There’s a saying in legal circles: “Criminal law deals with bad people at their best, and family law deals with good people at their worst.” As you can imagine, divorce attorneys work with people who are in the midst of one of the most stressful and volatile periods of their lives. It’s our job to help our clients navigate these troubled waters and ensure they come out of the divorce with the best possible outcome.
What I’ve learned from doing this work for more than a decade goes beyond drafting settlement agreements or overseeing difficult custody trials. I’ve also gained valuable insight into what leads many clients to divorce in the first place, and we attorneys should learn from our clients. It’s obviously a lot more complex than determining whether a divorce petition is filed on the grounds of adultery, desertion, cruelty, or voluntary separation. Attorneys who practice family law get an inside look at relationship problems that create environments where affairs, arguments, or irreconcilable differences can fester.
To share some tips for healthy marriages, I reached out to about twenty of my divorce attorney friends in Maryland and Washington, D.C. The discussions I had with my colleagues led to some insightful, honest, and often hilarious contributions.
Commit to seeing a relationship counselor periodically (annually or even once every three or four years). As we all know, between jobs, kids, and the hectic pace of life, relationships tend to fall by the wayside. By having an annual “check-in” with a counselor, you are demonstrating a commitment to making your relationship or marriage a priority. Many people see marriage counseling as a last resort when they are already contemplating divorce. Once you are at that point, a lot of damage has already been done and a counselor often cannot fix that. Instead, invest the time and money to work with a professional to help before issues become problems. You wouldn’t hesitate to seek out professionals to assist you in other areas of life (i.e., tax preparers, athletic trainers, hairdressers, or career coaches), so you shouldn’t hesitate or feel guilty about putting the same time and effort into helping your relationship.
Don’t lose your own identity. I’ll be honest. This bad habit is a personal pet peeve of mine. While marriage means two become one in many ways, it drives me crazy when clients or friends abandon their individual email addresses and social media accounts upon getting married. When I have a client who asks me to use BabsANDLarry@aol.com for all email communication, it not only obliterates attorney-client privilege, but it also takes a method of interpersonal communication designed for two individuals and forces a three-way conversation. Email is not a home address or a telephone number for which you expect any member of the family to be a potential recipient. If I want to communicate with you and your spouse, I will add him or her to the email. But if you demand I use a joint email account, don’t be surprised if I email you articles about codependency. (If you have a shared email account, how do you send your spouse emails? My husband and I frequently email one another reminders and other notes throughout the day. I find it hard to fathom how spouses communicate without email these days.)
It takes two, baby. It takes both of you to make a good marriage and both partners need to work to make your marriage a priority. Maintain your relationship in ways big and small—a simple “I love you” note or volunteering to get up early with the kids on the weekend after you just finished a trial. There are many ways you can show you appreciate your spouse on a day-to-day basis. If you encounter rough patches in your marriage, don’t drift so far away from each other that you forget what brought you and your spouse together to begin with.
Practice honesty. You probably knew this one would make the list. Obviously you should not have an affair and lie to your spouse and you should be financially transparent, but it is also very important to be honest about the little things. If you don’t take that step, you establish a mistrust and lack of openness that will eventually grow into bigger issues. One attorney friend of mine said that she and her husband know each other’s passwords for everything. They have only joint bank accounts and credit cards and both check them regularly. She can locate her husband’s phone on her phone (and vice versa), which started as a logistical convenience for reasons such as knowing whether the other had left work without having to call and ask, but the upside is that it forces them to be honest. For example, it’s more difficult for my friend to fib and say errands took longer than she expected when she really decided to meet a friend for happy hour. Being honest holds everyone accountable.
Don’t be so hard on yourself! Marriage is a work in progress and each marriage is different. Stop comparing your marriage to those of your friends. Focus on what works for you and your spouse instead of trying to make your marriage “match up” to those around you. You’ll have good years and not-so-good years. It’s not about how great your marriage is all of the time—it’s how well you are able to handle the bumps in the road and move forward.
Fight differently. Fighting in any marriage is inevitable, but try to remember this: When you are fighting with your spouse or significant other, do it differently from when you are fighting for your client in a courtroom. Keep in mind that the goal is not the same. As a lawyer, you argue to get a win for your client, which inevitably means a loss for your opponent. But fighting with your spouse should be focused on finding an acceptable compromise between your two positions, or finding out what caused the fight in the first place.
Make your expectations clear. This can mean being clear about what you expect your spouse to be doing around the house, what each partner should contribute monetarily, or how each of you envision raising children. It also can be as simple as verbalizing what you expect your spouse to handle when you host an event at your home. People are not mind readers, and you can’t expect your significant other to meet your expectations (or even try to) if they don’t even know what your expectations are!
Share access. Both of you should have access to all joint accounts, know all passwords, frequently check in on what is being spent (and where), and keep track of your savings. Don’t allow yourself to become one of those clients who comes to the office with zero knowledge of the marital finances because “he (or she) always did all of that.” Not having open financial records breeds distrust and problems.
Be on the same page about spending. It is difficult when one party is buying luxury items, maybe because he or she is accustomed to doing so before the marriage, and the other spouse disagrees with the level of spending. It’s best to discuss major purchases with your spouse and refrain from keeping secret purchases to avoid arguments after-the-fact.
Keep some separate. The “experts” I polled were divided on this topic. Some folks think that it’s a good idea to keep at least one credit card and one checking account in your own name; others vouch for the total transparency approach (see the Practice Honesty section). I personally think that having the safety net of some cash in your own separate account is something everyone should have.
Don’t be afraid to talk about it. Period. If you are too afraid to talk about finances or if you haven’t had an honest conversation about how you intend to blend your finances after marriage, then you aren’t ready to get married.
Save time with money well spent. If domestic chores are an issue and you can afford it, hire someone to help out around the house and/or garden. Use the time you gain not cleaning your toilet to spend quality time with your spouse.
Kids and Families
Talk about kids before having them. You wouldn’t believe how common it is for people to get married without being on the same page about having kids. One person may think he or she can convince the other person to change his or her mind. You’re either on the same page or you’re not. While you’re at it, it’s important to talk about other kid-related things such as how will you divide the work? What do you expect your life to look like with a kid? Will one of you be a stay-at-home parent and if so, for how long? How will you balance the day-to-day struggle of work and family? What religious upbringing do you expect to give your children? Do you want your kids to go to private or public school?
Don’t forget the in-laws. How will your extended families play a part in your marriage? How will you juggle holidays and special events? What are your expectations as to how often you will spend time with the in-laws? It is important to set boundaries and have clear expectations about this issue before walking down the aisle. Fights over extended family are a common cause of marital problems and frustration.
Don’t stay in the relationship for the kids. Almost everyone agrees that it’s better for the kids for their parents to separate and have a good co-parenting relationship rather than live in the same house and hate each other.
The legal profession demands long hours, which means less time for the important work of maintaining a marriage. On top of that, many of us maintain a home and take care of children or other family members. Without help from our spouses in accomplishing domestic and family work, we are likely to experience burnout, exhaustion, and bitterness. By prioritizing your relationships and your own emotional well-being over less important activities and non–time-sensitive work, you will be better able to “have it all.” Remember: marriage has many benefits, but it is not without its difficulties. Be prepared to work for your marriage because, if you aren’t, you might end up working even harder to get through a divorce.