Here’s the scenario:
He and his wife are both in law, and both want out. Resources exist to permit one to escape. The other must remain behind to pay loans.
Who makes it to freedom? Who gets left behind?
Arriving at that decision can wreak hell on a marriage.
A successful partnership requires an alliance, which depends upon shared goals. If the primary shared goal was being wealthy, powerful lawyers, and that goal cartwheels in flames into the tarmac at three hundred feet per second… the alliance fractures. Sometimes the alliance transforms into opposition.
You do law. No, YOU do law.
That kind of opposition.
My client met his wife at a first-tier law school. They were in the same class, and their shared dream was simple – they would graduate at the top of their class, join powerful, big-name law firms, and make a lot of money. They would have a nice house, maybe a couple of kids, fabulous vacations – and a kitchen with granite counter-tops and an AGA stove.
This was a simple, bourgeois dream – stability, money, family. Naturally, they were intellectuals, so they’d have a subscription to the local symphony – but their dream was about making it, in predictable, concrete terms.
Then reality hit.
They hated their firms. He got laid off, which came as a relief. She went in-house, and to her surprise, hated it even more than the firm. She ended up quitting.
They relocated to another city, where he found a job at a smaller firm. He hates it less, but still basically hates it. She’s still out of work, dragging her feet. He’s paying both their loans every month – and resenting it.
She says she can’t do law anymore – it would crush her soul. She needs to go to grad school and study art or she’ll go crazy.
He wants to go to grad school and study history – or he’ll go crazy.
They both think the other should stay and do law to pay the bills.
Remember the old shared goal? Charred embers. There are new goals – and they’re no longer mutual.
When he’s not slaving at the firm, they’re fighting. That’s driving them both nuts.
Her argument is simple: she cannot do law. She hates it. She refuses to consider it. If she can’t go to graduate school, she’s heading home to her family. Alone.
To him, time at a law firm represents a waste of his life. He’s willing to pay off his own debt, but there’s no way he’s going to tackle hers.
He has a point. It’s unfair to expect him to pay her loans. He could maintain his own loans and get on with his life, escaping to do something with meaning. He’s talking divorce.
I’m sympathetic to her desperation, too. She’s not my client, so I haven’t heard her side of the story, but according to him, she hates their shabby apartment in the new city where they’re living. And with school loans, they can barely afford that place.
These two need to get their work lives sorted or they’ll never work as a partnership again. That means they need some new, mutual goals.
There are three aspects to life – playing, working and loving – and they must be tackled in order. If you don’t have working down, you’re entering a partnership with unfinished business that will cripple things up.
Your work tells you who you are – it represents what you create during your life, and it provides you with confidence that you contribute something valuable to the world around you.
This couple has no authentic work – so they are flailing, groping for an identity. Until they discover the answer to who they are, they won’t know their work, and they won’t know each other.
Even if I were seeing this couple as a couple, and not merely serving as the individual therapist for one partner, it would not be my job to keep them together. I show them what they have – where they want to go from there is their business. This partnership might need to come apart, so they can go their own ways and find their own work. Once that undertaking is accomplished, they could find the confidence to support a new partnership.
Trying to make your partner give up his search for who he is so you can follow your own muse is a recipe for disaster. There will be resentment. The partnership will fall out of balance. One partner will be problematized (she needs to find herself) – the other will over-produce to compensate (he’s working to pay off both their loans.) The alliance will erode.
It’s not enough to make the other person “do law.” You each have to find your own way out.
This piece is part of a series of columns presented by The People’s Therapist in cooperation with AboveTheLaw.com. My thanks to ATL for their help with the creation of this series.
If you enjoy these columns, please check out The People’s Therapist’s new book.