THE BLOG

He Said, She Said: Should We See a Marriage Counselor or Divorce Lawyer?

05/01/2014 04:43 pm ET | Updated Jul 01, 2014

A divorce lawyer and a marriage counselor walk into a bar... Sounds like the beginning of a joke. But your relationship problems are no laughing matter. You need information and perspective.

When faced with questions about whether to divorce or reconcile, where do you go for advice: a marriage counselor or a divorce lawyer? You want to know: "How do I know if my marriage is over?" "If I go to counseling, how do I know if my spouse will really change?" or "If I go to an attorney, is my marriage over, or can we still reconcile?"

As a marriage counselor and a divorce lawyer, we got to talking about our different perspectives when couples face divorce:

Should We See a Marriage Counselor or Divorce Lawyer?

She Said: Everyone comes to my office from a different path. A client, I'll call her "Jean," sat with slumped shoulders and a bedraggled appearance. Her hair needed a good combing and her once lovely eyes looked dull. "I don't know what I'm going to do now," she lamented. As much as Jean had grown apart from her husband, she now felt lost that he wanted to divorce.

"Will you stay in New York?" I asked. This got Jean thinking: Her cousin owned a vineyard in California. She loved the air out there and always wanted to open a bed and breakfast. As we talked, Jean visibly sat straighter in the chair, excitement set off her eyes and she shed about 10 years in under a minute.

I can help you see the positive side of your divorce. Yet no matter how skilled a divorce lawyer, I cannot tell you whether to get divorced or reconcile. I can tell you that the wrong time to see a divorce lawyer is after you've been served with divorce papers.

If you are seriously thinking about divorce, your spouse probably is too. Find out your rights and clear up your (mis)impressions from frantic, late-night internet searches. Divorce lawyers will talk you through custody issues, list out assets and debts, and calculate the financial turn-over (what will this cost you and what will you get?). Find out your personal best- and worst-case scenarios, because there is no Google search for your divorce.

If you are stuck on the fence about whether to divorce, you are not alone. Very few clients I've helped were 100 percent certain that divorce was the right path. Some have even confided that they hoped, in some small way, that starting the divorce would get their spouse's attention and lead to conversations they couldn't start on their own. Divorce retainers (deposits for your lawyer's services) are refundable -- to the extent they are not used/earned -- because couples can reconcile during the divorce process. I've been involved in some expensive, knock-down, drag-out fights, which ended up with the couple reconciling. In fact, the day after I helped "Jean" sign her final divorce agreement, she found her ex-husband asleep on her front porch. In the rain. And it wasn't a Sandra Bullock movie.

He Said: If you're considering divorce, the best time to see a marriage counselor is sooner rather than later. Couples view marriage counseling a lot like going to see a dentist. You don't really want to go. So most people wait until the pain is unbearable before they finally go see a counselor. As a result, I usually find that couples who come to marriage counseling should have gone to see a marriage counselor long before they actually did.

The reason to go to a marriage counselor sooner rather than later is so that you can get past the hurt, frustration and anger before it becomes ingrained in your marriage. Once the frustration and anger become a routine it creates resentment and bitterness that makes counseling and reconciling significantly harder -- and much more likely to be headed towards divorce. So when deciding whether to see a counselor, time is of the essence. Don't wait too long or the decision will be made for you when the relationship implodes.

There are also times when even if you feel that hurt, frustration and anger has become commonplace it's not too late to see a counselor. Couples are often able to change hurtful patterns and repair their relationship even if they've started the divorce process. One strong sign that you can still make marriage counseling successful is if you feel that you can dig up the past difficulties with your spouse in a meaningful way -- without wanting to argue or blame -- and that you can give your relationship a whole-hearted effort again.

But if you can't get over your feelings of anger and just want to make your spouse pay for the hurt they've caused, that's a sign that it may be best to stop while you're ahead. And it may be best to divide your assets and move on to a less toxic relationship where you're not trying to hurt each other.

To Divorce or Reconcile is Ultimately Up To You

We both agree: Good marriage counselors and divorce lawyers won't tell you to get a divorce. That's a personal decision that can only be made by you. And whether you see a divorce lawyer or a marriage counselor, a marker of a good professional is to help you come to the decision on your own and then help you accomplish your goals based on that decision.

Have you struggled with the decision of whether to see a lawyer or therapist? Do you have questions you think we would each answer differently that might help others in making a divorce decision? Join the conversation in the comments.