Signs Your Partner is Manipulating You (and What to Do)

Everyone knows that sometimes marriages just go wrong. It’s nobody’s fault sometimes; two people just don’t mesh the way they once did, or things happen that make life difficult over time. Some ex-couples even stay friends.

Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

About half the time, divorce comes about because someone is really, really pissed. And the general reason for that? Manipulation of some kind.

If you’re reading this, there’s at least a small chance that you clicked because you’re worried you’re being manipulated in some way. After years in the business of divorce, I have some experience in knowing what spousal manipulation looks like—and also how to deal with it. Basically, it boils down to some pretty obvious signs.

You consistently are made to feel guilty, whether you did anything wrong or not.
Everybody’s wrong sometimes, and everybody cries sometimes (so says R.E.M.). But if you’re in the wrong 100% of the time for years, and your spouse won’t or can’t take responsibility for any wrongdoing, chances are they’re full of it. It takes two, people.

Passive aggressiveness.
You know that thing people do where they say something nice, or helpful, but it makes you feel horrendous? It’s the classic move: pretend to be being helpful while actually being critical, in order to avoid direct confrontation—then deny you meant anything by it, and the other person is clearly overreacting. It’s a cheap way to get an unfair advantage, and it’s highly manipulative.

Gaslighting.
A close cousin of passive aggressiveness, gaslighting is when someone makes you feel crazy. You have an issue with their behavior? You must be crazy. You think they’re making bad choices? You’re clearly crazy. This is most damaging when it goes beyond just saying you’re crazy, to actually acting concerned about it. The secret weapon here: playing on your insecurities. Don’t buy it.

You often feel small.
Feel like your needs don’t matter? If your spouse routinely dismisses what you want or need, minimizes your concerns, and/or calls you “ridiculous,” you’re probably being manipulated.

They isolate you.
One of the more dangerous kinds of manipulation is when, usually in multiple ways, a partner or spouse methodically isolates you from other people. This can come in direct or indirect ways—for example, by demanding you stay away from your friends, or by pretending to be sick every time you want to go out—and is usually a control issue.

They twist your words.
Feel like your spouse is a master at twisting your words into something ugly when they weren’t intended that way? Standard tactic.

They have a pattern of forming relationships with vulnerable people.
Manipulative people like being in relationships where the power dynamic is skewed in their favor. Have you noticed that your spouse’s other relationships are skewed this way? An example is someone who can only have who are significantly less attractive than they are, or someone whose friends are all significantly younger/less experienced/less worldly. The key is that they have to have the advantage in every relationship.

They lie.
If you’ve consistently caught your partner in lies, particularly damaging lies, you can bet there are plenty of lies that you haven’t found out about. Big red flag.

They are distant or emotionally unavailable a lot of the time.
Everyone needs space sometimes, but if you feel like you are being pushed away for weeks or even months at a time, and your partner is unwilling to explain why, it can become a very destructive relationship for you. While there are sometimes extenuating circumstances, like depression, this is still something that needs addressing.

They “punish” you.
If you feel like you get punished when you confront your spouse or disagree with them, that’s not good. Even in the case of real wrongdoing in a marriage, there’s very little point in “punishing” your spouse. Either you deal with the issue, forgive and move on, or you choose not to forgive and move out—but what you shouldn’t do is remain in the relationship while lording the wrongdoing over the partner as a form of power. It’s understandable in some cases, I admit, but ultimately it’s not constructive, and only further damages the relationship.

******************

I do want to say that sometimes these things pop up in even quite happy relationships, and it doesn’t necessarily spell the end. It’s important to be able to have an open conversation about what’s going on: for at least one of you to have the courage to bring it up, and for both of you to talk about what’s going on and why that might be.

Of course, if you’re reading this post you’ve probably been there, done that, and it hasn’t worked—or else you can’t even communicate with your partner about it, because they won’t have it.

At that stage, therapy is an option, and it can help. However, both people have to be committed to improving the relationship, so you’re going to have to prepare for conversation in that case, too.

The final option when you’ve exhausted all others is to muster up the nerve to leave. While difficult, I see people do it every day, and have happier lives afterward; so while it’s perhaps the most difficult option in the short run, in the long run it may be the best decision for you.

Have something to ask, add, or a pithy story to tell? I’m all ears. Leave it in comments below, comment on Facebook, or tweet to me!

Respectfully,
James J. Sexton

 

8 Divorce Hacks that Will Save You Time and Money

Once you make the hard but important decision that you’re going to get a divorce, one of the first things you have to face is the inevitable cost. And I’m not talking in the more esoteric sense of the term “cost” (like the emotional cost or interpersonal cost) I’m talking about two important resources: time and money. The latter is renewable the former is not. At the outset I make it clear to clients that I would rather you put YOUR children through college than mine.

Contrary to the beliefs of some, divorce attorneys do exist for a reason: even with the best of intentions, people who are divorcing often aren’t fully aware of the ins and outs of the law, including what rights you have. Divorce isn’t just about dividing up “stuff”—it’s also about thinking through your own future (for example, retirement), ensuring your children are provided for, and creating fair divisions of assets that aren’t easily divided up.

The truth is, by the time you decide to divorce, often that decisions is directly related to an inability to negotiate productively within the marriage. If there’s an unequal distribution of power in the relationship, if there’s a lack of trust on either side, or if there’s simply an inability to understand one another or see eye to eye, the possibility of amicably and fairly disengaging from each other is usually slim to non-existant becomes almost impossible. Whether you like the idea of a divorce attorney or not, you might need one. (Luckily, a lot of us are actually nice people.)

On that note, here are my tips for keeping the legal aspects of your divorce as simple as possible, thus saving me time and you money.

Write down your goals.

Not only does writing down your goals help you figure out what you really want and need out of this process, it also is there as a reminder in case you lose your bearings. Everyone—and by that I mean everyone—gets emotional during a divorce, at some point. Having concrete goals helps you keep your s*** together. I tell clients all the time there are three things you should identify at the start of a divorce: what you need, what you want and what you’re entitled to. (It’s worth noting that that second thing is typically informed by that third thing).

Familiarize yourself with the family finances.

One of the biggest shocks for many people, male and female spouses alike, is how little we pay attention to the flow of incomings and outgoings. Spend a week or more using your spare time to go over your bank statements, bills, taxes, 401(k)s, insurance policies, and so on. Have all the documents on hand in case we need them, and make copies of the crucial stuff.  If you don’t have access to a copier use a handy app like Scannable or Evernote (I use both all the time in my personal and professional life).  

 

Review everything your spouse reports.

Even with the best of intentions, mistakes can be made (on either side). People also lie like crazy sometimes when they’re getting divorced. Review everything your spouse reports to make sure your reports line up.

Close joint accounts.

Any purchases made from joint accounts can create problems during the divorce, and you could end up paying for stuff you didn’t buy or spending tons of money in legal fees trying to “sort out” what was pre-divorce and what was post-divorce.  Keep it simple. Close the joint accounts. . The simplest thing is just to close them. Online accounts, too: chances are you’ve logged into your email account from your spouse’s phone, laptop or iPad, or vice versa; privacy is important now. Change passwords or close them down.  PLEASE NOTE, however, that you should either: (A) let your spouse know you’re doing this before you do it (so they don’t panic and think you’re raiding the piggy bank; or (B) take only HALF of the money in the account and let your spouse know that you’ve left the remaining half in there for his or her sole and separate use.

Figure out how much money you need.

“Need” is a subjective term, but let’s think about it this way: what is the amount of money that will allow you to live comfortably until and through your retirement, taking into account your lifestyle and your existing annual income? This is your goal going into the divorce.

Record all your expenses.

Collect all the records you have from the past year or two, and then keep a record of everything you spend from now until the divorce is finalized. This will help answer any questions that may come up about expenses.

Come to my office for legal advice—not personal advice.

I fully understand people seeking personal counsel during a divorce, because it’s a seriously tough time, but your divorce attorney is likely not the best person to be providing emotional support. Frankly, we’re not trained for it and we probably have a higher rate-per-hour than many people who ARE trained for it. If you need someone to talk to about the big stuff, there is zero shame in getting therapist – I can even give you a referral. Plus, it has the added benefit that you and I can focus on what we can do best together: win your divorce.

Don’t want to pay spousal support? Help your spouse get a job!

One of the most difficult positions to be in is that of a spouse who has sacrificed key career-building years to raising a family, to allow the other spouse to work, and then to face a divorce in which they are left without any professional skills to fall back on. I don’t condone putting anyone in that position, regardless of what spousal support can be provided; I have seen many people in this position, and it’s not a nice place to be. If you can hack it, commit some real effort, time and money into supporting your spouse in building skills and attaining a good professional situation.

It’s a common misconception that divorce attorneys want long, miserable, drawn-out divorces—because that means more money from that one client. In fact, we usually want the opposite. A single difficult divorce can take up a lot of time and resources, and keep us from serving other clients—so I want to handle your divorce with as much efficiency and as little conflict as possible, without sacrificing in results.

You also might not be aware that divorce attorneys are often trained in (or have offices that offer) mediation as well as litigation. My office offers mediation services, and it is for some couples a less expensive and more tolerable option. Feel free to get in touch with us about our mediation services.

Have a comment to make? Want to disagree vehemently with my views? I welcome a lively exchange! Feel free to leave a comment below, on my Facebook page, or tweet to me.

7 Steps to Healing a Guilty Conscience, Post-Divorce

So you blew it. You cheated, got caught and now you’re divorced. Your friends are taking your spouse’s side and your dog won’t even look you in the eye. Guilt: not just for Jewish mothers anymore!

I’ve said it a million times, there is no easy divorce. But when your actions were the catalyst behind it? Yeesh. One way ticket to sad town on the pain express, please! Moving on and rebuilding your life cannot happen unless you deal with the ever present guilt weighing you down. Ignoring it or pushing it down might give you a short term quick fix, but over time the guilt will fester and seep into aspects of your life you couldn’t have imagined.

You are of no use to anyone sitting in the corner smacking your temples with closed fists. No one wins in the corner. Plus you’ve become a fire hazard. And seriously, your boss really wants you to get back to work because if this keeps up she will have no other choice than to fire you. Then you’ll be sad, guilty and unemployed. So take this bad experience, learn from it and grow beyond it. Let the guilt serve a purpose, learn to work through it and move on. How?

Identify the actions that led to the guilt
Go beyond just “I slept with my kid’s soccer coach!” Explore what happened and why. Were you bored or lonely in your marriage? What led to the soccer coach? Before it happened, could you have talked to your spouse? Did you not express your unhappiness due to fear or cowardliness? How did you get there and what could you have done differently?

Identify the source of your guilt
Now that you know how you got there, where is your guilt really coming from? Do you feel guilty because you hurt someone you love/loved? Or is it more that you let yourself down and betrayed the standards you hold yourself to? Is it society? Or your family? Is it a combination? Is it guilt that you don’t feel guilty enough?

Take responsibility
You’ve figured out the source now take responsibility. When we do bad things, there is a childish urge within us to blame others for our actions. For example, if your spouse just took better care of himself/stopped nagging so much/was younger/had more interesting things to say you wouldn’t have strayed. Um, no. You’re a grown up now, you have to hold yourself accountable. Accept responsibility, whether it was one hundred percent your fault or whether you can weasel your way out with a lot of excuses. You are to blame and that is ok.

Apologize
Depending on the situation, you may have a lot or just some apologizing to do. Writing a letter to your former spouse taking responsibility and apologizing may be the only thing on your list. If the situation is more complex, you may have some kids and friends to apologize to as well. No matter how long your apology list is, make each apology thought out and heartfelt. It’s quite possible the recipient may not be very open to what you have to say, but expressing remorse is about you as much as it is about them. The final apology on your list should be the one to yourself. As cheesy as it sounds, you’ve got to talk to yourself like a crazy person, or journal to yourself like a teenage girl. Tell yourself you’re sorry for letting you down.

Forgive yourself
So, you talked to yourself in the mirror or closed the journal you hope no one will ever, ever find, and you have apologized to yourself. Now it is time to forgive. Shockingly, you are only human like the rest of us, meaning, you make mistakes. Was this a biggie? Yeah. Maybe even the biggest of your whole life. But it doesn’t make you evil, or beyond forgiveness. The only tragedy here would be if you went through all this life-changing turmoil and learned nothing from it. So forgive yourself, give yourself a clean slate and start fresh.

Learn from this
Remember step one, where you figured out how you got to cheating? That was an important step because now you can use that knowledge to feel out a future cheating situation way before things get out of hand. If your eye starts wandering in a new relationship, you have to tools to assess why that is, and maybe, just maybe you can speak to your partner and work things out before you end up at a hotel with the president of the PTA. Or you won’t work things out, and you’ll break up with your partner in a mature way that doesn’t involve them dumping the crap out of you when they catch you with the president of the PTA. Use this guilt ridden situation to learn about yourself.

Learn how to accept mistakes and how to move on from them with grace. Give yourself the chance to improve and to strengthen your empathy muscles when someone inevitably wrongs you in the future.

Focus outside yourself.
Maybe it’s the lapsed Catholic in me, but penance is a great way to work through guilt. Go modern Catholic over old school Catholic though, as throwing money at a situation doesn’t really help. Instead of, or in addition to, writing a check to a worthy organization, get involved yourself. Donate your time and efforts to a local soup kitchen or mentoring program. Get involved in your community and see how full your heart will feel as you realize you are needed and appreciated. Soon your self esteem will build back up and you’ll be ready to dump the guilt and start anew.

And of course, if all else fails, seek therapy! There is absolutely no shame in doing so. In fact, just the opposite: Working on yourself is a lifelong endeavor and I applaud it.

Have a word of advice to share with others? You know what to do: Leave a comment below, on Facebook, or in a tweet.

What if You Caucused Your Divorce?

The culmination of seven hundred ninety-eight months of campaigning is finally upon us. It’s Iowa caucus time! Have you been pretending to know what a caucus is every time it’s mentioned by your coworkers and stepdad Steve? You’re not alone. Also, what you thought was Iowa is Nebraska. It’s one more to the right. Yep, that’s the one.

I’m sure you’ve heard the term “caucus” bandied about, but what is it really? Well, it’s sort of like a primary but more ye olde. It’s the Sturbridge Village of the primary process, if you will. People don’t just stop by their polling place and pull a lever, instead they come together as a community and discuss the candidates. There’s a little stumping and a little mingling. And then people take sides either by ballot or by physically congregating together. Is there cake? I don’t know but there should be.

Caucusing is kind of great. It makes people feel like an active part of the democratic process. Plus it’s old timey so everyone can feel a bit in the founding fathers spirit without shelling out the big bucks for Hamilton tickets. It’s also a great way to decide things as a group. Gather your family and caucus to decide what to get for dinner tonight. Make impassioned speeches then have pizza congregate by the door. Thai by the dining room. What else can you caucus? Well how about who deserves the blame in your divorce? Fun right?!

Divorce is usually a private process and that’s all well and good but how sure are you that your ex-spouse was really totally at fault for your break up? What if you had a definitive answer decided by a group of your peers and neighbors? Well, that’d be a caucus!

Republicans caucus in Iowa by secret ballot, and that’s boring, so we’ll pretend your marriage is a Democrat for the purposes of our exercise. Democrats pitch their candidates with little spiels, then they gather in groups according to which candidate they support. Then they pitch a little more to sway the undecided group until one candidate is declared winner. So here we go, for your consideration:

A Divorce Caucus

FADE IN:

INT. ELEMENTARY SCHOOL CAFETERIA – DUSK:
People milling about everywhere, chatting and taking off winter weather layers. Some fill paper cups with coffee from carafes. There is a positive vibe and excitement in the air.

DENISE, mid-forties, holding a clipboard, walks up to a microphone stand and taps the microphone. The crowd turns their attention to her and they all go silent.

DENISE
Thank you all so much for coming out today. As you know Paul and I have decided to get a divorce.

CROWD
(Cheers and whistles)

DENISE
Yes, thank you! We are excited, too. As I was saying, thank you all for coming out, I know it’s freezing out there, we really appreciate it. You’re here today not only to make your own opinions known, but you are doing the community a greater good. The importance of designating one of us as marriage poison cannot be minimized. By the end of the night, we will have a clear-cut person at fault. I know a lot of you came in here with your minds made up as to who really destroyed this marriage, but before you congregate together with your chosen side, really think it through. This is serious. The winner of this caucus will not only get the house, the lake house, the kids, the dog and the jet skis, the winner will also get the most coveted prizes of all: the bragging rights and the dignity.

Just to get the logistics down. If you believe Paul is totally at fault for the crap sandwich that was demise of our marriage, please head over to the right side of the room near that life-sized scarecrow I have dressed in Paul’s clothes, threw six dozen eggs at, and pierced with several arrows.

PAUL, mid-forties, fixing his hair and rolling up his shirt sleeves steps up to the microphone.

PAUL
Yes and if you believe Denise is the one who drove our marriage into a lake of garbage, please congregate over on the left side of the room near the steel trash can full of Denise’s clothes that is — Dave, go ahead (DAVE sets trash can’s contents on fire)– currently on fire.

DENISE
Right, thank you Paul. And if you are undecided, please move to the center of the room near that pile of our wedding pictures which Paul and I have painstakingly poked holes in all the eyes and on which we drew classic schoolboy-style graffiti penises.

PAUL
Ok, so if everyone’s got their fill of coffee cake, thanks again to Denise’s mom (Denise’s mom waves from the crowd), I think we can get going.

DENISE
Yes ok, so I call this divorce caucus to order and with the power vested in me by Ben Franklin and St. Helena of Constantinople, the patron saint of divorces, I officially open this caucus.

CROWD
(Cheers and whistles)

The crowd disperses. Eight people congregate around the scarecrow. Eight people circle around the trash can fire. Six people remain in the center of the room around the wedding picture pile.

PAUL
(Waving his arm and counting quietly) Ok, so looks like we’ve got ourselves a tie right now. As per divorce caucus rules, Denise and I are not allowed to stump for ourselves, so each faction must appoint a delegate to speak for the group.

CROWD
(Mumbling and conferring)

GINA, early forties, steps forward from the group surrounding the trash can.

GINA
I’d like to speak on behalf of all the Denise haters.

DENISE
The caucus recognizes Gina Thompson. Even though one could argue Gina Thompson’s affair with my husband was the quote, unquote, straw that broke the camel’s back in regards to my marriage to Paul. Also please let it be noted, Gina Thompson was my best friend for the better part of the past thirty years.

PAUL
Both points are noted, Denise. Please step forward to the microphone, Gina and might I say that’s a lovely dress. Who will be speaking for the faction who hates me?

ANNA, early seventies, Denise’s mom, steps forward.

ANNA
That’d be me, Paul.

PAUL
Great, if you both could make your way up here. Gina, would you like to speak first?

DENISE
You’d like that wouldn’t you Paul?

PAUL
I would.

GINA
(Walks up to the microphone.) Hi there, as Denise mentioned, I’m Gina Thompson and Denise and I have been best friends for the better part of thirty years, and as such I can tell you Gina is the worst person I have ever met. She’s petty and cruel. She once threw six meatballs at Becky Stafford in sixth grade. One by one, for no reason, and with no remorse. She does not give up her seat on the bus for the elderly. She has never once wiped down an elliptical machine after use at the Y. She does not recycle and for six months in 2014 she would not shut up about her paleo diet. Paul did his best but there is only so much a person can take. She spits gum out of car windows. She regularly cuts the line at Trader Joe’s. She leaves the gate open at the dog run. She is a cancer upon this town and I wouldn’t be surprised if she was sent here by Lucifer himself. Thank you.

ANNA
(Steps to microphone.) Hello. I’m Anna, I’m Denise’s mom and I’ll cut right to the chase. Paul cheated on my precious baby angel with this woman (points to Gina). I don’t blame Gina. She’s from a broken home. We did all we could to invite her into our family to give her some structure but facts are facts, she was a latchkey kid with unlimited access to cable television. There was nothing we could do to save her. I’m not here to demonize Gina though she makes it pretty easy wearing outfits like that. I’m here to tell you about Paul.

Paul keys cars in the Stop’n’Shop parking lot. Now I’ve never seen it with my own eyes but I have heard rumors and as we all know there is no smoke without fire. He does it to get his jollies off when he’s not cheating on my daughter or doing hard marijuana drugs in the school parking lot across from his office when he’s meant to be at staff meetings.

Here’s a question: how many of you have been forced to read Paul’s (makes air quoting gesture) novel? (The entire room raises their hands.) My condolences. Now I don’t know what’s more insulting, the painful purple prose or the fact that the main character, Harry, is clearly meant to be based on old Paul here. Except Paul isn’t a delicate, tortured soul whose genius is pummeled by his corporate world commitments. Paul’s a sad sack of trash who has yet to accept his role in life — average man in an average town with average looks and average intelligence who thinks he’s way funnier than he actually is. That’s not to mean you should give up the writing Paul! Keep going so building that extension on the house for your writing room isn’t a total waste of money! Sure your son will never have the braces he so desperately needs, but we’re all glad you’ve got a big room for your antique typewriter that you’ve been too lazy to go get fixed, so you use your work laptop to write on instead. On the couch. In the living room. Paul is awful. Thank you.

GINA
Just one last thing, thanks to Facebook, I am sure you’re aware that Denise is part of a pyramid scheme.

DENISE
(Yelling) It’s a multi-level marketing sales program!

(The entire crowd walks over to the trash can on fire.)

DENISE
Well. Ok.

PAUL
It seems I have won! Wow. Ok, I was not expecting this because of the whole affair with Gina thing. Wow. Ok, I’m honored really. Thanks guys. Thanks a lot. I really love those jet skis. And the lake house. Oh and yeah the kids, the kids too, obviously. But wow, the jet skis! This is so great. Thank you. Thank you everyone. And a big shout out to hydroverdeplasmine glycol, the ancient seaweed extract proven to regenerate cells and activate collagen production causing visible plumping, because without it Dylan and Meadows Beauty would not exist. And without Dylan and Meadows’ pervasive, predatory pyramid scheme, Denise wouldn’t have bought into the company and would not be carpet bombing each and every one of your Facebook feeds, walls and inboxes, annoying the everloving guts out of you. And without that, I wouldn’t have (yelling) both jet skis right now! Wooooo! Yeah! (Pulls Gina towards himself, dips her and kisses her.)

DENISE
Ok. Well. Thanks everyone for coming out and participating. And listen, if you’re looking to spend more time with your kids and quit the daily grind because you just can’t take one more long-ass commute, come talk to me about becoming your own boss. And if you do end up googling Dylan and Meadows, please be aware while the income disclosure chart looks like a pyramid, it’s actually a triangle. A triangle of financial independence for you and your family. I just need four more members on my team to zero out my initial investment of twelve hundred dollars.

FADE OUT.

And that, my friends is how a divorce caucus would work. And if any community theater groups are interested in performing my caucus piece, please reach out and I will file my Writers Guild paperwork ASAP.


Respectfully,
James J. Sexton

6 Great Divorce Books to Keep You Indoors

There’s nothing like a cold, gray day to make me look outside and go, “Nope. Not going out there.” Since cold, gray days are a dime a dozen this time of year (well, finally),  I figured this is a good time to bring out the books—especially since a lot of us recently made resolutions to start reading more (me included).

While you’re going through your divorce and afterward, people will probably shove a lot of cheesy, condescending self-help books into your hands or leave copies discreetly on your desk, and while this is all well-meaning, in my opinion the best therapy is regular old fiction. I get why Deepak Chopra and Eckert Tolle are useful in these moments, but really, sometimes you just need to escape into a book that Gets You.

So if you’re barricaded indoors this January and February (and March and perhaps April), here are the books you should be reading, according to me.

Wild, by Cheryl Strayed

There are a lot of reasons to like this book. Basically, it’s the story of a person who went through hell, more than once, and came out a better, stronger, more interesting human being… which is what most of us do. Anyone going through a divorce will be moved by Strayed’s honest portrayal of what the pain of divorce can do to you, and the sheer determination it takes to get through it in one piece.

What Maisie Knew, by Henry James

This is one of those books I read in college English class and ended up keeping on my bookshelf forever. It tells the story of a young girl witnessing the divorce of her parents and its aftermath, and throughout she is on the whole much wiser than the adults in the book. An entertaining story, it also serves as a cautionary tale of how NOT to co-parent, and makes you glad divorce is considerably easier—legally, anyway—in the 21st century.

Running with Scissors, by Augusten Burroughs

Ready to laugh and cry at the same time? This book is for you. Burroughs is one of those writers who can tell a tragic story in a hilarious way, and frankly, his past probably makes yours look like a picnic. In this book you’ll find the true story of Burrough’s young life: dealing with his parents’ toxic marriage, a mentally ill mother, a crazy psychiatrist, and an addiction problem—and somehow, it’s really, really funny.

Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad

Maybe this isn’t a laughing time for you; maybe you’d rather wallow in the darkness of the world a bit before you welcome the joys of spring. If so, and if you somehow haven’t yet, read this book. A sort of uber-male perspective on the breakdown of the human psyche, it tells the story of Kurtz, a guy who went AWOL on his intended spouse and disappeared into the jungle—and you really don’t (and DO) want to know what he got up to out there.

Eat Pray Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert

Mock if you will: this is a good book. Gilbert does something really great in this book, which is describe what it feels like to realize you are going to have to end your marriage, and then describe what it feels like to end your marriage—the bad and the good. She takes an unashamedly positive view on things, and even while I may not share her worldview oneverything anything, I do think she has a lot of insightful things to say about human relationships.

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Want to feel really, really good about not being married? Read The Great Gatsby. In it, a young man observes the unhappiness of young, rich, married people in the 1920s; this book abounds with champagne, huge parties, and a lot of bad, bad decisions. Revel in the beginning and end of the American dream in this classic work of irony and relationship woes.

 

Get a Hobby, People

As is custom each January, Instagram celebrities are selling you their juice cleanses and you’re getting dozens of join-our-gym-TODAY flyers shoved under your door. Then on the other end of the spectrum you’ve got old high school friends masquerading as self-help gurus/life coaches on Facebook telling you to just chill out man, resolutions are garbage and you are a perfectly special snowflake just as you are.

All those people are terrible. Don’t listen to them because both their extremes are wrong. Will you be a totally different person by the end of 2016? No. Does that mean you shouldn’t try to improve on things and challenge yourself? Of course not.

What happened to evenhanded, rational thinking? You don’t need to do twelve triathlons in twelve months, but you should try to push yourself out of your comfort zone. You don’t have to finally break free from fear, FOR GOOD, but you shouldn’t hibernate indefinitely, either. Instead, you should do some stuff, try some new things, and explore your interests. And what better way to do that than with a new hobby? Yoga and book clubs are so 2015. Try something fun, different, and totally 2016. By the way, did you know January is National Hobby Month? It is so get to it!

Solve the Making a Murderer Murder. Quit your job, shirk all responsibilities and dive head first into the Making a Murderer reddit thread and Solve. That. Crime. Exonerate Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey and become our national treasure.

Air Guitar. It’s possible you dabbled in air guitar as a teen Warrant fan, and later cast those skills aside in the name of “adulthood.” Well what did adulthood give you other than a mortgage and a sometimes crippling depressive disorder? Throw caution to the wind and get to practicing because this could be you someday, participating in the Air Guitar World Championships.

Celebrity Death Hoaxing. You know how every so often you see a headline confirming that Morgan Freeman or Matt Damon or Anjelica Huston is indeed still alive? Those celebrity death rumors have to come from somewhere. Why not you?

Butchery. Hipsters and their really dumb mustaches have taken to learning homesteading and trades in the past few years and their new trend du jour isbutchery classes. It sounds quite awful, but if you eat meat, you might as well get to know it before dining.

Ukulele. Do you want to be insufferable at parties or do find yourself chilling out to a traditional Hawaiian music Pandora station quite often? Then the ukulele is for you!  There’s a whole online community dedicated to providing “ukelele friendly” renditions of virtually any music you could think of. Say what you want but I feel you haven’t really heard Slayer’s “Angel of Death” until you hear it played on a ukelele.  

Duct Tape Crafting. Traditional crafting too mainstream for you? Don’t like the vibe in your local Michaels? Take your crafting to the next level by limiting yourself to one supply: the mighty and versatile roll of duct tape. You can makea lot of crazy stuff.

Dog Grooming. Do you find watching someone get their hair cut hypnotic? Do you also like dogs? Well combine those two disparate facts about yourself into one totally normal hobby: creative dog grooming. Your schnauzer is going to look so cute/hate you so much.

Subway Reading. Do you have free afternoons frequently, or find yourself bored on weekends? And you like books? But your home is too stagnant? Pick a subway line, grab a seat (push an old lady out of the way if you have to!) and ride end to end immersed in your book. You can even read about the subway, or even better about mole people.

Home Brewing.  Home brewing has been growing in popularity for a while now. Nearly everyone I know has been bored to tears taking a “tour” of the “really interesting set up” an acquaintance has “got going” in a dark closet somewhere in their apartment. You can join the ranks, have fun with science, and get drunk.

Stone Skipping. Not just for olde timey rascals down by the fishing hole anymore, stone skipping is now a seriously competitive endeavor. Practice hard and try to beat some world records.

Flair BartendingThis could be you! Imagine how impressed you’ll be with yourself, and how embarrassed your friends will be of you!

Get Really into Fringe Religions. Scientology is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to secretive, fishy religious organizations. Immerse yourself in wild world of the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints, Raëlism, Heaven’s Gate or any other group that tickles your fancy. Imagine all the cocktail party talking points you’ll pick up!

Competitive Bearding (& Mustache-ing). Did you know there are beard competitions? I’m not making that up. If you’re lazy and male this really is about as easy of a hobby as you can get. Just wake up and don’t shave. Unlike most team sports you can be uncoordinated and out of shape and still be an excellent “beard athlete.” I can’t make an outside jump shot but I suspect I would be excellent at not shaving. Need some inspiration and pointers – Alas,Whisker Wars has them so go big (… long? Bushy?) or go home!

Cheese Making. A baked camembert or brie is great this time (or anytime) of year so try it and let it inspire you! Truly, any sort of cooking is a great stress reliever. But if fixing up dinner isn’t interesting enough for you, why not try something a bit more challenging like cheese making? Soon you’ll tap into the underground cheese scene and Alex James will want to hang out with you. 

Pickle the Crap Out of Stuff. If cheese isn’t up your alley, why not experiment with pickling things. Don’t stop at cucumbers. Explore cabbage, lemons, watermelon rind, peppers, onions, pineapple (!), the list goes on forever. Pickle anything you can fit in a jar. Pickle all day long.

Yarn Bombing. If you already know how to knit, why not get involved in a yarn bombing group? This guerilla street art movement has been beautifying cities all over the world. Just think, you could be the new Banksy: Knitsy.

Whatever you pick, I hope you’ll join me in this 2016 mantra: Chill, but also do something.

Respectfully,
James J. Sexton

Marriage and Divorce at Downton Abbey

One thing you should know about real men: they are not afraid to admit they like Downton Abbey.

If you’ve somehow never heard of it, Downton Abbey is basically a social and political study of early 20th-century British culture in the guise of a period drama about rich people, starring the incredibly funny and cool Dame Maggie Smith as well as a lot of other people who are less important than her.

Not surprisingly, I’m most entertained by the storylines that involve marriage and divorce—I love learning about how much things have changed since the 1920s, and sometimes, how much they haven’t.

While people like Henry VIII were divorcing as they pleased, divorce didn’t become legal for regular British folk until the mid-1800s, so in 1920 it was still pretty new. It also wasn’t particularly acceptable. (Think your divorce made social situations awkward? Try being a divorcee in 1924.)

Here are some of my favorite storylines from the show.

Only marriage can save Downton Abbey.

One of the early plot lines centers around how, because women can’t inherit property and the Earl of Downton only has daughters, the property is going to go to some random distant cousin who (gasp) isn’t even aristocracy.

The implication of that legality is that, if the family hope to keep their property, one of the three daughters must be married off to this random redneck cousin. Cue awkward English eye rolls.

No no-fault divorce.

The most interesting couple in the show is no doubt the housemaid Anna and the valet Bates, although they have the hardest time getting together of anyone, ever.

This is partly because Bates’s previous wife—a truly horrendous woman—decides to be a pain by not agreeing to a divorce, citing that she and Bates have a happy marriage, even though they’ve not lived together for years.

To this day there is still no “no-fault divorce” in the UK, meaning someone has to do something egregious for divorce to be legally allowed. You can’t just say, “Well, we don’t like each other anymore.”

No child support laws.

When the slightly “fast” housemaid Ethel is discovered having an affair with a visiting military officer, she’s in a bad situation as she ends up both fired—and pregnant.

The officer refuses to accept the child is his, and since there were no legal grounds in the 1920s in England to force unwed fathers to take financial responsibility, Ethel has to raise the child alone, and ultimately has to become a prostitute to make ends meet.

These days, and particularly since the advent of paternity testing, this is less likely to happen—although not entirely unheard of.  It was probably pretty common back then and definitely made for a harrowing, thought-provoking plot point. (Oh, and then the officer was killed in battle in WW1—that’s karma for you.)

You can’t divorce the insane.

Edith, the less-attractive sister who everyone thinks is bound to end up an old maid, surprises everyone in the third season by starting a relationship with Michael Gregson, the editor of a magazine she writes for. However, in typical style, Edith has bad luck in that Gregson can’t marry her—because he already has a wife, who is clinically insane.

Until the 1950s, many national laws prevented spouses from divorcing the insane because the spouse could not legally consent to divorce. These days, however, someone being insane can in fact be considered grounds for divorce—shows how times have changed.

Divorce makes you a pariah.

One of the great dramatic moments of the fifth season was the marriage of Lady Rose MacClare to Atticus Aldridge being almost derailed by her mother dropping the bomb on the wedding party that she and her husband—ie. Rose’s parents—were in the middle of a divorce. At the time, and perhaps especially for those in British High Society, divorce was not, shall we say, “the done thing.”

Unfortunately for the devious Lady MacClare, the majority of the wedding party are entirely unimpressed by this news, and the wedding goes ahead as if she never said a word. Doh.

Since then, the frequency with which couples get divorced has risen to the point that it’s now a normal part of social life, if a sometimes painful one.

****

Think I’ve spoiled the show by giving away all the best parts? You couldn’t be more wrong. I have but scratched the surface, as Lady Mary Crawley would say.

Downton Abbey airs on PBS (like all the best things) where the sixth season premiers tonight (January 3rd) at 9pm EST. See you there!

Cheerio,
James J. Sexton

 

10 Reasons Not to Make a New Year's Resolution

As January 1 begins to loom on the horizon, I always find myself amazed and confused about the rampant resolution-ing that goes on at this time of year. Okay, so I’ve made some resolutions myself—many years ago—but it only took me a few January rebound weight-gains and February head-hanging moments to realize:

New Year’s Resolutions don’t work!

Luckily for me, I’m no longer just that Scroogey guy at the New Year’s Eve party rolling his eyes at your fun, because I am now backed up by SCIENCE. (Yes, I am now that Scroogey guy self-importantly rolling his eyes at your fun because I was right.)

Here are the science-backed reasons why you are going to be exactly the same person on January 1st that you were on December 31st (and that’s no bad thing).

 

The number one New Year’s Resolution: “Lose weight.” This was true in 2015 and has probably been true for the last twenty years at least. This is also the thing we’re least likely to be able to achieve based on a quick promise to ourselves, because it’s a hugely psychological thing. It requires lifestyle changes—not promises.

There’s nobody to enforce it. In ancient Babylon, people made New Year’s resolutions with the understanding that the gods would punish them if they didn’t keep their end of the deal. Nowadays, we just go “Eh, well, I’ll just have this one slice of pie” and nobody smites us at all. Problem.

Only 8% of people are successful in keeping their resolutions. Okay, so SOME people do keep their resolutions, but your chances of keeping it are pretty low … so why make one at all? Right???

75% of New Year’s Resolutions are kept for the first week or less. That’s right—there’s a 75% chance you won’t even make it to Week 2.

Of people who achieve their resolution, only 14% of those are over 50. So if you’re over 50, you have an overall 1.12% chance of success. People over 50, DO NOT MAKE NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS. You’re just giving yourself a reason to berate yourself, instead of enjoying some more delicious pie.

You’re being unrealistic. Another reason people fail, according to Dr. Avya Sharma, is that people set unrealistic goals. Instead of setting boring, concrete goals like “return that bike I borrowed” or “buy some dish soap,” people ask their future selves for things they can’t possibly deliver based on the person they actually are at this point in time.

24% of people fail … every. Single. Year. And they just keep making resolutions, apparently. This cannot be good for the soul.

It’s a substitute for actual change. Timothy Pychl, a professor of psychology at Carleton University in Canada, says that resolutions are a way for our whole culture to procrastinate en masse. It’s a sort of Let’s Pretend to Improve Ourselves game: everybody knows everyone else is going to fail, yet we congratulate each other for making a resolution, feel like we’re doing something good, and then and help each other brush it off afterwards, to make sure we all know it’s okay we didn’t actually do it. In other words, New Year’s Resolutions aren’t really resolutions at all.

One day isn’t enough time or reason to change. One thing research has shown repeatedly is that by trying to get yourself not to do something, you automatically place it centrally in your mind, increasing your chances of wanting to do it. Making big changes requires that you literally create new neural pathways that allow you to make different decisions. And unfortunately you can’t just snap your fingers and create new neural pathways: again, it takes time. It requires literally thinking differently—over and over and over again—until that becomes the new normal. (And it’s probably not easily done with a New Year’s hangover, either.)

Resolutions can actually KEEP you from doing something good for yourself. Because the act of making a resolution sort of halfway seems like you’re doing something, depending on how long you last, it can make you feel temporarily better. That keeps your guilt at bay, which keeps you from addressing the bigger issues that you will have to face if you want to make any lasting changes.

Much like “Puppies aren’t just for Christmas,” resolutions aren’t just for New Year’s. In fact, why not just enjoy New Year for all the lovely revelry it entails, let the peer pressure to make a resolution pass … and then once everyone else is falling off their resolution wagon mid-January, think through what’s important to you, and set some small, concrete, realistic steps for reaching your goals in life. It doesn’t have to happen all in one leap.

And be glad: the year will change, but you will be the same fabulous person you are now, come midnight on January 1st, 2016.

Happy New Year, everyone!!

Respectfully,

James J. Sexton

Sources:
http://www.statisticbrain.com/new-years-resolution-statistics/
https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201412/why-people-cant-keep-their-new-years-resolutions

 

9 Classic Holidays Movies to Express Your Dysfunctional Family

If the feverish pace of the holiday season has you feeling like you’re stuck in a thunderdome with your family as opposed to soaking up quality time with your family, you might just be nearing the end of your rope by now. Maybe I’m wrong and you’re in one of those Leave It To Beaver families, all cuddled up together on the couch, in front of a fire, taking turns reading aloud from Dickens. Maybe Aunt Shirley’s making her famous peppermint hot chocolate and your younger brother Ricky is upstairs changing into a Santa costume to delight all the children. Even Patrick, your regal golden retriever is in on the fun, wearing a set of reindeer antlers on his head and a big red satiny bow around his neck, prancing around majestically like he’s one of those fancy Instagram dogs. If this sounds like your family, this post is not for you.

 

If alternatively, your Aunt Peg has had too much sherry and is confessing her one true love was her college roommate Denise and that your Uncle Henry never “touches her as a woman should be touched anymore;” or if your mom brought her new boyfriend to dinner and you finally place his familiar face as the little boy you used to babysit in the early 90s; or if your family is nowhere in sight and you’re really bonding with the whiskey bottle you’ve nicknamed dad while you anxiously await your Seamless delivery, then you’ve come to the right place.

To all the damaged products of dysfunctional families, this post is for you. You don’t know what caroling around the neighborhood as a family feels like, but you sure as heck know the solace a dark closet can provide when your older brother and dad are going at it again over dropping out of college. The weirdos, the freaks, the goths, the misunderstood, gather ye round, for it’s time to indulge in some holiday films made for us, the broken ones.

Leave Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer to the normals and instead, enjoy these holiday movies starring your brethren, the dysfunctional family, described below as they should be, by jumping on the #ExplainAFilmPlotBadly train.

Home Alone
A young boy’s negligent parents were pressured by society and the Catholic Church to have more children than they can keep track of, and forget one of those children at home when leaving for a family vacation. The child left at home must protect the family’s honor and worldly possessions from burglars in this examination of the seedy underbelly of Chicago’s suburbs in the early 90s.

A Christmas Story
As the specter of nuclear war with the USSR looms, a young boy schemes to arm himself with a gun by any means necessary, including desperately trying to persuade an aging deity of western consumerism.

Elf
After being lied to his whole life, a middle aged man is exiled from his isolated village and the only family he has ever known. We follow the immigrant’s journey to New York as he faces severe hardships and fails to assimilate into American culture.

 

The Family Stone
Cultures collide as Republicans and Democrats clash over a Christmas holiday in this sobering commentary on the political divide in modern America.

 

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York
Promises of change and declarations of love prove to be lies when a family loses track of their child again, this time in pre-Giuliani New York City.

 

 

 

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
Though it is never discussed, over the course of two decades, a midwestern family’s children don’t age yet their appearances change drastically. One Christmas the patriarch of the family goes to unusual extremes to collect his holiday bonus, as he remains convinced money can buy happiness.

Christmas With The Kranks
Evil befalls a family that dares to turn its back on Christmas, thus proving Santa is more powerful than god himself. The Kranks are bullied, guilted and manipulated back into celebrating, because autonomy is outlawed, and they live in fear forever.

 

The Ref
A cat burglar is the real victim of a Connecticut couple’s crumbling marriage.

Four Christmases
Two spoiled city dwellers reckon with their pasts in this unflinching commentary on the divorce epidemic in America.

Have another favorite “complicated family” film to add? Let’s here it! Leave a Comment below, on Facebook, or catch us on Twitter!

All the Movies are Lying About Love

In the year of our lord two thousand fifteen, human adults got really excited about a new dating website for Disney enthusiasts. As someone who thinks it’s weird for grown ups to go to Disney theme parks without children, it’s safe to say I was very unsettled by the idea that such a dating market existed and needed to be catered to. I’m all for every pot having a lid, and fully support the old adage “as long as you’re not hurting anyone go for it,” but this feels different and is worthy of further discussion. Catering to the Disney-obsessed niche, I think, is indicative of a shift towards embracing the idea that chasing a fairy tale is now an acceptable and encouraged lifestyle.

The problem is of course, life isn’t a fairy tale. The love stories put together by Disney and the rest of Hollywood are all fun and games until people start holding their own love lives up to fairy tale or romantic comedy standards. The odds that you’re going to have some incredibly unique love story are very slim, and the fact is, you don’t need one to be happy. But the more a person focuses on getting a big Hollywood ending over focusing on the work that needs go into that relationship to make it work and last, the more people are going to end up in my office discussing their divorce options.

Are Sunday afternoon TBS movies ruining us along with climate change, the gun laws in this country and aspartame? Just maybe. Let’s explore some movies that are setting us up for romantic disappointment, and you be the judge.

While You Were Sleeping
Falling for a guy from afar, saving his life, pretending to be his wife while he’s comatose in the hospital and then falling for his brother does not, in real life, end in a happily ever after with the brother. In real life it ends in a psychiatric hospital after people find out you were lying about being married to a person you’ve never met. You can plead and try to explain while the lithium kicks in, but there’s not really a way out of this one.

Pretty Woman
This is not an accurate depiction of the sex industry, in case you didn’t realize. White knight saves prostitute with a heart of gold is not how this goes down in real life. In a dangerously unregulated industry full of exploitation and human trafficking, a bloated, bored father of three hires a woman who uses drugs to cope with the unimaginable abuse from her childhood and they never see each other again — that’s real life. Or this ends in Gilgo Beach. Either way – Not. Good.

10 Things I Hate About You
The dark and stormy bad boy will not orchestrate a large musical number to get your attention. In real life, the dark and stormy bad boy will continue to hide his dad issues behind a veil of ~edginess~ until he succumbs to alcoholism – just like his dad!

Titanic
Hey, YOU CAN BOTH FIT ON THE DOOR. In real life, you both fit on the floating door and Jack dumps you after you get saved because, what the hell you could both fit on there why did you act like it would be impossible? Selfish much?

Every Hallmark Movie Ever

  • You will not fall in love with the dashingly handsome, newly widowed postal worker.
  • Santa is not real, he will not bring you a wife for Christmas.
  • You will not save the family bakery from foreclosure by winning a large cash prize in a pie competition and fall in love with the real estate agent caught in the middle.
  • You will not fall in love with the guy who rear ended your car, who also, as it turns out, plays your daughter’s favorite TV show character.
  • You will not have a triple wedding with your two sisters, thus throwing a wrench into your parents’ second honeymoon plans.
  • Santa is not secretly a total hunk and he will not finally realize he is in love with you and kiss you as it starts to snow, on Christmas Eve.

Last Holiday
The odds of you being mistakenly diagnosed with a terminal illness are pretty slim, even in our crumbling medical system. So odds are you’re not going to go on one last big blowout vacation, snag your longtime crush and then find out you’re not dying. In real life, this ends in your unfortunate demise and your family being left with astronomical debt thanks to your last hurrah.

Bridget Jones’s Diary
The idea of being accepted “just as you are” is such a beautiful, if not delusional, sentiment. Yes you should accept people, warts and all, but there is also a limit. There is a limit to zaniness, excessive jealousy and hijinx and real life Mark Darcy would have gotten to that limit pretty early on.

Every Lifetime Movie Ever

  • You will not rekindle the spark between you and your high school boyfriend when you lock eyes unexpectedly across a Christmas tree lot.
  • You will not fall in love with a young surfing instructor on the 40th birthday weekend getaway your kids planned so you could “let loose for once.”
  • You will not frantically plow through boyfriends because your dying mother told you the one will be your seventh boyfriend.
  • You will not seal your love forever by murdering the one woman who threatens your relationship. I really, really hope you won’t.

Love Actually
The lie here is that this is allegedly a feel good movie that’s supposed to fill you with cheer and romantic hope. The plot lines are actually not too far from real life as they’re all tragic. Dead wife, cheating husband, severely ill relative getting in the way of having a social life — take your pick. Though in real life the videographer ends up in jail because he is a c-r-e-e-p.

Never Been Kissed
It is possible Josie and Mr Coulson end up together but not until after Josie goes to jail for forging a driver’s license and Mr Coulson maybe loses his job for having an inappropriate relationship with a student. While she was actually a grown up, I can’t imagine there’s no repercussions for him.

Any Movie Starring Kate Hudson or Sarah Jessica Parker
Playing weird games does not lead to healthy relationships, it leads to threadbare relationships built like houses of cards. In real life, if the house of cards actually gets a wedding, it gets a nasty divorce too.

To sum up, the meet cute is not king. The wedding is not the end. No means “no,” not “keep trying to impress a person until you wear them down into loving you.” Do not let movies and the first three Taylor Swift albums brainwash you into thinking the one is Prince or Princess Charming. And for goodness sake go out and see the real world for as long as you can because soon enough you’ll be forced to take your kids to the sanitized Disney version.

Respectfully,
James J. Sexton

What to Do if Your Spouse Goes AWOL (Inspired by Serial Season 2)

One of the big surprises of 2014 was the huge success of the Serial podcast, which is or was a spinoff of the relatively popular This American Life podcast put out by Chicago Public Radio. It was pretty much the first podcast to ever reach such a huge audience, with an average of 8 million people downloading every episode on iTunes alone.

The first season told the story of the murder of Hae Min Lee, a high school student, in 1999, for which her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed has at the time of my writing been in prison for almost sixteen years. Producer Sarah Koenig interviewed witnesses, uncovered many inconsistencies in the case as presented to the courts, and opened up a proverbial can of worms that is still wide open.

I was one of the people listening avidly to the first season of Serial, so I’m pretty excited that the second season has started. Sarah Koenig promised “some time in 2015,” and she waited until just last week to debut her new story. In fact, Season Two, Episode Two premieres today!

This season’s podcast is going to pick apart the story of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was allegedly held captive by the Taliban for five years in Afghanistan—but again, this is a story with a lot of complexity, suggestive details, and inconsistencies. Well chosen, Sarah.

To prep you for Serial season 2, this post is going to mix some key background information with a bit of legal perspective on what to do if YOUR spouse goes AWOL—whether from your life, your marriage, or just from financial obligations. Enjoy!

Were there signs?

This is the age-old question that gets asked every time someone does something absolutely incomprehensible. The serial killer was “just a normal guy,” the rope bridge “looked pretty safe,” and your spouse never seemed like the kind of person to just pick up and take off.

According to other soldiers who knew Bowe Bergdahl, he was basically a normal guy before he disappeared—a disappearance that is now being looked at by many as a desertion of a very strange kind. “He was focused and well-behaved,” soldier Jason Fry has said.

But also, Bergdahl did say to Fry at one point, “If this deployment is lame, I’m just going to walk off into the mountains of Afghanistan.” So there’s that.

There was also the weird fact that, according to soldiers in his unit, on the morning he went missing, he stacked all his stuff up neatly, except for his compass, which went missing with him. Not enough for you? He also apparently mailed his computer and other possessions—inexplicably—to his parents prior to his disappearance. So … yeah. There were signs.

I think you can safely assume, if your spouse gets distant and starts mailing all of his or her possessions away, that there might be something fishy going on. What’s tougher to get a handle on are the psychological signs, and the emotional ones. Is your spouse going distant because they’re stressed about work, or because they want out?

When a spouse walks out on a marriage, it sometimes means walking out on the children of the marriage as well. Some states call this desertion and others call it abandonment. In either case it’s generally grounds for divorce.

The exact definition of abandonment varies, but usually it means the spouse has been gone for one to two years, has not made any financial contributions, and refuses to reconcile if they are in touch at all.

What should be done?

When Bergdahl went missing, a huge amount of military resource was put into trying to track him down, and there was a lot of controversy surrounding whether or not the US government should negotiate for his release (ie. “negotiate with terrorists”). For much of the time he was gone, he was the only US soldier being held as a prisoner by the Taliban, so it was fairly high-profile.

If you think your spouse is about to go AWOL (or worse, they already have), you probably lack the resources of the US military in trying to hold them accountable in your marriage. There are some things you can do, however.

If you have children, you can file for temporary custody, which is likely to turn into permanent custody once you finalize the divorce. You can also ask the court for a temporary order of child support. In extreme cases, you can ask the court to terminate parental rights of the deserting spouse, if they are seen to be an unfit parent.

Once the spouse has been gone from your marriage for two years, and one year in some states, you’re in a good position to file for divorce.

What really happened?

But getting a divorce doesn’t answer the biggest question that some spouses have after being deserted. The biggest question, of course, is “Why?” Why did the person just leave, instead of resolving the situation in some other way? How could they leave a life you created together, without a second thought? And so on.

In my experience, satisfying answers to this question are few and far between. Usually, the simple answer is “avoidance”—some people just can’t deal with having grownup conversations. In a few unfortunate scenarios, people had already started a new life with someone else. You might find out why your spouse went AWOL in time, or you might never get the answers you feel you deserve. And this can be infuriating.

In the case of Bowe Bergdahl, finding out what really happened is the whole point, or so it seems. Some people claim he left a note saying he was going to “start a new life,” but the note hasn’t been since produced. There are stories of his being kidnapped and tortured by Taliban captors, and as many stories that he walked away with them on his own free will. And there are apparently a LOT of strange little ins and outs of his story that just don’t add up.

For the Deserted

Sadly, abandonment is not that uncommon as a grounds for divorce, but luckily it’s fairly easy to resolve from a legal standpoint. Once your spouse has left you for a certain period, it’s hard for the courts to deny you a divorce—but you’ll want to have legal counsel to ensure that you get what you deserve out of the situation.

If your spouse has gone AWOL, feel free to contact me for advice on your specific situation. If you’re an abandoned military spouse, you might find this site helpful in understanding your options.

If you’re interested in listening to Serial, either the last amazing season or this coming one, you can download it here. If you’re interested and you’ve never downloaded a podcast before, here’s what to do.

Questions? Comments? Leave a comment, share on Facebook, or tweet it!

Respectfully,
James J. Sexton

8 New Holiday Traditions to Start This Year

One of the tough things about this time of year is that if you’ve been through any kind of personal upheaval involving family, the holidays are a big reminder of how much has changed. You’re in a different place now than you were when you were married … and while that can be depressing, it also can be great.

You may not be psyched to reinvent the past or relive old memories, and that’s totally fine. This is a great time of year to invent NEW traditions. After all, after divorce, values can shift. Maybe “what really matters” is something different to you now.

What I’d like to see are more holiday traditions that are calming, and non-commercial; that you can do on your own, or with a group, with a lot of value either way; that you can start doing regardless of whether you’re married, divorced, single, widowed, or what have you.

Here are my ideas.

Walk in the woods. Was is Thoreau who said, “An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day”? Appreciating a walk in the beauty of nature is a great thing to do on your own, and also a great gift to share. Better than a pair of socks, in my book.

Help someone in need. Make it a holiday tradition to give your time, support or resources to someone who needs them. In NYC, for example, we have theNeighborhood Coalition for Shelter who are always taking donations (especially) around the holidays.

Do a Winter ClearOut. The small break I take at holiday time is often partly spent going through the house, organizing things, and separating out what I don’t need to give to charity. This is satisfying on many levels.

Cook for strangers. What better time to make baked goods of the sweet OR savory variety—my specialty is cornbread casserole—and deliver to the deserving folks at the fire station, the 911 call center, your mailman?

Board Games. I have a feeling lots of people are doing this already, but go ahead—have a board game night. Invite people.

Talk. I don’t mean family gossip; I mean talk with people you care about, about life. Talk about the best memories of the year, and the worst ones. Be open. Be yourself. Talk.

Seek out an old friend. Even if it’s over the phone, set aside time to catch up with someone you haven’t seen in a long time, who probably doesn’t even know you’re thinking about them.

Give up electronics. Yeah, I know. This is almost impossible these days. But anybody can do it for 24 hours (even me). Shut everything off, unplug, and just hang out. Read, chat, hike, sing—all those things we used to do before the internet.

Have some ideas for holiday traditions you want to add to the list? Please do! Leave your thoughts in comments below, leave a comment on Facebook, or tweet to me!

A Holiday Gift Guide for Your Recently Divorced Friends

As we enter into the hellish period leading up the December holidays in which the task of Shopping becomes an all-consuming force of urban life—can you tell I don’t like shopping?—I find that having knowledgeable people to advise me on gift choices becomes a serious time saver. I LOVE gift guides. I LOVE “Top Ten Gifts for Twelve-Year Olds this Holiday Season” and “Appropriate Gifts to Give Your Mailman/Tailor/Dentist.” These things help me function with some degree of grace in situation where I might otherwise falter.

So I wanted to put my own guide guide out there, related to a topic with which I have a lot of experience, both personally and professionally: what to get, and what NOT to get, your divorced friends. (Most of these can be applied for recently divorced family members and recently divorced coworkers, too.) And I’ll start with the more important category first:
 

What NOT to Get People:

  1. Self-help books. Okay, maybe buying your friend a copy of Keep Your Chin Up!: How to Make it Through Your Divorce and Come Out a Winner seems like it might be a good idea when you see it on the shelf at Barnes & Noble, but trust me, it’s not. These are the adult diapers of the book world: you don’t want anyone to know you own them, and you certainly don’t want to receive them as a gift. Just leave that book behind (they probably already have it on Kindle anyway).
  2. A sex doll. This might come across as a funny joke—no seriously, I have seen this given as a gift in more than one occasion—but for a recent divorcee, it’s probably not going to enrich your friendship or endear you to them. Just a general rule of thumb: a sex doll is never a good idea. For anyone. Ever.
  3. A man-shaped bed pillow. I don’t know if these were originally conceived as gag gifts or as actual things that people might secretly want, but I think it falls into the category of, “If I want one I’ll secretly buy it on Amazon and hide it in my closet when I have people over”—see number 1.
  4. A poster with inspirational quote. If you are the kind of person to buy someone a framed poster, door-hanger or other household item that includes an inspirational quote, I think you should probably just stick to buying your divorced friends alcoholic beverages for a while. No judgment, it’s just all that positivity can be a little much when you’re a freshly split unit.
  5. A plant. A plant probably seems harmless and thoughtful, but to a recent divorcee, it’s likely to be a potted reminder that they’re alone in the world, ie. “You have nobody, here’s a plant to be your friend.” Avoid gifting plants for 1 to 3 years post-divorce.

Better Gifts:

  1. Really nice wine. This never fails. It tastes good, it feels classy, and it gets you drunk. Even better: take them out for an evening of really nice wine-drinking, foot the bill, and pay for the taxi home. Now that’s a friend.
  2. Stuff to encourage their interests. Did your friend used to be really into photography, or yoga, or travel, and has now fallen out of the habit? Without being condescending, you can encourage them to pick up on old interests—and encourage their minds away from the divorce—by giving low-pressure gifts that help them get there (think a magazine subscription or a book, not an expensive piece of equipment or fitness club subscription).
  3. Really good coffee. Coffee is another one of those things where it’s hard to go wrong. Proper gourmet coffee is delicious, warm, comforting, and it’s something that most of us drink anyway, so once again—practical. Try a variety of coffees from interesting places or with interesting flavors, and go fair trade in case they worry about these things (lots of my friends do).
  4. A cool trip for friends. One of the nicest things you can do for a friend is to get them—nay, force them—out of their dark and horrible routine for a weekend of recalibration. It gives them a chance to relax, vent, possibly cry, and it solidifies your relationship to a degree so they feel less alone. Just make sure you plan around their schedule, ie. don’t surprise someone with a last-minute trip, which is thoughtful but stressful for busy people.
  5. A token of recognition for their achievements. Chances are, your friend is feeling like a grade A loser about now, even if they’re actually a very accomplished person. Gifts that nod gently to their achievements, like a set of posh pens, is a nice way to refocus on the good stuff.

Have something genius to add to the list? I’m always listening. Give me a shout via Twitter and Facebook or leave a comment below!

Respectfully,
James J. Sexton

 

An Open Letter to Betty Draper, Everybody's Ex

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Dear Betty Draper,

I don’t know why exactly I’m compelled to do an Open Letter to you, Betty Draper, except that you are one of those women who is both tragic, and—well, mostly tragic. (What can I say, tragic works well for this series.) When you appeared in our lives on the first episode of Mad Men in 2007, aka 1960, you struck a chord with the public as someone who a) we disliked, but not for being a villain, b) was interesting anyway, and c) was possibly being the first woman who has ever occupied that role on a major TV series. We usually get rid of the women we don’t like on television series, but not you!

In a way, this Open Letter is an homage to your ability to be a harsh, superficial, dependent, interesting, strong, very compelling character. Because so much of the show is focused on Don Draper, we do get the estranged-spouse view of you from a pretty early point in your history. And it has to be said that you made a fantastic fictional (ex-)spouse, because—much like pretty much everyone sees their ex during and just after divorce—you are both hate-able and lovable, and really good at being both.

It should be said that over seven seasons (a decade on the show) your growth actually challenged expectations and made you a representation of something that is also convincing and also slightly scary: our ex-spouse having become a much better person

The 1953 to 1963: The Don Era

Betty, the saddest thing about your marriage to Don Draper—and there are many sad things to choose from—is that we can guess based on his mostly monotone demeanor and your mostly monotone personality, that you married him for financial and emotional stability. However, what you got instead was an extremely unstable ride.

As a husband, Don Draper was pretty much the worst: he lied, he cheated, he had a secret identity. He spied on you via your therapist. He pretty much pulled out all the stops, and you were left clinging on for dear life while trying to keep your hair in a perfect shining helmet. You knew he was cheating, but what were you going to do? He made the money. You had no earning capacity to speak of. You had two children together. Such is the problem of the Don Era.

But even as we sympathized with you, Betty, we also felt some ambivalence about your complicity in the whole situation. You made it your business to be beautiful in exchange for security, saying “as long as men look at me like that, I’m earning my keep.” That’s probably not the wisest choice in a marriage. You taught your daughter to let men call the shots with gems like “You don’t kiss boys. Boys kiss you.” On one hand, it was the sixties. On the other: you weren’t helping.

So when you finally kicked Don out of the house, and went to Reno for a quickie divorce, we were psyched! Except for one tiny detail: you were leaving your sexist and controlling protector for another sexist and controlling protector. Less sexist, less controlling, but still.

As a divorce attorney, and as a human, I saw all the problems piling up for you as soon as you made the decision to escape into the arms of someone new (and by new, I mean kind of old).

1963-1970: The Henry Era

Frankly, Betty, things got a little weird for me when you married the old guy. You didn’t change your ways much at first, and this was disappointing. No learning more about the finances of the house, no starting a career for yourself or anything of that nature. In fact, the main thing you did was get jaded.

You also managed to stay in the house, which was owned by Don, for a much longer time than anyone expected. I think we all expected Don to hire a divorce lawyer that would make sure you got nothing, but instead you won the divorce—although the show wasn’t too specific about numbers—and then you pushed the boundaries by staying in the house past the time you should have left, which unsurprisingly caused some trouble.

But when you and Henry finally moved out, you underwent a sort of transformation in which you started caring about stuff. You got an opinion about the Vietnam War. You went into the hovels of New York City in search of a missing girl. You started saying things like, “You’re sorry you forgot to inform me what I’m supposed to think. Guess what? I think all by myself.” You entered a normal weight category. We liked you more.

And then, Betty, just in time to screw over Husband #2, you became the symbolic ex-spouse again. You and Don reunited for one awkward sexual encounter, which I admit, I was kind of rooting for in a weird way—I wanted you guys to work it out. So from the standpoint of pure entertainment I was okay with that. But you also started flirting with the teenage neighbour-boy, and just, I don’t know, you lost us.

And then you got cancer.  That was, without question, unfortunate. But, from a sentimentality standpoint, it was a solid move.  We liked you again.

Why You’re Everybody’s Ex

The thing about exes—be they ex-spouses, ex-partners, ex-lovers or what have you—is that unless you stay real, actual friends, eventually the person comes to be more of a caricature than a real person. Certain parts are drawn larger than life, so they can entertain you and help explain the relationship’s failure; our exes are two-dimensional most of the time (much like you, Betty Draper), until we have to really engage with them, and then it gets complicated. Because the caricature of the ex, and the actual person, are two different things.

With your blank-faced stare, Betty, you are the perfect canvas of an ex: throughout the seven seasons of Mad Men, we could interpret you as hateworthy or loveworthy depending on perspective. And really, the hate and love on the show are never that clearly defined anyway—a point that probably resonates with most divorcees.

Respectfully,
James J. Sexton

Have something to add or disagree with? Want me to counsel you through a divorce? Leave a comment below, call me or tweet to me.

For more irreverent commentary and real advice on dealing with your ex, check out my recent posts “5 Tips for Co-Parenting” and “Your Partner: The Narcissist.”

To read more of the Open Letters series and my other stuff on the Huffington Post, start here

Divorce All-Stars: Jerry Hall & Mick Jagger

According to rock and roll legend, this rockstar divorce all started when Mick chased Jerry around a ping pong table at a party in 1976. Jerry’s then-fiance Bryan Ferry kicked very married Mick out of the party and a year passed before they saw each other again. Mick, still married and Jerry, still engaged fell in love during a clandestine vacation in Morocco because when you’re a married rockstar courting an engaged supermodel, theatre tickets and Italian reservations just won’t do. What followed was a highly publicized romance full of passion, cheating (allegedly), world tours and magazine covers.

In 1990, after two kids and quite the rollercoaster of a relationship, they made things official — err, “official” — in a traditional Balinese Hindu ceremony that wasn’t exactly legal. They lived as husband and wife and had two more children before things came to a head when Mick got a Brazilian model pregnant. Jerry had enough of his cheating and filed for divorce in 1999, but all was not so straightforward.

Turns out that Balinese wedding wasn’t so official and Mick and Jerry had actually been living ascommon law husband and wife. Mick contested the legality of the marriage with this quite large loophole and they were granted an annulment instead of a divorce. Jerry walked away with an amount estimated to be between $15 million and $25 million, a fraction of Mick’s alleged $325 million fortune.

You might think things get pretty awkward any time they cross paths now, but that’s not the case at all! Mick and Jerry are quite civil and see each other often at family get togethers and Hollywood soirees. This all could have gone very TMZ when you think about the moving parts of this story — rockstar, supermodel, Balinese marriage, lots of alleged infidelities, etc., but instead it turned out to be a best case scenario split.

Have a question about divorce? Leave it in comments below, tweet to me, email me, phone me— Let’s talk.

Respectfully,
James J. Sexton

Think They're Still Together? Teen Couple Movie Edition

We had so much fun in our last installment that I thought it’d be a treat to once again use the firm’s years of experience in the world of failed romance to offer our predictions on the Romeos and Juliets of our formative years; the people who really taught us how to love — teen movie couples! Grab your popcorn and let’s go for a walk down Romance Lane…

She’s All That – Laney & Zack

Still together? NO.
Zack and Laney came from two different worlds – a cool jock one and a loser art one. In true teen movie fashion, what started out as a bet led to true love. Zack was trying to prove to his friends he could turn any girl into prom queen and while Zack thought he was teaching Laney lessons about popularity, turns out Laney was teaching Zack about the real world the whole time. They got together in the end, but I don’t think it lasted. Zack doesn’t know which way is up, he’s a ship without a sail and eventually I think that got to Laney. That and the hacky sack. They probably made it through the summer but when it was time to head off to college Laney wisened up and kicked him to the curb.

Pretty In Pink – Andie & Blane

Still together? NO.
Blane, major appliance, and Andie, poor person, were mismatched from the start. Blaine was ritzy and rich and Andi was poor and stricken with terminal Duckie disease, but they fell for each other against all odds, and against Steff’s wishes. Sure they showed a divided town that love knows no boundaries but they totally broke up like a week after prom. The thrill of their social subversion wore off pretty quick and they realized they had nothing to talk about. Andie was always going on about sewing and being destitute and Blane couldn’t focus on his Ferrari catalogs while she was yapping away. So, they broke up, Duckie came out and Steff murdered a prostitute.

Clueless – Cher & Josh

Still together? YES.
Would Cher and Josh break up? As if. (See what I did there?). After playing cupid to set up two of her teachers, Cher turned her attention to more trying charitable work by making over tragic fashion victim Tai. In the process Cher chipped through the veneer of her superficial personality, found herself and accidentally fell for her own grunge listening, save the whale protesting, college liberal stereotype of a step-brother. Woopsie.  Odds and social convention may have been stacked against them, but I think they made it. Cher grew up to be Elle Woods and probably joined her father and Josh in the family litigation business. Cher still has her ditzy side but Josh finds it endearing. And Josh’s veganism became less annoying, and more of a fad so Cher hopped on the soy wagon. They bicker and get on each other’s nerves, but there’s a solid foundation there.

Sixteen Candles – Sam & Jake

Still together? NO.
Sam and Jake got together after Sam’s whole family forgot her birthday and a lot of questionable, often racist things happened at a school dance and house party. Sam’s unrequited love was finally, um, requited thanks to Farmer Ted’s matchmaking skills. Sam and Jake shared a tender kiss over birthday cake and a million girls’ hearts exploded all at once. But did their love flourish? Maybe for the rest of Jake’s senior year, but after that, probably not. But what a year it was! Homecoming, winter formal, and prom were, I am sure, wonderful experiences. Then Jake split town for college and Sam basked in the warm glow of her hard earned popularity for another two years of high school.

Empire Records – Corey & AJ

Still together? NO.
It was hard for Corey to realize she wasn’t in love with Rex Manning and that she was in fact in love with sensitive artist AJ, but she got there in the end. And really, what better way to bounce back from total humiliation at the hands of sexy Rexy than having AJ profess his love on a record store rooftop? But did it last? Nah. Corey and AJ moved to Boston where Corey obviously developed a cocaine problem to cope with Harvard stress. AJ dropped out of art school after one semester, hitchhiked to Portland and founded a radical yarn bombing collective. Corey suffered several nervous breakdowns but eventually became a doctor and on slow nights in the ICU she gazes off into the distance and thinks of AJ and what he’s up to. He graffiti knits on lampposts, Corey. He’s happy and thinks of her often.

10 Things I Hate About You – Kat & Patrick

Still together? YES.
Bianca Stratford could only date if her uptight, ornery sister Kat did. New kid Cameron wanted to date Bianca. What’s a teen to do? Scheme of course. Cameron paid rough and tumble bad boy Patrick to woo impossible Kat, and wouldn’t you know it, it worked and along the way Patrick fell for Kat. Did they make it though? Yes. Kat and Patrick moved to New York after graduation and continued to have an on-again/off-again relationship for the rest of their lives. There are probably kids in the mix now that are raised on a steady diet of riot grrrl and unpasteurized milk. Begrudgingly they left the lower east side to move upstate to Rosendale or somewhere so Patrick could have more room to sculpt and Kat could have a proper writing room for her poetry. No one knows how the bills get paid but they do. Every six months or so there’s a big bust up and Patrick leaves for a few weeks, but he always comes back and the cycle begins anew.

Can’t Hardly Wait – Amanda & Preston

Still together? YES.
Preston loved Aman-DUH from afar for years. Finally, finally, finally he had the guts to tell her, in a letter, at movie history’s most wonderful and unrealistic high school party. The movie’s end credits told us “they are still together,” and while I find that a little questionable, who am I to argue with stone cold credits facts? They totally had a Barry Manilow cover band play at their wedding.

Drive Me Crazy – Nicole & Chase

Still together? NO.
Nicole and Chase were good friends until puberty and the cutthroat world of social climbing hit the scene. But one fateful day before the centennial dance, Nicole and Chase joined forces to trick two other students into loving them. It worked, but Nicole and Chase fell for each other during the process. Then their parents announced they were in love and moving in together. That’s odd to say the least. Girlfriend and boyfriend is hard enough, but add brother and sister on top of that, and it’s really hard to make a relationship work. They both went off to college and grew up and now make awkward eye contact over the Thanksgiving table.

Never Been Kissed – Josie & Sam

Still together? YES.
Sure Josie and Sam’s relationship was forged on a lie where the false circumstances actually made the burgeoning relationship really, really wrong. But Josie fessed up and explained she wasn’t in fact a high school senior, she was an adult woman reporter undercover, and their illegal and frankly very gross flirtation was actually totally cool. It’s hard to get past the original circumstances though isn’t it? He was a teacher; she was a high school student. It was totally and completely inappropriate no matter how ~mature~ and smart and interesting Josie was. Sam is the real grossie in this story, huh? Anywho, are they still together? Yeah. Once you get past the yuck, bleh, and ew beginning and they’re both legal adults, they are really sweet together and I think they made it.

Respectfully,

James J. Sexton

An Open Letter to Princess Jasmine: Don't Get Taken for a Magic Carpet Ride

Dear Princess Jasmine,

I’m a little more pleased than I like to admit that I’m becoming the divorce attorney of choice for the Disney princesses. I’m glad that Cinderella referred you, that you’re happy enough to allow me to share your situation with the public, and most of all, that you’re leaving the ranks of the Real Housewives of Disney for something more fulfilling. My congratulations to you on that, and let’s begin.

Intelligently—and this doesn’t surprise me, Princess Jasmine—you arranged for a prenuptial agreement before your marriage to Aladdin. Thank you for including a copy of said prenup, which, as you informed me, does indeed ensures that in the event of divorce you will of course keep everything that you had before you married Aladdin, regardless of how those assets may have been shared during the marriage. That means no problem keeping the palace, your pet tiger, and your various royal riches. Ace. Your prenup also stipulates that as long as the sum of your assets are substantially greater than Aladdin’s, upon your divorce he’ll be provided with a monthly allowance, so that he isn’t forced to go back to the streets, begging and stealing. All very generous.

However, you came to me with a problem that you didn’t foresee at the time you wrote the prenup, and that’s what I’m really here to advise on. The problem is that Aladdin’s assets now might actually exceed yours—and by his “assets,” I’m referring now to the income from Aladdin’sillegitimate business, which, contrary to what you expected to happen, has grown exponentially since you dragged him out of poverty. Over the years, Aladdin has used his improved financial situation along with his natural talent as a con man to rise through the ranks of Agrabah organized crime. He is now an extremely powerful, and extremely well-paid, professional criminal. Tax-free. And now he wants to cash in on the spousal support from you as if he has no other income. Not with me as your lawyer.

This is how what we’re going to prove what Aladdin’s actual earnings are, rather than relying on tax records to tell the whole story.

Lesson 1: Show that the numbers don’t add up.

First, all the bills—mortgage, car payments, bank statements, credit card bills and what have you—need to be examined, and subpoenaed where necessary.

Once we have all this, we can probably show fairly easily that what Aladdin was spending, and what you were giving him from the palace accounts, don’t match up—essentially, that if Aladdin’s expenses were 10,000 gold coins per month and his royal allowance was only 6,000 gold coins, then he had another 4,000 gold coins coming in from somewhere.

Lesson 2: Find out what he’s hiding from you.

Considering Aladdin’s history of conning people. That in mind, I’m sure he’s been conning you, too, Jasmine—if there’s one thing I’ve learned in this business, it’s that Disney princes never change. (It’s true; very little character development for men in Disney films.) Once a con man, always a con man, so it’s time to uncover his hidden treasures.

(I’m not talking about what Aladdin’s really been doing when he locks himself in the bathroom and says he’s “rubbing the lamp”—I’m talking about his hidden assets.)

We can subpoena bank statements in Aladdin’s name that might contain money he’s not reporting, and that you might not know about. We can also do a public records check to find out about any reported assets he hasn’t told you about, as well as any that pop up in the names of his friends, like the Genie. This is how we figure out where and how Aladdin has been siphoning off the palace fortune to purchase assets (which technically belong to you or both of you). You might be about to win treasure you never knew you had, Jasmine.

If you can enlist mutual friends to help with the search, you might consider it. Abu has been at Aladdin’s side for years, vastly unappreciated too, and he knows where the bodies are buried—I would start there.

Lesson 3: Argue for Aladdin’s earning capacity.

Even though your “diamond in the rough” turned out to be a con man in the truest sense, there’s a potential silver lining in that you might be able to use Aladdin’s con artist skills—his charisma, selling ability, his political charm—as reasons why he is extremely employable and is not and should not be, as he claims he is, entirely dependent on your wealth in the event of your divorce. At this point, we’re not arguing for his financial or property assets; we’re really discussing his skills as assets in themselves.

The Genie, oddly enough, is also a sort of asset for Aladdin; we might be able to argue this. While technically not Aladdin’s property nor indebted to him any longer, the Genie remains a powerful being who can make things happen for Aladdin (and, from the sounds of it, frequently does). Your husband is a man whose best friend has the ability to turn paupers into princes—does he really need monthly support payments from his ex-wife? Let’s discuss.

The great thing about your situation, Jasmine, is that you thought ahead, and you’re not going to get as screwed in this divorce as most of the Disney princesses will, because you got a prenup.

I hold you up as a shining example for married people everywhere, especially women; it’s not for nothing that you were named 5th Most Feminist Disney Princess by Nerve Magazine (a high honor if there ever was one).

No genies or wishes required, Princess Jasmine, just a prenup and a good lawyer. And I won’t even make a dirty joke about your Cave of Wonders.

Respectfully,

James J Sexton

An Open Letter to Ariel: You're Going to Lose the Divorce

Dear Ariel,

Many thanks for writing to me, adding to my growing knowledge of the inner lives of the “happily ever after” folk, and giving me a chance to comment on your situation. First let me say that while I appreciate your desire to “get in on this open letter thing,” and I’m happy to provide advice on your imminent divorce, I fear you may not be happy about what I’m going to say. Still, yours is a situation that will potentially be informative for others, so here goes.

As you wrote in your letter, after two decades of marriage to Prince Eric, you’ve decided you want to divorce him. However, the facts of your life together may make it difficult for you to get what you feel you deserve, in terms of division of marital assets. You say you’d like to keep half of everything, based on the fact that you gave up your fins and your livelihood as a sea princess to be a wife to Prince Eric.

Personally, I think it’s fairly obvious that you are not going to get what you’re aiming for, for a number of reasons I’ll explain now. It should be noted that, of the reasons below, alone none of them would necessarily bar you from getting something—but taken together, they present a fairly hopeless case. (Ie. These are some pretty big mistakes; readers, take note.)

Lesson 1. The prenup should be updated and/or include an elevation clause.

You have a habit of signing your life away, Ariel, and this is what it appears you did in your prenuptial agreement. After going over the copy of your prenuptial agreement that you faxed, I can see that it does not allow for you to receive half of the marital assets, as you’ve said you want, but rather allots to you a monthly stipend (roughly equal to what you currently spend on self-tanning and pedicures). In the case of infidelity, says the prenup, you get nothing.

It would have made sense for you and Prince Eric to update the prenuptial agreement at some point in the last two decades to reflect your spending and lifestyle as these increased over the course of your marriage. It also would have benefited you to have built a percentage increase in your allowance based on the number of years spent together (known as an elevation clause) into the contract. However, you did neither of these things, so in the event of divorce you’ll theoretically be back to the monthly allowance that made sense when you were sixteen.

Lesson 2. Know what’s going on with your house finances.

Ariel, you said in your letter that you don’t deal with any of the financial matters. You know next to nothing about monthly bills and outgoings, accounts held jointly with Prince Eric, or the state of joint assets. (You did mention you keep a very detailed catalogue of your “treasure trove” of secondhand forks and spoons—unfortunately I feel this will be of little value in the divorce.) While I can help you to get hold of some of the relevant information, you’ll be in a disadvantaged position.

I’m guessing it’s rather difficult to feel empowered in a clamshell bra, but as a modern human, Ariel, you should make a point of understanding your finances. As it is now, you don’t have a leg to stand on, so to speak, when it comes to arguing for more money.

For the same reason, you should be aware of what mutual assets are in your name, if any, and if not, you should start putting things in your name—cars, summer house, what have you. Then you would be able to argue for at least these things, irrespective of the prenup.

Lesson 3: Don’t cheat.

Now we’re down to the most difficult issue of all, and the one I was indeed most surprised to see you bring up in your letter, especially one you knew would get a public response: your infidelity.

The long and short of it is that, suffering from a feeling that the “seaweed is always greener” as you put it, you’ve found it difficult to save your upgraded lady parts for Prince Eric alone. In the early years of your marriage this wasn’t such an issue—you had gadgets and gizmos aplenty, you say—eventually, you wanted more.

While you haven’t yet been caught, Ariel, you’re right to be worried that somehow it will come out—and the longer it goes on, the more you raise that risk. As for how that affects the prenup, there will be very little room to argue for a cent if there is any evidence of you cheating. Not only are you not going to get the optimistic half of everything that you want, you’re not going to get anything at all.

My advice to you, Ariel is this: Stay married, or else be ready to leave with nothing.

This isn’t advice I give often, but in your case, you have committed the golden trinity of mistakes: bad prenup, no financial involvement, and infidelity. In a phrase: You lose.

I feel for you, don’t get more wrong. The Disney franchise compelled you to get married at the age of 16, as they do. This isn’t just an epidemic of Disney princesses: getting married too young is a mistake you share with thousands. So is giving up your entire life and livelihood for another person—again, a mistake made by many people who come into my offices, usually female people.

The problem with making big commitments, like marriage, at a young age is that you believe the future will take care of itself, when in fact, it often doesn’t. That’s why, in my opinion, marriages between people over 28 are at least 3 times as likely not to end in divorce: you get to a certain point where you realize planning is important.

That’s not to say you can’t divorce Prince Eric; you can still divorce him, certainly. But you are likely to leave the marriage with, at best, a stipend, and that means a change of lifestyle.

Thank you again for the opportunity to use the hard-earned lessons of your fairytale marriage – and fairytale divorce – to educate the masses.

Respectfully,

James J. Sexton

An Open Letter to Cinderella: How to Divorce Prince Charming

Dear Cinderella,

You might be surprised that I’m writing you this letter, considering that you are one of the world’s most prominent examples of a happy marriage. But, as a seasoned divorce attorney, I’ve learned to spot the ones whose marriages are on the way out—and frankly, Cinderella, I’ve seen that look in your eye.

You probably don’t want to admit it. You’re probably thinking, If I get a divorce from Prince Charming, will I be letting the world down? Will I be disillusioning thousands, nay millions of little girls whose dreams of finding fairy tale romance hinge on my prime example? Cinderella, we can only hope.

With this in mind, I’m going to advise you now as if you had wandered into my office, impractical shoes and all, asking “How do I divorce Prince Charming?”

Lesson One: Get a prenup.
I’m not going to sugar-coat this, Cinderella: You, like most ill-advised Disney princesses,
have been operating under the assumption that a Prince will make you happy. I’m guessing based on the fact that you were roughly sixteen when you got married, and your decision to marry was doubtless driven by a desire to escape a life of indentured servitude, you were probably more focused on racing to a life of bliss than on arranging a prenup.

Prince Charming has substantial assets, and this was probably part of the attraction. But,
as you’ll find out in the process of divorcing him, the Prince’s assets—his royal inheritance etc.—are “pre-marital assets” that you won’t have any claim to. Thus, like so many women, you were in a financially disadvantaged position at the start of the marriage, you assumed you shouldn’t ask for a prenup, and now you are at a financial disadvantage when you want to end the marriage.

This probably seems unfair, considering you’ve spent your life looking after Prince Charming and your royal children, smiling and waving when you’re supposed to, fulfilling your responsibilities, even indulging his sexual fantasies of having you dress up like a house wench and tickle his feet with your feather-duster—even with all that, now you’re left in a position where you probably can’t touch his royal monies. Such is New York law.

Lesson Two: Commingle your assets.
My advice to you is to get some of it for yourself by commingling your assets. In effect, commingling assets means mixing joint money, or your personal accounts (for example what you get from renting your father’s house to those wicked stepsisters of yours) with your husband’s inherited money. The idea is to make it difficult for Prince Charming’s lawyers to show clear separation of accounts in the court.

In short: open a joint bank account. Make big financial outlays (country house, jewels, angel investment in a Talking Mouse Circus) using mixed moneys. Avoid making big joint purchases from your husband’s inherited funds whenever possible, because you won’t have any claim to those in the divorce. And so on.

Contrary to the general belief among legendary damsels in distress, marrying royalty isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. Without a prenup and without commingling your assets, frankly it doesn’t matter that you caught him in three different broom closets with three different scullery maids last year; his pre-marital assets are still likely to stay with him.

Cinderella, you understand the complications of the fairy tale marriage; you, more than anyone, know what it really means to live “happily ever after.” I urge you to take that knowledge, along with your glass slippers and your wits, to the bank.

Respectfully,
James J. Sexton

Six Ideas For an Awesome Divorce Party

In recent years the idea of having a “divorce party” has come into fashion, so I thought I’d give my two cents on the subject.

First of all, what is a Divorce Party? While it seems that perhaps divorce is something sad, in fact a large number of the newly divorced are finding it a worthwhile reason to go out with their friends and get totally empowered. We’re talking empowered to the point at which it’s difficult to walk in a straight line or even stand up.

While the divorce party can apparently take many forms, universally among internet websites about divorce parties it’s said to be a cathartic experience, in which the newly divorced are so distracted from their pain by the presence of strippers, cake, and/or the song “Survivor” playing in the background, that the pain feels—at least momentarily—expunged.

The aptly-named DivorcePartyIdeas.com suggests getting oneself a divorce party theme such as “Butterfly” (to emphasise transformation), “Naughty Girl” (to highlight freedom from marital monogamy) or “Lemons” (to emphasize one’s ability to, as they say, make lemonade). I would here like to present some alternative options.

1. Jaws. 
A Jaws-themed divorce party is sure to excite, while also reminding you and your guests that, while you may have just suffered a huge grief-inducing loss, it could be worse: you could have had your arm chewed off by a giant mechanical shark.

2. Brownies and Beer. 
This theme involves people showing their support in the form of alcohol, baked goods, and a total absence of conversation about anything health- or fitness-related for the duration.

3. Sweatpants.
The sweatpants theme provides a dress code for you and your guests that smacks of comfort, relaxation, and post-divorce rest. It also saves you from having to change out of your current uniform.

4. Therapy Fundraiser.
A useful alternative to drinking your life savings away, the Therapy Fundraiser gives your friends the opportunity to show they care about your long-term mental health by donating to your Therapy Fund.

5. Go to Las Vegas.
Less a theme than a directive, this needs very little explanation, I would think, as Vegas itself is essentially one giant divorce party. The main drawback of going to Vegas to celebrate your divorce is that you do run the risk of celebrating yourself right back into marriage if you’re not careful, but this time with a relative stranger or, worse, a good friend. If this happens, call me.

6. Go Away, I’m Depressed.

The most honest of divorce party themes, this is for those who don’t actually want to have a divorce party at all, but have been harangued into it by their well-meaning yet clueless friends.

As your friendly neighborhood divorce attorney, I’ll add the disclaimer here that, whatever the theme of your divorce party, it’s probably best to wait until your divorce is signed and sealed before you celebrate. It’s also worth saying that for this particular occasion you might be safest to avoid filming, photographing, and/or drunk texting at whatever cost.

Respectfully,
James J. Sexton