Relationship advice from a top divorce lawyer

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:09 pm on 16 April 2018

Couples should be wary of Facebook as it's a breeding ground for infidelity, says New York divorce lawyer James Sexton. He's just published a guide to staying together – If You're In My Office, It's Already Too Late.

When James tells people at parties he's a divorce lawyer, he says they usually expect him to have some crazy stories.

But one woman's response got him thinking about what else he could share after having a ringside seat at over 1000 divorces.

"The woman said to me 'Wow, you're a divorce lawyer. I bet you know a lot about how people screw marriages up.'

"The question stuck with me. It was like a splinter in my brain … You learn a lot about how things fall apart, and maybe there's something in there about how to keep them together."

James Sexton

James Sexton Photo: Supplied

James finds it strange that when buying a house or car we assess the risks - but not so with getting married.

"You spend a lot of time talking about the cake, you spend a lot of time talking about where people are going to sit, but you don't really sit down and say 'This is the most legally significant thing I'm gonna do other than dying'.

"If you said to your friends "I'm buying this house but I don't intend to live in it for the rest of my life, I might sell it someday', no-one would think you were crazy, but if you said 'I'm marrying this person but we may get divorced in a bunch of years' everyone would look at you and say 'Well, then, don't get married'.

"If I said to you the car you picked when you're 20 is the car you're gonna drive when you're 40, when you're 50, when you're 70, you'd be very careful to pick up a car that fit all the stages of your life."

Just as people often go bankrupt very slowly then all at once, marriages can fall apart the same way, James says.

"No single raindrop is responsible for the flood."

One client told him the moment she knew her marriage was over was when her husband stopped buying her granola.

"[She said] There was this granola that I liked only sold in this particular local store. When I was running low on it I would look in the cupboard and all of a sudden this new bag would be there … It was something that he just did and it really let me know that he was paying attention to my needs and trying to do this sweet little gesture for me."

One day the granola ran out and wasn't replaced.

The woman at first thought her husband had forgotten so left the empty packet on the counter as a hint.

But he never bought the granola again and they very slowly drifted apart.

"Those little kindnesses, those little gestures, if we lose those, we start to lose everything.

"Those little disconnections of the day-to-day are the thing that ultimately cause the big behaviours that kill the marriage."

One of the chapters in James' book is titled If We Were Inventing an Infidelity Machine It Would Be Called Facebook.

He says the social media platform is a breeding ground for infidelity.

"This ability to communicate and look into the window of people who we really have no business talking to – people from earlier parts of our life that seem simpler and we feel a nostalgia for …

"When you first get Facebook what's the first thing you do – you look up every ex-girlfriend, every ex-boyfriend you ever had and see what they like. And you're gonna see the best pictures? Why, because they pick the pictures! It really creates a longing, a nostalgia..."

"You can be sitting on the couch with your spouse. What are you looking at on Facebook?' 'I'm looking at the new Chinese restaurant that opened up down the street. Meanwhile, you're looking at your ex-girlfriend's vacation photos and seeing if she's holding up well in a bikini.

"[Facebook is] uniquely dangerous to marriages and ultimately leaves people feeling miserable about themselves."

couple on couch each on phones

Photo: 123RF

The phenomenon of men leaving their wives for their nanny is a real thing especially in recent years, James says, and it isn't just celebrities like Ben Affleck and Jude Law.

There's little mystery to these stories, he says.

"What the nanny has going for her is she's basically like the wife was when the husband first met her. She has a life outside the home, the husband feels he has some control of this person. She's an employee so the husband gets to tell her what to do."

James is careful to add he's not blaming these wives for their divorces.

"Men are leaving their wives for nannies – that's a fact. The question now becomes why is that happening?

"Motherhood is possibly the hardest job in the world, so take time to be your own person, take time away from your child, and take time to remember who are you are as a human being, not just as a mum. That's good for you as a mother and it's gonna leave you feeling refreshed and make you more attractive to your partner – that you're happy and satisfied and having some independence in your life, even while balancing the challenges of motherhood.

"Make sure there's some regular time that you remember who you really are because that's the person your husband fell in love with – and if he never gets to see that person that's a loss for him, as well – and for you, who wants to remember the woman she was and stay connected to her.

"I'm simply saying these are the kind of issues you could be mindful of, keep your eye out for."

Fundamentally, James' advice is "communicate, communicate, communicate', he says.

"Your wife doesn't hear what you don't say. Your husband doesn't hear what you don't say. And if you're not very blunt with yourself and your spouse about whats going on in your head and whats going on in your heart, you will be the one to suffer."

Knowing when your marriage is over is a very individual thing – just as people connect in a variety of ways, disconnection looks different for every couple, James says.

When you're right in something you don't always see it clearly.

"We don't know who discovered water, but it probably wasn't a fish."

Instead of waiting until the relationship isn't working to have a conversation, James recommends couples get together and take a really close look at what's working while they're both feeling connected and optimistic.

"Being honest with yourself and with your partner when you start to feel those little moments of disconnection is the way to prevent that larger disconnection.

"When you're happy, take a moment and don't just take that emotional state as a feeling you're having. Look at the factors, look at the ingredients that are working. How often are we having sex right now? What am I doing for her that makes her laugh right now? What is she doing that makes me laugh right now?"

This is also a good time to discuss the possibility of separation.

"That's the time to say to each other 'We're in a great place right now. Where would we have to be in order for this to start falling apart? What are some things that, for you, would show slippage? What are some things that would be dealbreakers for you?'

"Get to know that, don't be afraid to have that conversation.

"[Say something like] 'If you thought you and I were going to break up or we were going to have problems, where do you think those problems would come from?' Because that way you're both conscious of it, you're both aware of it, you're both looking for it."

Even after all of the relationship carnage he's seen, James says he still has faith in marriage.

"I still really believe we can come to the fullest understanding of ourselves through a connection with another person.

"I'm a romantic, but I don't believe in fairytales … There's nothing more important than our connection to other people but it's so easy to screw it up. We really have to take it more seriously and realise it's a fragile thing."

happy male gay couple

Photo: 123RF

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