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How to Be Happy in Love Relationships With Lawyers (And Other High Achievers)

jamie-rizzo-imago-relationship-lawyers-high-acheiversLawyers value the fine art of argumentation. Their legal training focuses on creating powerful arguments to “win the case.” They learn to speak their minds, and to listen to another’s position only as much as necessary to effectively refute it.

While this particular skill may create successful lawyers in the courtroom, in romantic relationships it can make for some very unhappy lawyers — and the partners who love them.

I unexpectedly find myself an expert on this subject. No, I am not a lawyer; but I have been in a love relationship with one for nearly eight years. As a therapist, I have come to understand just how differently lawyers see the world based on their training and the “Lawyer Personality” type. These traits and personality styles can often cause serious difficulties in romantic relationships.

But lawyers, and those who love them, can learn a few basic skills not taught in law school that will help them to be happier in love.

In this post, I explore how the techniques of Harville Hendrix’s Imago Relationship Therapy and Sue Johnson’s Emotionally-Focused Therapy (EFT) help lawyers thrive in their romantic relationships.

A Brief Introduction to Imago Relationship Therapy and Emotionally-Focused Therapy

When a couple shows up in relationship therapy, they often have a fixed perspective on “what the problem is”: It is about the husband who isn’t pulling his financial weight, or the wife who cheated, or the lover who just won’t do their part in the household chores.

One approach to therapy might be to have the therapist serve as “the expert” who comes up with a plan for the couple to implement in order to save their relationship. While this model has the advantage of being clear-cut, it unfortunately has not proven to be effective.

What works in romantic relationships is for the partners to learn how to communicate with one another. Imago Relationship Therapy and Emotional Freedom Technique are both highly effective techniques that teach each member of a love relationship to listen and to hear one another.

Once the channels of communication are open, the couple can navigate their way through any difficulties that may arise.

The Lawyer in Romantic Relationships

Some people are “talkers” who are comfortable expressing their feelings and needs in emotionally charged situations. In Imago Relationship Therapy, we call these people “Tigers”, while in Emotionally Focused Therapy we identity these same personality traits as “Pursuers.”

The Tigers in romantic relationships need to be heard; they want to talk about the problem right now! They want to get their point across, to make their case and to have their mate understand their position. When Tigers feel a loss of connection with their mate they “use their words” in an (often failed) attempt to move closer to their partner.

The Pursuers in EFT, like the Tigers in Imago, focus on talking their way through relationship challenge — even when their partner is not listening. The Pursuer just can’t understand why her partner doesn’t want to work out their differences right now.

In my experience, many lawyers are Tiger/Pursuers, and the research on personality traits among lawyers seems to bear out that impression.

For example, one study on high-powered lawyers indicates that as a group attorneys tend to speak their minds They have a strong sense of urgency, which is characterized by impatience, a sense of immediacy, and a need to get things done right now:

Urgent people charge around like they are on their way to a fire. They may finish others’ sentences, jump to conclusions, be impulsive.

They are results oriented and seek efficiency and economy in everything, including their conversations.

Lawyers tend to be “skeptical, even cynical, judgmental, questioning, argumentative and somewhat self-protective.” Moreover, lawyers do not leave these traits at the threshold when they come home after a long day at the office:

The average person tends to use his or her stronger personality traits across all situations, rather than turning them on and off at will. Thus, if the profession attracts highly skeptical individuals these skeptical lawyers will be skeptical not only when they’re representing a client but in other roles which might actually require lower levels of skepticism.

It is easy to see how these particular traits and characteristics might cause difficulty in romantic relationships — particularly when your mate’s own style is vastly different.

The Lawyer Meets Her Match

Tigers often find themselves in relationship with “Turtles,” a term the Imago community uses to identify people who tend to withdraw into silence in emotional crises.

Turtles need space and time to think. They worry about being misunderstood, or that the words coming out of their mouths won’t match what is in their heads. The Tiger’s demands to talk can trigger a Turtle’s fear of being unsafe. For a Turtle, such acts are seen as aggressive and controlling,

EFT recognizes the same dynamic. The Pursuer often pairs up with a Withdrawer who’s conflict style is to move away when things become heated. For the Withdrawer, preserving the relationship means not talking—or at least, not talking when things are heated. The Withdrawer can often feel that he just can’t please his partner so it is better to say nothing.

It is usually quite easy for a couple’s therapist to identity the Turtle/Withdrawer and the Tiger/Pursuer in a love relationship. In the therapy room,

The Tiger/Pursuer will expound in great detail about the problem in their relationship while her less talkative Turtle/Withdrawer partner listens intently. But that same Tiger/Pursuer will have a difficult time remaining silent when it is her partner’s turn to speak. She will want to interject a comment to “explain” the events — often interrupting her partner with a “No! That’s not how it was . . . ” or “Yes, but you need to hear . . .”

It is important to remember that neither partner is “wrong” in his or her approach. They simply have different styles for being in the world. The challenge is to get each partner to understand and respect the other’s perspective.

This is where the techniques of Imago Therapy or EFT can prove very helpful.

Using Imago Therapy and EFT to Bridge the Gap

Both Imago and EFT provide safe containers for couples in Tiger/Turtle and Pursuer/Withdrawer relationships to thrive.

In Imago, couples take turns “mirroring” each other. The Imago mirroring process is an intentional dialogue technique that requires one person to be the “sender” (i.e., the one who speaks) while the other commits to only listening; once the sender has completed this thought, the listener must verbally mirror back as closely as possible what the sender has said.

For the less vocal Turtles, the dialogue is an opportunity to be heard clearly, which enables them to come out of their shell to share more of their thoughts and feelings.

For the Tiger, mirroring presents an opportunity to practice listening and truly hearing another person’s words rather than focusing on making themselves be understood (of course, the Tiger will also have the experience of being mirrored).

The intentional dialogue allows both partners to actively listen without having to think about what their response will be; the only task during the mirroring process is to repeat what the sending partner has said.

In EFT, it is the therapist who manages the environment so that each partner can feel heard. The EFT therapist plays an active role in mediating the conversation between the vocal Pursuer and the less vocal Withdrawer. The therapist might point out, for example, when one partner is misconstruing the other’s views or not hearing key information.

When our partners say something we find hurtful or interpret our words in a way we never intended, we have a choice in how to respond. Do we react to the trigger and “fire back”? Or, can we pause for a moment and attempt to view the issue from the perspective of the beloved?

While most of us recognize the second approach is more likely to lead to happiness, the real question is this: How do we bridge the gap between how we view the world and how our partner sees it?

Part of the answer is for us to come to understand how our partners think and how their experiences inform their thinking. Once each person understands how and why their partner reacts in a certain way, the door is open for a deeper connection.

If I know that my partner is likely to perceive my words in a particular way, for example, I can decide to reframe what I have to say.

Similarly, when I feel myself reacting to my partner’s comments, I can ask myself some critical questions: Does my partner mean what I think she means? Is my interpretation clouded in this moment by my own experience? What can I say or do differently?

Sometimes, we are simply too triggered to pause or to make adjustments in the middle of heated discussion, but it is always good to have that as our goal

In the therapy room, a trained therapist works directly with the couple to show how this dynamic plays out in their relationship.

She might start by asking the couple for a specific example when their world views collided; in the beginning, we avoid using a “big” issue that might be too triggering. We start with a minor but important situation and ask each person: How might you have done things differently so that your partner felt supported?

For the Tiger/Pursuer, we might focus on finding comfort in the silence and taking a breath so as to allow space for their partner to speak.

For the Turtle/Withdrawer, the key is to come forward and to share information with their partner. The intention is to have both partners show up for each other while still remaining authentic to who they really are.

At the end of the session, the therapist and couple as a team evaluate the experience: Where were the pitfalls in their exchange? Where were the successes? I personally also like to work with couples somatically so that they can dissipate some of the energy that might be stored in their bodies after an argument.

We then check in to make sure we have indeed bridged the gap, and that each person feels his or her view has been heard. Having each member of the couple understand the other’s worldview without feeling threatened or defensive is a big step in healing wounds on both sides.

But you don’t need a therapist to get started in improving your relationship.

Both EFT and Imago provide excellent self-directed exercises to help couples’ improve their listening skills. The goal of these exercises is always to increase the connection between the couple so that each feels safe to be vulnerable and self-disclosing.

For the Imago Technique, I would recommend Harville Hendrix’s Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples and the accompanying Workbook.

For EFT, a particularly good book is Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Sue Johnson.

A Final Note to Lawyers and Other High Achievers

Lawyers of course are not the only ones who have a hard time listening rather than explaining or arguing in love relationships. In my therapy room, I see the dynamic play itself out over and over again in relationships, although with a slightly different focus.

For example, professors in romantic relationships wouldn’t necessarily identify with the tendency of lawyers to argue their positions. Instead, the professor would claim to be “educating” her partner.

But that pedagogical style can trigger the other partner into feeling “less than” the professor; he may experience his professor/partner as condescending or “talking down” to him as a student rather than a equal member of the relationship.

The truth is that in most cases, the lawyer, professor or other high achieving Tiger/Pursuer does not mean to cause the pain and rejection their partner feels.

Often, when the Tiger/Pursuer feels the impact of her words, tears will come to her eyes as she fully experiences her partner’s pain. Those make for some powerful moments in the therapy room (I get goosebumps every time I witness one of these magical moments).

The tools for happy communication between partners is simple (though not easy): Be patient. Keep an open mind while holding the possibility that the intention behind your partner’s words is not how you experience them.

Leave the door cracked. Let your partner tell you who they are instead of deciding for them.

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Jamie Rizzo

Jamie Rizzo

I am an LMFT serving the East Bay Area of California. My office is in Berkeley.