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.
• • •
Pasternak & Fidis
“Don’t believe this baloney that love conquers
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
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
“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.”
• • •
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
• • •
“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.
• • •
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.”
• • •
Kelly Byrnes & Danker
“Part of a good marriage should be open finances from the
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
• • •
Ain & Bank
“Treat your spouse as you would treat a good
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
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
• • •
New & Lowinger
“Find something else that floats your boat.”
Maintaining your own interests is another key, attorneys
“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
Photographs by Andrew Propp.
Staff writer Marisa M. Kashino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.