A deeper way to think about intimate relationships

I just listened to Alain de Botton on the podcast On Being.
His work is so deep, thought-provoking, and moving. He turns upside down our commonly understood assumptions about intimate relationships, and gets to the deeper truth, of what we are trying to find when we search for love. He also has great insight into why people might stray – when in committed relationships. Recommended listening for everyone.


Negotiating a prenuptial agreement

A woman called me, distraught. She said that over the course of 4 months, she and her fiancé had paid about $10,000 in attorney’s fees, had months of stress and agony, and ended up getting married without having signed the prenup. Now, 3 months into their marriage, the unsigned prenup remained an issue, but their attorneys could not find a way to agree.

The confluence of their fears and their lack of confidence merged to produce a situation where they felt frozen and unable to move forward. When the husband’s lawyer said, “You might as well have her waive her rights to your pension and her rights of inheritance,” the husband did not know whether this was ‘standard,’ or unusual, and didn’t find a way to say “no,” to his lawyer – even though this was not his goal in entering into the prenup.

I met with them together, in a mediation session, and asked them what had been their original goals for the prenup. As we created a list of those goals, it became clear that they were quite aligned.

Robert owned some properties with his brother and mother, and wanted to keep those as separate property. Alicia was fine with that, that felt fair to her.

They asked me to use the prenup that their attorneys had drafted, and edit it. I had to do a lot of deleting, to take out all of the extraneous things that one attorney said was necessary to “protect” the client, and the other attorney refused to accept. I ended up with a postnuptial agreement that met their original goals, and was.

They came in again, we read it through, they made a couple of changes, and then they signed it that night. They were both so happy to find a way to resolve this whole matter so smoothly, after a process which left them feeling frightened and that their conflicts were intractable.

The power of mediation!

Seeing People Change

Probably the most important piece – in order to mediate – is to have two people who want to come through the big picture OK. Neither is out to destroy the other.

I had a couple come into my office last week who I could tell HATED each other. He works really long hours, and she is furious and has felt completely abandoned by him for years.

She has (to some extent in response) been over-spending, especially in these last couple of years, since they separated. He makes a lot of money – but they have a lot of credit card debt, which they really shouldn’t have to have at their income level. He is furious with her about that.

But at the same time, they both love their kids, and so they found the motivation to come to mediation, in order to get their divorce settled – and when the negotiations are over, some of the tension may dissipate – and in order to try to make things go as smoothly for the kids as possible.

So – the wife (I’ll call her Elise) said, “I am thinking of selling our apartment & buying a house with a tenant, in a cheaper neighborhood. Then we would have more room, and lower costs. But I can’t afford to buy a house unless I have all of the equity in the apartment, to work with.”

At first the husband (I’ll call him Dan) said, “No way I am giving you all the equity in the apartment. There is a lot there, and it’s mine, I want it.”

But within 5 minutes he said, “You know my children will never need a home. Since they live with you – if you want to move to a house, and you need the money, fine, we can continue to have joint ownership of the house, or I’ll give you the money.”

It was amazing to see the switch – to see him go from “no way,” to “sure.” and it was because he could remember his bigger goal – to make sure the kids are OK. And in this case – the hours he works – 7 days/week, for weeks at a time – he knows that the mom is the #1 person for the kids, they live with her. So – though he hates her as his ex-wife – he loves her as the mother of his children.

Opportunity for Future Conflicts?

(Now me as the lawyer-mediator-deal-maker is beginning to wonder if there is a way that the settlement could be structured so that he would give her 100% of the equity and not have to remain a joint owner. That might be possible, given all the facts of their situation, but we will have to see.)

Should they continue as joint-owners of a home? What I would worry about is the possibility for ongoing active conflict after the divorce, which is the one thing that the experts agree is the worst thing for the children. If they continue to own the house, will he be secretly mad at her, resentful, because he didn’t get his equity out, and he can’t buy a house? What about if they need a new roof or boiler? We would either have to work out all the details, so that these things are not opportunity for future conflicts, because the children, who always feel guilty when their parents fight (whether divorced or not!) may feel that they parents still own the house – a source of contention – because of them.


What’s it all about, anyway?

I’ve always been a person whom people like to talk to. I guess I’m a good listener – and also I don’t pass judgment. I myself have done things I’m not proud of – had a relationship wither, and cheat rather than tell my boyfriend that I wanted to end it, for example – so if someone cheats on their spouse, well – yeah it’s not the most mature way to handle the end of your marriage but – hey – we’re all doing the best we can.

So after I went to law school, and tried a few different things, mediation felt like a perfect fit.

Plus – I get to see into people’s marriages, people’s lives. Sometimes I feel like I’m watching a juicy film, as they fight in my office.

But lately, I’m feeling very sad. I wish they weren’t breaking up.

A woman last week said, “He’s still my best friend, he GETS me, and I get him, and I love him. But I feel like what we want from our lives is too different for us to stay together.”

And I was thinking – lady, you’ve got it a lot better than most, having someone you love who “gets” you.

I don’t know. Why do some people stay together and others break apart? Myriad variations as there are couples. Myriad answers to that question.

Marriage is often not fun – at least in my experience. I go through weeks where I am feeling like, “Oh well, my life is really a big disappointment, but there we go – that’s how it turned out.” but then, I stick with it, and it changes – and to me that is the real magic of the whole thing – that I can be so irritated with him, for weeks even, and then it changes. And all of a sudden he’s the hunky, cutey that I fell in love with, again.

The older and more middle-aged I get, the more I think it is about an economic partnership. If I hadn’t gotten married, we wouldn’t have bought a house, we wouldn’t have pooled our incomes and began to amass savings. We wouldn’t have had these wonderful children who have become the center of our lives (at least till they become teenagers).

But – then I probably have a “good” marriage (whatever that is). And maybe my clients don’t.

Or maybe – they have lower tolerance for conflict.