Archive for the ‘Relationship’ Category

Working Through Financial Stress in Marriage & Divorce

Money: A Path to Trouble or Peace

One of the common reasons cited by couples for divorce is financial stress.  They indicate things like too much debt, not enough income, someone not carrying their financial weight, overload of expectations not being met, and more.  Each one or any combination build towards financial stress in the relationship.

The fact is that financial matters may not be solved in divorce.  They may be compounded.  Instead of one household, there are now two.  The debts are typically an obligation of both people.  Taxes are also going to follow both if the returns were jointly filed.  Houses, when sold, may be used to satisfy debts, but then where do people go to rent?

Looking at housing, if there are children, it may be desirable for them to remain in their current school.  This requires a rental for at least one person to remain in the area.  In addition, there is the need for the other parent to have a place large enough to provide a suitable environment for the children.  The result is a more expensive living situation.

How to Handle Money

In marriage or divorce, the first step is to work through the details.  This starts with a picture of the couple’s current financial situation.  Awareness is a major key to moving forward.  Both sides need to understand what is available and how they arrived at that point.  If people are not aware of how they got here, the possibility of correcting the situation is diminished.  This is true regardless of their relationship choices.

It is interesting that in divorce, when one side files, there is a restraining order placed on the major financial accounts and assets of the marriage.  Changes in beneficiaries, withdrawals of significant amounts of money, and termination of insurance contracts are barred.  The only way a change occurs is with mutual consent.  The one exception is to cover the obligations of the community.  But even that needs to be disclosed and monitored in proximity to the expense.

This is actually a good pattern for couples to learn, married or divorced – sharing information and making decisions together.

War and the Choice for Financial Ruin

The use of legal counsel is always advisable in divorce.  The issue does not have to do with obtaining legal counsel.  The problems arise with how the attorney is used.

When couples refuse to cooperate, hiring an attorney may be an expression of frustration and a method of taking back perceived power and control.  When the divorce turns to a litigated fight, both sides retain attorneys.  This leads to a typical retainer ranging from $3,000 to $10,000 each.  If the divorce is perceived to be more complex, that retainer will most likely be much larger.

Money roll and judges hammer on wooden tableIn litigated situations, it becomes a legal version of “telephone.”  Attorney A talks with spouse A.  Attorney A will then contact attorney B (if attorney B had not already contacted attorney A).  Attorney B talks with spouse B.  They develop a response.  Attorney B responds to attorney A who then confers with spouse A.

At this level of conflict, couples are encouraged to avoid speaking with each other.  The exceptions are in the required situations like an exchanging of the children.  Direct communication is cut – except through legal counsel.

At $350 to $450 an hour, plus staff fees and out-of-pocket costs, the legal bills add up quickly.  It does not take long before the retainer is drained, and a new retainer is called for.

From our experience, the typical litigated divorce can easily run up $30,000 to $50,000 in legal fees.  If there are contested issues around children and custody, the cost increases exponentially.  The court will require evaluations and possibly a court-appointed attorney for the children.  All those funds are lost from the estate – money that most couples cannot afford spending.

Peaceful Path Forward

The alternative is to plan out a path forward.  In marriage, this is reached by having a budget both agree to follow and a simple “policy” of two signatures required for every expense.  The two-signature policy fosters mutual agreement and ongoing financial awareness.

The practical approach for couples in any situation includes a monthly review of fixed expenses.  These are the largest bills which include the mortgage, car payment (if there is one), credit cards, utilities and any other costs to the family.  This will also include a review of any credit cards, their usage, the outstanding balances, and the payments.

The next part is the periodic monthly expenses.  There are “forgotten” periodic expenses like car insurance and homeowner coverage.  There are “surprise” expenses like medical deductibles, car, and house repairs.  Families also take vacations, have birthdays, anniversaries, and other expenses that “happen,” but may not be planned for.

Putting together a budget for these expenses allows couples to set aside funds each month.  These funds are moved into the “untouchable” savings account for use when needed.

What is odd to couples in divorce, is that all this information needs to be planned out and disclosed in their financial reports.  The very thing that drove the couple apart is the issue where they need to cooperate most.  Then at the end, it requires two signatures to sign off on the financial disclosures – including the income and expense reports.

These reports are required by courts.  But when litigating attorneys are involved, this can become an expensive process with each side issuing requests for financial information.  If it is not forthcoming, the request turns into a subpoena – the legal demand for information.  If the material is suspected to be incorrect, this escalates to hiring experts to do forensic evaluations – more costs.

Our observations through the years are that education is one key to successful negotiations.  In marriage or divorce it is important for both spouses to have a full understanding of their mutual financial world.  This helps both sides to know what is on the table and whether an offer is acceptable or not.

The Lessons

In marriage or divorce, cooperation is essential to economize and move forward.  If the marriage is so far gone that a couple will not work on the relationship, then it is best to cut those losses, set up an independent financial program and take care of the business of divorce.  But do not enter this with the illusion that life will go on as it was in the past.  Cutbacks and sacrifice are needed to make divorce or marriage work.

With divorce, most cases create a mutual agreement by the couple to keep the household running, and the children cared for.  That sounds impossible to some.  In situations when the other person does not cooperate, there are ways to move the process forward.  The court may be used to garnish wages and to seek access to assets independent of the other person’s cooperation.

In California, there are laws under the family code that allow access to assets for support and maintenance of the “marital standard of living.”  This does not mean that the same standard a person was accustomed to will be maintained.  But it does provide methods to seek funding for legal counsel and support payments while the matter is sorted out.

In California, this starts with a court filing asking for temporary support.  If the request for temporary support is refused by the other side, then an assignment of wages is an option.  This process is available when cooperation is absent.

While demands can be issued and a level of support obtained through the courts, this course of action is expensive.  The spouse that is compelled to pay will have their employer involved through a legal garnishment of wages.  The cost to both sides for legal counsel to maneuver this maze leads to more wasted assets.  Working it out before resorting to this measure makes better financial sense.

A Core Question

If couples are headed in the direction of litigation, we have a question for them to consider together.  Is a fight worth the financial and emotional cost?  We also explore the hidden costs when children are involved.  If children are aware of the divorce, they will most likely be aware of their change in circumstance.  They may also be aware of mom or dad not paying for their support.  That is a devastating message to a child.

Closing Comments

Our mission is to educate people about their relationship options, including divorce.  As couples approach a crossroad in their relationship, they may believe divorce is their only path.  The fact is that a divorce is one option among many.  It is one point on a continuum.  We encourage couples to take One Last Look™ before deciding.  Here is a place to explore options based on the couple’s own facts and circumstances.  They can see how the process might play out in the real world of separation and divorce.  Investing about four hours to save thousands in legal fees and heartbreak is worth consideration.


Armand D’Alo & Robbin D’Alo

Note:  Links in this article were active as of September 2018.

Money & Marriage: The Hard Conversations

Myth:  Couples with financial conflicts should get a divorce.

Reality:  Conflict is a part of every relationship.  The question as to staying or leaving is how a couple chooses to approach the differences.

The financial conflict conversation is rarely about money.  The true conversation is about what money means.  One description of this mental process is called the Complex Equivalent; a belief and value that are coupled with a behavior making the action a “programmed” response.  Actions with money are an example of this.

Internally the behaviors seem congruent and make perfect sense.  The response from a spouse or other outside observer is the external mirror reflecting the reality of those actions.  At times, what seems internally congruent is externally dysfunctional.

Overcoming these problems requires open communication. 

Most couples do not understand how to communicate around financial issues.  Individuals think that their internal dialogue and perception is the reality that everyone else experiences.  What they do not understand is that in any relationship, the meaning of communication is not in your intended message; it is in the response received from the behavior.  This may be approval, shock, acceptance, grief, fear or much more.

This is evident when we observe couples.  We see poorly worded comments that were received with relief and a positive acknowledgment.  We also see carefully crafted comments that elicited strong, negative responses.  Clearly, the intended message gets lost if the level of trust and acceptance is non-existent.  It becomes difficult or impossible to exchange information when there is a lack of emotional flexibility within the communication.

Per-Marital Behavior

These learned interactions go back to the time when people are dating.  When couples are caught up in the “limerence” of romance, they are not thinking clearly.  It is a bit like grocery shopping without a list while you are hungry.  Without an external objective measure, it is difficult to make an accurate assessment.

When we teach professionals about money and marriage, we talk about these early interactions.  The exploratory pre-marital conversations are important when getting to know each other.  If there is hesitation with transparency, that can be an early indication that something is wrong.

Even if you are married and find yourself in financial conflict, there is a path forward, as long as both sides are willing to be transparent and to make changes that conform to the reality of your financial world.

Eva Rosenberg offers a list of questions people that are dating can use to get to understand each other financially.  This is part of building awareness about how you each view the financial world separately and as partners.

Suggested questions to have in pre-marital conversations. 

By your direct observation, what financial habits are displayed in daily life?  What is the level of financial awareness or is there a tendency to avoid paying attention?

Is a person obsessive, controlling, or pre-occupied with money?

What attitudes do you both have toward money?  Is the behavior or belief system frugal, stingy, wasteful, or balanced?

Is there any gambling? If so, how? Is the gambling online or in casinos? Are bets made with friends?

Are there any outstanding gambling debts (or any other debts)?

How willing are you both to be accountable and to live on a budget?

What big purchases are anticipated in the next few years, and what are the plans to pay them?

Are there any child or spousal support obligations?  Are these obligations met on time?

How are the relationships with any ex and children of another relationship? How will those relationships impact the new life together, both financially and emotionally?

Is there any reason for the finances to be kept separate, at least in the beginning?

We add in a few steps we call the “romantic third date.”  These are items to be looked at if a relationship seems to be getting serious.  This involves asking the tough tax questions before you get married:

Are there outstanding IRS tax liens or unfiled tax returns?

Did the spouse-to-be comingle funds with a prior spouse without properly severing the financial relationships with that prior spouse?

Will the new relationship be impacted by old creditors?

An important early step is to share financial information that you can review independently allowing you to make independent conclusions.  Assuming you are comfortable with this person, you can jointly share your tax and credit information.  You can provide each other with Form 4506T Request for Transcript of Tax Return. This allows you to see the IRS tax information for each person over the last four years.  You can also order the credit reports from all agencies.

You are looking to see if there are tax liens, levies, a poor credit history, or anything else that would raise a flag.

What if your married and in a financial mess?

Assuming you have both been open and honest with each other, there are many financial problems that arise outside your immediate control.  Financial distress can result from a company downsizing, a medical crisis with large bills, or technology replacing the need for a human to fill a position.  When the financial crisis hits in a healthy relationship, the partners pull together.  They put up their best efforts and work to make their lives better.

If trust is destroyed by poor financial behavior, this is most often a terminal issue for the marriage.  At least one partner concludes that anything is better than the current situation.  The pain of separation becomes the more attractive option.

Conflict carries choices.  Conflict can result in growth when two people participate in the resolution or conflict can lead to destruction when people become positional, secretive, and unwilling to work towards a resolution.

Not All Marriages Can or Should Be Saved

But When Is It Really Over?

At Oak Tree Mediation, our One Last Look™ program helps couples see what divorce is about.  They gain clarity and confidence in their options.  That may be reconciliation, it may be divorce, or some other path forward.

One of our first questions to couples looking at divorce is simple and clear.  “How did divorce become your option for this marriage?”  The response is revealing.  When people indicate mutual participation in the decline in marital satisfaction, there are many more options open to them in their path forward.  When the conversation focuses on the other person, there is little hope for flexibility moving forward.

Looking at the research of John Gottman, this cascade toward divorce is evident when a couple has difficulties starting a conversation without a harsh beginning.  Those conversations continue with criticism, defensiveness, contempt and avoidance tactics (Dr. Gottman refers to this as stonewalling).  The result of this emotional pressure is to become flooded which is a physiological condition of a pounding heart rate over 100 beats per minute, sweating – all the indicators of internal distress.

Next is a body language of withdrawal.  Openness fails as does any attempt at repair.  The result is to rewrite history, focus on bad memories, compound every small issue into larger ones, and finally eliminate the other person from the emotional bookshelf.

John Gottman notes that “In general, the brain stores two kinds of memories, explicit and implicit. The former are conscious remembrances: your grandmother gave you a doll for your sixth birthday, the Red Sox won the World Series (and it wasn’t a dream). But implicit memories may not be completely conscious. Instead, the brain responds with a sort of intuition, extracting rules that fit the circumstances. When the traffic light turns red, you remember to brake— you don’t need to think it through. But when the brain confronts two opposite realities at the same time— what’s called cognitive dissonance— it rewrites your history so that it makes sense and is easier to remember. If you once had fond remembrances of your wedding but now consider your partner a self-centered boor, your implicit memory shifts. The brain spins the past, extracting new rules that fit current circumstances. Now, when you think of your wedding day, what first comes to mind is your new husband’s failure to tell you how beautiful you looked. Whether a relationship is over or just ailing depends on how pervasively negative its history, as the couple tells it.”

This final stage, when history is re-written, is when at least one person starts to focus on the thought that anything is better than this.  As Caryl Rusbult describes it as the comparison level alternative; the desire for something better that ends the current pain.

Couples Are Not the Only Ones Affected

At this stage, when both sides see that the marriage is over, it is time to look at a new relationship – what we refer to as Family Re-Formation.

The process of reforming the family is critical for children.  Research shows that children of divorce, are impacted more by the fighting and negative interaction.  Based on the Gottman’s research in emotionally intelligent children and adults, it becomes clear that when parents are content in their relationships, the children are able to live in an atmosphere of emotional security.  From that platform, they are able to experience the world in a secure way.

I sometimes comment that people should raise a puppy that is fully socialized before getting married.  The process of socialization requires that the puppy is given a positive environment that encourages it to explore and trust that the world around it is full of interesting things.  The other part of good socialization is that the trainer only has the first 12 to 14 weeks in which to do this.  It is a true learning experience that helps people see relationships from a very different perspective.

When considering family changes, the new structures can be as varied as there are families.  But the reality is that couples will not end their interaction with a divorce.  In fact, the level of interaction will become more complex and possibly more frequent than when they were married.

Recognizing this reality can lead to growth or war.  Will this be a step forward into growth or a continuation of hostility?  That is a choice facing couples at the end of a marriage.


Armand & Robbin D’Alo

If I Only Knew…

Sometimes divorce is your best option.  But do you really know what is ahead?  Here are a few of the realities that people just do not realize are part of the process, until they are deep into it.

Court Can Be A Cesspool of Contempt For You & Your Children:

It is not the judge, and it is not the attorneys.  It is what happens to you and your soon-to-be ex-spouse.  In criminal court, those on trial strive to look their very best.  In family court, the opposite happens.  While you may be trying to make your case about how bad your partner is, the judge is looking at you and wondering what is motivating you to make all the accusations.  Then it all reverses, and you get attacked as a response.

When people go through the actual court process, they end up feeling damaged.  There is no place to win in there.  You put your life in the hands of a stranger, and you depend on your attorney to be better at debate than the opposing counsel.

Family Is Always Family Even In Divorce:

In our e*book, FACCT, we note that the first letter, “F,” is for Family Re-Formation.  If there are children, you are still the parents.  That will never change.  Even if there are no children, there is still the extended family and relationships.  When one or both sides go for court, those friends and children turn away.  While you thought you might find support and love, when you go to find those friends, you only find emptiness.  People and children do not want to be in a toxic environment.  Sadly parents do not realize this lesson until it is too late.

A couple was arguing over child visitation arrangements.  The mother told these young children how “bad” their dad was and that he did not care for them.  Over time, the children turned from their dad and did not want to see him.

Years later, as these children grew into adults, they started contacting their dad.  They learned that all the things they were told as little children were not true.  In their adult lives, they spent far less time with their mother than with their father.  That choice was based on the toxic world she had created for them and insisted on perpetuating into their adult lives.

Parents need to be very careful about what they do with their children in divorce.  It can come back to hurt them later in life.

Awareness Becomes Crucial:

What you thought was important takes on less meaning.  Things fall away, and suddenly the realities of a basic life take hold.  Everything that seemed significant turns out to be unimportant.  Suddenly those possessions you are fighting about will take on less and less meaning.  When a judge gets into the act, the garage-sale value of everything comes into focus.  Life and what’s important changes radically.

Knowing When It Is Over:

Sometimes you just have to move on.  But how do you know?  By looking at research, we find five key tests that indicate the marriage is probably over.

  1. What is the level of fondness and admiration for your partner?
  2. Are you operating as “Me” or as “We”?
  3. Do you maintain a healthy (not suspicious) awareness of your partner’s world?
  4. Do you look at struggles as something to be overcome together or as an obstacle in your way?
  5. When you think of the relationship today, how do you remember the good times you went through? Or do you remember the past as one disappointment after another?

When these five elements combine, and negativity becomes the abundant sentiment.  It grows to the point that the scales are tipped away from connection.  When they tip so far that the possibility of connection feels lost, it is probably time to move on.

For more, download the e*book, F-A-C-C-T.  Learn what every couple should know about the realities of divorce before you start down that path.

Armand & Robbin D’Alo

Holiday Survival Guide for Divorce

Moving Forward

This is a longer article that is worth the time.  We want to share these thoughts to help people going through tough times during the holidays.  There is also a great piece of information at the end of this blog that connects with a powerful Ted Talk on happiness that you will want to see.

No one discounts the feelings people have at this time of year; especially when something hard, like separation, is facing you.  Family and traditions weigh heavy when couples are struggling through change.

In our eBook, FACCT, the first principle of separation and divorce is Family Re-Formation.  The holidays are a perfect time for that to start.  Making family the focus of holidays is hard since couples typically view the separation as the end of their family life as they knew it.  Part of that is true – the “as they knew it” part.  The rest is not necessarily true.

Remember the first time you left your parent’s home for college or some other life event?  You were not always around for the holidays, especially if you were far away.  As life went on you developed new traditions and new ways to celebrate.  But you probably kept the memory of your core family in those activities in some form.

When a couple is first married it may have been painful dealing with two families wanting you to be totally committed to their separate holiday traditions.  It tears people apart and makes the holidays painful.

Similar events are happening to you and your children.

You have the option of holding fast to old celebrations or you can help the kids, and yourself, to remember the past in proper context, and then build new traditions.

How do you do all this?  It starts with understanding yourself and the pressures you are imposing on you.  In the holidays there is the stress of seasonal demands.  There are events, schedules, financial demands, parties, business events, friends, extended family, the new relationship (your co-parent partner) and so much more.  For kids, there may be school events and other forms of celebration that are part of their extended communities.

To disrupt the lives of children based on your separation may promote them feeling like this may be their fault.  They have to deal with consequences that were not of their making.  As a result, if managed poorly, children are hit hard in the holidays.

Here are some ideas from families and professionals that may help as you navigate this new terrain.

Manage the Stress

Stress comes in two forms: external and internal.  The external form are deadlines and obligations that are fixed and outside of your control.  Christmas day, the eight days of Hanukkah and more are not in your control.  Dates and times of school activities or business events are also not in your control.

The internal stress involves the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and our obligations in the world.  There are internal dialogues that may start, “I am X if I don’t do Y.”  These can become complex equivalents: highly held beliefs about yourself.  Meaning gets attached to what we can and cannot do.  On the other hand, if we are talking to a friend about a similar issue, your counsel may be that, “…it’s not such a big issue …”  You would go on to tell them that they need to cut themselves some slack.

It is interesting how we offer others the space we are unwilling to give to ourselves.

So, start with a page, Post Its on a wall, a spreadsheet – whatever you are most comfortable with.  Make a list of your stresses.  Then note if these are internal or external.  With that list you can begin to see what you have control over and what is not in your control.

Controlled items require a choice on your part.  Are you going to let that be an obligation in your life, or will you make it something that is optional?

For those things that are out of your control, there is a simple question focused on scheduling.  Does it fit.  If not, what are the options.  It is not uncommon, whether married, divorced, or separated, that events collide.  When married, maybe you spit the duties with one person going to event A and the other going to event B.  If your separation is negotiated and relatively peaceful, you may still want to do the same thing – one parent goes to one child’s event with the other going to another’s activity.

The big difference here is that you do not make your divided attention a result of your marital issues – it is scheduling just as it was when you were married.  It should be clear to everyone that time is the issue and not the separation itself.

Manage the Money

Living in two households will strain resources.  Sometimes it lends itself to a financial competition for a child’s attention.  Mental health professionals generally agree that this is not healthy for a child.  They remind parents that it is the time they spend with a child that will be remembered most; not the toys.  When there is a special toy, it is surprising that most are the simplest of things because they carry meaning.

We all give mental acknowledgement to the commercialization of the holidays.  How about finally doing something about it?  Simplicity and service are two ways to make holiday’s more special.  Visiting children in a local hospital that are shut inside for the holidays.  Participate in community events such as plays or choirs.  If Church is important in your life, how can you make that part of your holiday focus.

Holidays are also good times for giving.  Going to help at shelters, making cookies to package up and send to troops overseas.  Making cards for family rather than buying them.  Many adults remember looking through the things of a deceased parent only to find small mementos of their childhood preserved (like a hand-made card).

When it comes to gifts, what makes sense for the needs of those around you.  An attitude of giving versus getting is infectious, even for kids.  Use the season to help them reach outside of themselves.  In this spirit, one parent took her daughter to a local shopping center.  As people went to their cars, mom and daughter, with the owner’s permission, would help them load the car and take the cart back to the collection area.  They also gave the people they helped a candy cane and a happy holiday wish.  Mom reported that they both felt so good even though it was a small act of kindness.

When you do shop for family, can it be simple?  What about starting early and making a gift such as blankets.  Shop all year long looking for the sales in summer and fall.  Be on the lookout for those special items well ahead of time.  Maybe it is too late for this year, but you can start out in January making this your pattern.  It is also a way to keep a holiday spirit alive through the year.

Do What Needs to Be Done

Schedules are more complicated when separation has occurred.  By thinking ahead about the practical side of schedules, children have the opportunity to look forward to the season – they have something that the parents are committed to and that kids can anticipate.

In this same process of scheduling, it may be a time to put any hostility on hold.  We remind people in mediation, if it cannot be put into a box or if you cannot do a math problem with it, it does not belong in the conversation.  That goes for scheduling communications.  No blaming, criticism, contempt, or stalling.  This is a time for learning that your marital separation is what caused this new situation.  Now you must manage the complexities or two households and two schedules.  You are now two individuals that deserve respectful interactions and consideration – you are still the parents and the children have the right to spend time with each of you.

Have A Reality Check

Things are different, and children need to know that life is changing.  What is not changing is how you each feel about them.  They also need to know that their needs are being taken into consideration.  They will feel sad and tears will be shed.  Acknowledging that and helping them experience that sadness in a healthy way can encourage them in moving forward.

It is a very different picture to help a child mourn the reality of losing a one-home family unit and moving to a dynamic unit of two or more households (grandparents or other family may be more involved in the lives of the children).  But the fact that they, as individuals, are important, is critical for their emotional health.  Let them know that they count by asking for their ideas and input.  But remember that you are the parent and the adult.  It is your decision and your opportunity to explain “how” something in the schedule works, not “why.”  The “why” response leads to a defensive posture.  The “how” response simply shows the mechanics of what works and what does not.  It also avoids the possibility of placing blame at a time when emotions may be high.

What About You

Yes, you are important too.  Finding a few anchoring traditions that mean something to you can help in the holidays.  Finding some downtime to listen to music you love, reading a story or finding some other way to engage in that spirit of the season that is meaningful to you.  You may find yourself bumping up against things that bring in memories of the past.  That sadness is part of moving forward.  You are mourning a loss as well.  But in that sadness, just as when you left home, there may be something that can pull you forward with hope.  You are headed into a new phase of your life-experience.

Where Does the Family Go from Here?

If there are past traditions that are meaningful to children, you may still want to embrace those.  These are experiences they carry forward.  These are important for them.

Some of those traditions may carry difficult and confusing feelings for all family members.  This is where new traditions come into play.  Here is the place for creativity and connection with people.  Others have been down this road before you.  Connection with support groups can generate new ideas for brand new sets of family traditions.

To help illustrate this, one idea focuses on holiday meals.  As people and society change, we find that people who use to stay home and “cook for the family” now enjoy going to a special restaurant.  This breaks the old habits in a dynamic way.  It becomes that once-a-year new tradition of spending a holiday with a different cook in a neutral festive setting.  As a side benefit – no dishes and more time together to take a walk, enjoy some decorations, visit someplace special that you normally do not go to.

There are also simple fun holiday games such as driving around to those houses that are “over the top” with decorations.  Then you get to rate them like being movie critics.  Perhaps the winner gets a plate of cookies that you and the kids prepared.

The point is to move out of the old “comfort zone.”  It is not so comfortable in there anymore.  Find a new place of joy with a stretch beyond yourself.  Yes, you need to take care of yourself, and you are still a family.

There may also be another place for some healing, depending on your situation.  Working with the kids to create something for the other parent may build a bridge as the family heals and rebuilds into a new family structure.

Understanding Happiness

Ultimately finding a new happiness is the outcome everyone seeks.  Perhaps some information on what happiness really is about may help.  Dan Gilbert and his associates studied it and found some profound information.  Check out Dan’s Ted Talk on Happiness.

May this season be a time of healing, exploration, and discovery.  A good friend reminded me many years ago of a misunderstood saying.  She cited: “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.”  She then commented that, “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly at first.”  She remined me that we all will stumble, life is not perfect, mistakes are made, and nothing works perfectly the first time through.  The difference is if we are willing to pick ourselves up and keep going.

May the holidays bring peace to you and your family now and into the New Year.


Armand & Robbin D’Alo

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.

Divorce: The Dance of Breaking Up

There are many self-help and support groups for people in relationship trouble, going through divorce and after the divorce.  They offer support as people cope with changes in life.  These are all helpful tools.  Here is one additional tool that helps people along the way; the art of dancing.

To dance, each person must get in tune with the other.  When they practice together there is a harmony that develops.  Eventually they can anticipate each other’s moves and understand how to respond.  It becomes a reflex that results in a form of harmony.

Dr. Sue Johnson, in commenting about marriage, notes that “Love is a constant process of tuning in, connecting, missing and misreading cues, disconnecting, repairing, and finding deeper connection.  It is a dance of meeting and parting and finding each other again.  Minute to minute and day to day.”

Divorce Is a New Dance

When people break up there is a new dance going on.  In their case, a choice if made day by day to tune out, disconnect, ignore, skip repair efforts (they tried already) and eventually end up wanting out.  The pain had grown too deep and trust is no longer present.

This is a new dance through life in which people will step on each other’s toes.  Sometimes that is intentional in an effort to get the other person’s attention – something that was missed in the marriage.

When we see couples moving through this process, we work to help them learn a new dance called  F-A-C-C-T; the basic understanding of what separation and divorce are all about.

The first two letters, F and A, stand for Family Re-Formation and Awareness.  These are basic to this dance.

When people break up they are actually re-forming a relationship.  The new dynamics are based on different ground rules.  There is no intimacy.  But there is relationship in that the new rules have them interacting about finances and, most importantly, children.  Even if there are adult children, there is interaction around family events, grandchildren and many other elements of family life that will go on.

The second letter, A, is for awareness.  People get to the point of separation by following a particular path.  They built this outcome somehow.  Even if there was an affair, or some other event along that way, the seeds are planted for this outcome.  Understanding how that happened can help with the process of separation.  When you understand how and why something happened, it leads to a deeper recognition and purpose for your path forward.

The next part of F-A-C-C-T is Communication.  This is not the deep caring exchanges felt when people are in love.  This is ability to look at what is ahead objectively.  We note to mediation clients that while they are discussing issues, if you cannot do a math problem with it or if you cannot put it into a box it does not belong in the conversation.  This is a way to keep the conversation simple and to the point.

We also encourage people to use the BIFF approach to exchanges.  This involves keeping the communication Brief, Informative, Friendly, and Firm.

That last two letters are for Commitment and Trust.  This sounds odd for separation, but in the process of divorce the underlying issue is a lawsuit focused on breaking a contract.  That contract, once ended, is replaced by a new contract – the Marital Settlement Agreement (MSA).  Since it is a new contact, there are provisions that each side must meet.  That interaction requires a commitment to keeping each side of the agreement and, over time, building trust that the other person will meet their obligations.

Accepting the premise of F-A-C-C-T, couples recognize there is an entirely new set of “dance steps.”  We encourage people to reflect on F-A-C-C-T and consider how this process impacts their own separation.  Will this be a series of missteps leading to costly court fights or will this be a new dance that leads to a different life after marriage.  The choice is yours.

You can get a copy of F-A-C-C-T at and for subscribers you can get a copy by dropping us an email requesting a PDF version.

Armand D’Alo and Robbin D’Alo

11 Facts About Divorce That Will Keep You Up At Night

Divorce: A Look Into The Future

The focus of our One Last Look(SM) program is to educate couples and individuals about the process of divorce and separation as well as the realities of life after the divorce is granted.  The questions and situations we encounter spark interesting insights into what people think they know and how surprised they are when reality confronts them.  Here are 11 that may just keep you up at night.

1  Women Are More Likely Than Men to File for Divorce: Are You Paying Attention?

Women file more than menBecause of the way men and women function in relationships, it is common for men to be unaware of their companion’s concerns.  John & Julie Gottman point out from their research that bids for attention in relationships may impact women more than men.

In their research Drs. Gottman found that men who divorce ignored their wives 82% of the time.  Men in stable marriages ignored a spouse 19% of the time.  On the other hand, women that divorced ignored a spouse’s bid 50% of the time.  Those in stable marriages ignored the spouse 14% of the time.

This is a strong indication that women have a lower threshold than men for being ignored.  This may be how a woman can file for divorce and the husband is unaware as to why it happened.

The statistic of more women filing than men is proven by the number of female petitioners versus the male respondents in court documents.  However, when we dig deeper, it becomes clear that when women are talking about divorce, they are done.  Men, on the other hand, are more likely to pull back in their quest unless they are into a new relationship.

2  Is A Health Marriage Possible

“What went wrong?” is a common comment.  There are many reasons for a marriage to fail.  But research shows that the lack of friendship and paying attention to a spouse are key.

We recently had a couple in our office for One Last Look(SM).  It was clear by their body language that there was still something positive between them.  We asked, “When did you stop being friends?”  The husband looked surprised, but the wife immediately said it was 10 years ago.  She probably could have put an exact event around it if we let her.

If there is an emotional gulf between the couple, starting with friendship is a path back to health, if that is what is desired.

3  “I Will Be Taken Care Of”

Support is not what people thinkNot so much anymore.  Couples read the family code and try to understand what long and short marriages are about under the law.  We get the “half the length of the marriage rule” spouted at us by many husbands.  Wives, on the other hand, refer to the marital standard of living as their basis for moving forward.

Both sides are often surprised with the reality that courts want both to be self-sufficient and that it is common for vocational evaluations to be done.  We are not making predictions in this article.  It is simply our experience that what people end up with is very different from what they were seeking after.  Before someone plans on their online support calculation, make sure to seek some professional counsel.  Even then, that does not predict the actual outcome since courts are not allowed to rely on those calculators

4  He / She Owes Me

There are many paths to settling a dispute.  The “he or she owes me” argument is not always a good one.  The most common of these is supporting a spouse through college.  While our experience indicates that there is some validity to this argument, the outcomes often cut in different directions.  For example, a self-employed person may have a value to their business.  Part of that value may be their license to practice.  But the court also looks at those things that are taken for tax purposes but are not cash expenses.  These “deductions” are added back to the income calculation.

On the other side, a degree that helped someone get a job only provided the ability to earn a living.  The actual value of the degree may be arguable, but you cannot know how a court will look at that in terms of being owed something in separation.  Making this argument may, in part, be a gamble.

5  My Spouse’s Behavior Makes A Difference To The Judge

In the United States, every state has a no-fault divorce law.  That simply means if one person wants the divorce, they are entitled to it.  In California, pleading before the court about the distress of an affair or emotional estrangement are not of interest to the court.  There may be some interest for verified incidents of high conflict or similar grounds.

However, this is more likely to impact support and the placement of the children with one parent over the other.

6  Children Are Resilient In Divorce; Most Of Their Friends Have Divorced Parents

Children are not resilientSad as it is, people think their children are different.  Research indicates that the most likely outcome for a child will be detachment and possible isolation from one parent or the other.  This results from the fighting.  Even though a divorce is done, there is still animosity and pain between the parties.  Children end up helpless in the middle of adult conflict.

One woman, age 25, noted to us that her parents still fight.  If she wants to host a family event, and have both her parents attend, she cannot have it them present at the same time.  Even if there are two separate rooms available, they will not attend.  She must have two separate events – one for mom to attend and one for dad.  For her, the pain between her parents spills into her life at every level.

The result to these types of situations is that children are more likely to divorce if they come from a home where divorce happened.

7  Adults Thrive After Divorce

The end of a high conflict relationship is a relief.  Even facing the many challenges of being a single parent and coping with life feels like a relief on the other side of a stressful situation.

For the average couple going through divorce, “thrive” may not be a good description.  With two households to support, the children living in two locations, the fact that there is no support system within a single combined household.  The demands on time and resource management heavily impacts both adults, and the family in general, after the divorce.

On the emotional side, research shows that people typically move through a mourning period.  In that time, there is a lot of soul-searching and questions as to whether they made the right choice or not.  The results show that divorced individuals were:

  • Generally less happy
  • More susceptible to depression, especially women
  • Likely to see a doctor more often
  • More likely to suffer from serious illnesses
  • More open to consuming alcohol than married adults

Looking to studies in the United Kingdom, research and surveys of divorced people found that 22% wished they hadn’t gone through a divorce.  In a study of 867 people, only one in five had no regrets about the divorce.  The survey also found that:

  • 21% regretted the way they conducted their divorce
  • 33% regretted the way it affected their children
  • 24% wished they had worked through the financial consequences

8  Divorce Is A Private Matter

Divorce is PublicThis is a big misunderstanding.  When papers are filed with a court, they become public record.  Everyone can see who is getting a divorce.  Likewise, if people are not careful, all their accusations are part of the record.  That may include disclosing financial information that individuals would prefer remained private.  Beyond the financial elements, imagine a child researching the divorce of the parents (children do this).  What do you want them to read in the record?  What do you want them to see regarding yourself or your partner – their parents?  It will all be there on display for anyone to read.

9  You Can Settle Matters Without Attorneys

We strongly counsel people against doing this on their own.  The courts do offer some support for those with simple matters.  But most people have complex financial issues and children.  Even if they use mediation, we want each side to have legal support from an attorney.  One simple reason is that every agreement has its positive and negative elements.  If both sides are represented, it is less likely that someone can come back later claiming they did not understand what they were doing.  Legal advice is also valuable so that you are informed about the impact of your negotiations.

10  Social Support And Friends Will Get Me Through

This is a big “maybe.”  When couples separate, there is an impact on those around them.  This is especially true when it comes to married couples.  Suddenly the aspect of friendship shifts.  There are new considerations for the divorced spouse that do not impact the married couple.  Interests, time demands, and needs become different based on life experiences facing both the married and unmarried persons.  The result is that social circles change, support groups become important and new bonds form that would otherwise not be in the picture.  All this change ends up with old relationships fading and new ones forming.  The old guard most likely will not get you through.  The new alliances will take time to form.  That in-between-time can be painful for people when they suddenly find themselves in the reality of being alone.

11  When I Am Divorced, I Never Have To Worry About My Spouse Again

Divorce does not end the relationshipThis is a definite “No.”  We teach people that the first reality in divorce is that the family is not ending; it is reforming.  There is a new relationship that is born out of a divorce.  That new path may be acrimony and pain, or it can be acknowledgment and respectful distance.  If there are children, there will always be the family events and possibly grandchildren.  Beyond that, there may be financial obligations that keep people intertwined for years as all that is sorted out.  Child support, by itself, will not end until the last child turns 18 or is out of high school.  No, you will be involved with your ex-spouse for many years to come.

Final Thought

We found it interesting, as we researched this article, that one of our favorite performers, Phil Collins reunited with his ex-spouse after about 10 years.  The remarriage factor is interesting and, if you are considering divorce, it may give you a reason to think twice before all this keeps you up at night.


Armand D’Alo & Robbin D’Alo

Gray Divorce: What Went Wrong?

The process of divorce is common across all ages. It’s about the division of assets and income as well as support for small children, when they are part of the picture. With Gray Divorce, there are a few different twists to the mix that focus on time together, division and support during retirement and the facts of health as we age.

But for those that have been together for so long, what brought the marriage to a point that divorce is the option?

Average life expectancy today is about 79. The 2010 census showed more than 40 million people over the age of 65. At this point in life there can be many internal questions that drive us to seek change. Just like the younger divorcing couples the gray divorce experiences infidelity, family violence, substance abuse, financial pressures, a sense of lost direction or simply the wish for independence.

But as we age, the sense of interdependence plays a large roll in these choices. One example is when health issues present themselves and life gets tougher. At a time when people thought they would be free to enjoy life, heartache sets in.

The afflicted spouse may selflessly want the other person to move on. They do not want to be a burden. The caregiver may be fatigued emotionally and mentally. As caregivers, it is often too stressful for one person to deal with the decline in health of a spouse.

Close up of mature couple fighting sitting on sofa

Dominic A. Carone, PhD, noted that in the case of Alzheimer’s, couples struggle with the desire for relationship. Dr. Carone, notes that it is common for the caregiver to begin seeing other people after the spouse has developed Alzheimer’s. The typical question is if the caregiver should be allowed to see other people, because the spouse that they knew is now “gone.”

This is a struggle that reaches far beyond the longing for a change in life. The years of companionship are lost. That is coupled with a caregiver’s sense of personal vitality and a personal thought that there is still much more to life.

This idea is too often quantified and qualified by research and statistics. It really deserves a different look… a more personal inside look.

For an interesting twist on the same Alzheimer’s dilemma, Deidre Bair gives a glimpse into the situation. In her book, Calling It Quits, she comments about Jan, a middle-aged woman, with parents in their eighties. To quote Jan, “Growing up in Margaret and Harry’s house had been like living on a battleground, as they argued, shouted, and threw things on an almost daily basis.”

Later Jan learned that both her parents needed supervision due to Alzheimer’s. She had to take on the custodial duties of both. Even though they had been divorced for over 20 years, Jan feared what was about to happen. But, according to Jan, when they moved in she said, “They have become best friends because they can’t remember they were ever married to each other. They would spend their days happily sharing tales of their miserable marriages and how they wished they had met when they were younger.”

What a tale of circumstances. That is not to say every story goes this way. They do not. The more common situation is a spouse watching the other as life’s memories fade from view and there is only the shell of what was once a companion.

While health creates a real struggle and dilemma, it is not the average course of events. Most people live longer together which is often cited in research as a reason for the gray divorce. That idea raises the question of how people handle the gray divorce when they feel all else is lost? Can it be avoided?

John Gottman notes that as people grow older, there is a tendency to forget how to connect. Proximity to a partner does not equal knowing and engaging with that person. Today technology creates barriers to intimate communication. People would rather dive into the electronic world versus being in the real world.

Senior adults outdoors in the park on park bench

As we age, there are some powerful actions that can help couples recover from and avoid late life separation. These were summarized by Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW as he wrote about successful second marriages. In fact, as people age, their relationship changes and the marriage evolves. It is like a second and third marriage as couples morph over time.

  1. Build a culture of appreciation, respect, and tolerance: The idea is to catch your partner doing something right and acknowledging it.
  2. Practice being vulnerable in small steps: Build confidence in being more open with your partner. Discussing minor issues like schedules and meals is a great place to start before tackling bigger matters.
  3. Create time and a relaxed atmosphere to interact with your partner: Ask for what you need in an assertive, non-aggressive way and be willing to see each other’s side of the story. In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Dr. Gottman encourages us to respond to our partner’s “bids” for attention, affection, and support. This can be something minor like “please make the salad” or as significant as accompanying our partner on a trip to visit an ill parent.
  4. Discuss expectations to avoid misunderstandings: Take a risk and deal with hurt feelings, especially if it’s an important issue, rather than stonewalling and shutting down.
  5. Prepare for conflict: Understand that conflict doesn’t mean the end of your marriage. Dr. John Gottman’s research on thousands of couples discovered that conflict is inevitable in all relationships and 69% of problems in a marriage go unresolved. Despite this, conflict can be managed successfully and the marriage can thrive! Take a short break if you feel overwhelmed or flooded as a way to restore positive communication with your partner.
  6. Communicate effectively: Accept responsibility for your role in a disagreement. Listen to your partner’s requests and ask for clarification on issues that are unclear. Use “I” statements rather than “you” statements that tend to come across as blameful, such as “I felt hurt when you purchased the car without discussing it with me.”
  7. Embrace your role as a step parent / step grandparent: In a changing relationship the role of each spouse will change whether the children are yours or from another relationship. This role may be one of an adult friend, mentor, and supporter rather than a disciplinarian. Learn new strategies and share your ideas with your partner. There’s no such thing as instant love. When a spouse feels unappreciated or disrespected by children, they will have difficulty bonding with them. This causes stress for the family and the marriage.
  8. Attune to your partner: Eye contact and body posture demonstrate your intention to listen and compromise. Practicing what Dr. John Gottman calls emotional attunement while relaxing together can help you stay connected despite your differences. This means “turning toward” one another and showing empathy rather than “turning away.” His 40 years of research showed that happy couples have a 5:1 ratio of interactions during conflict – meaning for every negative interaction, you need five positive ones.
  9. Establish an open-ended dialogue: Don’t make threats or issue ultimatums. Avoid saying things you’ll regret later. Money is one of the most common things couples argue about and full disclosure about finances is key to the success of the marriage so resentment doesn’t build up.
  10. Practice forgiveness: Accept that we all have flaws. Forgiveness isn’t the same as condoning the hurt done to you, but it will allow you to move on and remember you are on the same team.

A good way to make life work is to build a “couple culture” of awareness and appreciation. Using the tools of being open to a partner leads to friendship and intimacy. Using Dr. Gottman’s thoughts about respect, acceptance, positive communication, and having a good sense of humor can help make the mature marriage last a lifetime.

To read Terry Gaspard’s full article, go to the Gottman Blog.


Armand and Robbin D’Alo

Make Communication Work With F-A-C-C-T

The third letter in our F-A- C-C- T overview is Communication. Sadly, when a couple is considering divorce, this is a time when they need to communicate with precision. However, for them there are feelings of emotional and economic betrayal, loss of trust, dependability, and honesty that all factor into this communication. As Caryl Rusbult labeled it, at least one person is at the point of the “Comparison Level for Alternatives.” They are done and for that person, anything is better than where they are.

How do people in this state of mind proceed? First, there is the acknowledgement that this is happening, it is happening in their marriage and they must deal with it. That is a hard task when a person is presented with divorce and they were unaware that anything was, in their view, wrong.

Acknowledgement leads to education about options. The more a person understands, the more prepared they will be for what is ahead. People that have been through a divorce are calmer and more connected to the process. They tend to get down to the business of what’s ahead. Those that have never been through this tend to take their time and weigh each step carefully.

Men and Money - Divorce - Oak Tree Mediation

In either case, it helps to recognize that while these two people perceive that they are trying to get away from each other that is generally a false notion. They state that divorce is their goal, but it is not the reality of the divorce.

The fact is that as long there is a settlement agreement that can carry various types of obligations (support, long-term property issues, etc.) or if there are children involved, there is still a connection with each other. That can create tremendous friction during this process, even if the couple is emotionally glued together. This can sometimes be a painful reality for couples in divorce – the fact that they remain connected and dependent on each other for something in their agreement.

This also plays into the divorce narrative that there is right and a wrong. This drives the idea and concept that there is something in the divorce that each side “deserves.” When there is belief of entitlement, whether stated or not and is based on legal terms or moral beliefs, that can lead to contention. If there is resistance from the other side, this can also lead to resentment. There is a sense of something being extracted rather than negotiated. As lines are drawn, legal counsel takes the position that they are there to defend their client’s legal rights vigorously. The tools of negotiation are then expanded to include threats of going court. That threat may come in the form of a court date to which each side must respond.

Women and Money - Divorce - Oak Tree Mediation

On the other side, when the couple looks at issues, such as the division of assets, as a business negotiation, they are more inclined to settle their differences with an agreement that they craft.

This is the choice – fight for possession or work out an agreement.

We recently had a case that involved a disputed piece of property. The couple finally decided to take the matter to court. After several rounds with attorneys on each side, they settled the matter. But not until they had spent almost 25% of the value of the asset they were fighting over.

The best path is to work through the anger with a good therapist. This is far less expensive than complaining to the attorney at $300 to $400 an hour. Then, as that process is moved forward with this emotional support, they can take an inventory of all things that are owned and all that is owed.

While this can be helpful in deciding how to proceed, it is also a legal requirement. All assets MUST be disclosed. Nothing can be hidden without severe penalties being imposed on the dishonest person.

With a good list of assets and debts, coupled with a good income and expense worksheet, you are ready to work through the difficult aspects of property and income settlements.


Armand and Robbin D’Alo