Love and Lawyers In relationships, winning isn't the goal

By Betsy Lee

The Daily Record Newswire

ST. LOUIS -- For many lawyers, how to make time for a strong and lasting relationship is a problem. The same can be said for other professionals, but lawyers seem to have a particularly tough time sustaining relationships, said psychologist Fiona Travis.

"As a psychologist who has counseled lawyers and their families for more than 20 years, it seems to me that lawyer marriages are in trouble," she said. "Perhaps even more trouble than other professional couples."

It all begins with the personality types that end up in the legal field, she said.

Lawyers find themselves in the field because their strengths fit the demands of the job. Qualities such as skepticism, aggression, perfectionism and ambition mean high accolades in law school -- a place where aspiring lawyers learn to argue, cross-examine, stonewall, delay, outwit and avoid showing weakness.

"These characteristics make great litigators especially, and great lawyers as a profession," said Travis, author of the book "Should You Marry a Lawyer? A Couple's Guide to Balancing Work, Love and Ambition" and married to a lawyer herself. "But they counter to what works in emotional intimacy and even in good parenting skills."

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the standard for personality assessment, classifies the "lawyer personality type" as brilliant intellectually. People with "lawyer" personality types are idea people with quick minds and abounding resourcefulness.

Yet when it comes to emotional intelligence this particular personality type falls short.

"That means that they are fearful of letting themselves be vulnerable when it comes to emotions and emotional intimacy," Travis said.

An investment

Intimacy. This simple word is likely the most complicated and essential part of building a strong relationship.

Most don't know where to start when it comes to building intimacy -- especially those in ambitious professions, said Dieter Pauwels, a life coach in St. Louis.

"People are exhausted, and they are no longer engaged in their personal lives. And that is impacting their marriages," Pauwels said. "To be able to engage with your spouse takes emotional energy. This requires an investment."

Filling the emotional energy tank means finding activities that build connection, Pauwels said.

Jessica Kruse, a solo attorney in Springfield, and her husband, Jason, who owns Subway franchises, found a stronger connection after they tapped into a country band they both like.

"My husband and I have been married 11 years," Kruse said. They have three children. "Just within the last year, we finally found a hobby of sorts."

They started going to Zac Brown Band concerts. They've seen the band seven times and have more tickets.

"It's something that we both look forward to doing," Kruse said. "I would say this little change has improved our marriage, because we are taking time to be together and because it gives us something to talk about other than the discussion about who is picking up the kids or what we are having for dinner."

Jeff and Marla Bell, attorneys with Polsinelli Shughart in Kansas City, say they struggled to make a regular "date night" work. So they bought season theater tickets.

"It's on the calendar, and it's set," Marla Bell said. "So we make it work."

Jason Kander, a trial attorney with Barnes Law Firm in Kansas City and a candidate for Missouri Secretary of State, has been married to his high school sweetheart, Diana, who's president of her own law firm, for eight years. They turn off their cellphones when they spend time together.

"It's the little things," Jason Kander said, "like trying to dress nice for one another when we leave the house, going to movies the other person likes, making dinners, holding doors, that sort of thing."

Communication

Though lawyers are traditionally excellent conversationalists, Travis said, honest communication is very different from talking about the weather.

Jeff and Marla Bell both work as transactional attorneys. Unlike litigators, they say, the skills they learn at work translate well into their marriage.

"Our professions are about listening and coming to an equitable resolution," Jeff Bell said. "One of our goals with what we both do is to be good listeners. We've both had to work on our listening skills, which allow us to get to a good place."

Bell said he pays attention to Marla's nonverbal cues, too. After 18 years of marriage, he said, he knows when she really needs to talk about something. And he makes time for it.

"I think it is very easy for folks, when you are tired or stressed, to lose the ability to listen," he said. "We really try very hard to listen to what the other person is saying."

Travis said it took years to teach her husband how to communicate effectively. The challenge in her marriage was battling her husband's need to "fix the problem," which she believes is typical of lawyers.

"He would be the first to tell you that it took him a long time to understand what emotional support is," said Travis, of Dublin, Ohio. "He has learned that I am not asking him to solve my problem, just L.U.V., or listen, understand and validate the feeling."

Though few couples like to admit that they argue, relationships rarely exist without conflict. The key is learning how to argue effectively, instead of with malice. For lawyers, Travis said, this means giving up the need to be right.

"My husband would probably say I still always try to win the point," said Denise Henning, who founded The Henning Law Firm, in Kansas City. Her career as a trial attorney has netted numerous six-, seven- and eight-figure victories.

Yet, at home, her husband of 25 years, Tim, knows exactly how to settle an argument.

"He just refuses to participate," Henning said, laughing. "It's probably smart on his part. Though sometimes it makes me even more mad."

If you want to argue successfully, Travis said, avoid the desire to win every point.

That and, Henning said, accept that arguments will happen.

"I do think that arguing is OK. We tend to be upfront about stuff when we argue. We get it out, talk about it and get it over with," Henning said. "There can't be the expectation that everything will always be rosy and wonderful. Sometimes you have to tough it out."

Managing time

There are only 168 hours in every week. No matter how that particular pie is sliced, those with demanding professions can be left feeling as though there just isn't enough time.

"I think it happens pretty much every day; I have to make a choice between work and family," said Henning, a mother of two. "And it's not easy. I try to make decisions based on what is most important at the time."

For lawyers, especially those building their careers, the pressure to invest time in the business can be particularly daunting.

"Marriage can be difficult because many attorneys are under the pressure to bill a certain number of hours each month and, in addition to this, get involved in the community," Kruse said. "It can be very competitive between attorneys, especially young attorneys, to hit these marks and to move up in the firm. It is easy to get tunnel vision."

Balance becomes particularly difficult to achieve when a couple has children. Kruse calls it the most significant challenge in her marriage.

"I have to constantly work on it, and it requires communication," she said. "We have to talk about how we are going to delegate tasks, like who is making dinner, who is picking up the kids from school, who is taking the kids to school ... so that I don't feel that I am the default person to do all of these household tasks."

Jeff and Marla Bell say that after they had children they took on responsibilities with a divide-and-conquer attitude.

"There really has to be a sense of partnership among the husband and the wife and even the kids," Jeff Bell said. "There are always things that need to be done."

Jeff Bell takes care of their two children in the morning, handling the breakfast and the morning rush to school, while Marla Bell goes into the office early. Then, she leaves the office to be home in time for dinner.

"We're fortunate that our firm values family," Marla Bell said.

Published: Tue, Feb 21, 2012