Divorce lawyers have seen it all.
With an average of nearly 2,000 divorces a day in the US, those practicing family law have witnessed every possible way a marriage can dissolve. Ask a divorce lawyer about some of their most memorable cases, as I did, and you’ll hear stories that will make you want to delete every dating app off your phone.
There was the woman who hadn’t seen her husband’s home before they got married and found out after the wedding that he was a hoarder. There was the couple who froze embryos together with the plan to put off having children until they were married, only for the husband to leave his wife for another woman shortly before her 40th birthday and demand that the remaining embryos be destroyed. Or the mom who believed herself to be a vampire and who slept in a coffin every night, and her ex-husband had to file for emergency custody. Another woman ran over her soon-to-be-ex spouse with her car, putting him in the hospital for two days, and when asked to explain her reasoning, she responded simply that she hated him.
Leaving a bad marriage is a positive thing (just ask Nicole Kidman), but going through a divorce is something most people would like to avoid. It’s expensive (one Forbes article estimates the average cost is between $15,000 and $20,000, though they can often run into six figures). It’s stressful (one study found higher blood pressure in the recently divorced). It can bring out the worst in people. It would be perfectly understandable that those in the business of observing the end of love would caution people away from it altogether.
And yet, love persists. People continue to get married and remarried (including 58% of divorced people in the US). For many, the risk is still worth it.
So BuzzFeed News reached out to some of the top divorce lawyers for dating tips. This is not legal advice, and it’s also not a guarantee of a happily ever after; humans are always going to be messy. But it may be a useful framework for avoiding some of the most common conflicts down the line.
Get to know your date properly
You’ve swiped right, accepted a drink from the handsome stranger at the bar, or agreed to be set up by your friend. You’ve gone on a date or maybe two and think there might be something there. Now what?
“Here are some questions you should ask, but my suggestion is do not ask them all at once or they will think you are a stalker,” said Susan Myres, owner of Myres and Associates in Houston, who has been practicing for 40 years. “You want to ask about best and worst and funniest family memories. You want to ask about embarrassing moments, what's the worst job you've had?” There is no right or wrong way to answer these questions, Myres added, but answers to these questions, aside from being good conversation, will give you insight into who they are as a person. Are they secretive or cagey about sharing information? How do they talk about their family? These things aren’t deal breakers, but they might warrant follow-up questions.
A second opinion can be helpful. Do you have mutual friends with this person, or at least the opportunity to meet people who have known them for a long time? Look for “someone who can tell you funny stories or quirks,” Myres said, “because you want to know if they were a goofy nerd as a kid versus, like, if they hurt animals.”
Be honest about yourself as well. Myres told a story of a woman she knows who used the dating app Farmers Only. The woman, who was not a farmer, found a match on the app with whom she really felt a connection, only to one day visit his farm and find out she was allergic to horses and cows.
Finally, one of Myres’s clients sought a divorce after finding out her husband had previously been married. It later came to light that this man had multiple prior wives who had gone missing, as well as an indictment for murder. (“It was not the late Mr. [Robert] Durst,” Myres assured me.) The takeaway? Don’t be afraid to enlist the help of your tech-savviest friends in googling the hell out of the person you’re seeing.
Communicate a lot
“It’s important to start with the right foundation,” said Angela Princewill, founding lawyer at AP Lawyers in Toronto, who has been practicing law for eight years. Things that you might be able to ignore in the beginning have the potential to blow up later. “If you want to be heard, start early on. Don’t just endure things.” Do they cut you off when you’re speaking or talk over you? Are they unable to spend an hour with you without looking at their phone? Do they seem genuinely interested in what you have to say?
“People ask me all the time, ‘What’s the number one reason people get divorced?’ Easy. Communication,” said Lindsey Houk, a family lawyer of 11 years with Waple and Houk in Charlotte, North Carolina. “It can be miscommunication that leads to infidelity, it can be miscommunication with finances, but the absolute root is the same. It really can be hard in the texting and social media world, but if they don’t take an interest and start that deep-level communication at some point? Red flag.”
Princewill recalled a client who tried to reconcile with a partner by sending flowers and jewelry. “For the other side, it was just annoying. Their biggest issue was how little time their partner was spending with them as a family. Being at work and sending gifts was insulting.” Their partner made assumptions about what they wanted without understanding the core issue. “Sometimes I wish I could be a fly on the wall early on in a relationship,” Princewill said, “because maybe then we could avoid some of the conversations we have to have when it’s too late.”
Pay careful attention to how they speak about their previous partners, too. “I think some people come from a bad breakup with a need for an audience or an ally,” said Cary J. Mogerman, partner at Carmody MacDonald and president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, who has been practicing for 37 years. “What looks like an opportunity to be a partner could really just be the opportunity to be the cheering section for someone who is still not over what they got out of.” Mogerman said to trust your intuition and quoted Maya Angelou: “When people show you who they are, believe them.”
“I would be reluctant to disregard any behavior that you view as an anathema to your own philosophy of living, unless it’s truly superficial or innocuous,” Mogerman said. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Why does this trouble me in the first place?’”
Don’t avoid financial discussions
Dating doesn’t always have to lead to a serious relationship — sometimes you want a one-night stand, or a summer fling, or an arrangement where you agree to sleep with each other once a year on the same date. In those cases, your conversations really only need to be as deep as deciding what to order for dinner. But if you are interested in settling down, moving in together, and getting married one day, then yes, you will need to prepare yourself for some heavy conversations, specifically about money. Studies have shown that financial conflict is a leading cause of divorce for all levels of earners. Discussing these issues now can save you a lot of conflict (and heartache) down the road.
“We know in the early stages it’s all about love, and everyone’s excited, but when all that settles, you get into the mundane day-to-day life,” Princewill said. What are your approaches toward money, and how do they align with each other? “If one person is an adventure seeker while the other just wants to save and be frugal, it could create conflict down the road when the excitement dies down, which it inevitably will.” Again, none of this needs to be a deal breaker, but you will need to communicate and create a set of ground rules. “It’s about trying to understand where the other is coming from, and setting parameters to get through things,” Princewill said. “The rule can be, ‘Let’s save x amount of dollars, but still have some money for adventure seeking.’”
“Nobody likes to be ripped off, and nobody likes to be dragged into a non-affordable situation,” said Harriet Newman Cohen, a founding partner at Cohen Stine Kapoor (past clients include Laurence Fishburne and Eve Chilton, Harvey Weinstein’s first wife). Cohen graduated from law school in 1974. When she was preparing to take her second-year exams, her husband of 21 years (and father of her four children) walked out on her; she represented herself in her own divorce when she was a brand-new lawyer. “In the olden days, you had the wage earner, and you had the stay-at-home wife/mother, and the man could withhold all financial information. These days, most couples want to have transparency.”
How much does your partner earn? Does it make sense to split all household expenses 50/50, or does one of you earn significantly more? “At this point, the romantic relationship begins to turn into a business relationship,” Cohen said. “It’s a negotiation that can sometimes open eyes. The bloom is off the rose, and now you have to make a decision whether to go through with it.”
Justin Lee, a family lawyer in Toronto, shares his advice and expertise on TikTok, where he has over 224,000 followers. “I figured people would be interested in learning about the chaotic world of marriage and divorce, and clearly I wasn’t wrong,” said Lee over email. In two videos that particularly resonated with his viewers, he discussed recognizing domestic duties such as cooking and childcare as significant inputs to a relationship. “Many stay-at-home parents who watch my content have expressed gratitude for my message that their contribution is valuable.”
“It may not be that your partner can contribute in a significant way financially, but maybe they would be terrific raising the children, or assisting you in your career,” Mogerman said. (Choosing whether to have children and how to raise them are, of course, also important things to discuss with your partner before settling down.) “But no one wants to get into a relationship and find out there’s dead weight on the other side. They should have ambitions of their own and interests of their own.”
Maintain the relationship
Working with people whose marriages are breaking down has shaped many of these lawyers’ own approaches to relationships.
“One of the things about the field that I’m in is that you often see such profound dysfunction in ways that are so complex and deeply rooted,” said Mogerman, who has been married for the full 37 years he’s been practicing law. “When you see that every day, it really makes the little irritations, the ones that everyone experiences, dissolve.”
Myres, who has also been married for over 30 years, echoed this. “Do not sweat the small stuff. Most of it is small stuff. And never make a comment in the heat of the moment, which I am terrible at. It will bite you for years to come, particularly if you’re being cross-examined in a divorce case. ‘Remember when you were in the birthing room and screamed, ‘Ew!’?’ Be really careful when you open your mouth.”
Houk is not married and describes herself as cautiously optimistic. “I’m definitely not swearing off [marriage] because as soon as you say ‘never,’ here we go, but it’s definitely one of those things where I’d want every i dotted and t crossed,” she said. She feels the same way on behalf of her close friends and family members, often gifting prenuptial agreements as wedding presents. “Some days I’m like, ‘Ugh, love sucks. Who wants it?’ But other days, despite the litigation and the laws and the stomping around, I would like to think that my job hasn’t spoiled all hope for any future relationships. It would be a hard mountain to climb for somebody.” ❤