What 1,000 divorces taught me about the truths underlying marriage.
Being a divorce lawyer was not always easy on my relationships or me. In fact, it tested me more than I ever expected. Out of the process, I found myself left with unexpected insights about relationship health. Last week I wrote about the lessons I learned on the topic of commitment. This week I’m turning to some universal truths about love that I picked up in divorce court.
- Your complaints are probably symptoms of a deeper issue.
Two common patterns become very clear in a divorce. First, we humans repeat our complaints over and over regardless of our circumstances. It’s as if the complaints themselves give us comfort and meaning, and the actual facts are secondary. I see this frequently play itself out in political conversations. And we see it in our personal relationships. For example: “I’m the one who does all the work around here,” or “You just don’t respect me.” The complaints remain the same; only the circumstances change.
Second, from one person to the next, we see that people have completely different reactions to the exact same circumstances. “One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure,” as the saying goes. To one person, infidelity is a disaster; to another, it’s a hiccup, for instance.
When these two patterns meet, what becomes clear is that our complaints are not rooted in our circumstances, but in something much deeper and older. The psychological community often talks about this in terms of old wounds from childhood. We all have unresolved fears and traumas from childhood, and the behavior patterns those traumas create play out in our daily adult lives. Therapy helps us recognize and deconstruct those patterns so we gain a measure of freedom from them. You might also take a spiritual perspective and think of these patterns as karma.
These patterns, however you think of them, manifest in our intimate relationships perhaps more than anywhere else in life. For many of us, the pain that comes with having our patterns triggered is too great to bear, so we blame our partner. But the pain is ours alone. We are responsible for our own experience and our own patterns. Experiences and feelings do not just float about in the universe and land on us. They are generated within, by us and for us. I say “for us” because I have found that there is value in recognizing the patterns: There are lessons available in the pain if we’re willing to listen.
If we want our relationships to survive, it is our duty to manage our triggers. Step 1 is to recognize and acknowledge that our complaints run deeper than our circumstances. Step 2 is to bring them into the light of awareness and understand how these triggers operate. Step 3 is to realize that you are not your triggers. You are something much, much greater.
If you do not deal with your issues/triggers/patterns, they will follow you from one relationship to the next until you face them. So get started. You owe it to your partner if not yourself.
- Being right is usually not worth the cost.
Most of the time, it simply doesn’t matter if you’re right or wrong. Perhaps if you were on a battlefield, then life and death decisions would rely on your judgment. When you’re having a disagreement with your partner, however, it probably just doesn’t matter.
If you look deep, you will see that the need to be right is rooted in fear. Some belief way down deep is telling you that if you don’t convince your partner of this particular issue, then things are going to be very, very bad. What you’re not seeing is that insisting on being right is slowly killing your relationship.
Maybe it’s true that bad things will happen if you don’t convince your partner this time. There are certainly important decisions to be made in relationships. But if you’re being honest, most of the time that’s just not the case.
Why should you care? Because insisting on being right will destroy any hope of a real connection in your relationship. An intimate emotional connection relies on our understanding and sharing of our core experience with one another, of seeing one another. The knee-jerk need to be right is really just a way to put up walls around your fear, and that’s the opposite of connecting.
Also, nobody is right all the time. Insisting that you are is crying wolf. It destroys your credibility for the times when it really matters. And lack of credibility in a relationship means that your partner is just tolerating you, rather than respecting and connecting.
The challenge is that we only have the experience that starts behind our own eyeballs. Everything in the world appears to revolve around us, and so it seems that it must be true. How could it be otherwise? This raises the distinction between experience and truth. Your experience is totally legitimate as an experience, but it may not be objectively accurate. And it doesn’t really matter either way if what you want is a warm, connected relationship.
The antidote to this cycle is recognizing and understanding the fear at the core of your argument. Ask yourself whether the issue you’re debating truly matters to your safety or well-being. If it does, then manage the issue appropriately. Since it probably does not, I advise that you let it drop. Don’t be right this time. Start now, because it takes practice.
- You can probably win any argument just by being the craziest or the most stubborn. But it will ruin your relationship, and numb you to life.
One of the dirty secrets about our legal system is rooted in a basic human truth. The crazier and more stubborn person almost always wins the fight. This is because it’s not usually worth the resources required to win a long fight, even when you’re in the right. Attorneys’ fees and emotional anguish almost always outweigh any return you’re likely get by winning a court case. The crazy and the stubborn among us don’t care about the cost, so they often win by attrition.
The costs, however, always get paid, whether in wasted time, emotional pain, money, or lost human connection. It’s not that the crazy person doesn’t pay the price, it’s that they don’t care what they have to pay.
In the relationship context, the cost is the relationship itself. Much like insisting on being right, the dogged insistence on winning at all costs will result in a dead relationship with no intimacy or true connection. We don’t trust people who are crazy or doggedly stubborn, because they’re not rational. Nobody genuinely wants to be in a relationship with someone who fights that way. The only reason they stay is they think they have no other option. And that’s no way to build a solid foundation for a relationship. Not only does winning fights by being crazy or stubborn destroy any hope of intimacy, it’s no way to plan a future. And it numbs us to life.
- Your kids are more important than you. Deal with it.
If you’re a parent, you already know this. If you’re considering being a parent, you need to learn this. Your kids are more important than you are. The well-being of children simply comes first, whether you like it or not. Your kids are dependent on you, and there’s nothing you can do about it. The courts know this, your community knows this, and you need to know this.
The implication is that you’re going to be making a lot of choices that are not comfortable to you personally, but are the right thing for your family. We always hear about the lack of sleep and sex that come with having a newborn in the house. What we hear about less often are the gut-wrenching choices parents are sometimes faced with. The cinematic example is the parent who pushes a child out of the way of an onrushing vehicle, knowing he’ll be killed himself. Less heroically, however, parents make daily sacrifices: foregoing an extraordinary career opportunity because of a critical scheduling issue with the kids, giving up the car, the party, the trip. The list is endless. And when the time comes to make the sacrifice, bemoaning the choices doesn’t change their inevitability. It just harms your relationship.
A very challenging circumstance that arose a lot in the divorce context was the following. Parent A makes a unilateral choice about the kids that is somehow bad for parent B. Parent B is angry that they hadn’t been consulted, and wants to change back, or at least get an apology and a promise that it won’t happen again. Neither is forthcoming, because it can’t be changed at this point, and parent A thinks it was the right choice anyway.
Obviously this is not ideal. Parent A should have consulted parent B, and should definitely apologize. It’s not surprising that parent B is angry. At this point, parent B has two options. Swallow it and move on, or make a big deal out of it and possibly harm the kids.
In the divorce context, a series of these kinds of behaviors often add up and never get resolved. The resentment eventually kills the relationship, and then I’d get a visit from one of the parents. Divorce is sometimes manageable for children, but usually it’s harmful no matter how well the parents handle it.
It’s tough medicine, but this is the time to swallow the indignation. The kids are more important than your ego. Do what’s right for the kids, and everything else will fall into place. Or maybe it won’t, but it doesn’t matter anymore. What matters is your kids.
- The truth is coming out eventually.
The truth will out. By this I do not mean a factual truth, I mean core truths about your identity. You might or might not get away with buying that handbag, but if there’s something about yourself that you’re trying to bury, it will come out eventually, and probably not in ways you will like.
The classic example is the aggressively homophobic public figure who turns out to be having an affair with a gay prostitute.
But this plays itself out in less extreme examples as well: the man who moved to the Midwest for the sake of his wife’s career, but feels emasculated, and so lashes out about household chores; the woman who craves BDSM in the bedroom, but is scared to ask for it, so slowly wilts in her marriage, becoming ever more distant from her spouse. When a core truth goes unexpressed, or some experience deeply triggers us in our relationship but we try to bury it, it won’t stay underground for long. If we don’t deal with triggers head on, they worm their way to the surface as resentment, or misplaced anger, or sudden spitefulness. They will come out.
If you’re noticing a nagging thought, it’s best to speak it. Certainly pick your time and place. Be gentle in how you articulate yourself. Take responsibility for your experience, but speak it.
If there’s a fundamental truth that’s not coming out, the cost is life satisfaction. Avoiding a core truth about yourself hurts you far more over the long term than the short-term pain of being honest.