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“You’re never at home,” complains Susan, a 42-year-old lawyer turned homemaker, glowering angrily at her spouse of 12 years. “How do you expect our marriage to work if you never see me or the kids? You’re always running back to the office. And when you’re at home, it’s as if your clients are here too. They’re obviously more important to you than we are.” “That’s unfair,” counters John, a 45-year-old litigation partner. “You’re just as busy as I am; you’re always running off with the kids or to your exercise class or your endless errands. You’re too tired to have sex. You get angry when I don’t praise your work, but when do you ever thank me for making the money? You’ve forgotten what law firms demand. Sometimes I dread coming home.” And so it goes in lawyers’ love lives. Tuesday is Valentine’s Day — a day on which some couples express their love and gratitude for each other, a day that others choose to ignore on the grounds of cheap commercialism, and a day on which all too many unhappy souls get reminded that the romance is gone. Too many lawyers fall into that last group, but it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s true that hectic schedules, high performance standards, and other pressures of professional life make it especially difficult for lawyers to nurture their intimate relationships. Many remain single or find themselves single again in midlife. Others struggle along with disappointing marriages or other relationships, trying to make the best of their situations. An astonishing number attempt to bury their emotional pain with alcohol, extramarital affairs, or the Washington, D.C., addiction of choice: more work. Lawyers in romantic crisis who make it to the counseling office are the lucky ones. Many others end up as clients for other attorneys specializing in divorce. The incidence of divorce among lawyers is frightening — the highest of any profession. As a lawyer myself, who practiced for many years in Washington, I appreciate the difficulties in balancing the demands of the legal profession and a personal life. As a licensed psychotherapist for the past 14 years, I’m now a firsthand witness to other lawyers’ daily struggles with issues of intimacy. The odds can be stacked against those seeking to maintain a satisfying love life while exhausted, stressed, and preoccupied with the demands of their profession. But many lawyers show great emotional courage in confronting these challenges. YOU’RE NOT ALONE “I often feel I’m in this marriage all alone,” laments Susan, the lawyer turned homemaker. “My kids are lucky to see their dad even briefly once a day. And I’m too angry about being left alone so much of the time to be receptive to John when he finally comes home. “The truth is that I hate being financially dependent on John, and I’m anxious about loss of momentum in my own professional life. Who wants to employ a lawyer mom who’s been out of the job market for eight years and who needs part-time work tailored to her kids’ school and vacation schedules? And how do I manage my life if we get divorced?” “The problem is of Susan’s own making,” says John. “I love my kids, and I do everything I can to attend their soccer games, birthday parties, and school events. I pay the bills for their education, summer camps, and music lessons. I have no personal time, and I’ve given up all contact with my friends. “Yet Susan resists any suggestion that we get a baby sitter so we can go out now and then. I often wonder why I’m working so hard to keep this family afloat when all I get are complaints and a cold shoulder from my wife.” Arguments along these lines go on in households all over the Washington area, between both married and unmarried couples, those with and without kids, those who are gay and those who are straight, and those where one or both practice law. What should they do? Although it goes against all conventional wisdom, lawyers actually bring many strengths to relationships. They are not romantic Neanderthals. To the contrary, many are (1) insightful about the issues at stake in their personal lives, (2) articulate and assertive in communicating their needs and desires, (3) tenacious and resilient in sustaining themselves in the face of prolonged relational conflict, and (4) conscientious in maintaining commitments to partners (for example, in attending scheduled counseling appointments even when under enormous time pressure from work). So lawyers should avoid feeling ashamed about the undeserved negative stereotypes applied to them. On the other hand, it’s true that many professional strengths become vulnerabilities in the context of romance. Unfortunately, lawyers can also tend to be (1) overly intellectual and disconnected from feelings, which are vital to sustaining an intimate relationship; (2) aggressive and defensive in advocating their stance toward a partner; (3) stubborn and resistant to admitting mistakes and showing empathy and affection; and (4) shrewd and devious in manipulating financial and other circumstances to their short-term personal advantage. STEP BY STEP The solution is obvious in theory, but never simple in practice: Lawyers in love need to build on their strengths, acknowledge their vulnerabilities, and always sustain hope. Specifically, they should focus on these seven areas. • Practice skills of intimate communication. This involves speaking from your own more tender feelings (e.g., “I feel lonely and hurt”), avoiding blame and criticism of your partner (“You’re neglecting me”), and expressing empathy and appreciation of your partner whenever possible (“Thanks for asking about my day”). Above all, lawyers need to practice skills of active listening (“That sounds interesting. Tell me more about what happened to you and the kids at the play date”). • Make a rigorous self-assessment to ensure that unhappiness at work is not contaminating your mood at home and interfering with your capacity to enjoy your personal life. High status and generous incomes induce many lawyers to endure a profound degree of professional unhappiness and alienation. Many of them recognize their Faustian bargain. As one highly successful attorney recently confided, “I spend the precious days of my life helping to decide which wealthy corporation can save how many thousands of dollars. What is the ultimate value of this?” What they don’t always recognize is how it’s hurting their loved ones. Professional malaise, combined with high levels of chronic stress, can give rise to a real sense of desperation. And that can lead to depression, anxiety, and compulsive or addictive behaviors that jeopardize a romantic relationship. In all cases it’s vital not to let unhappiness on the job destroy happiness at home. (In some cases lawyers may need to reassess their choices and consider professional alternatives, either inside or outside the field of law.) • Make strenuous and sustained efforts to place relationships at the center of your life. It’s a daunting task, but limits have to be set on the time demands of work. Granted, this is much easier — as a general rule, with many exceptions — for lawyers in government than for those in private practice. The obsessive-compulsive, Type A mind-set — the belief that you must do everything perfectly and do it yourself, because only then will it be done right — should be brought under control. (And that applies to practicing lawyers and lawyers turned homemakers.) Quality time is no substitute for quantity time in relationships with romantic partners or children. • Don’t neglect your own or your partner’s sexual needs. Lawyers and others neglect the sexual dimension of their intimate relationships at enormous risk. Unless both parties agree to an asexual relationship, unresolved sexual tension will corrode a partnership, sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly but inevitably. It’s true that sexual needs vary between individuals and over time, depending on emotional and other circumstances. Nevertheless, exhaustion and stress from work, children’s needs, and other life demands provide no excuse for neglecting an essential component of a healthy intimate relationship. (And bear in mind that this issue is gender neutral.) Couples need to communicate with each other about their own sexual needs, plan to spend intimate time together, and compassionately address any sexual dysfunction or disappointments along the way. • Maintain your personal health and well-being. Lawyers are often highly self-disciplined about exercise and diet needs. But many are totally incompetent in managing stress and exhaustion, often pushing themselves beyond normal limits of endurance, thereby depriving themselves (and their colleagues and associates) of essential sleep and relaxation. As a consequence, they suffer from many stress-aggravated conditions, including migraine headaches, intestinal disorders, strokes, and heart disease. An unbalanced lifestyle can also cause resentment toward a romantic partner, who may appear to be depriving you of your basic need for happiness, but who may actually be an unwitting bystander to (or victim of) your own self-denying and self-destructive behavior. • Strengthen your capacity to manage feelings of disappointment, without torpedoing the partnership that fails to meet your high expectations. Once the honeymoon ends — and, inevitably, it will end — the hard work of sustaining an intimate relationship begins. Take the long view, and recognize that intimate relationships often pass through multiple phases of estrangement and renewal. If you loved each other once, deeply and passionately, you can love each other again, deeply and passionately. • Maintain a sense of perspective, humor, and compassion. Relationships pose a challenge, but they also provide deep satisfaction and pleasure. Take time to dance, listen to music, enjoy art, play golf, and savor nature together. Life is short, it is experienced only in each present moment, and it involves constant learning. Nothing is more important than this.
Edward Honnold is a lawyer and licensed independent clinical social worker in Washington, D.C., who specializes in professional consulting, career transition, and individual and relationship counseling for lawyers. He can be reached at (202) 244-2886.

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