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Jeannie Suk Gersen

Professor of Law at Harvard University, professional mediator. Specialist in family and marriage law.

Once my mentor told me that you need to marry immediately for the second husband. This does not mean that Mister Perfect is magically waiting for you behind door number two. Just to understand how marriage works, you need to understand how and why it ends.

Divorce clearly demonstrates the unspoken rules of marriage. You need to know them in order to build strong relationships from the very beginning. It doesn’t sound very romantic, but sometimes what we do out of love puts that very love in jeopardy.

I’m a family law professor. Taught students, worked as a lawyer and mediatorand also went through a divorce. I am now happily married to my second husband. And I think that everyone needs to talk in advance on painful topics that have to be discussed by those who get divorced. If you do this in advance, you will have a better chance of a strong marriage.

There are three questions that I propose to discuss.

1. What we are willing to sacrifice for each other

Marriage is an exchange of sacrifices, and it should be fair. Otherwise, problems begin.

Consider the example of Lisa and Andy. Early in their marriage, Lisa decides to go to medical school and Andy to provide for their family. And so he works the night shift and refuses a good offer in another city. He does it out of love, but also realizes that Lisa’s degree will benefit both of them in the future.

After a few years, Andy develops a feeling of abandonment and discontent, he begins to drink a lot. Lisa looks at her life and him and doubts she signed up for this. A few years later, she graduates and files for divorce.

In an ideal world, they would need to talk to a relationship counselor or mediator before Lisa went to school. He would ask:

  • How fair is your exchange?
  • What are you willing to give and what are you willing to owe each other?

After the divorce, Lisa will most likely have to financially support Andy for several years. But no amount of financial support will help him feel that he has been compensated for what he has given up.

If they had thought in advance about what they were ready to sacrifice and what they were not, the marriage could have turned out differently. Perhaps Lisa would decide to take out a student loan or work part-time so that Andy would not have to fully provide for them. And he would probably agree to a job in another city so as not to abandon his career, and he would feel better.

2. What do we think about childcare

Let’s look at another couple, Emily and Deb. They live and work in a big city and have two children. Then Emily gets a job in a small town and the couple decides to move. Deb quits to take care of the kids, leaves family, friends, and what she loves. In a new place, she faces isolation and loneliness, and 10 years later she starts an affair on the side – and the marriage falls apart.

If the couple had spoken to a mediator prior to the move, he would have asked them:

  • How will your decisions about childcare affect your commitment to each other?
  • How will they affect your relationship?
  • Do you understand that childcare is not free?

If they had thought about these issues then, perhaps they would have looked for other solutions so that Deb would not have to remain in isolation. And Emily would think about what it takes to care for children and what is due to a loved one for taking care of them around the clock.

3. What do we have in common and what is personal

Let’s go back to Lisa and Andy. Before marriage, Lisa received an inheritance from her grandmother. After the wedding, they bought a house, and this inheritance went to the down payment. Since Andy was working, he took over the mortgage payments. As a result, their property was combined, and Lisa’s inheritance became joint matrimonial property. When they divorce, they will have to sell the house and share the amount received, or one will need to buy out the share of the other.

The mediator would ask them:

  • What property do you want to keep private and what property do you want to share?
  • How will your choice affect the safety of the marriage?

Because what was “mine” will become “ours” after the wedding, unless conscious steps are taken to prevent it.

If they had thought about marriage in terms of divorce beforehand, they might have made other decisions. Perhaps Lisa would have left her legacy for a rainy day. Perhaps they would have bought a smaller house and Andy wouldn’t have to work so hard to pay off the mortgage. Perhaps he wouldn’t feel so miserable in the end.

In marriage, we often make sacrifices and demand them from a partner, without considering their “cost”. Be wiser, calculate the cost of your decisions. This is what divorce law teaches us, and it will help keep a marriage strong.