Jeannie Suk Gersen: How can understanding divorce help a marriage? Marriage takes a lot of work. And part of preventing eventual heartache, says law professor Jeannie Suk Gersen, is seeing marriage and partnership through the lens of divorce.

Jeannie Suk Gersen: How can understanding divorce help a marriage?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And on the show today - heartache.

JAMES, BYLINE: OK, let's sit down.

ZOMORODI: So one of our producers, James...

JAMES: Test, test.

ZOMORODI: And his partner Joanne...

JOANNE: Test, test. How does that sound?

JAMES: It looks good.

ZOMORODI: Well, they just got married last year, and so we gave them an assignment.

JAMES: So are you ready?

JOANNE: Yeah, let's do it.

JAMES: (Laughter).

ZOMORODI: We asked them to peer into the future and talk about what issues, relationship issues, they think might come up.

JAMES: I mean, we're about to move to a really expensive part of the country and...

ZOMORODI: Money, child care, careers, buying a home - the big issues that can cause a lot of heartache for couples.

JOANNE: Yeah, I mean, I don't know when we'll be able to afford to buy a house there.

JAMES: I mean, we want to have kids soon, and day care is also really expensive.

JOANNE: My mom was a stay-at-home mom, so it's going to be a tough...

JAMES: We're moving close to your family, but my family lives all over the place...

JOANNE: Yeah, and one of us might have to give up our career to be a parent full time.

JAMES: It's a lot.

JOANNE: Yeah, it's a lot.

ZOMORODI: So we weren't just being callous by pushing James and Joanne to have this difficult conversation. We asked them to do this because our next guest says discussions like these are crucial to preventing heartache later on.

JEANNIE SUK GERSEN: I think it's fair to say that most people live marriages without thinking about divorce.

ZOMORODI: This is Harvard law professor Jeannie Suk Gersen. She teaches family law.

GERSEN: In fact, at the height of your love for somebody when you're really looking forward to the life that you're going to build with this person, that is the best time to start thinking about these relationships in a way that is divorced conscious.

ZOMORODI: Jeannie continues from the TED stage.


GERSEN: The reason that I think this is so important is that I think everyone should be having some of these very painful conversations that divorced people experience. These are painful conversations about what we contributed, what we owe, what we are willing to give and what we give up. Those conversations should be happening in a good marriage, not after it is broken. Because when you wait until it's broken, it's too late. But if you have them early on, they can actually help build a better marriage.


ZOMORODI: In your TED Talk, Jeannie, you actually break things down into three examples, three principles that you think couples need to consider.

GERSEN: That's right. First, marriage is an exchange of sacrifice and that that sacrifice has to be thought of as a fair exchange. The second one is the idea that there's no such thing as free child care. And the third is what is starting out as each person's property probably is going to become part of the general property of the marriage.


GERSEN: The first one - sacrifice should be a fair exchange. Take the example of Lisa and Andy. Lisa decides to go to medical school early in the marriage, and Andy works to support them. And Andy works night shifts in order to do that. And he also gives up a great job in another city. He does this out of love. But of course, he also understands that Lisa's degree will benefit them both in the end. But after a few years, Andy becomes neglected and resentful, and he starts drinking heavily. And Lisa looks at her life. And she looks at Andy, and she thinks this is not the bargain I wanted to make. A couple of years go by, she graduates from medical school, and she files for a divorce.

ZOMORODI: Oh, that is rough, Jeannie.

GERSEN: Yes. When you look at that situation, which I think is extremely common, you think to yourself, did this couple, did these two people, ask themselves and each other what they were exchanging and how fair that exchange was? What was each giving up? What was each giving to the other? What was each going to owe the other person, right? And these, of course, this language of owing and giving and exchange is, for many people, anathema to a romantic connection. But that is, I think, a delusion to think that a marriage can be devoid of those things. And in fact, that is what a marriage ultimately is when you strip it down. It is an exchange.

ZOMORODI: You know, it's making me think of people I know and what they say, like, well, we just have to get through these next few tough years. And then, like, as though...

GERSEN: Exactly.

ZOMORODI: ...Utopia will arrive once the degree does.

GERSEN: Exactly. And maybe - you know, if you get through those tough years, of course, many marriages go through tough years and then they have a better period, that's wonderful. But if those tough years end up harming the connection and the intimacy, which sometimes it can, that's when they're going to be forced to talk about these questions, about exchange and who owes what and who gave what and who sacrificed what. And that is when Lisa's going to realize she is owing Andy financial support. And then, of course, Andy might get financial support from Lisa, but is he going to truly feel compensated for the things he gave up?

ZOMORODI: So if Lisa and Andy had followed Jeannie Suk Gersen's rules, what would they have thought about? What would they - what would this - what conversation would they have had prior to or early on in their marriage?

GERSEN: Well, if they had thought about this, it's possible that Lisa would have looked at the situation that I mapped out and would have thought, well, maybe it's not a good idea for Andy to give up his job that he likes, and it's better to take on loans now than to have Andy give up his career. That is a possibility. Or she might have thought, let me see if I could get a part-time job in order to defray the costs so that Andy is not entirely responsible.


ZOMORODI: It's more fair, you're saying. That's the part - that, yes, we're both going to have to sacrifice, but we're going to have to sacrifice equally.

GERSEN: That's right, and to understand what the sacrifices are, which also breeds less resentment.

ZOMORODI: Ah, resentment (laughter).

GERSEN: Yeah, resentment is like the big killer. Resentment is the big marriage killer.


GERSEN: So let's take another couple, Emily and Deb. They live in a big city, they have two children, they both work. Emily gets a job in a small town, and they decide to move there together. And Deb quits her job to look after the children full-time. Deb leaves behind an extended family, her friends and a job that she really liked. And in that small town, Deb starts to feel isolated and lonely. And 10 years later, Deb has an affair, and things fall apart.

Now, the marriage mediator who would have come in before they moved and before Deb quit her job might have asked them, what do your choices about childcare do to the obligations you have to each other? How do they affect your relationship? Because you have to remember that there is no such thing as free childcare.

ZOMORODI: So Deb and Emily - what specifically should they have talked about when planning to start a family?

GERSEN: They might have thought about how much Deb relied on the network of family, friends and work colleagues in terms of her general happiness and how that is precisely the kind of social context in which full-time parenthood actually works well. Maybe Emily, the one who got the job in the small town that everyone moved there for, she might have thought to herself, on the one hand, I love this new job offer. It's so exciting. On the other hand, I have to factor in what the cost is for my partner. And if Deb incurs this cost, what will be owed to her, right? What will I owe to her?


GERSEN: So let's go back to Lisa and Andy. Lisa had an inheritance from her grandmother before the marriage. And when they got married, they bought a home, and Lisa put that inheritance toward a down payment on that home. And then Andy of course worked to make the mortgage payments. And all of their premarital and marital property became joined. So in a split, what's going to happen? They're going to have to sell the house and split the proceeds, or one of them can buy the other out.

So this marriage mediator, if they had talked to them before all of this happened, that person would have asked, what do you want to keep separate and what do you want to keep together? And how does that choice actually support the security of the marriage? Because you have to remember that what's yours, probably, will become ours, unless you actually are mindful and take steps to do otherwise.

ZOMORODI: I can see Lisa thinking, like, this is incredibly unfair.

GERSEN: That's right. That might seem incredibly unfair. And in Andy's mind, if a different role were to pertain, he would think, hey, I made all that money and we were able to make mortgage payments, so that - it would seem unfair to him...


GERSEN: ...If somehow now the inheritance that went into the down payment, like, got separated out and given to Lisa. So there is a lot of potential for strife, for resentment and for a feeling of being aggrieved.

ZOMORODI: You're sort of saying, you should decide with your partner before you even get close to being in a position where the law might decide for you.

GERSEN: That is exactly what I'm saying.


ZOMORODI: Jeannie, I feel I would not be doing my journalistic duty if I didn't point out that not only are you a family law expert, but that you are also divorced.

GERSEN: I am. I am divorced. And I got divorced less than 10 years ago. And then I got remarried. And in my TED Talk, one of the lines that I quote is something that someone once told me, which is you should always marry your second husband first.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

GERSEN: And the important thing that I draw is not that you can only meet the man of your dreams or the woman of your dreams the second time, but rather that the mindfulness about what a marriage is, the sacrifices that are exchanged, all of those principles become more easy to think about once one has been through a divorce. And I would really like to have people not have to go through a divorce to learn those things.

ZOMORODI: Jeannie Suk Gersen is a mediator and family law professor at Harvard. You can watch her full talk at And as far as James and Joanne, they're on board with Jeannie's ideas.

JAMES: So do you think after all this divorce talk, you are still, like, excited to be married?

JOANNE: Yeah, I think so.

JAMES: (Laughter).

JOANNE: I think we can stick it out.


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