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Put Your Marriage in your In-Box

Reprinted with permission from Copyright ©2007.

By Joe Shaub, family law attorney and mediator

Joe ShaubOn a cozy, rainy Sunday before Memorial Day, I find myself hanging out with my wife and daughter—each of us engaged in our own pastimes, but liking the fact that we’re sharing a roof against the downpour on this sweet, slow day.  I love to read on days like this, and true to form, I have been curled up with Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, a heartbreaking and illuminating book tracking a year which began with the death of her husband and life partner and proceeded with the prolonged, life-threatening illness of her adult daughter.

More than 30 years ago, psychologists Holmes and Rahe authored a study, which is cited to this day.  According to their research, of the 50 or so “psycho-social stressors” which people may experience in their lives (ranging from the most severe to Christmas and traffic tickets), far and away the most powerful single life event is the death of a long-time spouse.  Didion’s memoir underscores that finding in searing prose.  The key, of course, is the existence of a close, lifetime partner.

We lawyers often make a pact with the devil in this realm.  We promise that if we commit completely to our careers, make the large and repeated small sacrifices that this promise entails, we will be rewarded with financial security (or for some, wealth), prestige and the time to enjoy all that we put off for so long.  Whether it’s travel, an opportunity to work on our golf game or the long postponed taking-up of an avocation, we expect that our reward will come toward the end of the day.  However, I want to raise one word of caution lest we find that our graying days turn out less satisfying than we might have hoped.

A Marriage Is Composed Of Many Small Moments

Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne’s story is one of warm companionship stretching across years.  In a particularly poignant passage, Didion, who is in Los Angeles while her daughter languishes in UCLA’s hospital, avoids many streets and locales which threaten to put her into a time “vortex,” reliving the moments the family shared during their years in Southern California.  The memories, vividly retrieved, include the smallest details.  These events were not perceived as important when lived—maybe a small pleasure in the rush of daily life—but she recalls them with deep longing.  In fact, this recollection includes few major events. 

In sorting through her husband’s effects, Didion discovered a drawer filled with scraps of paper upon which were written idle chatter from their daughter when she was very young. “‘Where you was?’ she would say, and ‘Where did the morning went?’”  She would call her bath a “bathment” and the butterflies for a kindergarten experiment “flybutters.”  She made up her first poem at the age of seven: "I’m going to marry/ a boy named Harry/ He rides horses / And handles divorces.”

Time Together Is The Oxygen Of Marriage

Noted marriage expert, William Doherty, Ph.D., author of Take Back Your Marriage, believes that rituals are the foundation of a long, rich marriage.  They can be simple, like the one he and his wife have enjoyed for many years:  setting aside a half hour after dinner to share a cup of tea, review their day and reconnect.  Without consciously setting aside some time together (the Friday night “date” some couples religiously observe), we may find ourselves growing distant from the one person most important to us.

How are we living our lives today?  Are we saving up for the big memory and letting pass the small, telling, life-filling memories?  Are we allowing someone else to savor the precious moments of our children’s many small gifts?  Equally important, are we allowing our relationship with our life partner to erode?  Study after study reminds us that our marriages are the most taken-for-granted relationship in our lives.

Among Doherty’s mantras is this one—the strong marriage depends on time and attention.  It is the oxygen of a vital, long-term relationship.  Daily small moments strengthen the bond; many small rituals give it vibrancy, flexibility and longevity.  Doherty enumerates the most voracious “time thieves” which suck the time out of our marriages.  These include our children and pastimes, but heading the list is work.  He’s speaking to the general public.  Imagine how much more relevant this is to attorneys.

Now Is Time To Take Stock

Does our commitment to our work at the expense of our personal lives result in a less than satisfying outcome as we move into the later stages of our careers?  For those of us who are preparing to cut back or retire, it may be a good time to take stock of our commitment to our marriages.  Have we worked hard so that we can now spend more time with someone we don’t know so well any more?  If so, there are certainly ways to reconnect.  The exercises found in John Gottman’s Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work are a good place to look. 

Most importantly, start spending consistent time with one another.  Develop a renewed awareness of what you admire about one another—and express it freely.  This kind of suggestion may cause some shakiness among many lawyers whose education and training may have left them somewhat limited in their ability to recognize and express admiration.  Over the years, I have heard attorneys gasp, “That sounds so touchy-feely,” in the same tone they would use to ask, “Do you really expect me to eat this serving of rotting fish?”

Trust me, it’s not as bad as all that.  Plus, there’s a tremendous up side.  A deeper connection with your life partner will not only make your graying years richer and happier, it will also extend them, as happily-partnered people have much greater life expectancy than do single or unhappily married people.

Joseph Shaub is a family law attorney and mediator in Seattle, Washington. An attorney since 1974 and marriage and family therapist since 1991, he has conducted several continuing education seminars and retreats for attorneys on interpersonal relationship skills over the past 15 years. As an adjunct faculty member at the University of Washington Law School, Joe teaches classes in Interviewing and Counseling; Practical Issues in Solo & Small Firm Practice and Negotiation. His domestic relations practice focuses on Collaborative Law and he has conducted several highly regarded basic trainings in the effort to expand this healing approach to conflict resolution into Washington State. Joe’s many bar association publications on lawyers’ well being can be found on the “Attorney’s Corner” of his website.


  1. Didion, Joan, The Year of Magical Thinking, Vintage, February 2007 
  2. Doherty, William, Ph.D., Take Back Your Marriage: Sticking Together in a World That Pulls Us Apart, The Guilford Press, June 2003
  3. Gottman, John, Silver, Nan, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country's Foremost Relationship Expert, Three Rivers Press, May 2000

For information about the Advisory Committee on the Judicial Family Network, please contact Judicial Services Program Manager Dean Hogan, Supreme Court of Ohio, 614.387.9467.

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