What a busy week! I spent several days in San Diego at the Academy of Professional Family Mediators conference, learning more about working with divorcing families. I'm comfortable with the negotiation aspect, and as a psychologist, I think there are qualities and skills I bring to the table that other professionals may not, but I'm still learning things like how to split assets, understand tax laws, how to read a 1040, etc. My head was so full when I got back on that plane to come home!
One presentation I went to was about writing up pre-nuptual agreements for couples getting ready to marry. While I think a pre-nup is a great idea that puts a lot of things out on the table, what I didn't know was that couples who sit down and talk about money prior to getting married are more likely to STAY married. This certainly makes a lot of sense. Talking about money is very difficult for most of us. It's a sensitive topic like sex or personal hygiene that we'd rather ignore than address and confront head on. So couples who take that leap to talk about finances are probably more likely to talk about other hard things, rather than let them fester until bigger problems form.
Talking about your financial expectations, attitudes about money, savings, spending, etc, and having an open dialogue about how much privacy and transparency you each expect when it comes to money is important in a relationship. Some couples keep most of their money separate, feeling they don't want to "answer to" their partner for every expense. Some have one joint account from which they pay household bills, but maintain some money of their own that they can use at their discretion. Some couples only consult with each other on purchases above a certain amount, for example $250, while they can spend less than that without worry that it will interfere with bill-paying or cause the other spouse to feel out of the loop on big purchases.
Pre-nuptual agreements can be set up to keep pre-marital money and property separate, or to protect children and/or stepchildren, inheritance, or money that family members may have contributed for the purchase of a house, for example. While many couples eventually co-mingle a lot of their assets and debt over time, a pre-nup can set guidelines for specific allocations such as college or determine who has power of attorney or healthcare proxy. This is especially important in second marriages where there may be children from a previous marriage, and the current partnership would like to provide for each other while also providing for their children in the form of inheritance. A pre-nup can spell out what accounts are earmarked for whom, allowing for all family members to get a fair piece of the pie.
Regardless of the reasons, open communication is important in a relationship, and money is only one of the difficult topics to be addressed. The chances of having a longer, happier marriage is increased by good communication between the partners, so while many might see a pre-nup as "not romantic," I see it very differently. It's a way for two people to sit down and address what they expect from their long-term relationship, to discuss concerns about finances, and to figure out ways to provide for each other and other family members who may be in need. Never a bad thing.
In a couple of hours I'll be leaving to attend the Academy of Professional Family Mediators conference in San Diego. I'm getting excited to learn more about this new part of my practice. I'll be going to workshops and discussions and meeting new people, while reconnecting with the group who trained me.
Mediation can be so helpful to so many families, and so much less expensive and traumatic than typical litigation. Family mediators can work on divorce decrees, parenting plans, prenuptual agreements, elder care and wills--typically a lot of things that lawyers can do, but less adversarial and expensive. Of course, the family involved has to be willing to sit down and cooperate, and some are not. That's when it becomes inevitable that there will be courtroom drama, and I don't mean "Boston Legal."
Looking forward to a few days of learning!
The big news today is that the US Supreme Court has refused to entertain requests from several states to uphold their bans on gay marriage, in effect, making it inevitable that those states will have to allow and recognize gay marriage in the near future. By dismissing the states' requests, the Supreme Court basically tossed out the bans by not doing anything.
Supporters are cheering outside the Supreme Court Building.
Public opinion has been changing quickly. More and more Americans support gay marriage, feeling it has no impact on their own marriages or relationships, and that the legal and financial protections given to married people should be made available to any two consenting adults who want to marry. Perhaps with the huge increase in divorce, multiple marriages, children born out of wedlock, celebrities getting married for a month before splitting, and various other ways in which marriage and families have changed, the general public now turns a blind eye to what others are doing in their own homes, including wanting to marry a person of the same gender.
From a psychological standpoint, relationships need to be recognized and acknowledged by the outside world. Years of living "in the closet" and sneaking around can wreak havoc on any relationship, be that a homosexual relationship, a forbidden affair, or any relationship that for any reason is kept a secret, even if it's an open secret. It was not that long ago that many states forbid interracial marriages, and people involved in such a love affair had to hide, move north, or risk arrest or worse, simply because of who they loved.
We could say, in this age of social media, that we generally want to "broadcast" our relationship status; we want to show the world our true feelings for each other, have a ceremony if that's our choice, throw a party, wear rings, and otherwise be part of a couple. In addition, legal marriage brings certain benefits and protections that cohabitation does not. Before getting married I was on my husband's health insurance as his domestic partner. But now I can also benefit from his social security in my old age, collect his pension if I live longer, and make legal and medical decisions without the rigamarole of extra paperwork. Gay couples never had those options and that peace of mind, until now. As more and more states recognize gay marriage, more and more couples will have what the rest of us have taken for granted. Most people don't realize that if a gay couple gets legally married in New York, for example, but they live in a state where gay marriage is not legal, their union will not be recognized and all the benefits they might reap in New York will be out of their reach where they live. In a global economy where people may move for a job this is a real issue. Imagine being able to share in your spouse's health insurance plan in one place, but when he gets a transfer to an office in another state you are dropped from the plan because your relationship does not exist? Or having a partner who is ill and being unable to make medical decisions, or in some cases, even visit, because you are not "family."
Some couples have been waiting decades to be able to make a public statement about the true nature of their commitments. They can now make the same choices as heterosexuals have made for millennia. If that choice is to marry, great. If it's to remain partners, great. If it's to mingle their money, great. If they choose not to, that's fine too. At least they have that choice now.
My relationship is not really different than it was before we went down to the village hall and signed some papers. My husband chose not to wear a ring, which is fine, I joked that I'd just get a bigger one if I didn't have to buy one for him. We still spend a lot of time together while also giving each other a lot of space (interesting balance). He is free to do the third-world traveling that he enjoys while I stay home with my creature comforts, and I recently hopped on a plane to visit a friend for the weekend leaving him home with the pets. Other times we go off on adventures together and build memories of our lives. But getting that ring I had my eye on and having the peace of mind that comes with the legal, financial, and other benefits, was enough for me, even if I never wanted the white gown and the flower girl. It's nice to see the Supreme Court uphold the rights of all people to make those same, or their own, choices. Poofy gowns, tuxedos, and centerpieces or a quick stop at a local City Hall, it has no impact on me what someone else chooses, I just wish them well.
Growing up in Brooklyn I was always well aware of the need to look like I had confidence and knew where I was going, even if I didn't. I certainly know not to walk around carrying a map and looking lost in large cities where con artists and muggers might be just around the corner waiting for their next, clueless victim.
But it wasn't until recently that people started to study the physiological effects of "faking it til you make it." While psychologists and researchers have known for many years that acting "as if" can make you feel more confident, attractive, bright, funny....fill in the adjective....it is only recently that studies have confirmed that there are actual physiological responses.
Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist at Harvard Business School, has become a TED Talk sweetheart, giving presentations, writing articles, and even being recruited by "Lean In" author Sheryl Sandberg to help develop teaching materials for her Lean In Initiatives. Research she did in 2010 showed that when a person spends time alone engaging in "power poses" such as feet on the desk, hands behind head, or standing with hands on hips and feet apart, the testosterone levels actually increase by about 20 percent and the stress hormone cortisol decreases by about 25 percent.
While this is information that can be useful to any of us in day to day life, such as presenting at a meeting, going on a job interview, asking for a raise, or wanting to present as confident on a date, where this information can be really valuable is when used with abuse victims, people in homeless shelters, and other individuals whose self-esteem has suffered. Dr. Cuddy recommends doing the "Wonder Woman Pose" (hands on hips, feet apart) for a couple of minutes each morning to build confidence. She has many followers who swear by her teachings and truly believe that engaging in the various power poses have helped them get jobs and achieve other successes.
While we have known for a long time that tall people earn more money, or that police officers use different sized chairs or stand up around a suspect to appear larger and more intimidating, these new findings are fascinating. I think of my own pets and the animals I have worked with and observed in the past. How many of us have witnessed an animal make himself "bigger" by puffing out his fur, standing up taller, etc, when scared or feeling threatened. Perhaps it is not just that it makes them seem bigger to potential predators, scaring them off, but maybe it also causes a chemical and hormonal response that gives them more confidence as well. For what we know about animal interaction, it is not out of the question that it causes a change in pheromones that only the other dog, cat, or raccoon can sense.
Now excuse me as I go put on my magic bracelets, grab my lasso of truth, and stand like Wonder Woman for two minutes.
Fascinating new information came out of a study at Washington University in St. Louis yesterday that may lead to a better understanding of schizophrenia--perhaps the most debilitating of all psychiatric illnesses. We have always known there is a genetic link to schizophrenia; only about 1% of the population is diagnosed with the disease, but if you have relatives with the disease, your risk increases, with the risk being 50% if your identical twin has been diagnosed with it. In the past, studies tended to look for one genetic marker, but as we learn more and more about how our DNA works, we are learning more and more about many illnesses, including mental illnesses, and realizing that they are often too complicated to be caused by one broken gene.
The Washington University study suggests that schizophrenia may actually be more like eight different diseases, not one, and that many genes are acting in concert to cause the symptoms of schizophrenia, typically hallucinations, disorganization, and flat affect. The researchers found that certain gene clusters were risk factors, not simply one specific gene, and that there were different clusters or causes, not just one.
These results may change how we diagnose and treat schizophrenia and other illnesses. Medications have improved over time, but real breakthroughs haven't happened in awhile, and anti-psychotic medications still have side effects that some people can't tolerate. Having a better sense of genetic makeup and the causes of the disease can help us choose better medications from those available and also help with the development of new medications that may be better able to target symptoms without the unpleasant side effects, some of which are debilitating, and at least with some older medications, irreversible.
CNN's Anderson Cooper did a fantastic job of showing what it's like to experience the auditory hallucinations that are typically experienced by someone with schizophrenia. The video, as well as the article about the Washington U study can be seen here Exercise In Empathy.
Most of us don't see people with chronic psychotic illnesses in private practice, as many are unable to work (therefore unable to get good health insurance to pay private practitioners), and most need more support than weekly, or even twice weekly, psychotherapy. And since only about 1% of the population has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, it is obviously not as common as many other illnesses. However, most psychologists did at least some training in hospitals and day programs, and have seen how difficult it is to manage the symptoms of this disease as well as the medications that need constant monitoring. If you watch Anderson Cooper's video, you can see how a presumably intelligent, capable person is reduced to incompetence, isolation, and frustration due to the cacophony of sounds in his head. Imagine now dealing with that every minute of every day, and you may start to understand how some of these patients live and why they are not typically in the population at large, but are instead in intensive treatment programs, group homes, and the like. When the newer medications hit the scene a couple of decades ago, with fewer side effects, more people with psychotic illnesses were able to work, go to school, and function better in society. Here's hoping that this new information aids in the development of even better treatment so that the vast majority of patients can find fulfillment in their lives rather than living with the torment that they do now.