Marriage can bring out the worst in people. Some spouses cheat, lie about money, destroy each other’s self-esteem, and put their kids in the middle of their battles. No one has better insight into the ugly side of matrimony than divorce lawyers. Yet as a group they’re surprisingly enthusiastic about the institution of marriage.
“I’m a fan of working really hard at marriage,” says Robert Case Liotta, a partner at Liotta Dranitzke & Engel in Northwest DC. “A lot of marriages end that don’t need to.”
That observation—that divorce is often avoidable—is the reason many divorce attorneys say they’re successful in their own relationships. Every day, they see the behaviors that ruin marriages, making it easier for them to recognize and dodge pitfalls in their own lives.
All of the lawyers interviewed for this article say they’re in happy partnerships, and most have been for decades. Here they share what they’ve learned about what makes and breaks marriages.
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Pasternak & Fidis
“Don’t believe this baloney that love conquers all.”
First, the bad news. Things that love often can’t overcome, according to divorce lawyers, include disparate views on managing money, rigidly held religious differences, conflicting long-term goals, troubled family histories, and abusive behavior.
Attorneys say they routinely see clients who wed without paying enough attention to these issues—and it’s not just the ones who married young. Cheryl New, a partner at New & Lowinger in Bethesda, sees many clients who waited until they were older to settle down, then ended up racing down the aisle because they felt they were running out of time.
Divorce lawyers stress getting to know your significant other’s family before committing. They point out that people who come from abusive homes or have divorced parents are more likely to repeat those behaviors.
“The sins of the parents are often visited upon the kids, especially in marriage,” says Liotta. “If you see signs of danger, be careful. Some of this stuff just doesn’t get overcome.”
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Robert Case Liotta
Liotta Dranitzke & Engel
“If Obama can do it, everybody else can.”
Barack and Michelle Obama have talked in interviews about their date nights, and they’ve been spotted around Washington enjoying romantic dinners. Divorce lawyers point to the Obamas as proof that, with some effort, even the busiest couples can carve out time for each other—a critical part of a successful marriage.
Finding opportunities to be alone together is especially important for those with children. Lawyers say they often see clients who have lost connection with their spouses because they’ve put the children above the marriage. Clients report feeling guilty for sacrificing time with their children to work on their marriages, but kids benefit when parents have a healthy relationship.
Date night doesn’t have to mean spending a lot of money or even leaving the house. “Watch TV together on a Monday night and have a drink,” says Robin B. Taub of Paradiso, Taub, Sinay & Owel in Bethesda.
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“Sex—keep having it.”
There’s no rule about how often a couple has to have sex to be happy, divorce lawyers say. What’s important is that both partners agree about how much sex is enough.
Linda Delaney, whose practice is in Chevy Chase, knows of marriages in which there’s very little sex but both spouses are satisfied: “I think some of us would judge that, but they’re compatible.”
Trouble arises when a couple’s sex drives are out of alignment. “If one party wants sex all the time and the other party thinks once every three months is enough, that’s a recipe for disaster,” says Rita Bank of Ain & Bank in DC, adding that couples who find themselves in that predicament should seek counseling.
This is an area where having uncomfortable conversations is important. When spouses don’t tell each other they’re unsatisfied sexually, they sometimes resort to pornography and infidelity.
And cheating, divorce lawyers agree, is the least forgiven sin in a marriage.
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Kuder, Smollar & Friedman
“He never put down the toilet seat? Who cares?”
Paul Smollar, a lawyer in NorthwestDC, says he sometimes finds himself thinking, “So what?” when he listens to clients complain about their husbands or wives.
Divorce attorneys say spouses need to pick their battles and learn to ignore small annoyances. But that doesn’t mean you should keep all grievances to yourself.
Lawyers cringe when couples claim they never fight. “I hear that a lot, and I say, ‘That’s why you’re here,’ ” says Deborah Luxenberg of Luxenberg & Johnson in Bethesda. “There’s not a good relationship on earth where people don’t argue or disagree.”
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Kelly Byrnes & Danker
“Part of a good marriage should be open finances from the get-go.”
While struggling to make ends meet can put serious stress on a marriage, divorce lawyers say money-related problems more often stem from a couple’s unwillingness to share financial information.
When one person controls all the finances, they say, it creates a power imbalance that can lead to resentment and distrust. Though it’s common for one person to be the primary wage earner, they say both spouses should have a full understanding of their situation. And while maintaining separate bank accounts often works, keeping secrets about spending can be disastrous.
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Ain & Bank
“Treat your spouse as you would treat a good friend.”
Don’t forget to treat your spouse with kindness.
“One of the weird things about marriage—and this is based on what I see—is that people sometimes treat their friends, children, and extended families better than they treat their spouse,” says Rita Bank.
It may seem obvious, but divorce lawyers say speaking to your spouse nicely and referring to each other in endearing terms goes a long way. Says Bank: “You have to learn these words: ‘Yes, dear.’ I mean it.”
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New & Lowinger
“Find something else that floats your boat.”
Maintaining your own interests is another key, attorneys say.
“You can’t rely upon your spouse for your complete happiness,” says Cheryl New. “The person waiting at the end of the day to be acknowledged and adored by their spouse isn’t necessarily going to be happy or satisfied.”
Having separate hobbies also keeps a marriage interesting by creating opportunities to share new activities with each other.
Photographs by Andrew Propp.
Staff writer Marisa M. Kashino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.