What are the challenges that come with marrying a lawyer and maintaining a happy marriage with a lawyer? Are there special rules or considerations when loving a lawyer?
I sat down with two therapists, Laura Freeman and Will Meyerhofer to help me figure this out. Freeman, a clinical psychologist in California, is in a unique position to share her insights and advice because she is married to a lawyer, Brian Freeman. Meyerhofer is a former Sullivan & Cromwell BigLaw refugee who went on to become a psychotherapist.
It is fair to say that both Freeman and Meyerhofer have many helpful thoughts on the subject of staying in a relationship with a lawyer.
Insight into the Lawyer World
First, let’s start by offering some insight for the non-lawyers into the lawyer world. When I asked Freeman what nonlawyers should understand about their lawyer-spouse’s world, she said:
One of the most prominent stressors I’ve noticed is that my husband constantly has people upset with him. There seems to be very little reward in the daily grind. He or she has clients who are hurting and confused, and they look to Brian to magically solve their ailments. Understandably, they are upset when he cannot fix their problems, or it takes a long time to fix their problems. Then, in court, he has opposing counsel and judges who seem to be upset with him (there probably isn’t anything personal there, but the nature of the courtroom is adversarial). So all day long, he deals with people being upset with him. It is like a glorified customer service representative position, which takes its toll on my husband.
Every lawyer can relate to this. Most clients do not visit lawyers to share happy news. Inevitably, they come to us with a problem, and the client wants the lawyer to make it go away. Often, the cases we are working on have a lot at stake. This pressure is extremely stressful because so much of what we are expected to do is completely out of our control. A lawyer can prepare day and night, work around the clock, try their absolute best, and still lose. But lawyers are expected to deliver a win regardless of the lack of control a lawyer has over opposing counsel, their client, the judge, and the jury.
Attorney Emilie Fairbanks explains it this way:
We work all the time. We think about work all the time. We are not good at being wrong. We are sore losers. We tend to be verbal and take up all the air in the room. We live in a world measured by winning and losing which colors your view of the rest of your life. We problem solve when empathy is needed. Many of us are secret introverts, protecting our precious alone time after days of fighting, just when our partners want our attention.
Lawyers, Know Yourself!
As a lawyer, you can take control of the stress and anxiety instead of letting it bleed into your relationships. One way you can do this is through mindfulness.
The only way you are going to know your work life is having a negative impact on your love life is by having awareness. Awareness can only be gained by carefully paying attention to each moment. Moreover, in addition to awareness, we also need to practice acceptance.
When we stop trying to get rid of the stress (we stop fighting it; we stop hating and resenting it), and we simply accept that stress is there, and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon — that’s when we notice a reduction in the subjective experience of stress … It’s a paradox. Hate the stress = very stressed. Accept the stress = less stressed.
In other words, when you are feeling stressed, work on acknowledging and accepting rather than judging the experience. Acceptance and commitment therapy is an excellent type of therapy for this issue.
Meyerhofer also suggests you begin by becoming aware of the problem and approaching others with kindness. This awareness is the cornerstone of mindfulness practice. When you are in hyperdrive due to the stress from work — preparing for a trial, coming up for partnership, or facing deadlines — you can gently bring awareness and attention to your emotions.
Tips for the Non-Lawyer in Supporting a Lawyer
As the non-lawyer in the relationship, what can you do to help or support the lawyer you love?
Learn Empathy and Compassion
Like any relationship, empathy and compassion are key. Empathy is the ability to share and understand someone else’s emotions. Compassion is the ability to see the suffering of others together with the natural desire to help. Truly, one of the best gifts we can offer to our loved ones — and to any human being — is compassion and empathy. Freeman practices compassion and empathy by asking herself how she would feel in her husband’s shoes after arguing with people all day.
Recognize the Challenges
Meyerhofer says that lawyers can be very needy. They often come home emotionally drained from a long day at the office. Of course, even as a non-lawyer, you may also have had a terrible day. Both you and your lawyer partner should recognize the difficulties of each other’s work. A lawyer will often see their job as the hardest job in the whole world. Remind your partner that your work can be difficult and time-consuming too.
Meyerhofer also says that lawyers will often suffer from mild forms of depression, which shows in the lack of appropriate emotional response. For example, when the partner at the firm says “this work is terrible, you aren’t even trying” after the lawyer pulled several all-nighters to do something that they have never done before or given appropriate guidance on, an appropriate response should be anger. However, lawyers will instead internalize these negative criticisms.
Again, it requires awareness to notice that your partner is overly harsh with themselves, that they are holding themselves up to an impossibly high standard that no one can meet. Lawyers are often expected to be perfect and expect the same from themselves. But mistakes will and do happen. When mistakes do happen, be compassionate. Recognize that your partner is in pain and simply be there for them.
Finally, Meyerhofer suggests celebrating victories. Lawyers are often motivated by the stick rather than the carrot. When the lawyer lands that big client or finally gets the mergers and acquisition deal completed, give them a carrot and celebrate these wins. Tell them they did a great job. Offer genuine words of praise and support.
Self-Care is Your Responsibility
Of course, empathy and compassion must be mutual. You can only care for others as well as you are able to care for yourself. Which brings me to the next important topic: self-care.
Self-care is the mindset that we can only care for others if we care for ourselves. As is repeated on every airline safety video: Secure your own oxygen mask before assisting others.
Another key component to self-care is setting boundaries between your work and family responsibilities. Self-care doesn’t need to be extravagant or expensive. Treating yourself to small things that bring you pleasure such as reading a great book, going for a walk, or spending time in nature can make a huge difference.
Here’s how Freeman practices self-care:
I learned the hard way that during a busy day with multiple appointments, I must schedule a few minutes of time to myself every hour — a bathroom break, a walk around the building, 5 minutes to close my office door and not be disturbed, etc. Without those small breaks, my day doesn’t go well. Self-care can be big-scale like a vacation, or it can be small like taking a bathroom break.
It’s important to remember that self-care is something you can only do for yourself. You can certainly encourage each other by doing things as a couple that nourishes each of you. However, you can’t force your partner to exercise, eat right, or get enough sleep.
How to Engage in Conflict with a Lawyer
Many lawyers live in a world of constant conflict; therefore, it’s entirely possible that your lawyer partner is much more skilled at fighting than you are. However, the biggest difference is that at the office, lawyers fight on behalf of their clients so that they win. But in romantic relationships, “winning” the fight probably harms the relationship. While it may give the winner a temporary satisfaction, it will likely foster resentment and eventually escalate the conflict.
Freeman emphasizes the need to be able to express emotions safely:
With couples, it’s essential for each person to be aware of and [be] able to express his/her own emotions in a safe and non-harmful way. Then, each person must hear the other’s perspective and show compassion for it.
Related to the idea of expressing emotions in a safe and non-harmful way, Meyerhofer adds what he calls “illegal remarks.” As a therapist, he is never supposed to tell someone they are thinking. Similarly, don’t assume you know what your partner is thinking.
Meyerhofer recalls a partner at law firm saying things like “you’re not even trying” or “did you put any thought into this?” These are illegal remarks because the partner is assuming he knows how much effort or thought Meyerhofer put into his work. Of course, no one but Meyerhofer could know that. A more appropriate comment might be, “This work doesn’t meet my standard.”
Your thoughts are a very private place. No one can tell you what you are thinking or feeling. When you are engaged in conflict, be mindful of “illegal” remarks and don’t try to read your partner’s mind.
The Neediness of the Law
I recall a partner at a law firm telling me that the law is a very possessive mistress; I tend to agree. Most lawyers work too much.
There is no easy solution to this because lawyers earn a living by selling their time. When the goal is to maximize profit, it requires the lawyer to work as many hours as humanly possible.
Freeman offers this practical advice:
- Take time each weekend to look at your calendars for the week.
- Keep each other in the loop about how busy the week looks. This helps to set and adjust expectations.
- Plan couple and family times each week even if it’s short and simple.
- Make your relationship, marriage, and family a priority
Our careers are fulfilling and financially important, but we are replaceable at work. We’re not replaceable at home. So we take the time to plan when we can spend time with each other. It’s about priorities.
At the end of the day, if there are difficulties in your relationships approach them with curiosity and gentleness. Also, recognize your own difficulty in being in the relationship. When things get tough, it is helpful to remind yourself that this difficult moment will pass.
Originally published April 13, 2015. Republished July 11, 2016.
Featured image: “ Close-up Of Wooden Gavel And Red Heart On Table ” from Shutterstock.