Even after 23 years as a divorce lawyer in San Antonio, Clarence Bray’s demeanor is more that of a village priest than a courthouse warrior. He speaks in such quiet, measured tones that listeners are forced to lean forward and concentrate on his every word.
When Bray married 31 years ago, he was thrown by the fact that his wife expressed herself so much more forcefully than he did. If something was bothering her, she’d say so – firmly and at length. Bray realized that in order to take care of himself in the relationship, he was going to have to learn to fight. “The first step was to realize that I could say no quietly. Even though I didn’t have all the words and emotion she did when she said it, it meant the same thing.” In time, he learned to be more forthcoming about his feelings, and she learned to give him the time he needed to express himself. “I guess the biggest reason we stay married is both of us feel safe showing the other who we really are.”
Bray advises couples to expect the best from each other. Because of that philosophy, he’s reluctant to prepare prenuptial agreements, which, he says, usually focus on what might go wrong, instead of what can go right. “The idea that `what’s mine is mine, and you can’t have it, may be an effective way to make financial decisions, but it’s not a good way to build a relationship.”
What does work is noticing an acknowledging a spouse’s good qualities. “In my experience, couples who value each other tend to compete less,” he says, “and that makes for less tension.”
Bray’s final advice is to find some small way to serve your spouse, for love is in the details. One client he knows hates yard work, but does it anyway because he knows it’s important to his wife to have a tidy yard. Another man he knows, who leaves for work before his wife, always pours a cup of coffee and leaves it on a warmer for her before he goes. “It’s like a love note,” says Bray, his voice a whisper. “None of us can ever get too many reminders that we are loved.”
Respect Is Everything
Earlier this year, Miami divorce lawyer Maurice Kutner took an extraordinary step to protect his marriage. He underwent laser throat surgery to stop his snoring so his wife of 20 years could get a good night’s sleep. “She was waking up thirty times a night to give me a poke,” says Kutner. “It was the least I could do. Besides, my ribs were getting sore.”
In his 22 years at the matrimonial bar, Kutner has learned that such concrete displays of consideration are well worth the effort. “When respect goes, the marriage goes,” he says, “because from respect flow communication, compromise, patience, and a willingness to make changes.”
He tells couples to concentrate on maintaining good manners. He sees lots of clients who treat their wives or husbands much worse than they treat business associates or friends. “Return their phone calls,” says Kutner. “Say please and thank you. These things may sound simple, but it’s the simple things that work.”
Other obstacles are power struggles: over the checkbook, the children, even the television. One client complained that his wife never let him control the remote; another said he hadn’t made a decision about where to go on vacation for years. “It wasn’t the TV or the vacation they were fighting over,” says Kutner. “It was power.”
Kutner suggests partners stop demanding perfection from each other. He sees women who are angry because their husbands work too many hours, and men who are furious because their wives are sloppy housekeepers. Instead, he advises, strive to overlook minor flaws and look for hidden strengths. The husband who works too hard may be a good provider. The messy wife may be flexible and creative. “None of us are perfect,” says Kutner. “But somewhere we get this crazy idea that the people we many should be.”
Keep Intimacy Alive
Joy Feinberg considers herself a statistical improbability. A child of divorce who’s seen every variety of marital shenanigans in her career as a Chicago divorce lawyer, she has managed to stay happily married for 20 years.
Her advice to others: Hold your tongue in an argument until you figure out what you’re really angry about. She cites the example of a client who was furious at her husband and had nothing good to say about him. Feinberg found out that what was really bothering her was that he had recently turned down a full-time job to work instead as an independent contractor, and the idea of him not bringing home a regular paycheck terrified her. In this case, once the husband found out the reason for his wife’s anger, they were able to compromise. He took a steady job that still allowed him to do odd jobs on the side, and she took over the family finances to keep a handle on their budget. “The first step in resolving any conflict is figuring out what you want,” Feinberg says. “Then you have something to negotiate with”,
Finally, she recommends, don’t take your arguments to bed. According to Feinberg, 80 percent of the couples who come to her for a divorce say they haven’t had sex in more than a year. “Sex allows you to renew intimacy, and most couples who break up have built a physical wall against it,” she says. Once marital cold wars begin, it’s more likely that one or both partners will have an affair.
“My grandmother was a wise woman,” says Feinberg. “She always told me that when intimacy leaves, it almost always goes somewhere else.”