Can This Marriage Be Saved?

Right up front I want to establish that I’m neither a therapist nor a marriage counselor. I claim no particular expertise in relationship. I’m simply an attorney and mediator who has worked with hundreds of couples. Over the years, I’ve observed some subset of what works and what doesn’t when it comes to reconciliation. What follows are my observations.

A sizable percentage [I’d guess a quarter to a third] of divorcing couples will make one or more attempt(s) to reconcile. The vast majority fail. Below, I’ve done my best to explain the reasons, as I see them, why so many make the attempt and so few succeed. In addition, I’ve set forth some of the things that seem to set certain couples apart, allowing them to reconcile successfully.

When a relationship is failing, both husband and wife are under a lot of stress. When they separate, they’re no longer right there in person, day in and day out, triggering the heck out of each other. Often, things begin to settle down, leaving each the time and space to take a deep breath. At this point, many people will begin to recall the good times, see long-forgotten positive qualities in the other, and consider whether the marriage might be worth saving.

This generally lasts until they move back in together. Once under a common roof, they find themselves again struggling with the same, old unhealthy patterns and fighting the same old, unpleasant fights. Thus, most reconciliation efforts ends in frustration and failure. That’s the bad news. The good news is that knowledge is power and, for those who are up for a challenge, hope is not lost.

Those who successfully reconcile share certain identifiable characteristics. First, they seek assistance from professionals. When a couple is trying to break old, unhealthy habits and patterns of communication, no matter how good their intentions may be, they most always need help.

Second, it works best when both spouses are willing to look not only at what needs to change in their partnership, but also to focus on what they can change in themselves. After all, it’s far easier to change ourselves than to force someone else to change. And people are less resistant to change when they’re choosing it rather than feeling like someone is forcing it upon them under threat of divorce. Remember, whatever you learn about yourself is fully transportable if things don’t work out. So one has much to gain and nothing to lose by focusing on the things one can change within oneself.

Third, it helps when people are willing to look past the strategies by which they hope to change the relationship and their partner and instead begin to focus upon discovering their own feelings and needs. These words may seem inscrutable, as we’re not trained in this culture to notice our own feelings, let alone the needs that underlie them, so here’s an example. A spouse who complains, “You only care about yourself; why won’t you help more around the house?” might be feeling frustration, anger, sadness and the like. His or her needs might be for ease, peace, respect, etc. The particular feelings and needs are unique to each person. But the process of focusing on feelings and needs is universally helpful, as it shows us what we’re really wanting (beneath and beyond the conflict) and this process also allows us to share where we’re at in a way that our spouse can more easily understand and appreciate.

If these seems like colossal undertakings, that’s good. Turning a relationship around takes real commitment, as change does not come easy. However, it is possible — and the experience, being one of personal growth, can be satisfying and fulfilling.

As I’ve said above, to make meaningful headway, most couples need assistance. For some, couples counseling is the best option. For others, it works best for the partners to engage in individual counseling. Sometimes people will feel the need for both. Counseling is designed to help us get to the bottom of our unhealthy patterns and transform them. For many, it’s a great investment. However, it typically takes time. Thus, it’s important to have patience. But for those who are willing, it can be a great experience. After all, how often in life does one get to focus on his or her own feelings and needs and how often is someone with the training to help us there to listen?

For those who are interested, there’s a wonderful type of couples counseling called “Imago.” In my experience, it has tremendous potential to restore love and intimacy to relationships — even those that seem to be dead. A man named Harville Hendrix developed this form of counseling and wrote a seminal book called, “Getting the Love You Want.” It’s a fantastic resource that can help you get a sense of whether Imago might be the right approach for you.

If the Imago approach seems promising, one can find marriage counselors trained in Imago techniques. One can also find weekend-long workshops designed to impart the basics. It can be extremely effective to take a course to learn the techniques and then work with a counselor in engaging them.

Though counseling can be extremely effective, it’s not necessarily the right right approach for everyone. There are couples who have no interest in rooting around in their past or learning new relationship tools but who simply wish to negotiate practical solutions to issues that have been causing difficulty in the marriage. For many of them, mediation can be employed to negotiate the changes necessary to put the marriage back on track.

Marital mediation (as opposed to divorce mediation) focuses the potential of interest-based conflict resolution on couples before things have deteriorated beyond the point of no return. Very often in mediation, even when couples are divorcing, positive feelings and good will return. When they’ve already decided to divorce, typically one or both parties is no longer open to reconciliation. The process may still take them to a place of love and gratitude, which is a wonderful way to step into the post-divorce phase of sharing custody and moving on with one’s life, but there’s too much water under the bridge to get back together. However, in many cases, if they had come in sooner, more might have been possible.

That said, not all types of mediation are appropriate for couples working to save a marriage. Certain mediators are what I would term “evaluative” or “directive.” Such a mediator sees his or her role as that of helping the couple make the “right” choices. The downside to such an approach is it tends to focus narrowly on solutions with too much emphasis on the opinions of a third party, in this case those of the mediator. How different is that than when a judge makes the final decisions? Either way, the spouses are relying on a stranger to make important choices that will impact their lives and those of their children for years to come. No matter how well intentioned the mediator, he or she can not know as much about the family as do the husband and wife. It is the spouses themselves who are the experts best positioned to make choices that will impact their lives and those of their children. Thus, the best role for the mediator is that of facilitator, helping couples to discover feelings and needs, communicate effectively, and explore the full range of possibilities that are before them.

While a directive approach might be effective in resolving child custody and property division issues quickly in a divorce setting, it does not, in my opinion, open the full potential of mediation to find win-win solutions and it does even less to heal broken relationships. Thus, it’s not the right choice for couples who still hold out hope of staying together. The best mediators, in my opinion, are those who facilitate a process that shares certain common ground with couples counseling. Like counseling, it helps each spouse to see through the other’s eyes.

Ultimately, relationships work when people can step into each other’s shoes and really understand where the other spouse is coming from. They don’t have to ultimately agree about much of anything. People who are extremely different can have great marriages. In fact, those differences can be a source of strength. But each spouse must have empathy for the other.

When one partner can see the other spouse’s worldview and truthfully say, “I really get where you’re coming from and, even though I don’t necessarily see things that way, what you’re saying makes sense to me” limitless possibilities open. In many instances, they begin to see options that hadn’t seemed to exist before. There are times when the ultimate resolutions reached are better than anything either of them could have imagined before engaging in this process.

The other advantage to marital mediation is that, if things don’t work out, the transition to divorce mediation is effortless — as the foundation the couple has built by working together remains in place with the focus merely shifting to custody, visitation, division of assets and debts, and (when appropriate) spousal maintenance.

Finally, I’m going to mention one more avenue that might be helpful. A man named Marshall Rosenberg developed a technique called Nonviolent Communication, which is fully delineated in a book called “Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.” Therein, he explores feelings and needs from yet another angle. In my experience, Nonviolent Communication is very difficult to master; however, the potential it has to open personal relationships (not just with spouses, but with anyone) is nearly limitless.

Regardless of the approach a couple that wishes to explore reconciliation chooses, the benefits of making such efforts go far beyond the immediate issues at hand. By working on oneself in relationship, one develops insight, learns new relationship skills, and creates the foundation for a healthier connection with his/her partner (either as spouses or as exes) moving forward.

The Miracle of Conflict

Over the years, while learning to help people navigate through conflict, I discovered something really cool. Most of us do what we can to avoid disagreements. It’s unpleasant to argue. But if one can be present, there are huge gifts to be found.

When we’re upset, we have the opportunity to discover much of importance about ourselves. The reason is that everything “out there” is actually “in here.” One might say everything’s an inside job.

Does this sound far fetched? Read on and then feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.

Our natural state is one of harmony. When someone does something that upsets us, we may have a judgment that the offensive behavior (and, usually, the person who committed the act) is “wrong.” In reality, what happened is just what happened. If we fail to see that, it’s because we’re stuck. Our reactions implicate us. Think of it this way: If someone were to cut Jesus off in traffic, how would he react? Would he get angry? Would he yell and shake his fist? Would he become short-tempered with his children in the back seat? Or would he have compassion for the other person and whatever it was that might have caused him or her to drive dangerously?

Of course we all know that a fully enlightened being would experience tremendous compassion for the other person. And that’s true of us too when we’re not in our own way. If, when cut off in traffic, we’re feeling really good because something wonderful just happened, we’re far more likely to wonder if the other person might be late for work or perhaps trying to get a child to the hospital or maybe just elderly and confused. And when we see the world in that way, we feel great because we’re living in a way that’s true to the light and love we carry in our hearts.

Unfortunately, being less than perfect, most of us get caught sometimes. I certainly do. And that’s alright. We can have compassion for ourselves. We’re only human and that’s what connects us.

At times when I’m not feeling compassion for another, no matter how wrong I may think he or she is, if I’m upset then it’s something within me that’s caught. Do you get that? Whatever’s caught is mine. I own it. And that’s the bottom line. Once again, I want to reiterate that we need not stand in judgment of ourselves. It’s not bad and wrong to have reactions. Such things are part of the human condition. But if we can discover the trigger that got activated, we’ll find an old wound beneath the trigger that’s in need of healing. And just by being present to that insight, the wound begins to heal. Anything we do to become more conscious of what’s within leads to personal growth and healing. When the wound that underlies the trigger is healed, no anger for the other person will remain; there will be only love and compassion.

The implications of this are enormous. For one thing, it means that conflict can be healthy. Navigated well, conflict leads to personal growth. Bit by bit, we become ever more conscious and integrated.

In marriage, once we’re past the honeymoon, our partners will trigger our reactions more deeply than anyone else. Since there’s so much healing potential in this, our spouses can be our greatest teachers. That doesn’t necessarily mean one should remain married to any partner. But it does mean that conflict, in and of itself, need not necessarily lead to divorce. It also means that, for those who do in fact divorce, the pain can be handled in a compassionate, loving way that leads to healing and growth for both spouses.

For those interested in working their relationships rather than ending them, there are resources that can be helpful. We’re fortunate to have a famous relationship scientist just up the road in Seattle. Dr. John Gottman has an institute that gives workshops on the things he’s discovered. He teaches people to be aware of the ways in which conflict can be handled well or poorly and empowers them to make wise choices.

Another great resource are Imago workshops, given around the country by people trained in what’s called Imago therapy. Imago posits that we fall in love with someone who reminds us in unconscious ways of our caregivers in our family of origin. It further posits that we do this so that our childhood wounds can heal. Imago teaches techniques that can help people see beneath their conflict and return to love and intimacy. I’ve taken Imago workshops twice and both experiences were amazing. Even if the marriage isn’t saved, most people who approach this work seriously will experience growth that will show up in their next relationship. People who have perfectly wonderful marriages may take an Imago workshop to deepen their connection. I met a couple once who were taking a workshop given to them as a wedding present. I also met a husband and wife who took an Imago workshop every year as an anniversary present to themselves.

Another wonderful resource is Non-Violent Communication. Developed by a brilliant man named Marshall Rosenberg, NVC helps people to see the feelings and needs that exist beneath conflict. It can be useful not just in our romantic relationships, but in the many interactions in which we participate daily. Rosenberg calls NVC a language of love — and it is. NVC leads one to insights that bring compassion for oneself and others. As one learns this language, it becomes ever easier to access love and joyousness. NVC is not, in my experience, easy to assimilate. I’m far short of mastery. But there’s value in beginning to learn its techniques, and then progressively more value as one continues to learn.

It’s an amazing and wonderful sort of cosmic joke that whenever we think something happened “out there,” it’s really a mirror for what’s inside. As Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” When one gets this, and when one realizes the potential for growth that comes from facing interpersonal challenges well, one finds himself or herself looking forward to the next opportunity to learn in this way. Behind every challenge lies opportunity and even hidden treasure. An old teacher of mine once said, “What’s in the way IS the way.” It’s really true. That’s why I love relationship work, and it’s also why I love working with people who are going through the difficult transition that is divorce. As an attorney and mediator, I’m blessed to witness the enormous growth that many of my clients experience. People come to me at a time when it can seem to them that their lives are falling apart. Often, by the time our work together is complete, a client will seem like a new person. Pain is not easy to face, but if one uses it wisely it can be very much like rocket fuel that takes one to a previously unfathomed, far more satisfying life.


When its Necessary to go to Court

If you’ve read through my website, you’re no doubt familiar with my philosophy that disputes are best resolved through non-adversarial means. But resolving conflict amicably requires that each spouse be willing and able to act in good faith. If, for instance, your spouse is hiding assets or income, running up debts or deliberately turning the children against you, it may be wise or even necessary to take forceful action.

When I say both spouses must be “willing and able” to act in good faith, I mean just that. Some people are not honest. For whatever reason, they operate under a value system that justifies taking what they can. Others are willing but not able. For example, a spouse who suffers from severe mental illness may have good intentions but not be able to see reality clearly enough to work together.

There are certainly times when people take legal action when they would be better off exploring other options. Too many people think of the Court as a magical place where perfect justice is dispensed. They imagine the judge as embodying the wisdom of Salomon.

In truth, the judges I’ve met have been great people who really mean well. But they’re just human beings who have been placed in the impossible position of having to play God. The very nature of the adversarial process produces more heat than light. And the court’s jurisdiction is limited by the law itself. People acting together in good faith can be infinitely creative whereas courts go down the same well worn grooves again and again. People acting together in good faith know the needs of their family inside out, whereas a judge receives, at best, a superficial overview of the spouses and the children.

Over the years, many people have come to me demanding their day in court, more than willing to dump large sums of money into my trust account if I will promise to carry the flag into battle for them. Far fewer have the wisdom to seek out my expertise in helping to achieve peace.

However, there are times when going to court is necessary. The best way to think of the court is as analogous to the hospital emergency room. No one wakes up on a gorgeous morning, the sun shining, the birds singing, and says, “My, what a lovely day; I hope I wind up in the emergency room.” But if, on your way to work, you get into a car accident and find yourself lying in the street, and if you’re conscious enough to think clearly, at that moment you’re probably hoping and praying for the ambulance to arrive as soon as possible. And you hope and pray for that ambulance knowing full well that the ER is an expensive, painful and even terrifying place to be.

That’s how people should think of the court. As a place that no one in his or her right mind should ever want to be — unless you really need it. However, if you really need it, then thank God it’s there. Even though it’s expensive, painful and perhaps even terrifying.

As I’ve said, judges are neither all wise nor all knowing. They do, however, sincerely try to enter orders that are fair to the parties and in the best interests of the children. If your spouse is not acting in good faith — in any of the ways set forth above or in other ways that a court can address effectively — it might be wise to consider taking the actions necessary to get your case in front of a judge.

The best way to figure out whether your case warrants taking adversarial legal action is to consult with an attorney who understands amicable forms of conflict resolution — such as mediation and collaborative divorce — but who also understands the importance of litigation when appropriate.

A Letter to My Bellingham Colleagues

The February, 2012 issue of the Whatcom County Bar Association Newsletter contained the following article that I was an invited to pen as a means of introducing myself to the Bellingham legal community. It’s republished here so that clients and potential clients can get a better sense of who I am and my views on the practice of law.

Many thanks to Rajeev for inviting me to introduce myself to the community through the Bar Newsletter. I’m so grateful to be in Bellingham. Many years ago, I lived in the Pacific Northwest, having moved to Portland soon after graduating from college, and then later to Seattle, where I worked as a computer programmer with Boeing. At age 28, I realized that I wanted to attend law school. At the time, supporting a wife and two young children, the realization hit me more like, “If I had my life to live over…” Then a layoff came and I was forced to grapple with the reality of having to start over one way or another.

Offered a full scholarship to the University of Arizona down in Tucson, I decided to leave Washington. My wife at the time, to her credit, agreed to the move. The plan was to return upon graduation. However, a really nasty divorce got in the way. After the dust had settled, my then-wife, who suffered from mental health issues, disappeared from my children’s lives. By then, they had been through so much; I just couldn’t put them through any more. So I stayed in Tucson for 18 years until my youngest, who had been born in Washington, went off to college — ironically, to the UW. (I tease him that he’s like the salmon returning to its spawning grounds.)

This nasty divorce had a lot to do with my decision to become a family law attorney. I had a wonderful lawyer who held my hand through an incredibly daunting and painful process. My ex-wife’s first attorney turned everything into a fight and made things miserable for all of us. However, her second attorney did his best to steer toward reasonable compromise and settlement. After observing what a difference divorce lawyers make in the lives of clients and their children, for better or worse, I imagined that I might contribute something of value to real people by practicing in this field. I knew divorce law could be demanding, but after so many years of working with computers, it felt like an amazing opportunity.

A few years later, that choice felt naive to say the least. Already starting to burn out on the high level of conflict, one case in particular showed me that I was often causing more harm than good. It was a difficult case in which I had “won” custody for a father of two young sons. The court also consented to a major relocation. The following summer the children returned for a visit and the next thing I knew the case was reopened on an emergency basis. The boys were now claiming they had been abused. One of them, referring to the divorce, said to the CPS caseworker, “No one listened to us.” I knew his list of “no ones” included me.

At that point, thoroughly discouraged, I began learning immigration law. Fortunately, right at that time, a colleague told me about a new approach to divorce. A group of lawyers were signing up for collaborative law training in Phoenix and I was invited to join them.

I’d never heard of collaborative law. It was 2001 and, outside of a few hotspots around the county, the collaborative approach was pretty much unknown. But that training restored my desire to practice family law. A year later, I had gotten trained as a mediator too and was refocusing my energy away from conventional practice. By the time I left Tucson, some ten years later, my entire caseload consisted of collaborative divorces, mediations, assisting those who had negotiated their own settlements prepare legal documents, and the occasional conventional case taken by choice. It was a wonderful practice. One that provided a front row seat to the miracle that happens when conflict softens, first into openness to the perspectives of another, and then into settlement, sometimes contributing to significant healing of the relationship along the way. There was just one problem: Tucson never quite felt like home.

I was born in New York City and raised on Long Island but knew from an early age that New York was not where I belonged. In my teen years, when I first read about Oregon and later followed the coverage of the Mount Saint Helens eruption, the Pacific Northwest called to me. After college, I moved cross-country and began exploring (and moving) ever further northward. When I lived in Seattle, I would drive through Bellingham and think, “How cool it would be to live here someday.”

After so many years, I’m thrilled to finally be back in the Northwest, specifically in its most beautiful corner, and grateful for the opportunity to become a part of this community. As it turns out, Bellingham is more than a sublimely gorgeous place. It’s also a great town in which to practice law. It’s wonderful that, by the time I arrived, there was a collaborative law group already here which welcomed me in so graciously. And more broadly, it’s been great to discover that so many attorneys in this town — whether formally collaborative or not — have a pragmatic, problem solving approach to practice that mirrors my own.

At our last bar lunch, I was struck by Deborra Garrett’s comments about the Whatcom County Bar having become more welcoming over the years. Her words rang true. I have found this community to be both warm and open. Attorneys have been encouraging, helpful and extremely generous with their time. I don’t want to embarrass anyone by naming names but, to everyone who has helped me to feel accepted and shared freely of their knowledge as I slowly get up to speed on the specifics of local practice, thank you. And to those I have not yet gotten to know, I look forward to our meeting and to working together on cases.