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Posts Tagged ‘partnership’

9987116d453904225ab5b80d3b4da749Isolation is a popular topic with my lawyer clients. There are so many varieties of biglaw loneliness I hardly know where to start explicating the phenomenon. One client summed up his particular variant:

“They stuck me on a matter that had gotten lost in the shuffle – some rainmaker too busy bringing in business neglected it, so we lost a critical preliminary motion. After that, everyone knew the case was hopeless, and since I was low man on the totem pole, it became mine. Now everything that’s already gone wrong is officially my fault, and no one’s around to help – as in, if you ask for ideas, you hear crickets. I sit in my office, staring at documents, unable to motivate. A calendar on my wall at home has hundreds of tiny boxes I check off each day until November 12th, 2018. That’s when I pay off my last loan – my final day in law.”

To add to the festive ambience, this guy’s firm is in the midst of endless renovations, which they’re taking in stages, floor by floor. Some floors are left mostly-renovated, others barely-renovated, and the stragglers still untouched. My client was assigned to a half-renovated half-floor, nearly empty except for some staff attorneys who toil down the hall in an un-renovated former conference room.

It’s creepy. And according to firm gossip, theirs is one of those “sick buildings” where the ductwork is clogged with black mold or toxic dust or something insalubrious, especially on the as-yet-not-renovated floors. Those could be unfounded rumors. Or not. He hunches beneath fluorescent lights and stained acoustic ceiling panels, trying to breath through his nose.

Law firms are lonely places by design, or at least biglaw firms are, since they’re typically located on multiple floors of sterile glass towers. One partner client was assigned to her office renovation committee. The new philosophy, she says, encourages walls of glass, to bring light in and cheer the place up. So now, as a biglaw attorney, you work in a fish bowl, with everyone looking in as you pretend to review something while surreptitiously playing Candy Crush, or merely ride out an anxiety attack. In a “modern” glass-walled law office, lawyers retreat to the bathroom if they need to cry.

A relatively recent factor contributing to biglaw alienation derives from the fact that biglaw firms aren’t really “firms” anymore – they’re closer to conglomerates or loose federations.

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When I launched The People’s Therapist, my intent was to get stuff off my chest – process a smidgen of psychic trauma. I’d write a column or two, exorcise the odd demon, piss off Sullivan & Cromwell and call it a day.

It never occurred to me I’d be deluged with lawyers as clients.

It never, ever occurred to me I’d be deluged with partners as clients.

It never so much as crossed my mind they’d be so unhappy.

It turns out being a partner can be…not all that. For many of my clients, the job boils down to evil middle management.

Permit me to explain.

Biglaw associates resemble the low-level evil henchman in James Bond movies – those omnipresent guys in jumpsuits who all look the same and do what they’re told. They drive around evil headquarters in little golf carts, manipulate dials in the control room, shoot at James Bond (always missing) – then get shot themselves. Presumably – like biglaw associates – they’re mostly in it for the money, rather than a genuine penchant for evil.

I felt like an impostor at S&C – only pretending to be a genuine low-level evil henchman. I was more like James Bond after he bonks the real low-level evil henchman on the head, then reemerges strolling through evil headquarters sporting that guy’s jumpsuit.

I was an impostor – trying to look like I drank the Kool-Aid, going through the motions. I wasn’t even a clandestine agent, battling evil, like 007. The plan to blow up the moon wasn’t my problem. I just wanted a way out of that crummy job – one not involving a fatal dunk in the evil piranha tank. Somewhere in that evil-lair-secreted-in-a-hollowed-out-volcano there had to be a door marked exit.

Most of the partners I work with are looking for the same thing. The difference is, as a partner, you’re not an impostor pretending to be a low-level evil henchman – you’re an impostor pretending to be evil middle management.

“Preposterous!” you sputter, outraged. “Partners never condescend to be middle anything! They crouch, smugly, at the pinnacle of the evil pyramid! With one wiggle of their evil little finger…they manipulate human life!”

It can look that way from the bottom rung, whence a partner appears as far removed from a low-level evil henchman as a junior associate from a positive bank balance.

From the vantage of the pyramid’s sub-sub-basement, all partners appear interchangeable – the unifying feature being their utter dissimilarity from anyone like you. A partner’s one of them – evil incarnate, possessing his own evil headquarters – his own creepy evil white cat (for stroking purposes) – and his own weird evil European accent (with which to mutter, “Come now, Mr. Bond…”) A partner doesn’t have to drink the Kool-Aid – an iv bag of the stuff dangles by his bedside.

If only that were true. After getting all up-close and personal with a bevy of partners, I’ve caught wind of a terrifying reality: All partners are not the same. Most are nothing more than evil middle managers.

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My client is in the horns of an uncomfortable dilemma.

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.

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The couple sitting in my office were clearly in no mood for social niceties.  It was strictly down to business with these two.

There seemed to be nothing they agreed on.

She insisted he marry her as a sign of his seriousness.  He wanted to wait until she stopped verbally attacking him.

He hated her family and had a special loathing for her brother.  She said it was unfair for him to split her from those closest to her, and that she hated being forced to be the go-between in these situations.

She attacked him for not taking his career seriously enough or earning enough money.  He said that was unfair, since he’d had to work part-time for the past year while he cared for his dying mother.

It seemed like this might be a long evening.

During initial appointments like this one, a couples counselor has a variety of options for how to proceed.

One general rule, especially when things look dire, is to remind the couple that my goal isn’t to keep them together – it’s to create a greater awareness of where they are.  So I did that – reminded them.  And they shrugged.  Staying together wasn’t looking likely.  These two weren’t expecting miracles.

Next, I tried to establish the parameters of their issues with one another, and prioritize those issues.  I did some sentence completion exercises, in which they finished the phrase “this relationship would be more successful if…”  But this couple wasn’t having much trouble with that.  They knew their issues backwards and forwards.

I worked to get them to hear one another.  I had them repeat back a paraphrase of what the other had just said.  But they were hearing one another – they just weren’t agreeing.

I instructed them to to lead with their feelings when they addressed one another, employing “I-statements” in which they described their own feelings in response to the behavior of their partner – e.g., “I feel sad and hurt when you…”  They had no trouble detailing their unhappiness with one another.

I investigated how they were relating outside of my office, specifically how they were experiencing the partnership.  I asked them both to estimate what percentage of the time they spent together was “fun” for each of them.  They agreed it was fun about 60% of the time.  Not inspiring, but not hopeless.

Finally – in desperation – I used my secret weapon.  I asked them how they first met.

“Well,” said the guy, who was suddenly wearing a shy smile – the first hint of a smile I’d seen all night, “we’re both Puerto Rican.  And we were at a Puerto Rican club in Queens – someone’s birthday party.  And there was this beautiful girl across the room….”

She giggled.  “You were staring at me for about an hour.  I had to say something.  There was no way to avoid it.”

The secret weapon had worked.  In an instant, the mood had shifted.  From two people who looked like they wanted to kill each other emerged two people back on their first date, remembering what it was that brought them together in the first place.

A partnership is not intended to feel like a chamber of horrors.  It’s supposed to be fun.  There’s really no other reason to bother attaching your life to someone else’s.  You do it because you want to.

The first time you met your partner, you probably got together because you wanted to.

Later, if you hit rocky times, one good trick is returning to that first date and trying to figure out what happened to make things go wrong.

Generally speaking, problems arise when a couple switches from alliance – working together towards a shared purpose – to opposition – battling over everything.

These two in my office were like the US Senate: nothing could progress because all they did was argue.

Now that I had them at least smiling, I asked what their shared purpose was, the mutual goal that – back in those early days – originally brought them together in alliance.

They both grew silent.  It seemed a struggle just to admit that things had once worked.

He finally began to speak.  “Well, we were both Puerto Rican,” he said.  “And that meant a lot to us both.  We wanted to raise a traditional family.  We wanted to get a house together, with enough space to have lots of people over and cook a mess of food and have fun, the way we grew up – the way our parents would bring the whole family together for good times.”

“And we were both serious people,” She added.  “I take my job seriously as a nurse, and he was in law school, and he knew from day one that he wanted his own law firm.  We were both ambitious, but we shared the same values around work and family.”

So what happened?

The more we talked, the more reflective, and the less combative, they grew.  There had been a plan – a project – a sort of shining city on a hill in the distance, and they were walking towards it together hand in hand…until they lost their way.

That’s when the focus on where they were going disappeared, and they turned to battling one another.

A couple is drawn together for a reason.  They want to chase a dream.  If you lose that dream, you can end up enemies instead of friends.

Reject opposition.  Embrace alliance.

That person you’re living with is not your enemy – he’s your ally.  If he isn’t – you shouldn’t be living with him.

Maybe it’s time to renew your purpose, and make sure you’re both in it together.  It’s a lot more fun that way.

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A patient told me she couldn’t get over a guy she’d been seeing.

He was no good for her.  He didn’t even seem to want to go out with her.  But she couldn’t let go.

“But I love him,” she explained.

Well, in a manner of speaking.

She was in love with him like a child – the way a child loves a parent.

A child’s love is based upon dependency.  A child loves whoever takes care of him, because he cannot take care of himself.

When a young child says “I love you,” he means “I worship you and you are all-powerful and I depend upon you utterly and you are everything and I couldn’t survive without you.”

It’s the same way religious people relate to their chosen god-objects.  It’s no coincidence they often kneel before statues or altars and refer to “Lord” and “Almighty” and “Heavenly Father,” and so on.

If you live in an island with a volcano and it erupts and burns down your village, you can respond as an adult, and take up volcanology research.  Or you can regress under the stress into a child, and talk to the volcano as a parent-object, asking what you did wrong to make it angry, and trying to please it.

A child is so utterly dependent upon a parent that, if he displeases the parent, he will always locate the fault within.  He will not think – oh, it’s just a volcano, they erupt sometimes.  It must be about the child, something he did – his fault.

My client was relating to the guy she was dating the same way.  And she was beating herself up pretty bad.

Adult love is very different from child love.  It begins with loving yourself.

Then you add three ingredients:

Attraction, Trust, and Respect.

That’s what it means to love someone else, romantically, as an adult.

1.  You are attracted to him.  This is simple enough.  The common mistake here is trying to ignore sexual attraction and turn a friendship into a romantic relationship.  You cannot go out with the guy you SHOULD go out with.  You have to go out with the guy you WANT to go out with.  “But he’s so nice” is not a reason to date someone.  You have to be into him, too.

2.  You trust him.  If someone values you, his attention is focused on you.  Monogamy is the clearest manifestation of a mutual fascination.  But even in the early months of dating, before monogamy enters the picture, trust is already an issue.

Are you worried he might not call?

You shouldn’t be.  You should trust his interest in you.  If you don’t, there’s probably something wrong.  If you value yourself, you will find someone who values you as well.  And if he values you, he won’t leave you wondering if he’s going to call.

3.  You respect him.  The best relationships contain a note of mutual awe.  You think your partner is pretty darned terrific – and he returns the compliment.

Happy partnerships are a bit mysterious – they are secret clubs, with only two members.  We don’t know what Napoleon saw in Josephine, or Gertrude saw in Alice B, or John saw in Yoko – but these famous partners were clearly fascinated with their spouses, and their fascination was returned.

A mature, respectful relationship between equals might seem pretty dull stuff compared to the headlong thrill of worshipping a parent-object like a child.

Yes, it is a bit calmer.  Far less drama.

But believe me, it has its pleasures.

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The People’s Therapist is a big Stevie Wonder fan.

Here’s one of my favorite songs, “I Believe (When I Fall in Love),” from the legendary 1972 album “Talking Book”:

You can see what makes it a classic.

First – it’s Stevie Wonder.

Second – who can resist a song whose chief lyric is “I believe when I fall in love this time it will be forever”?

We all want to find perfect love – and have it last forever.

But listening to this song feels like a guilty pleasure – there’s something that nags at you, even as you want to go along with it.

In reality, it’s impossible to know how long a relationship is going to last.  You can “believe” all you want – but no one can predict the future.

Stevie married his first wife in 1970, divorced in 1972, then, after multiple relationships, married again in 2001.  He has seven children, the product of what Wikipedia describes as “his two marriages and several relationships.”

For Stevie, where relationships are concerned, I think it’s fair to say “it’s complicated.”

That’s true for most of us.

Relationships are organic – like plants.  No one knows whether they’re going to flourish or wilt, and there’s only so much you can do to control them.  You can’t pull on a leaf and make it longer – it has to decide to grow that way on its own.

I try to avoid valuing a relationship based on its longevity.  We all know people who have had meaningful relationships that lasted only a few years.  And we all know couples who have been miserable together for decades.

At some point, what matters most in a relationship is not whether it lasts forever, but whether you enjoy being in it.

When I treat couples, I ask them right away:  “How much of the time, as a couple, are you having fun?”

I’m not trying to be flippant – it’s an important question.

My general rule is that they should be having fun more than 50% of the time.  Otherwise, it’s trouble – and I begin to question why they’re sticking it out.

In an existential sense, having fun – being happy – is what life’s about.  We’re here to experience joy, and our relationships should be a source of that happiness.

There are a lot of things I could say about relationships – that they should be balanced, that partners should treat one another as equals and relate as adults, that they should be two whole people pursuing a shared goal, that a healthy relationship requires attraction, trust and respect between the partners.

But the most important thing – the starting place – is that you should be having fun.

The truth is most relationships end in break-up – and that’s not necessarily a disaster.  It might be an evolution to something different. People grow and change over time, and having several loving relationships – like Stevie’s – might not be fundamentally better or worse than having only one.

It’s having fun, together with a partner, that really counts.

Here’s another song (lyrics by Eddy Arnold, performance by the incomparable Nat “King” Cole), called “Sometimes I’m Happy.”

I think gets a little closer to the truth of what relationships are really about:

Sometimes I love you.

Sometimes I hate you.

But when I hate you.

It’s ’cause I love you.

That’s how I am

So what can I do?

I’m happy when I’m with you.

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One of my patients came to me last week looking like he’d just been through a war.

He plopped down in a chair and began to weep.

It didn’t take me long to realize he’d been “dumped.”  At least, that’s how he characterized it.

But I don’t believe getting “dumped” exists.  Here’s why:

First, the obvious reason – you don’t want to go out with anyone who doesn’t want to go out with you.  It doesn’t make any sense, and even if you could go out with someone who doesn’t want to go out with you, it wouldn’t be fair to the other person to to you – you both deserve better.

Second, a partnership is a system of two.  Nothing is unilateral in a partnership.  If your partner “dumped” you, and you’re surprised, that means you’ve been ignoring signals and your partner has been colluding with you in not bringing you his honest feelings.  You’ve been in a conspiracy together to avoid something you both have to face – the organic reality of what you have, where your relationship really is.

Why do people do this?  Because they are acting like children – regressing, under stress, into the child they still are inside and relating to their partner the way a child relates to a parent instead of as an equal, another adult.

A partnership must have balance – the balance that comes from two whole people – not two half-people – coming together to share a walk down the path of life.  You share a common goal – that shining city far away down the path – and you choose to walk there together, and to enjoy one another’s company along the way.

To exist in a successful partnership, you must first learn to love yourself.  A child cannot love himself because he doesn’t know himself – he looks to his parent to tell him who he is, that he is good, that he is worthy of love.  If a child is rejected, he feels he has failed in his evolutionary mission to survive by pleasing his parent, and so he places the fault within himself and concludes he must be bad, unloveable.  But an adult is different – he is self-sufficient, and he can be his own parent – tell himself he is worthy of love.

We all wear a price tag around our neck – and we assign the price.  That price tag shouldn’t say “best offer accepted” – it should say “one millions dollars.”  Otherwise you will be giving yourself away for too low a price to someone who doesn’t deserve you.

That’s why you need to love yourself in order to parent yourself.  And you need to parent yourself in order to separate from the child and become an adult.

You must be an adult in order to join forces with another adult and share experience together, as equal partners.

An equal partner in a balanced relationship cannot “dump” another equal partner.  That would violate the laws of physics.

So no – my patient wasn’t “dumped.”  No one ever gets dumped.  You just find out you have some work to do on yourself before you enter another relationship.

Most of that work is learning to love the child you once were – and still are.

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