February 8, 2001
Advice From the Trenches
A prominent divorce attorney offers her 10 Commandments of how to avoid a breakup.
The statistics haven't changed much in the close to 30 years I've been in practice. About 50 percent of all American marriages end in divorce. As a family law attorney, I work with people every day who are giving up on their dreams of marital bliss. And in many cases -- for my client and for the well-being of children involved -- ending the marriage is a good idea. Marriages that break up because of untreated physical abuse, gambling, drug and alcohol problems, and infidelity are often damaged beyond repair. In those cases it's usually best for everyone concerned if the marriage is dissolved, allowing the innocent spouse to move on with his or her life.
But then there are the other cases, the marriages where the differences are not truly irreconcilable, where love still remains, although buried under misunderstandings, neglect or just the stress of daily living. In these cases, the problems may not be insurmountable. In the past four years, I have sent more than 100 couples to communication skills counseling instead of the courtroom. Of those couples, 60 percent have reconciled, many having fallen back in love (yes, it's possible), deciding together to give their marriage another chance.
I'm not worried about putting myself out of business. Unfortunately, divorce will always be with us. And although I may be a divorce attorney, I am also a wife, mother and grandmother. Preserving intimate relationships is fundamental to our happiness as individuals and as a society in general. Since I see relationships being destroyed every day, I think I have more insight than the average person about why relationships break up. Based on my experience, I've developed what I call the "10 Commandments for a Healthy Marriage or Relationship":
1. Prioritize Your Partner Above Career, Friends and Housework.
Remember the third entity in this relationship: the marriage itself. I see so many cases where people are so busy with work or the children that they simply do not pay attention to their partners. In our busy lives, something has to give. It may be the dirt on top of the refrigerator or the overtime at work, but it should never be your partner. If one person consistently takes a back seat to the kids, a career, housework, whatever, he or she will start to think "What am I doing here?" and be tempted to move on.
2. Share Responsibilities.
Busy people can do anything, but not everything. If one spouse takes on all the responsibilities with the household, the kids, the social obligations, and so forth, ultimately that will backfire. Hostility and resentment are two big factors that lead to divorce court.
3. Make Dates With Your Spouse and Keep Them.
Your time and energy are finite. If you extend yourself in a million directions, you won't have much left to give. Remember the feeling of being special to each other. Always keep in mind that there are three aspects of your relationship: you, your partner and the marriage. The marriage must be a priority, or you and your partner will suffer.
4. Let Go.
If you're the type of person who has to do everything yourself "or else it won't be done right," you're doing your spouse a disservice. By not allowing partners to contribute, to handle things their way, spouses are telling them, in effect, that they do not matter, that they are incompetent and can't be depended upon. Those are dangerous messages to send to someone you're supposed to love.
5. Create Space for Yourself.
Everyone needs privacy. The fact that you are married shouldn't preclude the need for your own space. Take some quiet time alone during the day; even a few minutes makes a difference. Encourage your spouse to do the same. If you are so dependent on the other person that he or she starts to feel smothered, you're asking for trouble.
A partnership is based on knowledge, on sharing, on knowing the little things. This doesn't mean dumping the trash of the day, but it does mean communicating what has occurred that is important, frightening or cheerful. Understand that this sharing does not necessarily invite suggestions on how the problems could have been better handled; instead, it offers another shoulder to help bear the burdens of the day. And don't forget to compliment each other. Something as simple as "You cooked a great meal," really means a lot. We compliment other people, so why not each other?
7. Create a Mutual Interest.
Partners can grow apart as they build separate careers and cultivate separate hobbies. Find something that interests you both, such as skiing, antiquing, religion, concerts, politics or even watching sports together. In many long-term marriages, where there are no common interests or goals, the parties grow apart and become like two strangers on a bus. This does not mean that you each can't have diverse interests that you do not share; it just reiterates the importance of that third entity, the marriage.
8. Take Care of Yourself Every Day.
No one is as important as you are. If you are not healthy or happy, nothing else works. Recreation really means re-creation, and everyone needs it. An unhealthy life style creates stress and anger. Little things like exercise, a relaxing bath, or even lunch with a friend can make the time with your partner more worthwhile. If you want your partner to respect you, you have to show respect for yourself.
9. Direct Your Anger Appropriately.
If you are angry with your boss or your business partner, don't take it out on your spouse. It is okay to share the anger with your loved one, but don't lose sight of the source of that anger. If your spouse is angry with someone other than you, give him or her an opportunity to express that anger without becoming defensive. Anger, at times, is appropriate, but its expression should be limited in time and always be directed at the appropriate person or incident.
10. Plan Escape Time Together.
Everyone needs to get away. Plan an escape -- a few days, overnight, even just an evening out -- so the two of you can remember why you got married in the first place. Without this time to gain perspective and refresh the marriage, it is easy to get bogged down in the everyday details of life.
I may be a divorce attorney, but I'm a romantic at heart. If more people followed my "10 Commandments," I'd have a few less clients in my office. And that would be just fine with me.
Lynne Z. Gold-Bikin is a partner with Wolf, Block, Schorr & Solis-Cohen and a past chair of the American Bar Association's Family Law Section.