Archive for November, 2017

The Myth of Anger & Divorce

When we tell couples that anger and frustration are a normal part of a relationship, they are typically surprised.  Research has shown that anger, by itself, is not a predictor of relationship trouble.  Anger is not good or bad; it is simply a fact of life.  This goes along with being irritable, sad, worried or disappointed.  In the Gottman’s research, they found that in every relationship people retaliate with anger when met with anger.  That includes happy stable relationships.  In fact, anger is one way that partners tell each other to pay attention to what is happening.

The Consistent Predictor of Divorce

When anger is coupled with criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling there is a strong prediction for divorce.  This is not to say that happy couples never fall into these traps, but how they move forward with repairing the relationship is the telling difference.

In arguments when blame is put on the other partner the typical response is for that person to become defensive.  The net result is that no one takes any responsibility for the situation.  Over time one or both may display a superior attitude towards their spouse.  This attitude of contempt pushes their partner to retaliate in some form, the most common of which is to simply shut down and withdraw.  This attitude of stonewalling leads to emotional separation from their spouse.

The result is, as Dr. Gottman calls it, a distance and isolation cascade.

Is there a path back from this brink?  That depends on the couple.  Those that keep their relationships in place build an atmosphere of richness where repair is possible.  Soft openings in heated situations as well as taking responsibility for part of the situation makes for an atmosphere for productive discussions.

As odd as it sounds, positive comments in an argument are one of the big differences in successful relationships and those that are troubled.  When we say that, couples think we are asking them to give high praise in the middle of a painful situation.  Actually positive comments are things like, “You may have a point,” or “I’m hurt and I think you can help me.”  These are compliments in a softened conversation.

To illustrate these points, we had the opportunity to share with Dr. Gottman our version of the Sound Relationship House – the Unsound Relationship House.













Looking at the cascade, let’s look a few key aspects in more detail.

Problems Are Seen as Too Severe

As problems mount, couples avoid discussions for resolution.  The partners become hostile towards each other.  The result is that they avoid interacting in meaningful ways.  The attitude toward the relationship is that the situation is helpless and hopeless.  This defines how the partners look at each other.  They no longer see each other as a person they can rely on.  The entire relationship reorganizes toward separation, compartmentalization and loneliness.

“We” Becomes “Yours” and “Mine”

In several research studies, couples who eventually divorced showed little fondness, had high negativity, did not consider themselves as “we.”  Their relationship was in a state of high chaos and high in disappointment with the relationship.

The result is that people separated emotionally first.  Then came the physical separation.  Couples refused to look at their partners as an ally or a source of support.  Problems were no longer shared and partners no longer asked for the opinions of their mate.  The only topics that were safe to share were the most mundane.  The relationship quickly devolved to the status of being roommates.  Outside opinions become more important than the ideas of their spouse.

Parallel Lives

The ending leads to couples leading parallel lives.  They are married in name only and proceed on separate tracks.  Contact with each other is reduced to a minimum.  People start to work late and work to get away from each other.  Time is generously distributed to events and obligations that are outside of the relationship.

All this leads to a sense of solitude.  This is probably the most devastating issue the leads to a final separation.  The feeling of being abandoned within the relationship is a haunting issue for couples in unhappy relationships.

Is there an option to come back?  Yes, but it takes commitment to each other, the recognition that both are responsible for the problem they are facing and accept the agenda that can bring a couple back from the brink.  The bottom line question for each couple is to ask, “Is it worth it?”  Do not get this wrong, some events are beyond repair.  Abuse and other negative behavior are violations of marital boundaries for safety.  Safety first.  But if this is about differences in attitudes and behavior in the relationship, repair is an option.

Tax Reform: A Business Boom for Family Law Attorneys

Under the House version of tax reform, there is a provision to repeal § 215 – Alimony payments.  That means that the payor will no longer be able to deduct their support payments.  It also means that the recipient will not be taxed on the income.  That sounds great for the recipient!  But the payor is not going to be happy.

Looking at the background, a lot of settlements revolve around the payor spouse being in a higher tax bracket than the recipient.  The net result is that by getting a deduction for the payment, there is a shift of income from the higher bracket to a lower bracket.  This is attractive to the payor since they get to reduce their overall taxable income.  In fact for those in high-tax states, the combined rate of 49% or more means that the payor spouse is making the support payments at a 49% discount.  This also leads couples to negotiate family support, or unallocated support payments, that only increases the tax effect.  This saves even more through tax dollars.

Now, if that adjustment is taken away, those dollars paid will be hard after-tax dollars costing the paying spouse a lot in taxes.  Since taxes were part of the original equation, it is easy to see a flood of petitions to the family courts asking for adjustments in support based on the new math.  The argument will be that the recipient will have a non-taxable flow of income.  Therefore, the payor spouse should be entitled to a discount based on the recipient’s tax bill, had they paid income tax on those funds.  There will be a spread in taxes between the paying spouse and the recipient, and that will be an area of contention and negotiation.

Sadly, the matter tends to move against public policy.  Family courts had an interest in keeping people off welfare and other public support.  This change challenges that notion making it more difficult for families to separate, especially when they are struggling with hard financial conditions.

A Big Cost That Jeopardizes Support Levels

Here is a simple example for illustration.  If the paying spouse is in a 39.6% bracket and the receiving spouse is in the 25% bracket, the net tax savings in the transfer of income is $$8,760.  That is a tax saving of $23,760 for the payor and a $15,000 bill for the recipient.  When that advantage is taken away, not only is the $60,000 transferred, the tax of $23,760 needs to be paid by the paying spouse.  That is a hard cost and total payment of $83,760 from the paying spouse to the recipient (the alimony plus the tax due).

With this much at stake, it is not hard to imagine that a lot of agreements will be altered and petitions will be filed to reduce the amount of support being paid.

Comment:  We wonder if the people behind the scenes that wrote this bill were IRS representatives.  For years they have worked to chisel away at family support (unallocated support) and other forms of transfer payments.  It seems that this bill is targeting those elements precisely with the intent to eliminate all tax aspects of these transfer payments.  The Senate version leaves § 215 untouched.  We will have to wait and see what they do in their committees.