Nearly ten years as a paralegal in the messy world of divorce has given me a very unique understanding of how to better appreciate and invest in my own marriage. The insight gained from the many clients and cases over the years has been irreplaceable.
There is no better teacher than real-life experience.
While I have not been through a divorce myself, I’ve gotten close enough. It has changed my perspective in so many ways. Marriage is not only hard work but also heart work. Some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned are to keep yourself in check, appreciate what you have, communicate, support your partner, protect your privacy and put in the work. (Oh, and don’t forget to take out the trash!)
Divorce is hard. Seeing people at their lowest point and feeling as if their entire world is crashing around them is a real attention getter. I may feel like I'm having a tough week, and then I get a call from a client who has just been locked out of her home and bank accounts. Nowhere to go with her kids and no access to money. Checks my perspective real quick!
I've had friends contemplating divorce ask me about the process and how it really works. I can see the wheels turning as they wonder if it's that bad. As they weigh the pros and cons, I tell them to dig deep and if there is any chance to save or restore their marriage, take it. Take the chance every single time, because it is draining - emotionally, physically, and financially. When I'm having a blah day and feeling down (because marriage is hard, too!), I try to remind myself that my hardest day is nothing compared to the devastation of divorce.
Small things can end up being major.
Communication is huge! I never realized how difficult something seemingly so simple could be. It is one of the most common issues I see in the breakdown of marital relationships. Not only do people stop talking, but they also let little things fester. If left to brew, those small, usually insignificant, things can lead to a major blow up down the road. Something as small as taking out the trash can result in World War III. Maybe Dr. Joyce Brothers was onto something when she said, "Marriage is not just spiritual communion; it is also remembering to take out the trash."
I will never forget a conversation with a client that changed my way of thinking. As we were preparing for an upcoming hearing, we were discussing the reasons his marriage failed. He explained that over time his wife just quit on him. She didn't clean or cook or vacuum or do the dishes, even though she was a homemaker. She did not want to spend time with him or travel together. He told me that she had just withdrawn, and he felt as if he spent all of his time alone. As he was sharing his story, I couldn't help but try to remember the last time I cooked a meal or cleaned my house or spent quality time with my own husband. I tell you what I did - I went home that very day and cleaned the entire house, cooked a warm meal and spent the night curled up on the couch with my husband watching his favorite show.
Don't keep score. Fight Fair.
You're a team. It's easy to get caught up in who is right and who is wrong. It's also unhealthy. Do you know what almost all Oscar-winning actresses have in common? An incredible supporting actor. Sometimes all your spouse needs is support and encouragement. I've seen the way it impacts a marriage when one partner feels undervalued, unsupported, unappreciated and maybe even that their goals and thoughts are insignificant. It leads you right down the road of resentment, which is almost always a dead end. Clients come in that have let resentment build up for so long that their hearts are hardened to the idea of reconciliation.
Years ago, I read For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage, an amazing book of marriage and relationship advice. One of the many parts that stuck with me was, "To expect your husband or wife to agree with you on all things is an unrealistic burden to place on a marriage." Um, hello. Guilty - party of one! I placed so many unrealistic expectations on my husband, myself and my marriage, that it didn't allow for us to be human and make mistakes and learn as we go. It has taken many years (okay, more than a decade) of self-exploration and learning how to manage my unfair expectations and stop keeping score. I had to ask myself what was more important, a winning record or a successful marriage? It's a much easier decision when you put it that way.
People's lives are not always what they seem from the outside looking in.
I cannot stress this enough. I remember getting the call from a girl about my age that I thought "had it all." She wanted to set up a consultation for a divorce and my heart sank. How could that be possible? She had this perfect life - the handsome husband, the dreamy house, the cutest kids, the brightest smile you've ever seen and she just had it all. I was humbled to learn that she hid an enormous amount of pain behind that megawatt smile. She was doing everything she could to keep her family intact and prevent life as she knew it from crumbling. I would've never imagined that she was hanging on by a thread. From this, I learned that you truly never know what someone is going through behind closed doors. It taught me to stop comparing my marriage and my life to the unrealistic perceptions I've dreamed up about other people's lives. Focus more on the marriage you have instead of what you think may be out there in "greener" pastures.
Keep your private life private.
This is one that tends to fly under the radar, but it's even more important in today's world of everything on social media. Your thousands of Facebook friends don't need to know every detail of your disagreements when you're mad at your spouse. Imagine those posts and text messages you sent when you were seeing red being blown up on a nice, big exhibit board for the entire courtroom to read. Yikes! More importantly, you will likely calm down and regret bashing your partner for the world to see. That apology is much more difficult when you've publicly humiliated them.
Another big thing for me is not sharing every little complaint (we all have them) with your friends and family. The more negatively you speak about your partner to others, the more that negativity seeps into your thoughts. I'm not saying you shouldn't reach out for help if you are in a bad relationship, or that you shouldn't vent your frustrations. I have found that it is much harder for your friends and family to forgive your spouse's wrongdoings once they are involved. In other words, you will get over whatever it is you're mad about, but your loved ones are more likely to harbor those negative feelings toward your partner long after you've let it go. Journaling is an amazing alternative and allows you to get it all out while protecting your privacy.
Never stop working on yourself and your marriage.
Read the books. Find your love language and see how it’s compatible with your partner’s. Go to retreats or counseling. Whatever it is that betters you as a person, betters your spouse and, in turn, improves your marriage, DO IT. Don’t wait until there is a problem to do the work, because it’s often too late.
I don’t know about you, but I‘m notorious for procrastinating. Ask my husband how many times he’s gotten in my car to find the gas light on, chiming because it’s down to the last mile. I make projects, costumes, cupcakes, whatever it may be, at the very last second. Stopping on the way to a party to get a gift card is how I roll. I put things off until they absolutely have to be dealt with. It’s just who I am.
So, I had to dig real deep to do better when it came to issues in my marriage. Putting them off made the dealing part that much worse. I’m still working on not letting my tank get below empty, and I will probably always spend a fortune on overnight shipping to get that gift here in time, but I’m working on it.