failure of the marriage. But, our work was proceeding well.

Then I received a copy of an email sent by the husband to his lawyer instructing him, in clipped abrupt language, to inform wife’s counsel that he had cancelled the insurance on her car. I called him to discuss his decision. Sounding tense, he reminded me of his wife’s reluctance to seek employment and said: I have to carry more than my share of the load. I’ve had it!

He told me that during a phone call the night before, something his wife said sparked his resentment, and he gave full force and voice to his rage. The end result: the next morning he decided to cancel her insurance.

I said: I get it. Venting provided some release, but reconsider the cancellation. You two are well on the way to completing your entire agreement. Will your move provoke a counter move and derail the process? Think it over. You play golf. Get out there and whack a bucket of balls.

He agreed, and I felt wise. But apparently I was not.

Coincident with these events, I happened to start a fascinating new book by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)”. Both writers are prominent social psychologists and their text cites significant research data. They conclude that the commonly held belief that the expression of anger results in a healthy catharsis, and reduced blood pressure, is dead wrong. Quite the opposite is true.

Yet the theory that acting out when angry (i.e. shouting at a family member when provoked, or hitting a punching bag while imagining the source of your anger) is an effective way to purge aggressive feelings, is still widely held. Instead, the findings of the experiments cited establish that those who give full sway to their temper get angrier, not less angry. According to the authors, “aggression begets self-justification, which begets more aggression.”

Studies show that following angry outbursts, the mechanism of self-justification takes over, so that we can continue to see ourselves as the good person on which our self-esteem is based. In mitigating or excusing our own behavior, the predictable next step is to place blame on the “other”, which in the moment of increased aggressive feelings often leads to revenge (canceling the insurance).

Mental health professionals distinguish between suppressed and repressed anger, suppression being perfectly fine if done for good reason (i.e. to avoid losing a job), while repressing awareness of anger, and its source, can lead to trouble.

So, I called my client back, described my newly gained insight and said: I think it’s a good thing to recognize and even taste your anger, and do your best to understand the source. But scratch the golf ball plan. Try a hot fudge sundae instead.

He decided not to cancel the insurance.

Learning New Steps

She said: you need to learn some new dance steps.

On my weekly Sunday walk with a close friend, she a psychologist, I’d spoken of my inability to penetrate the gloom that had befallen my husband. Each time I probed to learn more about the source of his apparent sadness, the few words he spoke in response served to close not open the door.

I queried: a new dance?

Her response: Stop asking questions. That’s your old dance. Just tell him how you’re feeling, only a few sentences, no accusations and see what happens.

It worked. A brief back and forth began and he shared a few important words. The next day, the new steps were repeated. A bit more disclosure and tensions eased.

Some new wisdom to keep in mind. And recently the occasion arose to offer it to another.

The newly separated father and mother seated on my office couch came in to address his accusation that their seven year old daughter was being turned against him. She was unwilling to talk and share her life with him, non-disclosing in response to his efforts to engage her in conversation. But when she phoned her mother from his home, she was animated and fluent. He made little effort to hide his resentment of his wife, allowing himself to believe this was all her doing.

So, I suggested: maybe you need to learn some new dance steps.

At the start of his weekend, the father picked up his daughter at her school. We deconstructed the usual conversation they had as she climbed into his car:

He: Hi, sweetie, how was your day?

She: Fine.

He: Learn anything new?

She: Not much.

He: Any good friends in your class?

She: Um hum.

He: So, play with them today?

She: Yes.

He: What sorts of games?

She: Oh, just stuff.

Now frustrated, he shuts down, angry and hurt, and they ride along in silence until reaching his home, when his daughter brightens and showers affection on the dog, turns on the TV and cuddles with her pet. He feels the outsider. This conversation dance repeats many times over the next two days.

Bringing to mind my past experience with a sometimes-silent partner, I suggest: Try this. Stop asking questions. Just talk about yourself, nothing too profound and not accusing or in any way critical. Maybe talk about what happened to you earlier in the day. But no questions.

On return for their next visit to my office he was smiling: Amazing! Picked her up at school. No questions. Told her about the pizza I had for lunch, made with anchovies, which I hate, and what a time I had dislodging them from the layers of melted cheese. She told me about the yucky salmon patties served in the school cafeteria, and how one of the boys started tossing them around and got into trouble, and that she knew his older sister who was stuck up. So, I told her about a woman in my office who was stuck up, and she asked me why I thought people got that way. We had a great talk.

Hard to know what this youngster’s feelings were when she left school with her father instead of ending the school week by returning to the parent with whom she was most comfortable. What subliminal message did she carry from her mother? Did his being the one who left their home still feel like abandonment? Was she at fault for what happened? No easy way for a seven year old to address these issues, even for herself. Was closing the door on his questions a perfect defense against revealing a confusion of emotion?

No monumental disclosures were made, but tensions eased. Now the possibilities for real talk and future understandings were there again.

And for comfortable silences too.

Small Talk

I avoid most large social occasions, explaining, or complaining, that my tolerance for idle chat, small talk, is low.

The three friends with whom I shared this view on a recent spring evening, nodded in silent agreement, as we strolled to our city’s huge Convention Center. We were headed for what we expected would be a crowded event, that I knew would require considerable insignificant chatter, before I could retreat to the pleasure of having the remaining hours of the day be of my own design. There was every good reason to be in attendance at this grand event honoring four civic leaders for their major contributions to our community, people I felt genuine fondness for and great admiration. But what most pleased me as we entered the building was learning of the emailed promise one friend earlier received assuring that the evening’s program would end by 8:30 pm.

If asked, I likely would have pontificated that talk should either be intimate and disclosing or purposeful. All else a waste of precious time. My mantra.

But as pre-dinner wine was shared, and later in the festive ballroom, I took note of many others who seemed to be really enjoying greeting old friends, and seeking to discover connections when introduced to new acquaintances. As I thought about it after returning home and in the days since, this gave me pause. Should I reconsider my negativity? Was I the one out of step, missing the point? Discounting and avoiding something of value?

These thoughts reminded me of reading some time ago about a surprising research finding. An experiment was conducted with law students. Each was paired with another student at a distant school, given only a name and phone number, and a set of facts presenting a fairly complex problem to be negotiated during a long distance call. Half of the group at each school was told to conduct a brief, no more than three-minute, conversation on the day before the telephone negotiation session was to take place. In this initial conversation they were not to refer to the facts of the case in any way, but simply make small talk, get minimally acquainted, talk about the weather in their respective cities, if they chose.

Data was later collected from both groups on the settlement success rate of those who had insignificant friendly conversations the day before, and those who had not. The rate of successful settlements was much higher in the “small talk” group.

With the results of this study in mind, I thought back to my idle conversations of the evening just passed, and wondered about their impact if those with whom I’d exchanged banter met soon again, especially if we then shared a purposeful goal.

In his most recent book, Beyond Reason, Roger Fisher (of Getting To Yes fame) and his co-author Daniel Shapiro, both of the Harvard Project on Negotiation, address the emotional components, both positive and negative, which can be used to advantage when seeking to reach agreements. They give significant importance to “affiliation”, the building of personal connections, reducing personal distance with one’s negotiating partner. This is what seemed to have happened with the brief casual exchanges of the student group with the greater success rate.

As we were leaving the Convention Center, gliding smoothly along on elongated escalators, I noticed one of my close friends in animated friendly chatter with a woman who for many months has been her negotiating counterpart in a very difficult dispute. I don’t know how much time they’ve had for idle talk when attending meetings around massive formal conference tables. For now, I’ll hold out some hope their small talk may make a difference. I’ll find out. I may have to shift gears, stop complaining and improve my affiliation skills.

A Missed Opportunity

I had an unusual experience last week. In honor of the remarkable life lived by a former high school classmate who recently died, I, along with three other old friends of his, spoke to an audience of young people now attending the same school. Looking back on that occasion, I realize I missed an important opportunity.

The only woman on the panel, I decided to comment on how the aspirations of boys and girls differed when I was in high school in the 1940s, and to mention and pay homage to two of my high school teachers who caused me to wonder whether my future was actually as limited as I then assumed it was.

The men with whom I shared the platform, a doctor, a lawyer and an architect, all had made major contributions to the public good. From their earliest days, they could answer the ubiquitous question: and what are you going to be when you grow up? Perhaps when very young they said fireman or policeman. Was I ever asked the question or was there no need to ask a little girl? But had I been asked as I entered my teen years, what might I have answered: teacher? nurse? And, of course: wife and mother. They, in teen years would likely have said: doctor, lawyer or architect. We looked at our place in the world differently. I knew no women lawyers, architects or doctors.

The message I received from my parents and the world around me in those pre-college years was clear:

•    Be smart and get a good education, for you may have to support your family if          your husband dies or falls ill.
•    Be good, which meant no sex before marriage.
•    Be pretty, and don’t act too smart, so you can attract the right man and marry by          twenty.

These early messages were not easily discarded, and I married at twenty.
In my mid-thirties, as the mother of three, I was swept along by the 1960s woman’s movement and entered law school. But when quizzed by friends about how I would use a law degree, this Perry Mason devotee responded: well, if I were a man I would practice criminal law.

Was this personal story I told my young audience meaningful as anything other than a history lesson?  Do girls today see themselves standing on equal footing with their brothers? Is the message now the same for sons and daughters?

•    Be smart and get a good education.
•    Practice safe sex.
•    Attractive people get ahead faster and go further in life.

With hindsight, I missed an opportunity to pose some important questions:

Are young people today contemplating how in the years to come they will balance a career and raising children? Are they thinking through and talking and talking and talking to their future life-partner about the parenting role each will play?

Are they reading the stories that appear each day that glorify women who’ve decided to abandon careers and stay home to raise their families? And do they then ask themselves the what ifs . . . ?

And do they know the less frequently told stories about women, more numerous by far, who are left to essentially raise children on their own?

Perhaps this was not the occasion for me to pose these questions, yet I regret not doing so. I hope someone is asking them whether being on equal footing in their teens carries a promise of balanced lives when children arrive.

And not just asking the girls.

Dream Demons

I rarely pay attention to my dreams and recall them infrequently. Recently one caused me to rouse with a start, come alert, and then sigh with gratitude that the waking world offered safety from the demons that invaded my sleep.

Some background before I tell the story: I was ill last week with an infection that, had it gone untreated, could have had serious consequences. Once on medication, I was assured a fairly rapid recovery. My antibiotic carries on its label the instruction to take the full complement of pills, even if no longer symptomatic. The package insert repeats this warning in bold type suggesting a likely return of illness if all pills are not used. My druggist repeated this warning.

Some additional background: Since my condition developed because for too long I ignored symptoms, family and close friends quizzed me as to why I did so. Those believing that sickness arises from a compromised immune system, often stress related, asked pointed questions about any recent troubling thoughts. So, practiced as I am in identifying my anxiety triggers, I actually made a list of twelve items. When, after the dream, I went back to review what I’d written, one of my sleep demons barely made it as number eleven. The other did not even appear on the list.

Number eleven read “upcoming trip”. Although relaxed in the past, I am now spooked by the anticipation of air travel. Not of the actual flight, but all that goes before and after. Press coverage of delays on the tarmac, canceled flights, lengthy security checks and lost baggage, add to my usual pre-travel anxiety of not waking on time and missing the plane. Rational, it is not.

When I told a close friend (to whom I’d earlier confided becoming travel avoidant), that I’d not been under any particular stress, she raised an eyebrow and with a laugh asked when I was leaving town. It is soon.

So, here’s the dream: I’m seated on a plane that has just taken off, next to the friend alluded to above. As we leave the ground I reach under the seat for my carry-on bag and discover it is not there. I remember with alarm that I didn’t bring it, hadn’t even packed it before leaving home. And in that moment before waking, I realize I do not have the medication I was repeatedly warned to complete.

A return of the scary infection is the trigger that did not appear on my list.

Just exactly what can I gain by revisiting this dream? That I am more anxious about the trip than I’ve been willing to admit to myself? That the impact of this bout of potentially serious illness, (which fades in importance each day of my full recovery), is being pushed from conscious thought prematurely?

Why is it that the most stressful issue of all, given such a central role in my dream, did not make my waking list?

If we start with the premise that the unobserved life is not lived as well as it might be, that being self-aware is the best path to wise decisions and widening horizons, then the question is: should we hold onto our dream demons and pay them greater attention before blowing them off?

The Beautiful Hudson (Not The River)

The year Len returned to campus for his sophomore year of college, he was driving a car, a faded green 1941 Hudson that had already seen six years of far better days. His buddies, all returning World War II vets, living the promise of the original G.I.Bill, had challenged each other not to come back without wheels.

Our small campus was in a rural Ohio town. There was nowhere to go that wheels were needed. So, why? I soon found out.

For it was in the fall of 1947 that we met. The horrors of the long deadly war were in the past. It seemed everyone was eager to reclaim normalcy and ready to play by the rules. Only the rare bohemian student tossed cultural norms to the wind. The pill and the freedom it would offer were not yet dreamed of. What later would be designated the silent generation was emerging.

We studied together, ate together, walked in the woods and sat as close as we could in dark movie theaters. After winter break, whenever his weekend time was free, Len hitchhiked to Indianapolis where I held a co-op job (the Hudson not sufficiently roadworthy). Hitching was the way he had often traveled cross-country when in Navy uniform and it was still an inexpensive, even welcome adventure.

The only place we could be together out of the winter cold, was the lounge of my residence YWCA. There the overstuffed horsehair couch was strategically angled so that a large mantle mirror bore our reflection to the matron at the desk just inside the main entrance. Her occasional cough a reminder of her vigilance. Affectionate moments were stolen or circumspect. Holding hands at the chili parlor and the waffle house had to suffice.

Ah, but in the spring we were back together on campus and the common room of my college dorm was far more welcoming. A radio offered a very young Andy Williams softly crooning Moon River. Lights were turned low or completely off and we could touch, but other couples sought the same remove. We were never alone.

So evenings often ended in the Hudson, though never in the back seat. I was a 19-year-old raised to be apprehensive of where that might lead. But this sweet car was one of the first models to have the gearshift moved to a pedestal in front of the seat making it possible to easily slide across and nestle in each other’s arms. So the Hudson became our evening hideaway, windows open to warm breezes and the nighttime serenade of crickets. Until it broke down, was beyond repair at a manageable cost, and had to be sold.

Another year of study passed, career paths being decided and the Hudson became but a fond memory.

So, of course, we got married.

The 1950s found Len consumed by graduate study, and our two sons were born and became my career. Then came his first teaching job, the purchase of a home and the birth of our daughter. This was how life was supposed to be. We didn’t expect or achieve perfection, but we knew the rules and thought we could predict the future.

Were we prepared for the 1960s and 1970s when our kids reached adolescence and all rules were suspended? No. “To Forbid is Forbidden,” read the placards of students protesting in Paris in 1968. It seemed to have become the rule in mid-America as well. It took us years to really come to terms with this new world in which the sex we thought was the prize of marriage was sometimes no more than a welcoming handshake.

It was impossible for us not to separately wonder how different our lives might have been had we been part of this new sexually liberated generation. Together, we never gave voice to these thoughts, but there were times we both knew the question hung in the air.

To Go Or To Stay?

She rummages in her purse but then pauses, smiles, and remembers that she no longer smokes. It’s a tense moment and she wishes she still did. Deep sigh: he says he just needs some space. What do you think?

For some months now, I’ve been aware that the marriage of my friends was troubled, although she was sure they both still valued their bond. Counseling was rejected, her husband insisting this was a private matter and he didn’t need to “get fixed”. My cautionary words were: if respectful conversations are still possible, give it more time. Separations usually become permanent.

I realized as I spoke, that although invited to give advice, I had no sound knowledge base for my statement, no actual data to support my conclusion, and I told her so.

All of my evidence was anecdotal, and those who separated and then reconciled did not end up on my office couch, so my evidence was not only anecdotal but skewed. Yet many of my divorce mediation clients reported having separated for a trial period, sometimes for as long as a year, only to later decide to end the marriage. For many I surmised that a proposed temporary parting was often one party’s way of letting their partner down easy, suggesting only the need for space, but knowing that their decision to end the marriage was made, and was the right one. For others, I believed that the motive was more sincere, a testing time.

I quizzed a friend who is a Magistrate in the Domestic Relations Court and got another perspective on separations. She commented on the number of dramas that had played out in her courtroom where one spouse had asked, even demanded, that the other leave, only to later acknowledge that their real intent was to test the commitment of their partner. The departed spouse had then became happier living on their own, and declined to return. A risky request, probably made impulsively at a moment of hurt or anger. I too had heard this scenario a number of times.

I shared my personal experience with my friend, for I well remember those times during my marriage when we were both unhappy, though not always at the same time. It was toughing out those difficult days, struggling for understanding, and to be understood, that repeatedly brought us to a new and better place. Long walks were taken, sometimes together, sometimes alone. There were tearful but also loving times, because we had opportunities to reconnect with spontaneity. While still together we could reach out and touch, smile, or fix a favorite meal, do something to bridge the gap and then begin again to talk. But I know others within my own family who took a different path, lived apart and came back together successfully. A little scarier perhaps.

So, on balance, I’ve come to believe, even without reliable evidence, that when unhappy partners remain committed and respectful, most problems are best worked out in close proximity, often with professional help.

Although I know there are those exceptions that prove, or probe, this rule, is it not also true that nature abhors a vacuum? The intimacy vacuum created by a separation often gets filled, with new directions, or other people.

She Stands By Her Man

I’ve followed Elliott Spitzer’s fall from grace, and carefully read the details in the national press. I prefer to think that my interest, as a lawyer, is due to the complexity of the legal issues, not the curiosity of a voyeur. But intriguing questions do arise about his motivation, beyond the excitement of furtive sex. To be caught? Assume he’s invincible?

Even more puzzling is why the women I know, and those who write op-ed columns and blogs, are so critical of his wife, of all of the wives who stand by their man, put on the powder blue suit and pearls, and usually say nothing, as a husband confesses to sexual misdeeds.

Are those who denounce her simply projecting, imagining the anger they would feel if in her place, and feel thwarted by her apparent passivity? But even allowing for that, the wife receives almost as much censure, scorn, as the straying husband. Why?

The suggestion is made that her behavior is demeaning to all women, that she somehow strips herself of person hood, becomes his foil, gives his behavior legitimacy.
They ask: What message is she sending to her daughters? Tacit approval of their father’s actions? That she is willing to be a docile victim? Or worse, that she is the one at fault? Not a good enough wife or he would not have strayed?

I share none of these judgments of a wife who agrees to be part of the public tableau. I assume that in each case the reasons are different, unique to the relationship in that particular marriage, and her own personal history. She’s entitled to privacy and the benefit of the doubt. And time to heal, supported by her sisters, not vilified.

These were my thoughts in the days immediately following the Spitzer drama. I urged friends to simply respect the choices she made.

But then the story took a turn.

In the week after the resignation, when the dust had begun to settle, former staff, no longer loyal to their boss, talked to mainstream reporters about Spitzer’s frequent uncontrolled rages, directed at supporters as well as adversaries. Some former colleagues were named, others quoted without attribution. In detail, they described meetings with then Governor Spitzer, and earlier when he was a prosecutor, at which he often became so angry he reddened and loudly spewed forth obscenities, maligning those who had not performed exactly as he wished. The picture drawn was of a man seeking total control, but out of control.

This is in many ways more disturbing than his need for risky sexual adventure. Can it be that such furious raging is limited to his professional life? That doesn’t seem likely. Was this what his wife was subjected to behind closed doors? If so, this is a different ball game.

I draw a sharp distinction between a wife freely deciding to publicly display loyalty to a husband who has fallen because of sexual misadventures, and support which is the consequence of undisclosed intimidation. Being smart, sophisticated or rich does not preclude dread generated by past experience of overpowering fury, even if no physical violence followed.

Obviously, I cannot know, and these thoughts are built on inference. But now I wonder if such is the case. If so, I hope friends are speaking up and offering her a path to safer ground.

Going Along To Get Along

On the day we first meet, I spend time alone with each new client, and ask how disputes were resolved during their marriage. It’s helpful to understand their negotiating style, and essential that I uncover any claim of intimidation.

She said: I just went along to get along.

And when she noted my knowing smile, my eyebrows raised as if questioning the truth of her words, she became more insistent: I really did. Even if we argued bitterly, I’d give in just to keep the peace.

I explained my curious glance, telling her that often both parties deliver the same message, that they were the one who was passive in the face of disagreement, the one who always surrendered. And this was exactly what her husband had told me moments before.

My personal experience suggests that most of those living in contented relationships aren’t shy about trying to influence their partner when differences arise. Talking, back and forth, weighing of options. Humor may diffuse rising tension, and even when hurtful words are spoken, always knowing wounds can be healed. Perhaps a touch, as a reminder of loving, of respect, becomes the promise of a million new beginnings.

But more often than not, when a relationship is ending, has been eroding for some time, each person sees themselves as the one who always accommodated to the other’s wishes or demands. As improbable as it seems, I think both perceptions are sincerely voiced, that personal power has been relinquished, or taken away. Resentments build until the delicate balance tips.

So, is there something important to note here? How differently has the couple that is falling apart been living during the years of growing unhappiness? Has the ice become too thin to risk discussion, when they are hoping to avoid the break up, clinging to the chance of remaining together? Is each slowly losing, giving up their authentic self in the struggle, at times acting out in anger, at other times quietly swallowing their words? And as one assumes the role of decider and the other retreats, are the last words spoken at day’s end: not tonight, I have a headache . . . .

Are these the moments most remembered, the times when wishes were compromised or submerged, sacrificing the sense of self?

Friends ask if it isn’t depressing to witness the sadness of those I work with. It is not. For, here is the hope: now they head for life apart, autonomy restored. Once anxiety about the unknown diminishes with the development of a plan for the future, the freedom to again be authentic will one day lift despair. A new beginning.

Desperate Measures

A caller sought advice which in the moment I could not give. He told the following story: Four years earlier, during a time of marital separation, he sought solace in the arms of a sympathetic coworker. But within days they abandoned their brief affair, she not wanting to place her marriage at risk.

Later he and his wife reconciled, and during an intimate moment he disclosed this misstep. Now, years later, again separated, their divorce action was pending. His soon to be ex-wife was demanding an excessive financial settlement and threatened, if thwarted, to tell all to the husband of his former friend. He was in turmoil, imagining painful, perhaps irrevocable, consequences.

This left me in a quandary. The issue of extortion, which I deem this to be, has never  arisen before.

Then, oddly, within days of this call, a colleague conducting a mediation in another city, also sought advice about coercion. During a session, an ex- husband, seeking to end his long term support obligation, issued a challenge to his former wife. He possessed documentation that established her prior knowledge that a former coworker, who was also a close friend, had breached the trade secret policy of her employer. She had never disclosed what he now threatened to reveal. Although no known harm had come of her silence, she feared her disloyalty would damage her reputation and likely imperil her job.

After considerable thought, my suggestion for both victims was to first consult with legal counsel. Perhaps a letter sent to each of those seeking financial gain by intimidation, questioning whether they were aware of the criminal nature of their proposed actions, would be a sufficient deterrent.

Yet, even if dissuaded for now, this pressure could be renewed at any time, perhaps in more subtle fashion.

And if not deterred, then what? Call their bluff? Are bullies closet cowards?

Or capitulate?  Accept the financial and possible job loss?

Or try to understand the motivation for the desperate measures being taken? Could the threatened party step back and with genuine interest question why such scare tactics are being used? Explore compromise? Or is this sheer folly?

In an ideal world, would it not make sense to become a truth teller and take back personal power? Is this the only secure ending? Give the friend who had preserved her marriage the option of maintaining the secret, or not. Would the employer understand, even respect the conflicted loyalty of a valued employee, when belatedly told of the failed espionage?

Each possible course of action carries risks difficult to weigh, but taking responsibility for past actions wrests control from the unprincipled aggressor. Even if a high price to pay, untroubled sleep the reward.

Moving On

Recently I considered moving to a new home. Close friends had found the perfect place for them to live, within a cluster of five small condominiums nestled at the base of a wooded park, close to downtown, yet secluded. They phoned and suggested I consider living there as well, as another unit just across the courtyard was now for sale.

A long hiatus from work over the holidays had left me with a heightened sense of what post-retirement loneliness might be, and we had talked about this.

I was moved by their gesture, for it came along with a tender offer of the help I might need as I grow older, friends close at hand if my car won’t start, or if my human apparatus begins to fail. I warmed to the prospect of this new shelter, both the roof and their arms.

I went to look around. The site of their new home is the very neighborhood Len and I  lived in for over forty years. The park at the top of the hill, seen from their windows, was the place to which we walked together several evenings each week. Our children had rolled head over heels down the steep slopes on new spring grass and sledded on snowy winter evenings. So this would mean a return to loved surroundings.

Then why once there, peering through dark windows into this promise of a new haven, was the idea abandoned in a blink? I was enveloped with a cloak of sadness, and I knew this was a move I could never make.

Needing to explain my change of heart, both to my friends and to myself, on return home I listed the pros and cons. There were many, but one alone outweighed and made the others irrelevant.

At the house in the park, the memory of my former life with Len arose at every turn of my head, his absence a constant presence. In my cozy loft, Len never lived. I bring him in at will many times a day, glance at his pictures, even have imaginary conversations from time to time. But here he comes by invitation. Then his presence, not his absence, is the essence of my mood. Here I have some control.

Each of us chooses to make the past a part of the present in different ways, accommodating to our unique circumstances and needs. Today, I feel strengthened by this recent experience, able to recognize and then act on my feelings, to manage my life looking forward, determined to create my future security in new ways, even if more alone.

Guilt

She called to ask for the first available appointment because her husband, feeling guilty about an affair, was proposing a generous settlement. My silence told the story. I thought: don’t count on it, guilt fades fast. As if able to read my mind, she laughed, and I thought I heard a knowing sadness.

The first mediation session was scheduled for the next week. The husband’s culpability, unchallenged, was spoken of at our first encounter, and hung in the air each time we met. Yet he remained steadfast in his offer of substantial financial support for his wife, for many years to come.

When promises earlier made are broken, the betrayal becomes the focal point. It’s easy in those first days to be simplistic and blaming.

But with the passage of time, the breach, initially seen as the cause of the rift, is often recast as the effect of expectations unmet. Regrets unattended. Sometimes this is a reality perceived only by the actor, sometimes by both players.

As this shift from cause to effect evolves, the injured party may well get advice from family and friends to move forward quickly and take full advantage of their partner’s remorse. But experience has taught me that regret, or even the admission of fault, is a shaky foundation for lasting agreements.

I met alone with the husband wanting to assure myself that his decisions were well considered and would not crumble before pen was put to paper. I wondered aloud whether it was guilt or compassion that was motivating his largess?

His  response was a question: Does it matter? What’s wrong with feeling guilty and doing what I can to put those thoughts to rest? I know the reasons for our failure are not all of my doing. But this is less about looking back than about looking forward. I’m not atoning or even offering compensation. I want us both to get on with life. She’ll be secure, and I’ll feel better about myself. Leave it at that.

I was chastened.

Will he still feel he made good decisions some years hence? Impossible to know, but his values  prevailed, respected by me, prized by his wife.

Guilt has gotten a bad name in our feel good age, the sources to be analyzed and exorcised. Was I misguided in my cynical assumption that guilt, met with blame would ultimately fade, fuel anger, even retribution? When instead it motivates compassion and a recognition of shared human frailty, is that the exception that probes the rule?

A Melancholy Day

When my kids were young, Halloween was my favorite holiday. With little spent in time or money, the night ended with costumes askew and each child’s candy hoard spread out and sorted on the living room floor. Apples disdained, chocolate eaten with abandon.

It seems right that Thanksgiving should be next in line for favored status, a time to remember all that is most treasured, friendships and family, and savor favorite recipes. Seems right, but is not quite true.

With children living far away, I join old friends.

We are all smiling as the sumptuous meal is presented, but I must purposefully pull myself back from a focus on who is no longer at the table. Then I talk about him, casually, even tell funny stories about his carving exploits, and I can breathe again. But I want to go home, be alone with my thoughts, allow my practiced smile to dim.

A son phones and senses my mood, which he says he shares. We reminisce about years long past, the annual early Thanksgiving  morning drive to the Chicago suburbs. Kids snug under blankets dozing in the back seat, wake as dawn lights the sky. We reach a half way mark and pull into a familiar roadside restaurant for pancakes and hot coffee.

Cousins fairly tumble over each other in joyful reunion, as the Larsen clan gathers in the small prairie town where some still live. Too many to seat together except around the ping pong table in Aunt Joan’s basement, hot dishes carefully carried down a dimly lit steep stairway. Babies passed from arms to arms, giving new parents respite.

How many times did this scene replay? Until one day children returned with their own small people carried aloft on shoulders grown broad and strong. The familiar aromas are in my kitchen, soon crowded with helping hands. As the day wanes, Len and I leave for an evening walk, hand in hand in the cold winter air.

With last week’s holiday now past, everywhere I hear: How was your Thanksgiving? The response: Great! My response: Fine.

In this answer there is both truth and undisclosed sadness, and I know not just my own. For every family there is a story to be told, some sadness, some regret.

Oddly, I almost savor my melancholy mood, for it intensifies the moments remembered. Would the losses be so mourned, if less precious?

But, if I was king of the world, we would now fast forward to the first of next year, and bypass all the holiday merriment of December. How humbug is that?

Why Marry?

The divorce rate is declining. Good news? Or a reflection of the reality that fewer people are getting married? And why should they?

Friends have posed that question. Not young people, but middle aged and beyond, in committed relationships. They listen to what I say about the legal protections afforded those who marry, but really want to talk about the more intangible benefits, or deficits. Will marriage strengthen or put their treasured relationship at risk? Will their bond become a resented bind?

Having married over fifty years ago when this question never surfaced, I usually opt for marriage. Romanticism? Perhaps.

A vivid memory: Just a year or so after we married, I walked alone across campus in a wintery drizzle. Len had been remote for a few days and I, only twenty years old, assumed it was because he was unhappy with me. I was flooded with fear and dread, not for the loss of our love, but wondering how I could possibly tell my parents that our marriage had failed.

When our children were young, even if one of us was sometimes dejected, thoughts of divorce were kept at bay.

But we had 27 years together after our last chick flew off. Every marriage is subject to the shifting sands of cultural change. The changes in the 1960s and 1970s were profound, titanic. I know there were moments when our marriage felt like a cage, but was that cage the structure that roused us to do the work to weather the storm?

Would we have found a way to meet each other’s needs anyway, even if not married? How can I really know? Happily, the love and joy was always greater than the angst, and we kept our balance.

I’ve asked friends in their fifties and sixties, some married, others not, why they chose the path they did.

Said one: We gave it serious thought and at first planned to marry, but in the end we knew that even though our love and trust was complete, trying to jointly manage some aspects of our lives as a married couple could cause serious conflict. Now, fifteen years later, the vows we exchanged over the kitchen table are just as enduring as if recorded at the courthouse.

Said another: We knew we wanted to openly declare our love and commitment to each other and celebrate that with our friends. Marriage was the right answer for us, and we never considered another course.

Said another: Wonderfully happy in my relationship, I agonized over the decision to marry, knowing I would first have to shake off the wrongheaded model of marriage handed down to me by my father. I finally did.

When young, my generation had no such choice. If we wanted to be together, it was either marriage or scandal. Now boomers have entered their middle years, having come of age during the sexual revolution, encouraged by many a pied piper to openly defy parental values. Even the majority who reentered the mainstream will likely feel free to shape their love relationships to their own design.

I suspect for most women, the evolutionary pull for the protected nest, and gravity’s pull of aging, gives the marriage proposal a certain import, even if the offer is declined.

And I suspect that for most men, resisting the evolutionary pull to impregnate far and wide, actually offers greater freedom to relax and focus on a satisfying union.

Purveyors of “family values” may rail at the erosion of the marriage rules, but the genie of free choice is smiling, and will not willingly slide back into the bottle.

Significant Memories

Still pondering the idea of writing a book, I look for expert advice, and what I find goes beyond my immediate quest.

Susan Rabiner’s book*, written as an instruction for prospective authors of serious nonfiction, poses this question: why is your work important? In her view there must be an “argument” presented, not simply the reporting of research conclusions, or a story told.

If the question she poses cannot readily be answered, she urges the writer to recall events of their youth that forecast the adult, memories of those times that ignited the passion for what is being written about now. Recapturing those memories, Rabiner proposes, will define what motivates you today, provide the “argument” for writing the book.

And, I wonder, for life?

If important transitions are ahead, from one role to another, a new job, retirement, a book, what direction makes sense? I asked a friend what childhood memories pointed to his future outcomes.

This was his answer:

“My parents always stressed that I must do the right, the just thing. If ever given too much change by a merchant, no  question, it must be returned. Trying to recall a specific memory takes me back to the fifth grade. A girl in my class, somewhat an outsider, was accused by the teacher of some bad act that I knew she had not committed.
With self-righteousness only a fifth grader could muster, I approached the teacher’s desk and asked, ‘Miss Jones, do you believe in the ten commandments?’ She said that of course she did, so I went on, ‘Do you know the one about not bearing false witness?’
That night I told my mother about the encounter. She was mortified, and promptly called the teacher to offer an apology for my behavior.’Oh, but he was absolutely right,’ was the teacher’s surprising response.
The story became a family classic.”

The player in this drama, a man now in his early sixties, grew up in a small town, was a leader and excelled in school. As we talked, he was able to bring forth more early memories of encouraging others, and himself, to do the “right thing”, to meet his need for justice.

After college he entered a major urban law school and on graduation, was hired by a prestigious firm. Assigned work crafting and closing on contracts for corporate mergers and acquisitions, he found he had neither enthusiasm nor belief in his competence for these tasks. When a senior partner proposed he take on a firm pro bono project, helping with the organization of an inner-city heath clinic, he eagerly accepted and was immediately fully engaged with the people, doctors and nurses, and their mission.

Soon after, he left the lucrative law firm job. For many of the years that followed, he worked to develop programs providing legal representation for the disadvantaged, giving voice to his zeal for righting wrongs.

I’m learning about myself in posing this question to my friends. As they bring to mind how certain early events shaped their essence, their destinations, I do so as well.

I’d never before thought of using important memories in this way, to analyze the “argument” for what is being written, to inform the future.

. . . . .

*Thinking Like Your Editor: How to write great serious non-fiction

It’s Not All Bad

 Friends ask why I plan to write a book. Striving to be truthful, I answer: to avoid becoming invisible. They object, not wanting me to feel diminished by getting old. They would like to talk me out of this concern. But they cannot. For I’m a realist, and know that aging eventually brings a retreat from center stage.

Last week, on a sunny downtown street corner after Sunday brunch, a friend pursued the point I’d made and asked: do you mean invisible as a woman or in a more general sense? And I responded: both.

Now he is really determined to talk me out of it.

As we grow older, women accept a measure of invisibility. They walk down the sidewalk and male heads no longer turn. But in their families, and professionally, they continue as vibrant, seasoned, and more accomplished players, years after feminine allure has faded somewhat. Not a bad trade-off.

But when one advances beyond the ever-expanding stretch designated mid-life, then invisibility threatens in earnest.

For me, both work and writing keep the stage lights on. And recalling memorable experiences, exploring their meaning and crafting a story, offers a new role, a revival, a second act. A universal dream for the old. And even for the not yet so old?

But, apparently I’ve failed to communicate to those dear friends who seek to reassure me of my continuing presence, that becoming invisible is not all bad. So here’s the good news for me, and eventually for them:

I’m no longer burdened by ambition. Though eager to enhance my skills as a mediator and writer, I’ve got no more lawyer mountains to climb.

Volunteer projects of past importance have been taken over by a new generation, and I’m permitted to enjoy the role of valued spectator, without committee or leadership responsibility.

Never again will I wear uncomfortable shoes.

The clothes still in my closet are classics, by my own definition. Being in tune with fashion matters not at all.

Without guilt, I no longer attend social events I think will be tiresome.

Responsible only for my own timetable, I can talk with a friend for hours, even in the middle of the day, should we chose.

I’m no longer a consumer of anything other than consumables. Simplicity allows for greater focus, and time to become technologically savvy.

I don’t have to pretend, so as to be perceived in a favorable light, don’t have to hide who I really am. Invisibility has morphed into transparency.

Life’s journey is becoming a destination. And I still buy green bananas.

The Other Mother

I write this on the day that my other mother died at the age of ninety-nine. Vicki was my father’s kid sister, the aunt who was happy to take me in when I ran away from home.

In 1951, I was twenty-two, she in her early forties, ten years younger than my mother. Len and I had just finished college, and he was soon to embark on graduate study. For both strategic and financial reasons, he was spending the summer in the Nevada desert as field assistant to one of his soon to be Columbia professors. I was newly pregnant and this was not a good time for us to be apart. But I had a safe haven, parents who happily welcomed me home to await Len’s return.

This college graduate, wife, and soon to be mother became a child again, worse still, an adolescent. My mother was a loving and generous woman, and with miles between us we got along very well. Now, each day I bristled as she suggested improvements: a haircut, perhaps a blouse of a more becoming color, a more cheerful presence.

Of even greater moment, I was unable to put aside feelings engendered just weeks before when Len and I, pressed together in a street corner phone booth, had called with the exciting news of our expected baby, a first grandchild. Vivid in memory was the question she asked: was it planned?

I fled to the small white cottage of my aunt in Lakeville, Connecticut. Vicki was then employed as an editor at Doubleday, and commuted weekly to New York City, returning home laden with manuscripts of aspiring authors. Recently divorced from her doctor husband, (he still beloved in our family), she was raising her young son on her own. Divorce was a rarity then, and though unspoken, the family assumed she must have been at fault.

My mother and my aunt were loving competitors, first for my father’s affection (and, of course, my mother won that round), and then for mine. Vicki was delighted to harbor her runaway niece, no doubt pleased to be the winner of this round. I was offered the excitement of the publishing world and a glimpse into the life of an independent career woman, sophisticated and defiant. But most of all I was given unconditional acceptance.

Over the next thirty years, our relationship thinned as we each moved to distant states and she remarried. We became close again after my mother’s death in 1987, but my mother won the middle rounds.

How grand to be loved and welcomed without reservation by an other mother, with the accumulated wisdom of the generation before. Tender care without the admonitions or questions that a mother must labor to suppress.

Having no investment in another’s perfection can be a wonderful gift.

The Throwaway Line

I did not fully realize anger was in the room until they were walking out the door. A step ahead of her, looking away, his tone flat, he said: when are you moving out?

Was I meant to overhear these words? I wasn’t sure, but they surprised me. Just moments before, as their first mediation session ended, an agreement was made to postpone the decision about which parent would remain living in the marital residence, or whether it should be sold. More financial data was needed and budgets not yet developed. So, it was agreed that for a time they would remain under the same roof.

For fourteen years these marriage partners struggled to draw closer together and from time to time succeeded, but the husband’s recent severe depression tipped the balance, became the catalyst for their decision to end the relationship.

During the time we were all together, they were amiable and calm, smiling and nodding in affirmation as each spoke, the focus on how they could best continue to care for their children. This negotiation would go smoothly, or so I thought.

Then, privately the husband confided that over the past year, his wife had literally turned her back on him, and withdrew at his touch. He knew it was time to move on. I asked about counseling, but although treated for the depression, he now saw no need. He was sure that with autonomy would come the return of his emotional equilibrium.

The wife’s concern, expressed in confidence, was her husband’s outbursts aimed at their troubled adolescent son. She feared that when she was no longer present, no one would moderate their increasingly hostile exchanges.

The remark he made as they left my office, almost as an aside, confused me. A painful jab, a contradiction of how they had presented when together, and of what had just been resolved. My educated guess: this smiling man is a very angry man, both of them on their good behavior in my presence, but with tumult just below the surface.

. . . . . . . . . .

I’m no stranger to this mystery. My husband’s oft spoken throwaway line was usually addressed to my back as I worked in the kitchen or sat at my desk:

I’m going for a walk.

Was that an announcement or an invitation? Unable to read his mind, I would just nod, silent but hurt, feeling excluded. Over time and after some difficult conversations, I learned to ask: on your own or do you want company? He usually did.

. . . . . . . . .

When they return, I will ask this client-husband to clear up the meaning of his parting shot. Perhaps it will open the door to an important story yet to be told and understood. Even provide a chance to design an agreement that will, to some extent, diffuse his anger.

Throwaway lines. Spoken into the air as someone is walking away, off handed but ambiguous. Attention should be paid.

The Greatest Gift

 The best gift I ever received was not my husband’s to give, but was gratefully accepted: permission to change my life.

It was the summer of 1964. For six weeks, Len was exploring Scandinavia with sixteen other academic geologists, our longest separation in fifteen years of marriage. During the last of these weeks, the three kids and I drove about the midwest, visiting friends and family. We ended our journey at Laguardia Airport, peering through a wall of glass, eager to spot Len in the long line of weary travelers navigating customs.

Reunited, we headed for an airport hotel. All five of us tumbled onto the big bed, filling the air with our stories, the kids eventually settling down on roll-away cots. Len and I held each other close, wordless, as they drifted off to sleep.

The next morning, we started home, the windows of our Chevy station wagon open to the warm wind of late summer. Taking a road trip with a geologist presents the challenge of drawing his attention away from the rock and land formations he finds ever fascinating. Perhaps Len’s divided attention gave me the courage to casually remark, my voice tentative: I’m thinking about going to law school.
. . . . . . . . . . .

I was thirty-five years old. Julia, our youngest, would soon enter kindergarten. Concentrating fully on raising children gave me a satisfying sense of purpose, but as they got older, motherhood as a career was no longer enough. Anticipating this, we’d talked about what I would do next. My teaching certification could be renewed, but I’d been living in a child centered world for twelve years and yearned for something else, but what?

One evening, when on my travels, the husband of a friend, herself in the same quandary, surprised me by asking if I’d ever considered law school. I hadn’t, but the idea was born and took shape over the weeks that followed. I spoke of it to no one. Len’s approval was the missing piece.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .

Today, when law school enrollment of women equals that of men, do many remember that just forty years ago, it was assumed without question that there was some sound reason that law was an all male profession?

Would challenging that premise undermine my desirability as a woman, as Len’s wife? In 1949, the year we married, aspirations of women were in part shaped by tradition, but also by the wave of men returning from World War II, yearning for family. Even college educated women married young and welcomed home and hearth as their destiny. (To put things in perspective, we married 14 years before Betty Freidan wrote “The Feminine Mystique” and sparked the second wave of the woman’s movement.)

Is my story dated, a relic of the past? Is attention any longer paid to maintaining the delicate balance of men’s expectations and women’s fulfillment? Do women still seek the approval of a loved partner before making a major identity shift? Do men? Or is it the essence of “emancipation” to no longer do so?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Remembering who I was in 1964, I think back to that important moment on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and wonder how my life might have played out had Len not responded:

Law school? What a great idea, perfect for you!

Nature or Nurture?

Gloria Steinem, the ever engaging feminist now in her seventies, challenged my generation to wake up, and open doors long closed to women, the right to make their own choices, personal and professional.

In June, Steinem was the commencement speaker at Smith. The next day, this excerpt was quoted:

“In my generation, we were asked by the Smith vocational office how many words we could type a minute, a question that was never asked of then all-male students at Harvard or Princeton. Female-only typing was rationalized by supposedly greater female verbal skills, attention to detail, smaller fingers, goodness knows what, but the public imagination just didn’t include male typists, certainly not Ivy League-educated ones.
Now computers have come along, and “typing” is “keyboarding.” Suddenly, voila! — men can type! Gives you faith in men’s ability to change, doesn’t it?”

What a hoot! So, we’re all alike after all. But, apparently we’re not.

For the past thirty years, feminists (I among them) insisted that socialization alone is determinative of men’s and women’s skill development, and therefore, choice of career. If someone suggests otherwise, a biological or genetic trait that differentiates the intellectual capabilities of men and women, they are at risk. Witness the long slide of Lawrence Summers, from the pinnacle of Harvard’s Presidency, when he suggested that women might be less well suited for scientific endeavor. A furor ensued. A resignation. Thoughtful responses were hushed.

Yet today, parents committed to raising children free of sexual stereotypes, describe the differences they witness between their young sons and daughters as very real, almost from infancy. They buy their two year old girls trucks and fire engines, and they still drift to playing house. They allow, even encourage their young boys to play with dolls, and they still end up pointing their G.I.Joes at each other, simulating gun fire.

Socialization? Well, maybe.

But, enter brain imaging and other advanced explorations of the human body. Prenatal exposure to differing levels of hormones is currently of great interest to the many researchers seriously asking why aren’t more women in science?* Males appear to have superiority in spacial reasoning, women greater talent for language.

As the only woman in my 1969 law school graduating class of 114, it’s easy to stand on the nurture side of the line, but I think we need to wait and see, and take a less defensive stance, as we watch the balance between biologically preordained and socially imposed characteristics play out.

I hope we continue to recognize and question institutional bias in hiring and promotion, but welcome the inquiry, and refrain from demonizing the messenger.
. . . . . . . . .
*Why Aren’t More Women in Science?: Top Researchers Debate the Evidence
by Wendy M. Williams (author), Stephen J. Ceci (editor)

Jill Ker Conway

By chance, I happened upon a CNN panel discussion and heard the words of an old friend I’ve never met. Not an impossibility, if we’ve experienced the world of that person through their own telling, in print.

Jill Ker Conway became well known to me over ten years ago when I read the story of her early life. She is a woman in her seventies, retired as President of Smith College, and now a visiting scholar at M.I.T.

“The Road From Corain” tells of Conway’s youth growing up in Australia. After World War II, her father homesteaded vast acreage in the Outback, where the entire family took part in raising sheep for wool. Unlike her two older brothers, who had been sent off to boarding schools, she grew to age eleven without ever attending a formal school, although, interestingly, she was raised with the expectation that she would become equally as competent. (A message I too received from both parents.)

Even as sand storms howled around their ranch home, set miles from the nearest neighbor, her mother laid her evening table with linen, silver and crystal, as caught up as most Australians raised pre-World War II, in allegiance to the standards of the British upper class. Valiant in her support of her husband and young family, as they dealt with the adversity of a prolonged devastating drought and extreme heat, she delivered mixed messages to her daughter about what it meant to be a woman. Modeling great strength and expecting high academic achievement, she also offered her not so subtle advice to hide her intelligence, in order to be popular with young men.(All messages I too received.)

Following the premature death of her father, the Ker family moved to Sidney. On graduating from the University with highest honors, she was denied the employment opportunities offered to her male colleagues, and fully wakened to the dichotomy of the treatment of men and women. (In 1969, the year of my graduation, law firms hired no women attorneys.)

Eventually Conway immigrated to the U.S. as a history scholar and continued her graduate education, becoming a renowned educator and author of many acclaimed books.

Conway and I share a historical context. When I read her next volume of autobiography, “True North”, I’ll be able to compare how we experienced the radicalization of many women in the sixties and seventies and the changes since that time. The demands of those years are now common place expectations. Young girls today are born to these expectations and have no need to be covert.

Reading about the real life of another, hearing the voice of the author, illuminates our own life. I will likely never meet Jill Ker Conway, yet I know her well, and she has helped to give my world definition.

The Risks of Optimism

I am an optimist, most of the time. But recent research suggests that optimists are less good predictors of future outcomes than their depressed bothers and sisters. So, what meaning does this have for me, and my fellow enthusiasts?

Here is what Daniel Kahneman, an economics professor at Princeton and a recent Nobel laureate said, commenting on mistakes made by overly optimistic executives:

“People assign much higher probability to the truth of their opinions than is warranted . . . a natural inclination to exaggerate our talents is amplified by a tendency to misperceive the causes of events. The typical pattern is for people to take credit for positive outcomes and to attribute negative outcomes to external factors, no matter what their true cause.”

I thought this a valuable insight, clipped it, and put it aside. Then the failure of a mediation I was conducting brought it back to mind. The husband was a successful business executive, whose actions and statements were seen and heard by his wife as blaming and threatening. His wife, a musician, perceived herself as the victim of his intimidating ways, and in our sessions emotionally withdrew, unable or unwilling to assert her own interests.

I described this dynamic to my professional colleagues, by way of explaining the failed outcome, for I had terminated mediation when it became clear that the husband’s bullying ways, and the wife’s retreat to tears and silence, made their negotiation problematic.  Now I was asking myself whether my decision was wise.

Kahneman suggests that one way to improve on decision making would be to systematically analyze mistakes, although he thought this was unlikely to happen with business managers, suggesting they would resist adopting procedures that would be threatening to them.

My colleagues and I love to talk about our successful outcomes, especially if a case presented unusual challenges. And we frequently consult with one another when faced with a difficult case and suggest alternative strategies, but seldom do we devote much time to systematically analyzing our failures, except to note the external causes.

I can often identify my mistakes.

I am comfortable apologizing for them.

But little time is spent seriously considering how I might have handled situations differently. Too much discomfort in that?

Perhaps CEOs with an eye on the Dow Jones believe they must avoid disclosure of mistakes, lest the value of their stock decline. But my asking what did I do wrong and how might I have done this differently, is an analysis my colleagues and I can keep quite private.

So, I’ve even decided to step across the boundary from my professional to my personal life and pose the same questions when my optimistic plans go awry.

Be Kind To Imus?

Studies suggest that the characteristic most prized by women, in a current or prospective partner, is kindness. Makes sense to me.

When my children were very young and walked home from school, I remember occasional stories they told about a bully who bedeviled another child along the way. I also remember that my response invariably included the phrase: there’s just no excuse for not being kind. And then my question: I wonder what happened to him to make him so mean? Contradictory messages, perhaps.

Many years later, my daughter told me that every time she passes someone asking for a handout, those words echo in her mind, and she is guilt ridden if she simply walks on (so she doesn’t, and neither would her father).

So, must I feel kindly towards Don Imus?

I know of him only from recent news coverage. Nor have I ever listened to any of his brother shock-jocks, but recently I’ve read quite a bit about these angry white men (mostly) who epitomize unkindness.

An attorney representing Imus is about to file suit against CBS for $40 million, claiming his dismissal violated a clause in his contract that called upon him to be “extraordinary. . . irreverent . . . and controversial”. His lawyer also points out that a delay button was in use, which allowed the producer to block offensive words before they were broadcast, and that neither CBS nor MSNBC used it. Imus was a significant financial asset to these stations, until he wasn’t.

When the furor first arose, I wondered if the firing of Imus might have a sobering effect on other entertainers of his ilk, and if talk radio laced with raunchy insults would fade, but apparently quite the opposite is true. Harsh and crude expressions of rage continue on many radio stations unabated.

As extreme as my position may be on kindness, so too is my almost unequivocal support of the First Amendment and my opposition to censorship, unless the speaker is generating a “clear and present danger” (i.e. shouting fire in a crowded theater).

Was not the decision to take Imus off the air an economic one, when public outrage resulted in major advertisers pulling away? I think this is exactly how such decisions should be made, in the marketplace of ideas. Imus not only became a public relations nightmare, but a financial liability.

If Imus knocks on my door, he will be invited in for coffee. I’d like to better understand why unkindness is his chosen path to fame and fortune. Is it all just shtick or the essence of the man?

At a Loss For Words

My friend, Paul, was in a quandary, and when he told me what had happened, I joined him in his loss for words.

The story: A few weeks ago Paul lunched with a colleague following a business meeting. At the meeting, a woman who both of them met for the first time that morning, had raised serous questions about a position taken by his luncheon companion (we’ll call him Dick), and Dick’s anger, though controlled, had flared.

As they slid into the restaurant booth, Dick remarked: These lesbians can be relentless. (said with a jocular, “if you know what I mean” grin). Picking up his menu, Paul’s response was silence. They ordered lunch, the subject shifted, and the derisive comment simply evaporated without rejoinder.

But Paul’s discomfort did not evaporate, and now, weeks later, we sat pondering how that remark might have been (should have been) countered. We both have friends, colleagues and family members who are gay or lesbian, and felt offended and angered revisiting that scene. Yet, we were at a loss for the words that might have been spoken in response.

Oh, we had no trouble designing cutting insults to induce embarrassment, or to label Dick a bigot, but he was someone with whom Paul would continue to work. And even if he were not, an aggressive remark which would add to the discomfort of the moment, was not in Paul’s repertoire. Yet, remaining silent, he felt lacking in courage, defeated.

If the goal is to raise consciousness and not to simply confront or demean, which might just harden beliefs, another approach is needed.

I’ve asked friends how they would respond to an ugly remark, a pejorative identity statement, and none had a sound rejoinder. All had experienced similar conversations and also remained silent, often walking away, if the setting allowed.

After thought and some reading (see the fine book identified below), I think I’ve come up with a good approach.

Bigoted remarks can be addressed with a non-defensive question, simply seeking further exploration of the meaning. The question must express genuine curiosity and be non-accusatory, and asked with an open, non-critical tone, an inflection which sincerely invites a thoughtful response.

For example: Dick, tell me why you think that’s so?

Even if the response continues in the same disparaging vein, at least a conversation has begun, and the way open to a sharing of experience and knowledge. Genuine curiosity would appear to be the key.

On the other hand, Dick might simply answer: I guess that was a pretty ignorant remark. Then, a simple “yes”  will suffice with, perhaps, a smile.

. . . . . . . . . . .

See: Taking the War Out of Our Words by Sharon Strand Ellison

Please Wait

 If I could be granted a wish, it would be that all my good friends, and members of my family, would only die after I do. A selfish and frivolous wish, which gives but momentary comfort, but such is the nature of wishes. We all have to leave, follow other loved ones, but I want those I love to wait.

Pat, my college roommate, a friend for over fifty years, died last week. We did not see each other often, as she lived on the east coast. But when we did connect in some way, it was as if no time had elapsed. Her husband and mine shared a love of fishing, so our visits were often planned around their boyish pleasures.

I loved those glimpses into her life, her long marriage to the man who caused many on campus to say they were sure it wouldn’t last, the sharing of photos and stories of our children, the funny and the sad. We talked by the hour about how our lives were evolving, without the gloss so often added with someone less known or trusted. And then we cooked the fish.

Now what I am remembering most is the warmth of her smile and the throaty laugh, which so often punctuated our conversations, even the serious ones. I think about her lonely husband and ache for him. I am consoled by knowing that for a time he will be in the arms of their children, and other friends and family will gather round. Then the empty house. Their dog searching for his other friend.

We came together initially by random assignment to shared sleeping and study quarters to which we returned each day after classes. No computerized selection program in those days. So much talk, often in the dark of night, telling our stories, discovering similar values, and temperaments that blended well.

College friendships are made so easily, as if breathing the same air brings kinship. Perhaps because just at the time that we are leaving our family home, often on the heels of stressful adolescent separation wars, we fall in with new siblings of sorts, without any of the complexity of the sibling relationships left behind. No old baggage, starting afresh. Able to create a new persona if we choose. Sharing the excitement of paths yet to be taken.

Losing loved ones is as much a part of life as gaining them. I comfort myself by  remembering the high of falling and being in love, welcoming a new baby, the depth of other friendships which have grown over the years, and for a time it restores my equilibrium. But then I yearn to hear Pat’s laugh and to hold her dear ones close, express my love, and share their sadness.

So, I wish that she had waited.

A Gender Divide?

Not too long ago, it was thought divorce would make election to public office unlikely. Apparently neither McCain nor Kerry was tainted (although both former wives offered their support).

   Now with Giuliani in the political swim, his divorces, and his widely publicized affair with his present wife while still married to another, is raising eyebrows and questions about the likely impact on the electorate.

Will Gingrich’s recently acknowledged affairs, even with his mea culpas, do him in? Having led the presidential impeachment charge, perhaps he has tripped over his double standard.

A pundit now suggests: adultery is the new divorce.

It would seem all we know with some certainty, is that power is a potent aphrodisiac, and the threat (or lure) of seduction is ever present. Is the electorate becoming more accepting of human frailty, as personal lives become ever more public? Perhaps we endorse those with susceptibilities we can recognize in ourselves. Was that not part of the Bill Clinton phenomena?

A display of vulnerability may even become the new macho, a man able to show his feminine side seen as more complete.

But will we offer forgiveness without regard to gender? Could a woman admit to sexual transgressions, or even serial monogamy, and still be acceptable as a candidate or a CEO?  I doubt it.

Do most women of high achievement, either in politics or the boardroom, even allow themselves to expose their feminine side, or are they called upon to be more “manly”, display toughness in order to succeed. (Hillary Clinton seems to be on this path).

Linda Obst, author of a book about life in the world of movie making, wrote of sometimes having been brought to the brink of tears as she navigated the competitive business world still largely controlled by men. She said: I hate crying. It scares men, and I don’t blame them, because they’re afraid you’ll turn into their wives or daughters or worse, their mothers.

Is that it? She concludes women seeking powerful positions have to develop and always maintain a thick skin just to survive.

Most of us are cared for from infancy by women we are dependent upon in our formative years, women who appear, at least to young eyes, as disciplined and above reproach. Is that what we then require of women who seek a leadership role? Whereas social delinquency on the part of men offers vicarious pleasure?

Until they want to become the big daddy.

Tears

I had breakfast last week with Barack Obama. A thousand others joined us. The huge hotel ballroom was filled, white tablecloths, delectable pastries and fruit, glistening goblets and hot coffee.

The crowd was in a good news mood, ready to cheer and be cheered up. And they were not disappointed, as with a calm demeanor, he spoke of what he believed could be achieved, projecting optimism. Something in short supply with each day’s strife-ridden headlines.

But it was something that happened before he spoke that made the event truly memorable. I wonder if he knows what took place as he waited in the hallway behind the stage, out of view. If not, I hope someone tells him.

As at any political rally, a parade of notables first took brief turns at the microphone. The final speaker introduced a youngster of 16 to sing the Star Spangled Banner, without accompaniment. We all rose to our feet as she reached for and adjusted the microphone. Then, taking a deep breath she began with clear, bell like tones. Her voice was strong, well paced and assured, despite her youth.

What happened next likely echoed the experience of everyone in the room. This hymn of patriotic allegiance begins easily enough with the opening “Oh say can you see…” but soon calls for a dramatic shift of vocal range, as “and the rockets red glare” comes into view, when many of us silently allow those close by to carry on. Our brave soloist reached that point and abruptly stopped singing, unable to hit the high note for “glare”, both hands rising to her face in apparent shame and dismay.

The crowd was already standing, listening at attention, and at this pause in the soloist’s rendition, as if on signal, barely missing a beat, the audience picked up the thread of the song and loudly sang forth, in whatever range they happened to find comfort. As the anthem was ending, the rich tones of our young soloist were again heard, leading us, amplified by the microphone in her hand.

What followed was equally moving, a standing ovation offered to the brave young woman who stood before us smiling, receiving, we all hoped, our loving admiration in sufficient measure to wipe away her embarrassment. A spontaneous outpouring of such heartfelt encouragement.

This shared display of empathy and concern moved at least four at my table to unabashed tears. I was among them, knowing this was an experience I would long treasure.

Unity and compassion was in the room, even before the speaker came through the door .

A Taste of Power

 I have friends, in a distant city, who divorced some years ago and are now contemplating remarriage, to each other.

For over a year, they lived separately, shared their children’s time, and then slowly drifted back into each other’s orbit in loving ways. Now the entire family is once again under the same roof, and they are recommitted to each other.

So, the question they are pondering is, should they remarry? Religious considerations aside, which for them are not wholly insignificant, could they accept the practice of their children’s generation and simply live together? Perhaps.

What is most confusing to them now is how to handle their money, which they’ve gradually come to realize presents puzzles greater than the sexual conundrum.

Let’s call them John and Mary. John has always been the sole breadwinner. Mary has now returned to graduate school, anticipating a future career, but some years off. During their marriage, John’s earnings, if not invested or added to a retirement account, were always placed in a joint account from which they both drew for day to day needs, consulting on all major expenditures. Money was not tight, and rarely did either question the spending decisions of the other.

So, why not simply return to their old comfortable ways? John suggests this path.

But, things have changed, particularly for Mary.

The terms of their divorce decree require that John pay significant monthly support to Mary. He continues to do so. Mary places these funds in an account in her name alone. As she did during their separation, she still provides for her own and the children’s needs, pays the household expenses and saves what is not needed. This could be seen as Mary receiving a substantial salary for her homemaking efforts. She also now controls, in her own name, half of the assets which they had accumulated, and which were divided at the time of their divorce.

Mary has come to value her financial autonomy, and would not welcome a return to total economic dependence on John, to relinquish the power the Court support order provides, which has put her on something of an equal footing with her former husband.

What games are played in relationships where one person’s security and future well being is wholly dependent on the largess, however benevolent, of another? Is an equilibrium sought in covert ways? It is interesting to contemplate how many relationships might flower, if the equality achieved by my divorced friends, happened before rather than after disaster struck.

And here’s a twist. John’s and Mary’s children very much want them to remarry, so with some new agreements, possibly even formalized in a legal document, that is likely what they will do.

Letting Go

 ”I just held on to his tail, the dog did all the pulling”, a not very funny joke remembered from childhood. It came to mind as I talked with the adult daughter of an old friend.

Her beloved companion of over twenty years, a philosopher of international reputation, had recently died. They had both a professional and intimate relationship, though never married. Little material wealth accumulated, but his library was significant, including the books authored by him, researched and edited by her.

Now members of his family were disputing her right to keep the books, and receive the copyrights. His last Will, revised often in his final years, was inconclusive.To her considerable distress, she was embroiled in Probate Court litigation she could ill afford.

As we talked, it was evident the legal issues were complex and the outcomes anything but predictable. My experiences as a mediator for family members engaged in contesting a Will, had allowed me to witness the intensity of the need to prove, too late, that “mother loved me best.” Rational solutions, compromises, were repeatedly and tearfully disdained.

So, I probed. Was there significant monetary value at issue? No. And of the vast library, ownership of only 250 books were in dispute, those made more prized by his handwritten notes in the margins. The sentimental value of these volumes was considerable, and she wished to be able to republish those that went out of print, so sought the copyrights.

Anger and resentment over the litigation, anxiety about the cost and the outcomes, and the presence of these unwelcome players in her life, colored her days and nights and intruded on both her mourning and her efforts to move on. Would this also effect her physical well-being?

So hard to know when to just let go and look to the future (even without some cherished belongings and entitlements), and honor the loved one in other ways. Can one measure the toll of possible years of combat, against the peace which might be achieved by simply opting out of the fight?

A successful author in her own right, a memoir was already begun, a loving effort which will have great meaning, for her, and for those who followed and revered the cherished partner.

What about sending this message to family members who are now adversaries: We all loved this man in different ways. I request ownership of the library we shared, and would value the copyrights, to be able to perpetuate his work. But, I will no longer devote resources or energy to this strife. Do what you think fair.

In the midst of hostility, stepping back and assessing alternate choices, and the likely consequence of each choice, may be the smart way to decide whether to stop holding on
to (or pulling) the tail.

A Present

Here is my holiday gift to my readers, inspired by many friends who say they are planning to spend time between now and the New Year uncluttering their lives, reclaiming the peace of organized surroundings.

My gift? A proven plan, undertaken some years ago by my husband and myself, in a home we’d lived in for over forty years.

I had read an article profiling a young author of high acclaim. The interviewer commented on how orderly her home was, even though she had two young children. The author drew from her shelf a book titled “It’s Here Somewhere”, by Alice Fulton and Pauline Hatch. I got the book from the library.

The promise of the cover blurb: This practical handbook shows you how to deal once and for all with chronic clutter. Are you tied of those organizational binges where you shuffle stuff from one room to another and just end up with a neater mess?  Then let this book show you the secrets of putting your home in order and keeping it that way.

Here, in a nutshell, is the plan.

Assemble four large containers and label each clearly. Designate the first “keepers”, for those mementos that have special meaning, but no use, like your children’s old report cards. The second box label “give away”. The third “garbage” and the fourth, “to be filed”, for insurance policies, or the warranty for the coffee maker.

Do one room at a time. Enter with boxes, and move clockwise from the doorway. Pick up the first item you find and do not move on until you make the decision whether to return it to its original spot, or into which box it goes, asking yourself the following questions:

Do I like it?
Do I use it?
Do I need it?
Do I have room for it?

Len and I started in his study. After several hours on our clockwise journey, we reached high noon, planning to get to three o’clock the next day. I think we believed that once we were done, we’d actually be able to see the future more clearly.

Did we keep going throughout the entire house. Well, no. But, upon completion of the study, we were positively euphoric, and deserving of all manner of additional pleasures. Perhaps some of you will be more dedicated to the goal and persevere, others may trip over the labeled boxes for months to come.

And some will likely relax and revel in the chaos, holding (clinging?)to the premise that disorder is the sign of a creative mind.

On-line Angst

 I’m not alone. We are a multitude, those who have no employer provided technology experts to immediately respond when our golden keyboards turn to straw. We readily admit to the level of our computer incompetence, but perhaps not to the dismay and anxiety caused when we cannot resolve a mysterious negative message, or we lose our on-line connections.

As the generations line up behind us, and the world changes with dazzling rapidity, the choices seem limited: keep running (and learning) to keep up, or fall hopelessly behind. I need additional options.

    Some ten or more years ago, without any basic understanding, I backed into my knowledge of computers, by learning how to email friends, family and clients. Proud of these new skills, I moved on to exploring the internet, marveling at the vastness of what I could search for and learn. A joyous experience.

Until joy morphs to despair when things go wrong. Error messages pop up or drop down. Printer lights blink. Email fails. Wireless fades in and out. My breathing too, becomes labored.

Recently, during a difficult phone discussion with a techie who had to constantly  revise his language to meet my level of comprehension, I heard a subtle shift in his tone, suggesting that I was the problem, not the system. His interest waned as he offered me additional phone numbers for others to consult. Despair.

Not only was my problem unsolved, but perhaps even more troubling was the intense emotion behind my unspoken response. It seemed disproportionate. Even hours later, my eyes brimmed with tears when my son called and I spilled out the story of the frustrating phone conversation with the unknowable person who had only a first name.

His comforting words: A temporary disruption in your email is not just a technical problem, but a social one — a loss of connectedness, in the most important sense.

Was that what brought tears to my eyes? I think so. And, it is more than that. It is  loss of control over this magic box which not only represents my means of reaching out to the people important to me, but also now provides the pathway to productivity, to identity.

In the past, when faced with day to day problems, the study of understandable texts sufficed. Now, I must try to master elusive concepts, in a foreign language.

My solutions:

I will breathe in and out and search for an able consultant, who is also a skilled translator and teacher. Or adopt an eighth grader.

Len’s Janis Ian

 In the 1980′s, my husband, Len, became aware of Janis Ian, a singer/songwriter. He was captivated by her voice and the stories her songs told. One by one her CDs appeared next to our stereo.

By this time our kids had all moved on to their adult lives, so the choice of music in our home was what we alone favored. Len listened to Ian’s songs with an intensity I’d never before witnessed. If I was present, I felt like an intruder. I walked to another room.

Soon Ian tapes were bought for the car, though not played when I was a passenger.

Rather than being drawn to listen and share her music, I was silently jealous of this woman who had so captivated my husband’s attention. Did he fantasize having her in his life in some way?

I knew my reaction was absurd, and did not speak of it.

Then one day Len told me that he had written a letter to Ian to tell her how moved he was by a particular song, (the letter never actually mailed as far as I know, but perhaps it was). Momentarily, I felt a twinge akin to panic. I said nothing, feeling too foolish. Or too vulnerable? Not sure. The moment passed, only occasionally brought back to mind.

When Ian was not in the room, our loving ways were undisturbed.

On to part II of this story. Len died in 2002 bringing a close to our 53 year marriage. I knew his music collection, mainly classical, would be prized by our musician son, Grey, so I suggested he take what he wished. He took all of the Janis Ian CDs, at that time still tinged with what I thought of as Len’s yearning interest in this “other woman”.

Now, fast forward to a year or two after Len’s death. Snug in bed one morning, reading the Times, I came upon an article beneath a picture of Janis Ian and her partner, Pat, taken on their wedding day. Maybe you’ve guessed, Pat is a woman, and the two of them had traveled to Canada where it was possible for same sex couples to marry.

I was filled with delight! How I wished that Len could know.

And the story has another wonderful chapter.

As part of his varied life as a musician, our son, Grey, is the music editor of the magazine, “Sing Out”. He had, in the recent past, transcribed an Ian song for that publication. His work drew her attention and she found it admirable and subsequently hired him to do all of the transcriptions for “Folk is the New Black”, her newest CD song book. How overjoyed his father would have been to know of this connection.

These days, I often listen to Len’s Janis Ian; over 40 of her songs reside in my iTunes library. I welcome being pulled into the past, and so enriched in the present.

Reese and Ryan

 I don’t quite understand why we’re drawn to read about the private lives of celebrities. May not subscribe to People Magazine, but often it is the waiting room choice.

In what is apparently a “first”, two popular gossip magazines (Life Style and In Touch) were published simultaneously a few weeks ago, each featuring on the cover one partner of a divorcing celebrity couple. Each story purported to present their chosen star’s reasons their seven year marriage is ending. Their passion for each other was reported just months before.

On one cover appeared Reese Witherspoon, on the other was Ryan Phillipe.The question: how will their separate new stories, the he said/she said, be told?

If their different versions delve into the complex causes for the disintegration of their relationship, and don’t simply dwell on Ryan’s alleged liaison with his latest co-star, they may offer the reader more than voyeurism. An appreciation for the complexity of any relationship breakdown, instead of a simplistic view, is instructive.

What has become clear to me, given the opportunity over the years to hear many personal accounts of failed intimacy, is that the “truth telling” by each partner, despite  presenting very different pictures, can be both honest and accurate.The parties, along with family members and friends who are “taking sides”, may deny the validity of the other’s perspective, but a disinterested observer can often see how both viewpoints could well be true, just not a shared reality.

Although I know nothing of Reese or Ryan, there are likely not just two sides to their  story, but as many sides as could be fashioned from facets of the individual histories  both brought to their partnership.The popular press too often only presents the titillating story of sexual wandering, while beneath the surface of revealed infidelities, volumes could be written. Hopefully, the magazine wars will illustrate this well.

How often do our old scripts, the expectations born of early experiences, become known to our mate? Of some, the author is aware, while others are so far beneath the surface, they remain unknown to either partner. Unknown, but not without impact.

The message: do the hard work to become self aware and learn how to share insights with a loved one, at the beginning and along the way. This can be a successful venture even after a relationship becomes troubled, especially if pursued with the aid of a well regarded professional. No easy task, but whatever the outcome, such a valuable journey of discovery. A lasting connection is likely _____ if a reasonably good choice was made in the first place.

Taking To The Sky

My husband learned to pilot a small plane when in his forties, and he fell in love. If the weather was good, he wanted to fly. If the weather was poor, but not too poor, he wanted to test his mettle. When dark, he wanted to practice night flying. Flying became his passion. And he wanted to share his passion with me.

Covertly, I was an anxious passenger. Noise of the engine and crackle of the radio precluded conversation. Ever vigilant, to prevent colliding with other aircraft, I couldn’t fathom what kept us aloft. My visual was the Disney cartoon in which a furry animal raced toward the edge of a cliff and then kept right on running into thin air, only to suddenly look down and drop like a stone (and bounce).

Len’s patient instruction about the principle of airfoils didn’t help.

Yet, for several years, I flew with him, even making two cross country trips. He was in his element. I was always so happy to be back on firm ground upon landing, that this was the emotion he noted. But my secret could not be kept.

The proposed solution? A psychologist who specialized in desensitization of phobias, for that was how my fear was defined. At the second session, she asked how often I flew with Len and I reported that we flew 3 or 4 times a week. The therapist expressed  surprise, and in a puzzled tone questioned why I went so often if I didn’t enjoy it?

Aha! A defining moment.

The therapeutic path? We changed course and focused on exploring what other fears were being kept hidden. Like the fear of not living up to my concept of what a good wife should be, and the fear of being abandoned as unworthy.

I’d like to report that recognizing those fears erased my fear of flying in a small plane, but that didn’t happen.

Instead, I gave up flying with Len. A good solution for me, less so for him. I could relax, and was even able to tell him of my decision without undue guilt. He expressed sincere disappointment. Fair enough, we were both entitled to be authentic.

Len found many other flying companions, including our daughter and his then 73 year old mother. Both accompanied him to fulfill his boyhood dream of exploring Alaska by plane.

Did he continue, from time to time, to express regret about my not being his companion on some exciting adventure? Yes, and that made me sad, for a while. Sometimes, old feelings of insecurity returned.

But not for long. And if anything, honesty drew us closer.

But, I Didn’t Know . . .

In our youth, did we all pose the question: if you had the chance to steal a million dollars, knowing you could avoid being caught, would you? Does the social contract depend upon the risk of discovery?

The drama of the Hewlett-Packard spying case is beginning to unfold. The indicted CEO, and company counsel, present the defense of ignorance, that although they contracted for the investigation, they did not micromanage it. They allege no knowledge of any illegal means used to invade the privacy of board members and journalists.

This brings to mind the fatally flawed maxim: don’t ask, don’t tell. Avoid the risk of discovery. A misguided policy for the Armed Forces. Wrong too for corporate America?

Anticipation of plea bargaining hangs in the air.

At the bottom of the chain of authority, is the hired sleuth who misrepresented himself (pretexting) to phone companies, to obtain calling records of those suspected of leaking information to the press. He is, no doubt, the most vulnerable person charged. And, the most likely to cut a deal? Query: which of his employers had knowledge of his methods? Did anyone ask? Who did he tell? Who did they tell?

Robert Proctor, a Stanford professor and a technology watcher, at a press interview in August, described the increasing resistance on the part of corporations to investigate when things go wrong. One example: The College Board’s SAT exams produced mistaken scores on more than 5000 tests? No significant investigation followed. Why?

The short answer: investigations can result in assigning blame and provide ammunition for lawsuits.

“There is a lot more protectiveness than there used to be,” said Proctor, who is shaping a new field, the study of ignorance, which he calls agnotology. “It is often safer not to know.”

Outside the courtroom in which the Hewlett-Packard defendants were arraigned, the lawyer for Mr. Hunsaker, the corporate counsel, said his client’s defense is based on a good faith belief that the investigator’s conduct was legal. But, an email message has surfaced that Hunsaker is said to have written, in response to a note from his investigators saying that a ruse had been used to obtain phone records. He wrote back that he “shouldn’t have asked.”

To quote the prosecutor, “it sums up the case in a single sentence.”

Few are so naive as to believe that this spying venture is unique to Hewlett-Packard. Will a new social contract evolve from these criminal prosecutions? A new balancing act to protect both group confidentiality and privacy?

Hopefully, not “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Just In Case or Just in Time?

From two very different sources within the past week, I came across what was, for me, an illuminating concept. Here is a brief summary of each.

A newspaper item told of a remarkable development in medicine. For patients with chronic medical problems, monitors are being implanted in the body and also placed at the home bedside, so that their medical team can receive real time information about heart rate, kidney function, weight, etc.

On receipt of this data via the Internet, doctors communicate with each other, and promptly take steps to stabilize their patient. Such timely care, provided for the patient at home, prevents many hospitalizations.

V.A. physician Adam Darkins pointed out that instead of prescribing medication in a particular dosage, “just in case” it may be required, medication choices and dosages are ordered or adjusted “just in time”, as the need is actually manifested.

Just days prior to seeing that news feature, I read a fascinating article, shared with me by a law professor friend. The author,Tracy McGaugh, delineates the different learning styles of the generation now making up most law school faculties, mainly Baby-Boomers in their mid-forties to early sixties, and the student body, Generation Xers in their early twenties to early forties.

When the Boomers were learning how to learn, before the technology revolution, the standard educational approach was to acquire information that might be needed sometime in the future, “just in case” learning.

But Generation Xers, exposed as very young learners to the technology explosion, developed the skill of sorting information into:

1) that needed now
2) that definitely needed later, and
3) that they could find later, if needed.

“Just in time” learning.

This “just in time” approach is proliferating.

Academic librarians are adopting a “just in time” approach to acquisitions.

Businesses are adopting a “just in time” approach to employee training.

What next?

Those seeking to not be left behind, must shift gears and learn to scan and filter the vast amount of information offered each day, and then spend time honing Internet search skills, rather than attempting to commit new material to memory. Access recent findings, as needed.

Although initially somewhat disorienting, there is also something liberating about this approach, especially as memory becomes somewhat less reliable. In fact, it’s just in time.

Just My Name, Please

 It used to be forty, then fifty, now maybe even fifty-five, before women start to notice that no one is noticing. Add an additional ten years for men. Most of us make peace with advancing invisibility as we age. We can take pride in what we’ve become, what we’ve learned, what we are still able to achieve.Then, surprisingly, even a small stab can deflate a well earned sense of self.

Here’s my story.

I am visiting a new doctor, a well reputed specialist. The waiting room is crowded, many of the patients past middle age, some very elderly with another in attendance. The office staff exudes efficiency and a friendly ease.

Before long I am ushered into an examination room, one in a row of six or seven.

Eye drops are administered and some basic questions asked by an assistant, my answers noted for later review by the busy physician. A smile, a magazine and a not too long wait is promised, and I am left alone.

Soon I become aware the doctor is in the examining room next to mine. He is talking to someone about the process of reapplication for a driver’s license which has lapsed, the tests to be anticipated, how to avoid likely obstacles. I conjecture that the patient is hard of hearing as the doctor’s voice is raised. His tone is gentle, unhurried and indulgent.The listener’s responses are barely audible.

I am warmed by this doctor’s caring way, the sensitivity with which he addresses the elderly patient who I assume is vulnerable and confused. I will praise this kind doctor,  soon, when we meet.

He knocks and enters, smiling, with his hand outstretched in greeting.

“Hello, young lady, how are you doing?”

I feel diminished, categorized, even disrespected. I am not young. Please, doctor, do not call me “young lady”. This strips me of dignity. Young women are 25 and under. You can use my full name, or no name at all.

But these words, although screamed, are unspoken. I simply say “hello.” My rehearsed words of praise for him are swallowed.

I have lived more than seven decades and value the richness of my experience. Joy, and sadness, both in good measure, and good health, allow me to look to the future with optimism. I accept the deficits of aging, but want my status recognized, not made a foolishness.

Was his greeting viewed by him as a kindness, or was it simply thoughtless ineptitude? And does it matter in the larger scheme of things?

Yes, it does.

The Cow in the Cottage

My irreligious mother, although a sophisticated artist in the latter half of her life, was a child in the early years of the last century, born in what is now the Ukraine. She loved to retell a story she claimed to have heard at her mother’s knee:

A sad, bedraggled, care worn peasant sought the advice of the village Rabbi, complaining bitterly about the overcrowded  cottage in which his wife, four children and mother-in-law all lived in just two small rooms. (You can imagine the ways this scene was embellished depending upon the mood and time available for the telling.)

The Rabbi’s advice: Move your cow into the cottage.

Incredulous, but obedient, the peasant did just that. But, one week later, on return to the Rabbi, he complained even more fervently about the intolerable conditions in his home.

The Rabbi’s advice: Now move the cow out of the cottage and back into the field.

The peasant returned the next week bearing gifts and full of gratitude for the wise advice he’d been given, for now his home was more spacious than ever.

Moral of the story (personal just for me): I have been posting commentaries on both Wednesdays and Sundays for several months now, causing more stress than wise, as the rest of my life becomes less well managed. So from now on, at least for a while, I am putting the cow out of the cottage, and will only post on Sundays. So, dear loyal reader, we can all take a deep breath.

Trusting Snap Decisions

The conventional wisdom: when faced with an important decision, consider the pros and cons. Sometimes I do, perhaps just in thought, or with written lists. But, most often, by the time I get around to this deliberate approach, I already know what my decision will be, at least what my more impulsive self yearns to do. Then, having made the decision, occasionally I question the lack of serious attention given to the more analytical process.

What were some of those decisions? To decide at nineteen to marry Leonard Larsen (we married young in those days.) Selecting the house we bought in the late 1950s. Deciding to go to law school in the mid 1960s, and then, in the 1980s, to transition from the more lucrative litigation based practice into mediation. Major decisions, made almost in the blink of an eye, well in advance of the systematic analysis that at times followed.

On my desk is a small black and white photo of two newborn rabbits, eyes not yet opened, nestled on a soft cloth crumpled into an old cigar box. A hand, large in comparison to the tiny creatures, holds the box, and next to it is a small beaker of milk with an eye dropper. I explain to those who ask, that the photo was taken on the day I first met Leonard, to whom I was later married for 53 years. The hand in the photo is his. When walking in the woods that bordered our college campus, he had rescued these little bits of wildlife, after their mother had been killed by a predator.

I never examined the reason why I wanted to have the picture close by. I think I now know.

A year or so ago, I read Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Blink”. He describes the ability we all have to make quick judgments  based on our past experiences, which quite accurately serve as a sound guide for current decision making. He calls this instant processing the “the power of thin-slicing” and maintains that as human beings we are capable of making sense of situations based on the thinnest slice of experience. The premise is detailed and well researched, but offered with the emphatic caveat that the results of quick decisions based on erroneous data we may have absorbed,(i.e. unexamined prejudices) are often disastrous.

My past experiences suggested that the young man tenderly caring for orphaned rabbit babies was a kind and compassionate person. We were drawn to each other, no doubt making other snap judgments along the way. We married two years later. The very significant differences in our backgrounds suggested to many that our decision was unwise. But, we never added up the pros and cons, and gave little heed to the caution of others. Happily so.

Now, when I am “thin-slicing”, I am more aware of it, and more readily trust the choice made.

Difficult Moments

On a Sunday afternoon, I walked three city blocks through a gentle rain to spend a few hours in a favorite place, the public library. Planning to just browse for a while, I was surprised to hear music coming from the large atrium performance space. Before a seated audience, sat (and stood) a jazz trio, with a piano player spokesman interrupting the flow from time to time, to explain the interplay of the instruments, the improvisation. I wandered in and settled behind those already gathered.

Glancing about at my fellow listeners, I saw young and old, some families, a few children playing at their parent’s feet, paging through books. Colorful rain gear completed this inviting scene with its mix of downtown residents and visitors. And the music, drawing us all together.

It filled me with pleasure.

An older couple was seated just in front of me. The man casually put his arm about his wife’s shoulder and pulled her closer. They exchanged brief comments and smiles now and then, during lulls in the music.

As the minutes passed, my throat tensed and tears filled my eyes.

In recent years, since the death of my husband, solitude has often been my companion. A welcome, comfortable companion. But here, quite unexpectedly, I felt painfully alone and found myself overwhelmed with sorrow. In the midst of the closeness of others, partners and families, in a setting not unlike one I’d shared so often with my loved one, imagining how much he would have enjoyed this experience and yearning for his touch, sadness eclipsed pleasure.

I left, catching my breath and collecting myself on the walk home. Remembering it, even now, the tightness in my throat returns.

Here’s what I wonder. I often warm myself, when alone, choosing to recall happy memories of my dear lost love, feeling lucky to have shared so much of my life with him, maturing together, really. I sometimes reread letters written so many years ago and those are satisfying times. A contradiction? Out in public, with others about me, his absence must be accepted as the painful reality. I cannot pretend, not even for a moment.

I understood my sadness in the midst of such an enjoyable experience, and also my need to leave. Do people who have suffered painful losses draw into themselves, some even isolate themselves, to avoid reliving even happy events which make the loss so much more present?

Hello Sports Fans

As one who never follows sports teams, or even the individual performance of sports heroes, I find the sports pages of newspapers compelling.

The human interest stories often read like Greek tragedy.

This past Saturday, the Philadelphia Phillies sent Brett Myers to the mound the day after he had been arrested and arraigned for assaulting his wife. When Pat Gillick, the general manager, was asked why he did not push Myers back in the rotation, he answered with candor, “I think it was in the best interest of the club. He’s our best pitcher”.

I hope the presumption of innocence comes to everyone’s mind, but here the presumption was strained, as the assault took place on a public street, in the presence of strangers. Witness Courtney Knight told the Boston Globe: “It was disgusting. He was dragging her by the hair and slapping her across the face. She was yelling, “I’m not going to let you do this to me anymore.’  He had her on the ground. He was pulling her, her shirt was up around her neck.”

Myers, when asked about the incident, is reported as apologizing only that “it had to get public.”

N.Y.Times reporter, Lee Jenkins, interviewed Kim Gandy, president of N.O.W., who offered: “It’s disappointing that the Phillies didn’t consider Brett Myers’s status as a role model when they decided to play him in this game. It sends such a bad message to kids who watch sports. When someone who has just been arrested for assault is the starting pitcher, it seems like there are no consequences.”

I too wondered about the wisdom of the decision made. But, the newspaper story continued: “The crowd at Fenway Park, treating the  game as a referendum on domestic violence, booed Myers every time he walked on or off the field.” So, as it turned out, there were consequences, given full voice, heard by all the kids and adults watching the game.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The AP reported, a day or so later, that Myers would take a leave of absence. Specifically, he is quoted as saying, “First, while I dispute that the facts are as alleged, I recognize that my behavior was inappropriate and for that I apologize. Second, I recognize that the incident created an embarrassing situation for many people, including my wife and family, my teammates, the Phillies organization, and fans, and I am very sorry for that.”

I know that for many, offering a heartfelt apology, accepting responsibility, is difficult. But should not the word “inappropriate” be stricken from the language?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
His wife posted his $200 bail.

Imagine Winning

If you clicked on this commentary expecting a ”visualize world peace“ proposalwrong guess. I don’t suggest that by imagining winning a contest (of wills) the likelihood of victory is enhanced. Quite the opposite. Try to visualize obtaining a hard fought for result, either through tough bargaining or by convincing a Judge, and imagine the consequences that will flow from the victory.

Strange as it may seem, in pursuit of victory, it is not always easy to distinguish a win from a loss.

The scene: Father moves away from the family home, then seeks a significant role in the life of his seven year old son. He wants to share the status of legal custodian and have more time with the child than would likely be ordered by a court. Mother feels betrayed by her husband’s infidelity and departure. She, not surprisingly, is hurt and angry. As a work-at-home parent, since the child’s infancy, she has managed all of the day to day details of his life. There was a time, however, when she was excessively dependent on prescription drugs.

The anxiety evoked when contemplating the end of an intimate relationship, sharpens the focus of both parties on all they stand to lose. Some prepare to do battle, whatever the cost. In the above scenario, ammunition is ready at hand.

A good time to take a deep breath and imagine winning. Contemplate the consequences of victory.

Some possibilities:

-a forever angry co-parent who may even pull back from the parenting role, to the child’s detriment
-a tightening of the purse strings, less generous support, now, and as college approaches
-possible alienation of the child over time, as parents continue to demean each other
-a child caught in the middle of parental conflict, who suffers intensely from the constant test of loyalty
-savings and future income depleted to pay for the prolonged battles which often resurface for years

As destabilizing as this crazy-making time is, a balancing act is called for.

In the effort to regain control during the chaotic times of our lives, getting the necessary help to refocus and contemplate the consequences of winning a battle, and not just the anticipation of painful losses, can point towards peaceful resolutions, and often significant gains.

An Experiment

I’ve launched an experiment with a sample of one.  And the question is: can one call the streets surrounding one’s home a neighborhood when there is a constantly shifting cast of characters?

Almost a year has passed since I moved into a loft apartment in an old downtown Cincinnati building which over the past 40 years has undergone many incarnations, but which to me will always be Shillitos Department Store. I live in what used to be “Better Woman’s Dresses”, as is still proudly proclaimed in the large art deco elevator.

Having given up a front porch and garden six years ago for the ease of apartment living, my most recent move is into what is basically one large room ( 1025 square feet but with a twenty foot high ceiling !) on the third floor, overlooking a busy city street. A new life completely on my own, for the first time ever.

Now nestled among only my most cherished possessions, feeling expansive in my cavernous but cozy room, new horizons  appear. Downtown is no longer a place to just pass through, bent only on a destination. Now as I walk about, architecture, both old and new, draws my appreciative eye. But most pleasing of all, is the mix of other people walking the streets.

How different these streeets are from those we walked when my husband and I first moved to Cincinnati after spending five years living in NYC, where Len completed graduate study at Columbia. Our arrival in the urban midwest of 1956 was culture shock. People waited for the walk light even when the roadway was empty. Differences in the garb or speech of someone passing by, which would have gone unnoticed in NYC, evoked a stare, apprehension. People of color were met infrequently, except for those providing service. Even our inner city suburbs were wholly segregated.

So, here’s the experiment: as I walk the few blocks to my office each morning, or stroll to the home of a friend in the early evening, and pass others purposefully walking along, I no longer avert my eyes, as is the habit of most passersby on city sidewalks, but instead try to make eye contact, smile and offer a greeting, “hello” or “good morning”. Not infrequently the greeting is returned, especially if my fellow city dweller (or worker) joins me in the complicity of eye contact. I’ve not yet reached the level of shared nods and smiles I once enjoyed on the tree lined streets of homogeneous suburbia, but I’m working on it. And as summer is hard upon us, I think the count will surely rise, along with my sense of neighborhood. Check back.

Men From Venus?

I’ve never been a serious fan of televised sporting events, although there was a time in the distant past that I pretended to be, just as a way of sharing cozy moments with my husband. I wasn’t actually a complete fraud. I could get caught up in the ballet of basketball or the graceful beauty of Olympic skiing and skating. And, although I experienced  watching a football game as a complete bore, I found I really loved watching the post touchdown hugging, and even the congratulatory slap on the rump.

I’m used to seeing women embrace when they greet each other in a social setting, or on departure, while men, with greater reserve, shake hands. Something about seeing men lose that reserve with other men, joyously sharing a celebratory hug, I found heartwarming. Sporting events used to be the only time I got to witness this, except among close family members. And in many families, the embrace, even between fathers and sons, remains awkward or absent.

I know I need to be on my guard about gender stereotyping, and perhaps this particular stereotype, that women are more physically expressive in a joyous moment, is truly beginning to fade. I vividly recall, fairly early in 43′s first term, when the president was addressing a joint session of congress, both Senator Daschle and Representative Gephart exchanged bear hugs with Mr.Bush, in the televised view of millions. I noted that those hugs were worthy of comment on the front page of the Times the next day, so at least four or five years ago, outside the sports arena, for men (and here of opposing political parties!) hugging in public was remarkable.

There are some other gender stereotypes that have definitely fallen by the wayside, which, professionally, I now  occasionally witness.

Women who happen to have the higher income, when couples divorce, are no happier paying child support or alimony than most men ever were. Women who’ve accumulated larger pension funds than their divorcing husbands often fail to see the fairness in having to share those funds with their spouse. They are likely to use the exact same rationale so often expressed by men: But I’m the one who worked so hard to earn it; surely that is mine alone to keep.

I hope that women don’t diminish the importance we now place on being expressive and nurturing relationships, as we break through the glass ceiling, become more and more politically visible and share power with the suits. Far better, from my perspective, if it works just the other way around and men loosen their hold on cool reserve.

“We Just Can’t Talk”

“We just can’t talk.” The sad refrain of so many disappointed partners. And likely of others still struggling to ward off failure. Surely they talked early on, when first getting acquainted. But with greater familiarity, and perhaps an accumulation of minor or significant disappointments, some opt for saying nothing, if unable to find just the right words. Perhaps yearning to be authentic, but fearing further distance or hurt. Others talk non-stop but in accusatory mode, desperate for acknowledgment, but succeeding only in driving a partner further away.

Oddly, many report that once having made the decision to part, with the reduction in tension born of that resolve, ease of communication returns, but sadly only after all passion has flown. Is there something to be learned?

Friends of those still struggling to overcome the silences often suggest that partners try active listening, a determination to not interrupt, and then feeding back what has just been heard, as a way of regenerating communication. On an intellectual level, these are techniques that have always made good sense to me, even though my own success using them was abysmal. My mediation clients would often report that the feedback given was tinged with sarcasm or boredom, resentments too firmly established.

So, my interest was aroused when, some years ago, I read about the research of Dr. John Gottman, a psychologist at the University of Washington,(brought back to mind, as his work is written about extensively in Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating “Blink”). He studied 130 newly married couples over a six year period, tracking how they handled disagreement. Many reported they tried active listening and feedback skills.

These couples were then compared to an older study in which successful marriages had been followed for 13 years. Dr. Gottman found that people who stayed together almost never used such listening techniques.

What the marriages that seemed to work had in common, according to Gottman, was that the husband was willing to be influenced by his wife, and I quote the good doctor who said: We found that only those newly-wed men who are accepting of influence from their wives are winding up in happy stable marriages.

Now, I am not so naive as to believe for one moment that this is all it takes, but I clipped this article, gave it to my husband, sent a copy to my daughter, and of course, to my sons.

Pretending Not to See (Our Sexy Hero)

I own a small sculpture which hangs on my office wall. It is a carved wooden face, eyes wide open. Splayed across the face is a hand with elongated fingers which cover the eyes, but the fingers are spread just far enough apart that the eyes are only partially obscured. One has the sense that the eyes can see while appearing to be hidden from view, or to be hiding from the view. To me, it artfully displays hypocrisy, pretending to not see or know what is actually going on right before our eyes, or within the core of our being.

I was drawn to this sculpture in part because of the artistry, the texture, the composition. But it also spoke to me of all that we choose not to talk about or admit, day by day, of our hidden private thoughts, yearnings, imaginings and of course, shame. We seek to protect our private life, yet are often eager to secretly peer at the private lives of others. Who doesn’t pick up People magazine in the waiting rooms of our lives?

We’ve always liked our heroes handsome and sexual, our heroines beautiful with a thinly veiled sexuality. Throw in some power and the formula is potent. Yet when, some years ago, former President Clinton’s sexual contact with a pretty, seductive young woman became front page news, many pundits predicted his down fall. A personal tragedy of huge proportion was said to be looming.

Then, to the surprise of many, given a moment for the roiling seas to calm, Clinton’s rating with the public actually rose rather than fell. His political “capital” surely then diminished, but today he remains a charismatic personage. Just this past week his photo appeared on the front page of the New York Times, embracing a smiling Hillary. His presence is in great demand, and met with adulation throughout the world, drawing huge crowds (and high fees) when he appears to speak. I’m not surprised.

Isn’t it plausible that as we are daily inundated by lurid tales of violence and abuse, our secret fears, we can also privately and silently cheer our sometimes irresponsible, handsome sexy heroes and heroines? What are our thoughts when we view a flawed but otherwise admired celebrity? Some, just forgiving, as Hillary appears to be? Do others frown with apparent disapproval, looking askance at a censurable adventurer, all the while being offered approbation and acceptance of who we might actually choose to be, if only in our day dreams?

The Devil You Know

Sometimes  it seems so clear to me that divorcing partners have virtually completed the mediation process, but the process does not end. Some relatively minor point becomes a major sticking point. Both parties become entrenched, unwilling to give in or compromise, even when the issue is minimal.

One might almost think that they do not want to finish and have their meetings end. These two people sitting on either end of my long couch usually have been a “couple” for a long time. There was a time when the relationship was everything they could have wished, full of promise. The dream faded and the promise was not kept. Most likely they lived with frustration and unhappiness for a good long while before making the wrenching decision to part.

However dysfunctional, this relationship is a known quantity. The future is full of frightening unknowns, the single life, financial insecurity, facing responsibilities alone that previously were shared, having to contemplate the dating scene, new sexual partners. Too much change to even imagine. Holding on to the present, however miserable allows one to hold the future at bay just a little longer. The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.

It’s hard to know how to help when I suspect that it is fear of the unknown future that is preventing closure. I can normalize, talk about other folks who have been similarly stuck, empathize and be patient, Eventually one or the other will break the logjam, perhaps suggest a compromise and get us moving again and then in no time simple agreements are made.

What is most important is not to allow these minor sticking points to cause a full-blown retreat. The test of my skill is to keep everyone coming back to the table even when, in frustration, the threat may be made to resort to litigation. This is one of those moments when to go slow is to go fast.

If There Is No Trust

It is not unusual for some of those entering the divorce mediation process to question whether it can work, because they so distrust the other party.

As an intimate relationship ends, the breakdown of trust is almost inevitable. A spouse formerly so well known becomes a stranger. It can be terrifying. The intimacy vacuum created is quickly filled with anxiety. Then all that is needed is a spark, a canceled credit card, a letter from an attorney or the closing of an account without consultation. Any residual trust vanishes.

The offended party asks: How can I possibly work with this person? Perhaps I have to hire a gladiator to protect myself.

A reasonable question that requires a reasonable answer.

To those who have survived this stage without declaring war, born of their fear, and have found their way into a mediation setting or have hired lawyers who seek to collaborate and meet the interests of both parties, this is what I would say: Let’s just assume that your spouse is untrustworthy. This is your current perspective. You may be wrong but you may be right. So, why not simply accept his/her untrustworthiness as a reality and design a settlement that doesn’t depend on trust. Assert the power you have to say no to anything proposed until you are ready to say yes, to see the documentation for every fact alleged, to test conclusions with the involvement of appropriate experts, to make no decisions until they are fully informed decisions.

In marriage we expect trust, a global trust that we will always be told the truth and emotionally supported. That perfection may not always exist, but it is a legitimate goal.

In divorce we may have to give it up. A new trusting relationship may well be established, incrementally, but until it is, a “show me” attitude is completely appropriate.

Abandon Fairness

While I’m always pleased to hear my mediation clients articulate the goal of a fair outcome, I rarely let the statement go by without a note of caution.Two individuals have agreed to share a process. While no doubt some of their values converge, there are likely many values they do not share. I tell them that in the mediation process, we will not strive to change that.

My expectation is that their perceptions of past events will also differ. While their perceptions may well factor into the decisions they are willing to make and so are of importance, coming to some meeting of the minds about what actually happened in the past, some empirical truth being proven, is neither likely to happen nor of importance to their reaching workable solutions for the problems at hand.

I urge the adoption of a flea market mentality. Finding an item you wish to purchase, you ask the dealer “how much?” And when the response is “twenty dollars”, you don’t say “but that’s not fair”. You might offer to pay ten dollars and later settle for fifteen, but the deal is not struck by arguing the fairness of the price, but by reaching an acceptable one.

So too do I urge my mediating parties. Do not try to convince someone whose values or perceptions may differ from your own to agree with your sense of fairness. Seek instead an outcome that is acceptable to you, that meets your interests and that sufficiently meets the interests of your bargaining partner, so a deal can be struck.

Understanding those interests, your own and those of your counterpart, both short term and long term, becomes the key to success. And to get there, asking questions in a non-blaming, non-accusatory way can elicit the information that will bring valuable bargaining chips to the table.

Fairness must exist in the process, each side fully heard and fully informed, but as a criterion for evaluating the outcome, it is an ever-elusive goal, best forgotten.

A More Personal Introduction

How should I define myself to readers who do not know me? Some years ago, I would have written: I am a lawyer and mediator, been married forever to Leonard Larsen, mother of three grown children and numerous grandchildren.

My entry, in 1969, into what was then virtually an all male profession was born in significant part of an early Betty Friedan push. My luck (was it luck?) was to have married a man who admired and was not threatened by strong women, and who dreaded life with a wife trapped in an unsatisfying role, once the claims of motherhood were eased by the passage of her babes to school age. Three nights a week for four years, he came home from his University work to care for our children while I gleefully entered the adult world of night law school.

Now, three years since the death of my husband, it is that loss that first defines me, even if I seldom initiate talk of it with others. Although in most respects my identity has not changed, important shifts have taken place. With the passage of time, I can make this assessment without tears, but as I touch the keyboard and these words appear on my screen, the tightness in my throat does not relax.

A week after Len’s death,  I returned to work, to the surprise and unspoken disapproval of some, but with the understanding of others who know me well. Allowing myself to be absorbed and rewarded by competence developed over so many years of professional practice (and observation of the human condition, my own and others), allowed me to sustain in the face of sorrow. When alone in the office, tears might briefly flow, but I was following my family’s spoken and unspoken mantra: when facing difficult times, breathe in and out and go to work.

Life at the office changed. No rushed mid-day trips home to check on things nor calls to our home health aide, or anxious anticipation of the latest medical test results. If called upon to work late with clients, I could do so. Without guilt, I immersed myself in and followed to conclusion whatever professional task or quandary faced me, rather than postponing, perhaps indefinitely, completion of a task to tend to another’s needs. Last minute arrangements for dinner with a friend were possible. For the first time in my life, I had no one else’s timetable to consider.

My generation, especially the women, were expected to marry by their early twenties and I did not disappoint my mother. I went from living at home directly to the college dorm and then to sharing life and space with a husband. Until his death, I never lived alone.

Surprisingly, I find I love solitude – the quiet, if I wish it to be quiet. Choice of what I do is completely my own. I love being in control of that which I can still control, and so work hard to preserve health, flexibility and strength despite the ever increasing time and energy that requires. Vanity and fear remain potent motivators. Friends and family are as important as ever, but if precious time is to be wasted, it is on my terms, most of the time.

Life at home has changed as well, some changes slow to come about, others immediate. My husband, especially after becoming house-bound, was almost always surrounded by wonderful music, a taste we developed together over the years (he the more sophisticated listener). For more than a year after his death, I could play no music in our home without feeling intense sorrow, so none was heard. Slowly that part of my life has come back into focus, and now I am almost never without lovely sounds. A soaring female voice especially brings me joy, vicariously allowing me to cry out in memory of what is no more a part of my life, while rejoicing in my great good fortune to have had a partner who made so much of my present life possible.

An Introduction

To many I am reintroducing myself, as for a number of years I presented commentaries on a public radio station which reached out into several Midwestern states. To others I am not known, so a few words of introduction are in order.

I am a lawyer with a 36 year professional history,the last 20 of those years primarily spent as a mediator. More recently the  focus of my mediation practice has been on relationships, int he main marital, some parties struggling to continue to be together but most on the path to dissolution.

My past commentaries have been wide ranging, both personal and professional. I plan to continue in both veins. But as my experience has grown, I’ve come to wonder whether my daily observations and interpretations of the relationships which play out before me, as husbands and wives struggle to negotiate their parting and their future as parents, might serve others, might provoke a thoughtful pause and even new ways of behaving towards each other. Perhaps a commentary on the dynamics of relationships which have faltered can offer useful insights to others.

We shall see, as the stories unfold.