The Divorce Lawyer’s Guide to Marriage, Part 1

How to really commit, and what you can do to create a good foundation.

The Divorce Lawyer's Guide to Marriage Part 1

by Erik Newton

photo courtesy of Mattia Pelizzari

filed under Advice, Fighting

The most surprising lessons I learned as a divorce lawyer were about how to keep marriages alive. I realize that sounds counterintuitive. Being a divorce lawyer was desensitizing and challenging. I watched good people making mistakes that would last a lifetime. I was in a unique position to help, but I was primarily being called on for my battlefield expertise. My best advice usually had to do with knowing when to disarm and de-escalate, and that advice was often ignored.

I have seen more relationship mistakes than I ever imagined get repeated, over and over.  Ultimately, no longer wanting to be part of that cycle caused me to retire my law practice and focus instead on helping people develop healthy relationships.

This is not to say that all relationships are meant to last. Relationships ebb and flow, and sometimes it’s best to let them peacefully complete. My work now is largely in the area of allowing relationships to take their course rather than forcing a solution.

Regardless of how a relationship plays out, the fundamentals of relationship health always apply. This series of articles is my attempt to review what I learned on the battlefield of divorce law.

Part 1 is about commitment. It’s a term we all toss around, but that we rarely consider and understand. Commitment is a state of mind, and for that reason, it is entirely within our control. It’s easy to define, but hard to understand. Commitment is not a hope, or a promise, or an intention. It’s more of a surrender to certainty. The type of surrender that a parent has in knowing that their child will be fed, no matter the circumstances. The type of surrender that a skydiver has when stepping out of an airplane.

Here’s what I learned about the slippery concept of commitment as a divorce lawyer:

  1. You’re in it to win it, or you’re not.

With commitment comes clarity. When we become aware that we simply know something is true, that’s the end of indecision and anxiety. Unexpected circumstances may still arise, but you’re committed to your path and there’s no more to be done about it. You’ve jumped out of the plane. There’s no way to put it in reverse. There’s a peace to that.

Commitment in a relationship takes many forms. Some of us commit for a time, and some for a lifetime. Whatever the commitment, once you’ve made it, the rest is simple (though not easy). You’ll do whatever it takes.

Here’s the tricky bit: results. On one hand, it’s pretty clear that if you didn’t do everything it took, that you were committed to something else. That’s okay–this is not a conversation about right and wrong, this is a conversation about being human. If you said you were committed, but took actions that led to some other result, you were actually committed to something else.

On the other hand, we’re just not in control of outcomes all the time, your commitments notwithstanding. Sometimes, not matter how committed, hardworking, or emotionally clear you are, things just don’t work out as you planned. That’s fine, too; the outcome isn’t the point. The commitment is.

The peace of commitment comes from surrender. You’re signed up; you’ll do everything you possibly can do, and that’s the end of it. The consequences are whatever they are. Your job is done. When that peace is absent, it’s a pretty good indication that you’re actually committed to something else–to the outcome aligned with the actions you took. For example, if you say you’re committed to monogamy, but you find yourself cheating, you’re committed to something else–it could be pleasure, it could be polyamory, it could be unhappiness–we don’t know, but you’re definitely not committed to monogamy. Just get honest about your actual commitment; it’s the most direct path to peace for everyone involved.

When your relationship faces seemingly insurmountable challenges, you’ll push through or you won’t. Just because you’re having a major challenge does not mean your relationship is doomed. It means your relationship is having a very tough time, like every relationship sometimes does. The question is what are you committed to. Get clear on that and peace follows. Every time.

  1. Go to therapy early and often.

We all bring baggage from the past. That’s just the human condition. Pretending it’s not so won’t change a thing. Going to therapy will. The most successful couples I’ve known have all—without exception—attended couple’s therapy together, or attended couple’s workshops early in their relationships, with frequent tune-ups. You can’t see the back of your head without a mirror, and you can’t see the impact of your personal baggage without the help of an expert.

If you’re thinking that you don’t need the help, you’re being naive or avoiding something you don’t want to face. It’s that simple. You’re human, and you have challenges. Handle them now or watch them grow. Later they’ll grow again, and you’ll have to handle them again. It’s like weeding a garden. This may be tough medicine for you, but it’s a simple fact in a committed relationship.

More deeply, the reason below the reason for divorce is scapegoating. Nobody wants to face this, but we are all responsible for our own experience—it’s ours alone. Tough circumstances certainly arise, and some partners are not the match we want; this is all true. But that is our own responsibility and nobody else’s. There is something about long-term romantic relationships that causes our personal issues to rise to the surface more quickly than anything else in life. Perhaps it’s because we’re so close that we let our guard down. Whatever the reason, it’s easy to scapegoat our partners for our bad feelings when they come up. It may be true that our partners trigger those feelings, but the feelings themselves belong to us. They are not our partner’s fault. The blame game will lead to a breakup. To avoid it, go to a therapist and learn about yourself.

That said, the form of the help isn’t nearly as important as being proactive before the challenges set in. Successful couples lay the foundation of self-awareness and communication before the inevitable hardships arrive. This can be done in therapy, or in a course or workshop, or with a trusted counselor like a pastor or rabbi. The point is to get started early. Trying to pour concrete in the rain is foolish. Lay it down and let it dry before the rainy season arrives.

I do believe the form is less important than the timing, but one word of caution here. Seeking help exclusively from friends is nearly uniformly a bad idea. Friends play a different role in our lives than that of neutral advisor. They’re too caught up in our stories to provide objective relationship guidance. As a divorce lawyer I saw well-meaning friends muddle relationships more times than I can count. Rather than burdening your friends with something they’re not equipped to handle, find a good therapist. Trust me, I’m a lawyer.

  1. Conflict is inevitable. Use it as your key.

Conflict is inevitable in a committed relationship. When it arises you have three choices: Ignore it (and let it fester), break up (and see it again in your next relationship), or use it to understand yourself and your partner. The last option is how we create trust and intimacy.

This is probably the core of my philosophy about relationships. Intimate partnerships drive up unresolved issues. If we explore those issues, we create depth.

It is our sacred duty to be available to heal our life partners in these moments, and to deal with our own issues that arise in the relationship. It’s a scary process; there is something risky about acknowledging our fears. It’s a challenging process; when our partners get triggered, chances are we’re also triggered. If you’re like me, all you want to do is run away in those moments. But it’s a valuable process, and possibly the entire point of being in relationship.

  1. Choose your battles, and choose your timing.

Maybe you don’t think of them as battles in the first place. That’s probably healthy. But since most people do think of them that way, at least be smart about them. First off, you’re not that important, and your personal desires, fears, and opinions—if you’re being honest—usually don’t matter as much as the health of your partnership. From that point of view, take a breath and consider if it’s really necessary to win every skirmish: who gets the remote, whose turn it is to do dishes, what tone of voice he used with that question. Maybe it’s true that your happiness depends on this one, but probably not. Your happiness probably has a lot more to do with allowing peace in your relationship rather than forcing change.

Second is timing. Do you really need to ask about repairing the screen door the moment your partner gets home from work? Probably not. This does raise the questions, however: When is the right time, and what is the right issue?

If you let yourself become still and quiet, you probably know the answer. That said, one solution that I have seen work for many couples is a scheduled, structured meeting. Once a week, set aside time to talk about the details, and break it down into three categories: (1) administrative, money, and time planning; (2) personal and emotional issues; (3) sex and intimacy. In each, start by discussing what’s working before discussing how it could be even better. Limit the “what could be better” discussion to two items in each category. Don’t worry; you’ll have plenty of time for the other issues next week. Work on handling one issue at a time, and then move on to the next.

Here again, the structure doesn’t matter as much as the proactivity. Create the system that works for you. Issues build up if you don’t manage them on a regular basis. This will be uncomfortable at first, but with dedication it gets much, much easier.

  1. Some things are worth standing your ground for, but lovingly.

Boundaries are critically important in every relationship, and more so in long-term commitment. It’s our boundaries that give us definition. Boundaries tell us what’s okay and what’s not. Boundaries in some sense tell us who and what we are. Without boundaries, relationships become codependent at best, and abusive at worst.

A phenomenon I noticed in divorce was that people who had never established healthy boundaries in the past, then began doing so suddenly, often erred on the side of anger and aggression. This is better than no boundaries, but often results in pushing loved ones away.

Boundary holding is an art form. First you have to know your own boundaries. Next you have to actually tell your loved ones when they’re over the line.

Here’s my advice on holding a boundary. Be firm, but loving. Do not let your boundaries be crossed, but be gentle in how you articulate the limits. If you are in a relationship, you want to develop love, not antagonize. Sometimes your partner will push your boundaries; nonetheless, treat them as a partner, someone you love. That does not mean letting them cross the boundary. It means firmly holding the boundary, and doing it lovingly, honestly, and clearly.

In Part 2 of this series next week, I’ll cover some universal relationship truths I learned as a divorce lawyer. For instance, I’ll tell you how you can win any fight—and how it’s almost never worth the cost.

Erik Newton is the founder of Together.

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