How can I communicate more effectively with my attorney spouse?
December 8, 2016 12:13 PM   Subscribe

It's time for the depositions to come to an end. Married MeFi lawyers and spouses of lawyers, how have you learned to communicate & conflict resolve with one another as husband/wife first and attorney second?

My spouse is a wonderful human being and a great attorney. We have a happy life together and love one another deeply. But we argue like children. Or rather, I argue like a child; he argues like someone who spent years studying & practicing the art of debate.

Our conflict resolution typically goes something like this:

Me: I'm upset; when I ___, you ___ and I feel ___. Can we figure out a solution?
Him: 3-4 rapid-fire questions about specific, factual details.

Now I'm suddenly debating the factual merits and/or semantics of my answers to one or more of these questions, rather than the original issue. If I attempt to steer back to that issue, we rinse & repeat until eventually I feel so unheard that I end the conversation. If, when we are both calmer, I try to express that I feel unheard or that the issue is still unresolved, he will usually respond with, "I'm sorry you feel that way." (Note: not I'm sorry for the original issue.)

When he's frustrated about something I've said or done, we don't have a conversation so much as a deposition. He asks innocuous questions, establishing base facts, then goes for the 'Aha! Gotcha!'. He never experiences resolution because my hurt at being pounced upon (and his joy at 'winning') becomes what we discuss, rather than the original issue.

I've tried to address communicating together in a more healthy, non-legal way with humor, seriousness, gently suggesting couples counseling, and even trying out different methods of engagement on my own. Nothing sticks. I've casually asked other attorney wives over the years and the general consensus is to simply roll over in the moment, "let them win", and buy something expensive a few days later. Which, barf.

How do I convince him that compromise and resolution at home is so much more awesome than winning? That Socrates didn't know diddley squat about being married? Are there any interpersonal communication resources (besides the Should You Marry a Lawyer book) for conflict-prone professions? Alternatively, are there any resources that teach a left-brained person how to debate with a righty in a way that doesn't feel like nails on a chalkboard? Or do I just need to throw in the towel and start hiring expert witnesses on dirty dishes & driving directions?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (24 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
You are taking on too much work (look up emotional labor). He is not communicating in a manner that facilitates relationships. This is his problem to solve.

gently suggesting couples counseling

Stop being gentle; he's not! Tell him very directly that this is a problem for you and you need couples counseling to learn how to communicate better.

If you are unable to communicate directly with him, perhaps find your own individual therapist first to discuss your lack of confidence or (maybe) your fear of him.
posted by AFABulous at 12:25 PM on December 8, 2016 [18 favorites]

Shorter version: there are no magic words to change someone else's communication style. They need to want to.
posted by AFABulous at 12:27 PM on December 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

He needs to remember that the communications style he learned helps him win in a courtroom argument, but not in an argument of two hearts. If he is really is that passionate about winning, ask that he up his game to learn how to continually win your heart and a healthy ongoing marriage. Perhaps liken it to an out of court resolution that allows the parties to continue to do business together instead of courtroom litigation which is a nail in the coffin.

I guess I'm hoping reframing his understanding in his own language may help.

I have a similar problem with my husband but I'm the one using professional skills at home. It's hard to undo but awareness of the problem is a start, as is reminding myself that my winning in this situation means keeping the husband and keeping him happy.
posted by cacao at 12:28 PM on December 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

This is him deflecting and being defensive, and it's bullshit. Don't engage his interrogations, you laid out your feelings maturely and asked a clear question, don't let him answer questions with questions! "I have these feelings, is there something that we can do about it?" Repeat as necessary if he starts in on the "why" or whatever his strategy tends to be (and I bet you can recognize that by now). Tell him you aren't a [usual opponent in his area of practice].
posted by rhizome at 12:31 PM on December 8, 2016 [11 favorites]

Your husband is not only treating you in the lawyer framework, but he is treating you within that lawyer framework as opposing counsel, rather than as a smart, sophisticated client who he respects AND WHOSE GOOD OPINION HE VALUES BECAUSE GUESS WHAT YOU CAN FIRE HIM.

Tl;dr: I'm a lawyer. Mr. Machine is a lawyer. Your husband is being a dick, and not only should he know better as a person, if he is a successful lawyer, he knows better as a legal professional.
posted by joyceanmachine at 12:33 PM on December 8, 2016 [86 favorites]

Me: I'm upset; when I ___, you ___ and I feel ___. Can we figure out a solution?

This is the correct way to approach marital disagreements! Nitpicking facts and semantics is, in fact, the way that a child argues!
posted by beerperson at 12:41 PM on December 8, 2016 [23 favorites]

When he's frustrated about something I've said or done, we don't have a conversation so much as a deposition. He asks innocuous questions, establishing base facts, then goes for the 'Aha! Gotcha!

THIS is arguing like a child. This is specifically the way I argued with my mother when I was a child, from when I was very little up until my early teens. Framing it as lawyerly behavior may help you to tolerate it and to change it, but if the idea that you're being the childish one is coming from him at all, shut that right down. it's laughable.

You're not his parent, a judge to impress, or opposing counsel. you definitely aren't a witness who has to be led around or into a trap. If he cannot address you as a respected equal, he is the one who is having difficulty with adult conversation. His profession may encourage it but I don't think it's really to blame.

"I'm sorry you feel that way."

this is straight out of a joke book I had as a kid. a brother tells his sister she's stupid, dad says to apologize, brother says 'Sis, I'm sorry you're stupid.' I thought that was pretty clever when I was eight.

He needs to rise to your level, which is the adult level. don't let him get away with pretending he's descending to it from a loftier height, because you can't handle his skills. Fairness and logic are indispensable things in adult arguments but you're not describing someone who uses them well, if at all.
posted by queenofbithynia at 12:48 PM on December 8, 2016 [6 favorites]

You know what, when I was a lawyer and I was married to my now-ex-husband who was not a lawyer, that is exactly how we argued, with me using gentle language and him being dismissive and defensive and moving off the point in order to minimize my concerns and emotions.

That is dickish behavior. I have actually known compassionate and loving people who were lawyers and who didn't do this. So this isn't lawyer behavior, it's dickish behavior. Or I should say fuckhead behavior, because you don't need to have a dick to do it.
posted by janey47 at 12:48 PM on December 8, 2016 [8 favorites]

Constructing legal briefs against one's partner is the literal opposite of professional advice I have been given about how to communicate in a relationship. Not figurative-literal, but literal-literal. The actual words were, "Do not construct legal briefs against your partner."

This is on him. You are doing it right. He is doing it wrong.

Get less gentle about counseling.
posted by soren_lorensen at 12:50 PM on December 8, 2016 [7 favorites]

My husband's a lawyer. He does not talk to me like this. The issue here is less "your husband is a lawyer" and more "your husband is not communicating with you appropriately as a partner even when you are being clear about your feelings and experiences".

I absolutely believe you have a happy life and love one another deeply and I'm sure it's frustrating, as someone who loves him, to see all these responses telling your husband is behaving like a jerk but, unfortunately, even though he may be a wonderful guy who loves you very deeply, in these interactions he is behaving like a jerk. I agree that you should keep working on counseling; maybe come up with a script you can use to express how important this is to you so you can stick to that if he pushes back? For example:

"I feel like I am expressing my feelings clearly and, rather than working with me towards a solution, you question what I have said. It makes it feel like you don't care about my feelings which is hurtful to me. It is important to me that we get counseling together to work on how we communicate because I am feeling hurt."

Then if he says "When has this happened? What did I do? Are you sure you're being clear?" or whatever things you can say:

"I am telling you that I am feeling hurt and upset. It is important to me that we get counseling." and you can just repeat that or something similar instead of getting bogged down in details. Don't explain further or address the specific, nitpicky points; all he should need to know is that you are hurting and this is how he can help. Very very best wishes; this sounds immensely frustrating and I really hope it gets better for you.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 1:04 PM on December 8, 2016 [17 favorites]

Another lawyer here . . . a law degree is not a license to be a jerk, that style of arguing is definitely influenced by his legal training, but is not really the cause of the way he's acting.

He's using the tools he has available to avoid addressing the issues that are important to you, and thereby avoid having to make any compromises in the relationship. He's decided that he can dismiss your concerns unless they pass the utmost scrutiny, according to standards that you probably haven't agreed upon and which normal adults don't base their relationships on. This places a huge burden on you--be perfect in your argument or he gets to dismiss it and have his way.

Essentially, he's trying to "win" the relationship. That's not fair to you, relationships are not won or lost. He needs to put your relationship first, and that requires fostering a supportive environment where you can both speak freely about what you're feeling. He's ignoring his ethical responsibility to you and your marriage, which means he's not being a good lawyer here. (Sorry, gotta defend my profession whenever I can).

I wouldn't say the above to him directly, but rather concentrate on how you need to feel like your concerns are taken seriously, and that being imprecise or inconsistent in your statements is a 100% normal thing that absolutely everybody does. You need him to help you to make yourself understood, not for him to pounce when he spots a weakness. Because either your concerns are real and important, or you are being disingenuous and just pretending to be upset. If it's the former, he should want to help. If he thinks it's the latter, the problem is much bigger than communication.
posted by skewed at 1:05 PM on December 8, 2016 [20 favorites]

A court case is not conflict resolution. There is only one winner. If there's only one winner in a relationship, you've both lost.

Maybe he could still think of it as a court case, but it needs to be Kramer&Kramer vs. The World, not Kramer vs. Kramer.

I agree counseling is the way to go!
posted by Jon Mitchell at 1:05 PM on December 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

It could help to think about this the other way around: maybe it's not that he is like this because he's a lawyer, but that he became a lawyer because he's like this, because it validates him in 90% of his interactions (i.e. at work).
posted by rhizome at 1:15 PM on December 8, 2016 [14 favorites]

Tell him not-at-all gently that his partner communication skills are poor and that you as a couple need professional help. As a lawyer, he's probably proud of his arguing skills, but as a partner, he sucks, and you're not in a position to teach him how it's done. A therapist will. (What evidence do you have that he sucks at partner communication? The fact that you're so dissatisfied with him as a partner-communicator that you had to ask the Internet for help about him, because you are so frustrated.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:15 PM on December 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

Tell him he can win every argument but ultimately he will lose the relationship. At least, that's what I told the lawyer I was seeing who argued the same way. His need to cross examine me was why we never progressed any further. No regrets.
posted by Jubey at 1:54 PM on December 8, 2016 [6 favorites]

I'm a lawyer married to a nonlawyer. In these interactions, I try my best to treat my spouse like a client ("What is the problem, and how can I help?), not like a hostile witness (Dilbert from 1996).

Any decent lawyer has numerous communication registers along that spectrum (95% of what we do is relationship management), so if he's using the cross-examination register, it's not because being a lawyer somehow made him treat everybody that way.

I guess I'm saying that the fact that he's a lawyer is a red herring in your question.
posted by radicalawyer at 2:38 PM on December 8, 2016 [7 favorites]


I agree that the lawyer thing is a bit of a red herring. The two of you have different argument styles, and counseling may be a good idea here. You mention addressing communicating in a healthier way, but have you told him "when you treat me like a deponent you make me feel like shit?" Because if you have and his response has been "I'm sorry you feel that way" without any effort to change, that's a big red flag.

If you haven't had that conversation with him, have it. The response you should be looking for is "Sorry, I didn't know this made you feel bad; I'll try to stop doing it."
posted by craven_morhead at 2:47 PM on December 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

I have worked as a litigator (who fights people day in and day out) for 22 years. The discourse you describe is not something I engage in for my profession -- at trial maybe, but even then I have to be concerned that a jury might see such tactics as bullying. Think about that for a second.

Similarly, I don't argue with my husband any way close to what you described because it is rude, condescending and counter-productive to a respectful discourse. My non-attorney husband, on the other had, used to argue similarly to the way your spouse does. It took years of couples counseling (and individual counseling for him as well as other things) to get him to realize that it is a crappy way to communicate disagreement.

Don't let the attorney label get in the way of seeing this for what it is --bullying and intimidating. I fear the "attorneys-do-this-stuff" label impliedly gives your husband an excuse of sorts for why he argues this way. But there is no excuse because what he is doing has nothing to do with being a lawyer and everything to do with treating you shabbily when you have a disagreement.

I hope you can get him to see that because I know how damaging what he is doing can be to a marriage.
posted by murrey at 3:12 PM on December 8, 2016 [18 favorites]

It's almost definitely his fault. Nobody should be aiming to win marital disagreements particularly often and it seems like he's incapable of just nodding his head and trying something different when there's a low cost for him and a high reward for you.

But for what it's worth, if my wife used something like "I'm upset; when I ___, you ___ and I feel ___. Can we figure out a solution?" on me very often I would feel like I was being spoken to by a counseling book (or a page of Ask Metafilter answers), in the same way you feel like you're being questioned by a lawyer. I'm sure you're probably simplifying your communication style here, but frequent application of the bare you-do-this-and-it-makes-me-feel-this conversational skeleton would make me uncomfortable and probably defensive.
posted by Polycarp at 3:26 PM on December 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

Tl;dr: I'm a lawyer. Mr. Machine is a lawyer. Your husband is being a dick, and not only should he know better as a person, if he is a successful lawyer, he knows better as a legal professional.

Indeed. This is not about his being a lawyer, not really; this is about him being childish and latching onto a handy technique for doing so. Most lawyers don't talk this way in their private lives, because it would lead to not having them.
posted by praemunire at 3:44 PM on December 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

This is known as right-fighting or in gaming circles rules-lawyering and it quickly gets toxic.

I used to do this and my spouse took to saying "do you want to understand me and have a good marriage, or be right?"

I picked A. You may have to present options that starkly. I am not a lawyer.
posted by warriorqueen at 3:50 PM on December 8, 2016 [6 favorites]

Two-lawyer marriage here. THERAPY. Specifically the kind to learn how to communicate better.

In our house, we call each other on it by saying, "Stop litigating me!" It's not the lawyering per se but the litigating where you reflexively and defensively try to win every point just to be in a stronger position, not because the points matter or are accurate or move towards truth or justice.

I also sometimes go with, "You can obviously argue circles around me right now because I'm really emotional and can't think straight, but all you're doing is pissing me off more, so you're just making it worse."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:52 PM on December 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

I dated a lawyer who did nothing like this. This is something else. It might be WHY he became a lawyer, but it's not BECAUSE he is a lawyer. I'd insist on couples therapy. If you are "opposing counsel," you guys need mediation until you become co-counsel instead.
posted by salvia at 7:55 PM on December 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

The father of a friend used to be like this sometimes. Their mother used to bring him up short with “You’re not in court now Bob.”
posted by pharm at 9:04 AM on December 12, 2016

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