A divorce lawyer is probably not at the top of our list of who to go to for relationship advice.
But James Sexton has used his experience from two decades as a leading New York City divorce attorney to become an unlikely relationship guru, releasing the best-selling book ‘How To Stay In Love’ to pass on his practical wisdom learned on the frontline of marriage breakups.
“If you want to know how to keep a car in its best running condition, you don’t go to a car dealership — you go to a mechanic,” he says.
“And you go to a mechanic who has been doing it a long time and will be able to tell you, ‘Here’s how this kind of car breaks down. Here’s some preventative maintenance you can do. And here’s how it can be fixed when it’s broken.’
“I have had thousands of broken hearts in my office. We are in a unique position as divorce lawyers to be able to really tell people the honest truth of what goes on in the reality of people’s relationships. Not the bulls*** they put up on Instagram, not the ‘hashtag blessed’ world of Facebook — we see them two days after they put ‘hashtag blessed’ thing up and they’re in my office saying how the relationship has been shit for the last five years.
“So I can say, ‘Look, I’ve spent a lot of time with people who have shitty relationships. So here’s ways they could have made them less shitty. Here’s where it looks like the brake pads wore down.’”
So with Covid-19 having a huge impact on lives and the stressful holiday season upon us, James shares five tips on how to keep our relationships healthy, so you might not need a divorce lawyer at all.
IDENTIFY AND EXPRESS WHAT YOU WANT
“The biggest problem in everyone’s relationship is a problem with themselves. And it’s a two-fold problem: they don’t know what they want and they don’t know how to express it.
“I think that for men, especially, we’re raised without as much of an emotional vocabulary and without as much of a sense of community among men, because a lot of the male gender role traditionally has been this idea of keeping your counsel. That the less support you need, the more effective you are.
“There are 7.3 billion people in the world, and if you’re going to have a monogamous relationship, which history has taught us is probably the most successful permutation, we have to be very honest with ourselves about what a successful relationship looks like to us individually, and then really not be afraid to honestly and radically pursue that.
“And sometimes we have to be uncomfortable to have authenticity. Anyone who’s ever worked out knows if you work out really hard, you’re gonna be sore the next day. And if you wait until you’re not sore to work out again, then you’re never going to really get into that habit.
“It’s the same thing in relationships, we have to do the hard work, first to say, ‘OK, what do I want, authentically?’ Not what did my parents tell me I should want or what my culture tell me I should want. And then to express that to another person in the right way.
“The pandemic has been interesting, because when you no longer have this wide open road, where you can do anything you want, it has forced us to look at what we want to do, what we need to do, and to look at our roles.
“There’s so much emphasis now on women, that they can do anything and can be anyone, and that’s great, but I think we’re losing boys and men along the way. “
“We’ve created a model where your romantic partner, the person you marry if you choose to marry, they’re supposed to be your best friend, best roommate, best travel companion, best conversationalist, best co-parent, best sexual partner. That’s just insane to think that one person will check all of those boxes.
“And then we’re just relentlessly fogged through film and TV and social media, which is other people’s curated version of their best life, and constantly bombarded with images of this perfection that our real lives couldn’t possibly stand up to. And that’s the challenge. Because you’re just seeing a snippet, whether you’re looking at an Instagram post or watching a movie. In ‘Titanic’, had Jack not drowned and died at the end, and we jumped ahead 10 years and he and Rose had stayed together, I have a feeling they would not have had the same level of sort of romantic perfection. She’d have been like, ‘What the f*** are you painting these French girls for?’
“So the challenge is first finding a romantic partner where you can be honest with yourself, and then honest with them about what you want, and vice versa. And then constantly finding simple ways to just check in and course correct.”
DON’T LET LITTLE THINGS BUILD
“For most of the people who end up in a divorce lawyer’s office, in my 20 years of experience, it was not a big thing, it was lots and lots of little things. No single raindrop is responsible for the flood. There’s lots of little disconnections. And my book is about the idea that we should try to prevent those small disconnections, and then we’ll never get to the big ones.
“Falling out of love is a lot like weight gain. You just turn around one day and your pants don’t fit, and it wasn’t what you ate last night, it’s the little choices you’ve made over a long period of time. And anybody who’s ever gained and lost weight knows it’s a hell of a lot harder to lose a bunch of weight once you’re out of shape than it is to just stay in relatively good shape.
“Relationships are the same. I think it is really important when people are getting along, and they’re in a good place in a relationship, to talk about how you will argue. So when you’re communicating well, say, ‘At some point, we’re not gonna see eye to eye on something, maybe big, maybe small. So how do you argue? What works for you? If we’re disagreeing on something and you just walk away, should I stop you? Or are you the kind of person that needs a minute to cool down?’ Most people learn how to fight while they’re in a fight, and that’s the worst possible time.
“We’ve all had that moment where you’re having a conversation about which Chinese restaurant has the best Foo Yung in your neighborhood, and you’re disagreeing about it, and all of a sudden, it’s like, ‘I never liked your mother!’ And you’re like, ‘What the hell? How long have you been carrying that around?’ The only way to get to the bottom of that stuff is to look at it while it’s still a seed.
“There’s a chapter in my book called ‘Hit Send Now’ where I talk about using email. Email gives you an opportunity to really form your thoughts in a careful way. I think is a great way to just share what’s going on inside of you, the little things. If you say to your spouse or partner, ‘We’re going to have this pledge, and the subject heading is, ‘hit send now.’ And when you see that email, that’s just something I want to share with you. You don’t have to respond right away, you don’t ever have to respond at all, I just wanted to ‘hit send now.’ I’m not putting you on the spot. I just wanted to put this out there so that you know it was on my mind’.’
“I’ve had some people vigorously criticize that technique, who say reciting a laundry list to your spouse of everything that’s wrong with them on a regular basis is just crazy. And my response to that is, ‘OK, so just try and keep all that stuff down.’”
FIND SPACE AND SMALL BLESSINGS IN THE HOLIDAYS
“In general, winter holidays are challenging for relationships for the same reason the pandemic has been, that we’re kind of locked in together. Things are closed, we’re not at work quite as much necessarily. So I think finding ways to give each other a little bit of space and room, but also stay connected to each other, is the huge challenge for anybody.
“I think in the holidays generally, there’s a pressure that people don’t like to talk about, which is that there’s a lot of economic pressure on people to buy gifts. And as a divorce lawyer, I can tell you economic pressures in marriages creates a lot of strain, especially in a time where the global economy is so messed up, as it is right now. I’m busier than I’ve ever been and my divorce lawyer colleagues are saying the same thing.
“But I think the pandemic holiday is actually going to solve some of the problems that are presented by normal holidays. I do think there is a tendency to just go out and buy some consumer item, or something that is purported by our culture to be romantic. But I think the pandemic is forcing us to be a little more creative, and making gifts that are very personal.
“This is not going to be the traditional holiday with everyone gathered around the table the way they used to be. So we can look at it that way, and then we’ll all be very sad. Or we look at it like, ‘OK, we’re together and we’re healthy.’”
AND MAYBE THINK TWICE ABOUT THAT ROMANTIC HOLIDAY ENGAGEMENT…
“In my early speaking on this topic, I used to talk to people about the technology of marriage, and people took a lot of offense at my use of the word technology. Technology is any tool that we create or discover that’s designed to facilitate something else. Every technology solves certain problems and it creates other problems. So marriage is a technology. And yet we get no pamphlet, no guidance in something that fails more often than not.
“We are not getting married for the reason people originally got married — land preservation. We’re getting married for a number of reasons that are probably unique to some of us and that are common among all. It’s just what you do. I’ve been with this person for a while, and now we’re getting married.
“If I’m a 30-year-old man who has been dating a woman for three years, and I say, ‘We’ve decided to get married.’ That’s lovely. Mazel tov. If I say, ‘We’ve decided we’re not going to get married,’ then it’s, ‘What the f*** is wrong? What’s the issue?’ But why is there a presumption that you’ll marry? Especially when you consider the fact that it is such an unsuccessful technology. There’s a 53% divorce rate, and then there’s the other people who stay together because they don’t want to give away half their stuff.
“So ask yourself: Why are you getting married? What do you think it will accomplish? Do you think it will change your relationship in a positive way? Because if it’s, ‘She’s got a drinking problem, but maybe she’ll settle down and stop drinking if we get married.’ That’s insane. But if it’s, ‘Maybe she’ll feel more secure in our relationship if I declare in a very public way that I’m hers alone,’ that might work. That’s a fairly legitimate basis. Or if it’s, ‘I want to be able to share social security benefits with each other.’ Yeah. That’s a tangible, practical reason.
“But if it’s, ‘I think it’s just what you do.’ That’s ridiculous. Your life should be by design, not by default.”