Keeva on Life and Practice

Why Lawyers Lose In Love

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If it were possible to buy relationship insurance, it’s safe to assume that certain people’s premiums would be ungodly expensive.

After talking to Los Angeles psychologist Leonard Felder, it’s clear to me that lawyers would tend to be among those shelling out the big bucks. But he says it doesn’t have to be that way.

Over the past 20 years, Felder has counseled hundreds of lawyers in both individual and couples therapy. Based on that experience, he has zeroed in on three mistakes that he says most lawyers make. These mistakes, Felder believes, can easily be prevented. But for that to happen, “someone would have to be willing to talk about the elephant in the room”–that is, the habitual behaviors that too often threaten, and even poison, lawyers’ relationships.

Here are the mistakes:

No. 1: Failing to unwind when you come home from a stressful day. The result? The lawyer comes home carrying the day’s accumulated stresses and tends to address family members in a “get to the point” tone. This is hurtful for sensitive spouses and children, who then tend to put up an emotional wall to protect themselves.

The problem here is that lawyers tend not to be very good at stress reduction. “Having really strong abilities in certain areas, they tend to fall down in other areas,” Felder says. “And stress reduction is one of those areas.”

No. 2: Bringing the same vigilant, investigatory skills that are crucial at work into the home. “This leads to your significant other and/or kids feeling cross examined when you only meant to ask them how their day was or who put the gym shoes on the table.” No. 3: Being too quick to offer advice. “This leads to your loved ones feeling cut off, interrupted or patronized at times,” Felder says. “What they really want is a warm, supportive, patient sounding board.”

Continuing to make these mistakes over time, Felder says, can be, and often is, deadly to the lawyer’s relationships. “I have found,” he says, that even the most affluent and attractive lawyers “get dumped sooner or later if they don’t learn how to manage the crucial skills” that make for better relationships with loved ones.

Fortunately, Felder offers simple techniques for remedying these potentially relationship busting habits.

The key, he says, to triumphing over Mistake 1 is learning to decompress and become fully present after a difficult day. You must not operate on default mode. If you do, you are apt to fall back on habitual behaviors, such as checking your BlackBerry while your spouse is talking to you or, God forbid, saying, “Will you just cut to the chase?” To improve, he recommends what he calls a daily decompression exercise.

Space precludes a detailed description of such a process, but here are the basics: Before trying to have a good conversation with a loved one, focus on getting relaxed. It can help if you stop a block or two away from home and take a few minutes to remind yourself that you are no longer at work, and that the people you are about to see are the most precious in your life.

Felder suggests reminding yourself that the quality of your relationship depends on whether you show up “with an open heart or a closed mind.”

With Good Intentions

In dealing with Mistake 2, it is important to demonstrate your good intentions.

Let’s say your husband or your daughter says you’re being difficult, impatient, even a bulldozer. That is not the time for debate. Instead, just take it at face value: Your loved one perceived you as abrupt. You can save yourself a lot of trouble by simply agreeing. In doing so you are demonstrating that, for you, family harmony trumps winning an argument.

“It’s very important to show that you’re a caring teammate at home,” Felder says, “and that you appreciate their good character and good intentions.”

When it comes to Mistake 3, the overarching dynamic goes like this: While most men are raised to believe the way to connect is to give advice and offer a quick fix, most women are brought up to simply listen, without imposing advice on a speaker.

Felder offers a law related example of this phenomenon. It took place, he says, during Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings in 1991. It was on a day when three of Anita Hill’s friends testified before the committee, saying she had told them about Thomas’ harassing behavior just after the alleged incident took place.

As Felder recalls it, two senators wanted to know what advice the friends had given Hill, to which they testified that they didn’t offer advice, they just listened. To this the senators responded that if the witnesses didn’t remember giving advice on something that important, then it never happened. Each of Hill’s friends insisted, however, that when a friend is upset you simply listen.

Felder says cutting your partner off with premature advice “is a make or break issue in most relationships where one or both of you are attorneys.”

More discussion of these issues appears in Felder’s new book, Wake Up or Break Up: 8 Crucial Steps to Strengthening Your Relationship, published by Rodale Press.

Steven Keeva, an assistant managing editor, is the author of Transforming Practices: Finding Joy and Satisfaction in the Legal Life.

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