Tag Archives: Wounds in marriage

Lawyers: A Secret Weapon in Marriage Preservation

cakes-i-made-078As the court expands the definition of marriage, lawyers in the trenches guide couples through the painful process of divorce. Some cases involve blended families, some are high conflict, and some have children caught in the crossfire of parents divorcing for a second or third time.

Traditionally, family lawyers have been surgeons dismantling marriages with a scalpel of skilled advocacy in a courtroom, mediation or collaborative four way meeting. Until now family lawyers, and lawyers in general, have overlooked our role as a resource for another option: marriage preservation.

A group of collaborative lawyers in Minnesota noticed some clients who came for consultations had mixed feelings about whether to divorce. In response, they teamed with University of Minnesota professor Dr. Bill Doherty and his marriage therapist colleagues, to explore the issue. Guided by studies that show one year after divorce 31% of men and 13% of women said, “I wish I had worked harder to save my marriage,” and research that showed 50% of divorces were from low-conflict marriages, the lawyers and therapists named this phenomenon “divorce ambivalence.”

According to Dr. Doherty, people considering divorce will reach out to friends, family, coworkers and divorce lawyers hoping to gain insight in the decision making process. As leaders in our social circles, lawyers are often these “marital first responders” among our friends and family, in addition to those clients who seek our services. Doherty’s research concludes that marital first responders have a great influence over whether these people actually divorce.

Although Iowa is a “no fault” state, people usually describe the reasons they are considering divorce. In Doherty’s studies the “hard issues” (abuse, addiction, adultery) are less frequently cited. Instead it’s mostly “soft issues” such as lack of attention from one’s spouse, money problems, inability to talk together or a spouse’s personal habits.

Doherty finds all marital first responders can influence the following depending on the advice they offer:

  1. Whether a couple ultimately divorces;
  2. Whether a couple talks through ambivalence so they gain clarity on whether that divorce is the best option for them;
  3. Whether a couple “airs out” the emotion and reasons for the choice to divorce, or carries unresolved emotion into a divorce proceeding.

Iowa Code Section 598.16, provides for “conciliation,” upon the motion of one party. In my experience, court orders forcing marriage counseling only guarantee a body sitting in a chair at a counselor’s office. Marriage counseling of unknown duration sounds unappealing to a spouse who may have one foot out the door. Many lawyers tell a client NOT to talk to their spouse, resulting in suppressed emotions while the lawyers begin to plan for battle.

Responding to this gap in resources, Dr. Doherty developed “discernment counseling” a counseling protocol of 1-5 sessions directed at the specific question “Should we get divorced?” not “How can we save our marriage?” After completing training for lawyers on this discernment protocol, members of my collaborative law practice group have begun to suggest discernment counseling to clients. We have also recruited some local marriage counselors to travel to Minnesota to train with Dr. Doherty.

Discernment counseling creates a “pause” before jumping into divorce. At the first session, the couple begins a conversation about whether they should continue in the marriage in it’s present state, commit to a fixed term of six months of intensive marriage counseling, or divorce. They identify as “leaning in” or “leaning out” of the marriage.

I notice a number of positive byproducts in my clients who have chosen discernment counseling.

  1. Spouses resisting divorce who may otherwise create barriers are less combative, indecisive, and feeing “pushed” by the divorce process and court deadlines;
  2. Strong emotions move out of the way faster, so I can offer higher quality legal work due to less triage of emotional outbursts;
  3. Couples easily plan healthy scripts to tell the children about the divorce together, so that one spouse doesn’t hijack the conversation to try to vindicate blame.
  4. The couple feels like they truly exhausted all options before divorcing.
  5. Couples work better as a team, often opting into collaborative divorce and creating a “softer landing”.

Although I am unaware of studies indicating how many marriages are preserved in this process, I am sure there are some. In each of my consultations I carefully guide clients through a discussion about whether the marriage can be saved before rushing into filing for divorce. I mention it often when I serve as a mediator, especially as I detect ambivalence in the stories I hear. I can’t remember ever having any potential client be put off by this and instead I have had incredibly good responses to this approach, including from the clients who have opted for discernment counseling then come back to go through with divorce.

Each of us is likely to be a marital first responder at some time, either professionally or personally. Do we say, “I’m so glad you are finally leaving him/her!” even when we are approached by friends or family? Or will we encourage those in crisis to reflect carefully about their decision to divorce? In our legal practice, should lawyers take down initial data and run to the scanner to e-file a divorce at the first visit? Or are we better gatekeepers for families in every walk of life to realize the influence we have on those contemplating divorce, and to encourage the possibility of a “pause?”

I know I have felt an increase in my effectiveness and satisfaction as an advocate for families, by providing a deeper exploration of divorce ambivalence with those who seek my guidance.

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What if?

help-life-preserver-belt-sky-rescue-17173335Dear God, Please heal my romantic wounds, that I might give and receive true love.  Teach me how to let love in, and how to let it stay. –Amen

From “The Age of Miracles,” by Marianne Williamson.

 Recently I was contacted by a group of people working to promote the preservation of marriage.  It seems humorous to think a divorce lawyer,  herself twice divorced, would have something to offer the group.  But I’ve come to marvel at how God uses our mistakes and wounds, once healed, for His most important work.

I always ask clients who come into my office seeking divorce whether the marriage can be saved. Sometimes mediation first round discussions involve the question of whether the the divorce should continue. Clients will say they have tried to save the marriage, but that one or the other wouldn’t commit, or refused to give up a third party or a debilitating habit.  Many have tried marriage counseling.

The statistics the preservationists showed me indicate that in 75% of divorces at least one spouse is having second thoughts one year later.   In one survey 31% of men and 13% of women said they “wished I had worked harder to save my marriage.”

As we brainstormed ways lawyers could help in a marriage preservation initiative, I couldn’t help but think of my own divorce from FP. Even five years post divorce I ask myself that question every now and again.  “What if I had stayed?”

After years of hearing divorce stories and creating two of my own, I am convinced that the most important part of staying married is a commitment for the partners to “do their personal work.”  We are all wounded, some more than others, but until we have the courage to heal ourselves we can never reach the fullness of life that God created for us. If we are not whole, we can’t sustain an intimate relationship.

In her book “The Age of Miracles” author Marianne Williamson writes that in relationships, couples are ” drawn to each other in a way that our neuroses form a perfect fit. The ego’s intention is that they trigger each other’s wounds, but God’s intention is that they heal each other’s wounds. Which it will be is up to them. Whoever is willing to do the work in a relationship, seeing it as an opportunity for self-healing, will receive the blessing whether the other person makes the same choices or not. ”

“This is soon going to be a runaway train, ” I told FP shortly after filing for divorce, knowing how the legal process worked. “I think we both need to fix ourselves.  I am willing to do the hard work. If you will do it too, I will walk alongside you and hold your hand.   This is a defining moment that I will remember fighting for our marriage. Will you commit to doing the work?”

He stayed silent and continued eating a bowl of cereal.

I had a choice. I could stay, or cut loose for my journey of self to heal wounds that I had carried in to two marriages. I knew lessons we don’t learn will come back around until we have embraced them.

A couple we were friendly with came the next day and moved FP in with them. The marriage preservation folks say that friends who enter our story at this time have a great deal of influence over whether the marriage ends. They say that friends should be empathetic and listen, but should not encourage divorce. Instead they should refer us to resources that support entering upon a healing journey.

I often wonder what FP told those friends. They never had a conversation with me. I wonder what might have happened if, instead of whisking him away, they had sat us both down and counseled us to do the hard work. Interestingly, those friends have since divorced.

What makes some of us have the courage to heal our lives while others stay stuck?  Is it fear of the pain of looking in the mirror? Unwillingness to put forth the effort?  Lack of commitment to our partner, or to our marriage?  A combination of the above?  With FP, I will never know. One of the most painful things a partner in a marriage can do is to disconnect from someone they still love in order to embark on a journey of self.

“Healing can hurt,” writes Williamson. “Whether it’s the healing of having to face the shame of our own humiliation, or the pain of having to turn our backs on someone whose patterns are unhealthy for us to be around though we love them still.  Either way, the pain of the healing is far preferable to the pain of remaining at the effect of a neurotic pattern.”

I am a totally different person having made the difficult choice to leave.  I found life.  I don’t know exactly how to articulate this to my marriage preservation friends, most of whom describe long term healthy marriages where they have both committed to do the hard personal work.  What would they have done if their mate had been unwilling to join them on the journey?

I mourn for the marriages where only one chooses to heal. I wonder where I would be if FP had joined me. Where we would be. Even if we had done the work together would we have ended up a stronger couple?  Or would our mutual healing have led us to separate places?  I will never know.

According to Williamson, “Each must choose. The one who learns and grows will mature and ripen with age.  The one who doesn’t will just grow old….”

Divorce was a necessary step for me.  When I meet with clients, in addition to asking whether the marriage can be saved, I now ask them if they have explored deeply the idea of “doing their personal work together.” Some I send off to discernment counseling, a unique way of counseling around the question of “will we commit to try to save our marriage?” Others, I refer to individual counseling so that the pain of divorce breaks them open to finding themselves. I feel that by softly asking these questions and encouraging people to transform their lives, I am not just a machine filing divorces for the people who bring me a retainer.

The most important part of my healing journey was of course, strengthening my connection with God. “The problem with not yet leaning on God is that we tend to lean inordinately on other people. Failing to embrace a love that will always be there for us, we become vulnerable to ones that won’t be,” writes Williamson.

Whenever I ask myself the “what if” question, mine is worded a little differently.

“What if I had stayed,

And missed my life?”

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