Twenty-two years ago, when I married one of my law school classmates, I thought we had it made. Two attorneys, both from a Top 25 law school, similar values, shared religious beliefs, same philosophy on children and on raising children, common interests, great sex life—what could go wrong?
Fast-forward 15 years, and we were separated, with four children, in the midst of either our 10th or 11th mediation session (I lost count along the way). Well then, what went wrong?
How did we get from there to here? (And let me jump ahead to let you know that we successfully repaired our marriage after a two-year separation, and together we built a new marriage, from the ground up, a million times better than before).
I’m here to tell you what they don’t teach you in law school, what they should be warning you about, and why law firms should care. Your relationship with your spouse or significant other is your most important relationship. Attorneys and the legal community aren’t spending any time talking about it. It affects how you work, how you lead, how you attract clients, and how you bring in new business. As the noted psychotherapist, author, and TED speaker Esther Perel says, “The quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives,” so it’s about time to start talking about attorneys and their marriages and partner relationships.
Currently, attorneys have an ever-increasing alcoholism rate, with as many as one in five practicing attorneys self-reporting as a “problem drinker,” twice the national rate. The position of associate attorney is now ranked as the “Unhappiest Occupation” according to Forbes. Attorneys have increasing rates of depression, with 28% reporting having experienced depression.
While much of the focus in analyzing these statistics has been on the law firm culture and legal work in general, little attention is being paid to the attorneys’ home life and what might be going on there. People who are happily married live longer, healthier lives than either divorced people or those who are unhappily married. No one is talking about how to improve the quality of the attorneys’ relationships at home, the one place that might make the most difference.
So, what went wrong in my marriage and how did being great attorneys derail us from being great marriage partners?
1. Too often, we treated each other as combatants, as another attorney we were arguing points with, instead of treating each other as teammates, with similar goals. Here’s a hint: If you find yourself running through the Rules of Evidence in your head, about to gleefully point out a prior inconsistent statement, stop. Remember, this is your spouse, the one you’re standing with shoulder-to-shoulder, looking out at the horizon of your future together. You’re on the same team. Rules of Evidence don’t belong here.
2. We both wanted to be Right. And Win. Because that’s what attorneys do, especially litigators. That’s what we’ve been taught from the beginning. The reality is, no one is right. A marriage has two people with two subjective points of view. There is no absolute reality in your marriage. Remember this and you’ll go a long way toward resolving any conflicts.
3. Bringing in the Rules of Evidence in our conflicts was a precursor to the “Four Horsemen,” John Gottman’s term for particular kinds of negative interaction in relationships: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling. You may know them well. I found them commonly present in my litigation practice, both in the prosecutor’s office and in the law firm, on all sides. It seemed to be the nature of being an attorney, or at least a litigator (and my husband and I were both litigators). If the Four Horsemen show up in your home, they are signs of emotional separation, and in many cases, though it doesn’t have to be that way, divorce may only be a matter of time. Get help now.
4. We didn’t listen to hear each other or to understand each other or to fully accept each other; we only listened to respond. This is a big one. In conflict, and frankly, not only in conflict but simply in conversation, if either one of us were speaking, the other one was trying to come up with his/her response, the counter-point, the something to add. As attorneys, we are taught to respond, our brains are always working overtime, working through the logic in arguments, looking for the next thing to say. Some skills to develop to improve in this area include reflective listening (paraphrasing what is said and repeat it back), asking open-ended questions and being genuinely interested about the answers, and using silence as a tool (pause and wait for your spouse to say more, don’t jump to fill the silence yourself). Be curious and see what unfolds, learn something new about your spouse.
5. Legal practice, law firm life, litigation, whatever your assignment, is all-consuming. Billable hours, perceived job scarcity, the desire to be always available when you’re called upon, the desire to arrive first and leave last, leave little time for your spouse and for your family. “Growing apart” seems a natural outcome. I share that in quotes because I hear it often in my coaching practice (“We grew apart”), and those are the same words I used myself years ago to describe how and why our marriage was failing. But growing apart isn’t written in stone if you handle your relationship with intentionality. This includes carving out time for each other where you practice your listening skills (above). It also includes continuing to create shared meaning together, whether that’s rituals around your relationship (for example, coffee in the early mornings together or a regular date night), developing shared goals, supporting each other in your roles in your life, communicating daily appreciations of each other, and maintaining a rich sex life.
Perhaps most important, this list is not a “once and done” thing. These are skills that may not come naturally to attorneys because the skills that make you a great attorney don’t necessarily make you great at relationships or at maintaining them over a long period of time.
These days my husband and I regularly check in with each other—what’s working and what’s not working. We know each other’s “Love Language,” and we each deliberately communicate in the other’s language, even when it doesn’t come naturally. We make time for each other on a daily basis, and we share gratitude and appreciation for the other, intentionally. The Four Horsemen left our relationship, rode off into the sunset together, and we couldn’t be happier. If you see some of the same signs described above in your relationship, know that all hope isn’t lost. You can be an attorney and a great marriage partner and have a fantastic relationship.
About the Author
Aileen Reilly is a relationship coach, a former felony prosecutor and Big Law white collar criminal defense attorney who nearly lost her own marriage and now works with professionals to who feel their marriage is slipping away to help repair their relationship. Contact Aileen on Twitter @aileen_reilly.