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Divorce guide updated for changing times

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Honolulu attorney Bradley Coates has handled thousands of divorce cases in Hawaii. The founder of Coates and Frey, the largest divorce law firm in Hawaii, has probably heard every reason for couples to divorce, both good and bad.

He shares a lot of these, along with other insights into marriage, in his book, “Divorce with Decency: The Complete How-To Handbook and Survivor’s Guide to the Legal, Emotional, Economic and Social Issues,” which just had its fourth printing.

First published in 1999 as a “how-to” handbook on divorce law, it is chock-full of anecdotes, statistics, analysis and even some fun stuff in the form of quotations about romance, marriage and divorce.

The new edition is 40 percent larger than the third edition, released in 2008, something that has more to do with “the incredibly rapid changes taking place in modern society than it does with any dramatic modifications having occurred within the divorce laws themselves,” Coates said.

These changes include the rise of the “She Economy,” the prevalence of cohabitation without marriage, the impact of social media and the Internet, the legalization of civil unions for both heterosexual and gay couples, and the tide of “gray divorces” among baby boomers.

In an email interview with the Star-Advertiser, Coates shared his thoughts on how economic issues have become the greatest stress on marriages and when it may be time to head for the “divorce door”:

Question: Your book talks about guys who haven’t been able to navigate the transition from “competing” to “connecting” as being one of the main reasons you’ve written the book. Can you comment a bit more on that?

Answer: Given the rapid rise of the power, success and influence which women are currently demonstrating in American society, it becomes essential for men who are accustomed to “competing” at everything from sports teams in high school to climbing the corporate ladder in their careers, to make a transition to “connecting” in their later lives — and especially within their social and romantic relationships.

Women file for two-thirds of all divorces in Hawaii, and they now rightfully expect a funny little component to their relationships called “communication,” which is not something guys are especially good at. Men need to make this transition from competing to connecting both in order to preserve their relationships and also to navigate the midlife transition to the “second stage” post-career portion of their lives.

Q: You talk about how the economic recession is affecting divorce — either putting so much stress on a marriage that it falls apart, or how it keeps some couples together because they can’t afford to live apart. What are the lessons to be learned from all this?

A: It has frequently been said that money, sex and family issues are the Big Three items which trigger divorce. Currently, money issues have moved to the very forefront of these “marital misery” problems. If the economy were to get better, then who knows … maybe people would get cocky thinking they could once again “have it all,” and sex might move back to the forefront (as has previously been the case in overly exuberant economic times).

Another aspect of all this is that the better off people are economically, the less inclined they are to get married in the first place. We are seeing this in several nations where the marriage rate is dropping precipitously — not only in the developed countries like the U.S. and Japan, but even more so in emerging nations like China and Korea.

There the “better off” elements of society are more inclined to live independently in a somewhat selfish lifestyle of their own choosing rather than having to make the sacrifices and trade-offs which are inherent in marriage. It may well be that the preferred lifestyle for affluent individuals may be to just remain single — and this is part of the reason why prominent sociologist Charles Martel has gone so far as to predict that if the current trend continues, somewhere between 2028 and 2034 the U.S. marriage rate will reach zero.

The marriage rate for adult Americans fell below 50 percent in the 2010 U.S. census. It used to be that 80 percent of all American adults were married in the 1950s, but that number has dropped to a minority 48 percent today.

Q: Your book includes a number of pithy quotations, almost all of them poking fun at marriage. Other than adding some humor into the subject, is there some hidden message in there? What’s your favorite quote about marriage?

A: My absolute favorite quote is this: “Whoever thinks marriage is a 50-50 proposition doesn’t know the half of it.”

In order to help “mellow out” my super-stressed divorce clients, I do occasionally make light of the duality which seems to be inherent in marriage. Yes, it is a great “institution” when it works, but as Mae West once said, “I am not ready for an institution.” The point being that marriage is difficult no matter how you slice it, but recognizing that degree of difficulty and being willing to compromise 80 or 90 percent of the time, rather than insisting on a straight 50-50 “I compromised last time — it’s your turn this time,” may be an essential skill to preserve marriages.

Q: What is the best advice you can give someone considering divorce?

A: The best advice I can give my clients is to tell them not to act impetuously or precipitously in heading for the “divorce door.” Don’t just cut and run because you are feeling unhappy or dissatisfied about some particular aspect of your relationship.

Instead make a realistic assessment of the alternatives. Is life really going to be better in some other configuration? Do I really want to give up all my important marital history, close relationships and family ties just so I can go pursue some spur-of-the-moment impulse?

Conversely, if you really are deeply unhappy and feel there is no ability to change things, even after having tried marriage counseling (which I always recommend), and if you really do feel there is no hope of preserving the marriage, then at least try to make a point of handling your divorce … with decency.

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