Every once in a while, a good deed does not go unpunished. About a month ago I received a call from an acquaintance with whom I worked performing community work several years ago. Could she stop in and chat? As one might expect, people do not just stop in to “chat” with divorce lawyers without some particular thoughts in mind.
We met for about 20 minutes. By the standards of our parents’ generation she had the perfect marriage. Beautiful kids, financial security and prominence in the community. But as is so often the case things were not feeling that way. There was a suggestion that perhaps her spouse had not been faithful and, being an intelligent woman, her response was to research. The results were not encouraging. Because we knew each other, I got what I call the “ultimate question”. Was it time to end it? Personally, I hate this question. I have been doing this line of work for almost thirty years; I have been married twice during that time. But, who am I to tell another person whether he or she should try to preserve a relationship that was once seen as a lifetime commitment? There are days when I hear stories that make me want to blurt out: “You must be kidding.” But that’s not a lawyer’s role. Lawyers are at their best when they are Socratic. Ask the questions. Explore the options. Then let the client make the decision.
The subsidiary question I had posed in this meeting was whether marriage counseling made sense. Having once done it, I am not a big fan of marriage counseling. It is my own belief that when confronted in meetings by people we don’t know, our first goal is to try to look like reasonable people and to impress our new found acquaintance, the marriage counselor. Of course this comes at a price and that price is called ‘candor’. Second, there is a tendency to pull punches. I wish I could recall how many times a client has lit up in appreciation when I observed that it sounded like a spouse was more committed to a job or the children than the marriage. A recent article about how couples fight about money noted that many fights over money are merely stalking horses for other issues. I can’t look you in the face and tell you that I am unhappy about your weight, your lethargy, your inability to discipline our child, your fawning admiration of the idiot neighbor. But I can easily summon the courage to tell you that you should mow your own lawn or cut back on the credit cards.
So, I find that marriage counseling tends to work best as a second step. Step one is to see a counselor individually and do the preliminary work. With your own counselors you and your spouse can each let loose not only about each other but about what is working or not working in your own life besides your marriage. You can say what you want and not fear immediate rebuttal, rejection or impeachment. You can hopefully sort out where life has brought you and, most important; where you want to go next. That next step may mean separation and divorce. That’s alright too. But many times, individual therapy causes the patient to gain perspective. Also, don’t kid yourself. In individual therapy it’s easy to throw the punch and, as Napoleon once suggested, blame everyone not in the room. A good therapist is going to spar with you; challenging your views and asking questions intended to make you think.
Once you have put some time into getting your own emotional house in order; it is time to take the show on the road and do some couples counseling. But if your individual counseling convinces you that you are absolutely destined to end your current relationship; then don’t dishonestly go into marriage counseling. Ask your spouse for permission to speak to her therapist. Lay your thinking on the line. If nothing else this will help your spouse get insight from her own therapist as to how you got to your conclusion. That’s healthy for both of you.
I’m also a big fan of the written word. Not the texted or instant messaged thought. I mean something you will put hours into just as you did a paper in college. Your marriage is a relationship in which both you and your spouse have made an enormous investment. Don’t sell out cheap.
Divorce is often made more expensive because the lawyers are carrying their clients heavy emotional baggage. Carry your own. You will not find it pleasant but you will ultimately feel better about the experience. And you will save a stack of money.