Build, Don’t Break| June 21, 2022
A divorce lawyer’s tools to make sure you never come to see him
All was well with the Meystelmans. Leora had just given birth to their third child. Yitzchak and Leora were building and running their own law firm. So Yitzchak was surprised when Leora asked him to join her for what she described as an unusual date — a session of couples counseling.
“I was thrown,” Yitzchak admits, shrugging. “I asked Leora if anything was wrong, if there was something I should be aware of.”
No, Leora told him. She just wanted to deepen their relationship.
Some time before this, Leora had gone for lunch with friends. One was going through a divorce, and mentioned she was seeing a therapist. Leora, just after the birth of her third child, felt as if she were in a slump, and she asked her friend for the therapist’s number. In the course of their sessions, her therapist mentioned that she was training in Imago Therapy, and she needed couples to practice on.
Imago Therapy is a form of relationship therapy that explores the root of conflict as an opportunity for relationship growth. It sounded intriguing, and Leora wanted to give it a try.
It wasn’t a hard sell, she says. Yitzchak wasn’t averse to therapy, and he loves connection, and loves to understand himself.
“There’s something valuable and helpful in self-work through therapy,” Yitzchak says. “When Leora asked me to go on a date to an Imago therapist, I was mostly curious, with a slight reservation out of concern that something was wrong with our marriage that I wasn’t aware of.”
It was awkward at first, Leora says. Imago has prescribed terms and specific parameters for conversation, and initially a conversation within those parameters feels stilted and limiting. But, at the same time, what made it limiting also provided a sense of safety for sharing deep and private thoughts.
“It was gentle,” Leora remembers.
The gentleness is a necessary component, because in the sessions, each spouse shares how they experience their partner — a process that’s often vulnerable and uncomfortable.
“I was shocked,” Leora says. “I learned so much about myself, more than in individual therapy.”
By the end of that first session, Yitzchak was experiencing deep emotions that had been lying dormant for a long time, he says.
“Something felt right and authentic about the structure of the interaction,” he remembers. “And I realized that Leora and I didn’t really connect in this authentic way in our day-to-day living. I wanted to explore more. So we did — five years more.”
Not only did Imago lead Yitzchak and Leora to a deeper and more meaningful relationship, it also led Yitzchak to self-discovery. Through his Imago journey, he came face to face with his feelings about being a divorce lawyer, especially the deep pain he felt when sitting with his clients.
“I can’t keep doing this,” he said to himself. “I want to be part of the healing, not the breaking.”
Yitzchak Meystelman, known to his clients as Igor, hadn’t planned to be a divorce lawyer. He was working his first job in a full-service law firm when a divorce case came across his desk. An acquaintance of his boss was getting divorced, and his boss asked him to take the case. Yitzchak initially felt reluctance, but by the time it was over, a sense of mission awoke within him. Working with families struck a chord, and he thought he could make a real difference in people’s lives.
“This is where I want to be,” he told his boss. “I don’t mind if you want to give me more divorce cases.”
Right off the bat, his approach was different. Most divorce lawyers separate the emotion from the business end of their transaction.
“The standard attorney approach when clients begin to cry is to tell them, ‘It costs more money to cry here, go to your therapist,’” Yitzchak says.
But Yitzchak realized that people want and need to be heard — and this validation had a calming effect for people in the midst of painful upheaval.
“I’d like to think that I was always kind and caring. I’d listen to clients very attentively, and tried my best to offer sympathy,” he says.
Yitzchak spent the next six years working on divorce cases, but his work gradually took a toll. He witnessed devastating and ruinous circumstances across the spectrum of frum families, even in the most illustrious ones. People would use their children as pawns to get a desired outcome, or hide their finances to decrease the amount of child and spousal support they’d be liable for. They would relocate with children without the consent of the other parent, withhold a get to negotiate a one-sided position, or report a parent to Child Protective Services without a legitimate claim.
“This was sinas chinam in its purest forms,” says Yitzchak. “ ‘I’m willing to hurt you, even if it hurts me or the children.’ ”
Yitzchak’s sleep took a hit. He borrows a line from Rabbi Moshe Sherer to describe it: “I sleep like a baby. I wake up in the middle of the night and I cry.”
One day at family court, Yitzchak was in the elevator when a man joined him. He seemed agitated, and Yitzchak overheard him say, “This isn’t Family Court. This is Break the Family Court.”
That line hit Yitzchak hard; it was exactly how he felt. He had wanted to help people through his work as a divorce attorney, but all he felt was the pain. While he had hoped to help families, he was instead witnessing their dissolution.
After his introduction to Imago, Yitzchak thought it would be a helpful tool for his clients. At the encouragement of his own Imago therapist, he pursued advanced training in Imago theory and techniques. After a year of training, he became a Certified Imago Facilitator, bringing the techniques he’d learned into his practice.
“Prior to Imago, I’d also listen to clients and validate them,” Yitzchak says. “But because I didn’t yet appreciate the depth of my own world and that of other people, I viewed my role as an attorney in a limited way: listen to the client, discuss potential case strategies, proceed accordingly.”
Now he saw them as not just clients, but people with painful stories, craving to be seen in their struggles.
“I was able to see them in a more holistic way,” Yitzchak says. “That allowed me to understand their thoughts and feelings more deeply, which in turn allowed us to craft legal strategies together that were more consistent with my clients’ true wishes, and not just strategies that would allay their fears in the moment, or give them a false sense of safety and hope.”
He believes that not only did Imago improve the quality of his legal representation, it also defined much more clearly what his red lines were.
“I knew which clients I was willing to work with and which I was not. If someone wanted to be destructive, I declined such representations.”
AS a divorce attorney, Yitzchak is usually the last step for a married couple before they part ways. Despite this, or maybe because of this, Yitzchak started asking his clients to try Imago Therapy before beginning divorce proceedings.
“When a couple comes in for a consultation, my first question is, ‘Have you tried therapy?’ Inevitably, the answer is yes, but then I ask, ‘Have you tried Imago Therapy?’ They always answer no. I tell them, then you haven’t really tried couple’s therapy.”
When Imago Therapy doesn’t “help” or bring the relationship to a better place, it’s usually because one partner is willing and the other is unwilling, says Yitzchak. Sometimes people aren’t to blame — they just don’t have the tools, or they have blockages beyond their control.
“The one who wants to do the work,” Yitzchak says, “needs to decide if they want to live with the pain or make a change.”
The one who doesn’t want to do the work, he says, has made peace with the pain they live with, and is unwilling or unable to change things.
Yitzchak encourages couples to try Imago Therapy, offering them a reduced rate for sessions before they begin the divorce conversation.
Imago Therapy changes the landscape of the discussion and negotiation.
“Practitioners have ‘saved’ many couples from divorce,” says Yitzchak. “While it hasn’t ‘saved’ any couples who came to me as a lawyer seeking a divorce, none of the couples who’ve come to me for Imago Therapy have gotten divorced, even though some of them had definitely had it on their minds. Some are doing better, some are still struggling, but none have decided to divorce. Imago is used as a last resort by many couples and by many experienced Imago therapists to turn around a marriage they thought was at a point of no return.”
“It goes from scorched earth to empathy,” Yitzchak continues. “Or if not empathy, then at least a softer landing.”
He tells of a family with ten children whose situation was particularly rough. Originally from overseas, the couple moved to the US to be closer to their families when their marriage took a turn for the worse. Even with familial support, their situation spiraled out of control, and Child Protective Services had been called. The wife consulted with Yitzchak regarding a divorce. She was so traumatized, her hands were shaking. Yitzchak told her about Imago, and she convinced her husband to come with her for a few Imago sessions.
“They were both so moved by the Imago journey,” Yitzchak says. “They asked me if I’d see them with their children, so that they could do some healing work as a family. They came for various sessions: children alone, children and one parent, children and both parents. It was very powerful and transformed their entire family dynamic.”
Another time, a woman came for a divorce consult. She was anxious — nails bitten to the quick. She’d been married for almost a decade, she said, but they had only one child, which was an enormous source of pain for them both, and exacerbated the already complicated dynamic in their marriage.
While the two projected the image of an ideal marriage, at home they fought constantly. The husband was volatile and verbally abusive. They had tried all kinds of therapy, but never Imago, and the couple agreed to ten sessions with Yitzchak.
During the ninth session, the husband walked out.
Yet the wife still felt that she’d benefited from the sessions. Mirroring helped her become more present. After a decade of having her feelings discounted or brushed aside, having her feelings repeated to her made her more aware of what she was feeling. Validating — being told, “It makes so much sense to me you would feel this way after so many years” — created a space for her to recognize the steps she needed to take to continue her life.
While Imago couldn’t save this marriage, it gave this woman the tools to reach this place of clarity. It provided a safe space for her, and made her realize that staying in her marriage was a terrible choice for her. It also reset the legal conversation, and gave her clarity as to how to approach negotiations with her husband — and showed the two of them that the process could be done differently.
Imago can help couples even before they get married. Yitzchak tells the story of a couple who were dating seriously but wanted a few sessions of counseling before taking their relationship further. They practiced Imago Dialogue, and while the man shared, it woke something in the woman, and she started crying. The man had been concerned by the woman’s lack of emotion, and had been debating ending their relationship. Imago Dialogue made him realize he was dating a deeply emotional person, and they announced their engagement soon after.
Imago was changing his experiences at work, but despite that, Yitzchak also began questioning what he had initially wanted when he became a divorce lawyer. He had wanted to help people, but he wanted to offer the kind of impactful help that he wasn’t experiencing in his family law work.
“I was coming in too late in the game,” Yitzchak says.
Yitzchak shifted his focus to mediation, but that too ended with divorce. He realized if he wanted to help save marriages, he’d need to get in even earlier, when people were still committed to their relationships.
“Don’t wait until your relationship is in distress,” Yitzchak says. “A couple who wants to take their relationship from good to great should consider Imago.”
Currently enrolled in a masters/PhD program in couples and family therapy, Yitzchak has launched a counseling practice, Relationship Reimagined, and also hosts a podcast called Dating, Marriage, and Divorce Conversations in which he shares information for couples at all stages.
He considered leaving divorce law completely, but a client, who also happened to be a couple’s therapist, told him to reconsider.
“When his divorce was being finalized, I confided in him how much I loved Imago Therapy,” Yitzchak says. “I told him how badly I wanted to leave the practice of family law. He stopped and looked at me and said, ‘But you’re needed! Who’s going to step into this role in a fair, sensitive, and kind way?!’ ”
Coming to counseling with background in divorce gives him an edge, Yitzchak says. It’s deepened and enriched in him an understanding of human conflict. At the same time, he says working with couples who seek to improve their marriages, rather than dissolve them, is exhilarating.
“I get to be a part of people’s healing journeys, rather than part of their ending journeys,” Yitzchak says.
He is currently counseling several couples, with clients ranging in age from their twenties to their fifties.
“I’m watching relationships heal and blossom,” says Yitzchak. ”I see couples who’d felt there was no hope; they felt stuck and accepted things as they were. And now I’m watching them reconnect, reengage, and resolve all sorts of issues. And as they see that they can talk about topics they once thought impossible to discuss, they’re learning that their relationship is vibrant again.”
What Is Imago Therapy?
Imago therapy is a form of relational therapy built on a premise that everyone experiences some form of wounding (due to an absent or overly present primary caretaker figure) during one’s childhood. To cope with such wounds, we experience a loss of a part of our Self.
When we become adults, we seek a romantic partner who can sooth and help us recover this “Lost Self.” The founders of Imago Therapy, Harville Hendrix and his wife, Helen LaKelly Hunt, posit that early relationships set the roadmap for how a person will experience marriage. This is why we experience “inexplicable” attraction toward certain looks and personality-types — this is the Lost Self subconsciously seeking a partner that can heal its wounds. The well-known cliché “you complete me” is laced with a deeper meaning.
According to Imago Relational Therapy, all romantic relationships can go through three phases, with first two phases almost guaranteed: Romantic phase, Power-Struggle phase, True Love phase.
Romantic phase is known to all. It’s the enchanted and ephemeral emotions that grip the couple during their honeymoon phase. Later, the same qualities that piqued our curiosity and attraction become the focus of tension and strife. For example, his industrious and organized nature, which seemed charming while dating and early in the marriage, takes on a stifling energy as the marriage progresses. Or her easygoing and nonchalant energy, which seemed so attractive during the dating phase, becomes a point of tension during the marriage. Such above scenarios unfold as couples shift from Romantic phase into the Power-Struggle phase. To get from the Power-Struggle phase to True Love phase requires getting to know, sharing, and ultimately healing our Lost Self through the relational healing process with our partners.
Dr. Hendrix created Imago Dialogue as a tool that allows individuals to heal and reclaim the Lost Self through one’s relationship. This is a structured conversation that provides participants an opportunity to practice developing empathy, validation, connection, and safety with their respective partners.
During dialogue, one partner is a sender and the other a receiver. The receiver practices three steps:
- Mirroring: Repeat back to your partner what they’ve just said to you. This promotes clarification and understanding. There should be no judgment, criticism, or response.
- Validation: Validate what you have heard to let your partner know you “get it.” Ask for more information if you need it.
- Empathy: Share what you think your partner may be feeling in order to show you’ve gained a deeper understanding of their emotional experience.
Excerpt of a Mirroring Dialogue a Couple Can Practice at Home:
Receiver: “Can you please share with me something on your mind?”
Sender: “Sure. One thing that I’ve been struggling/happy [pick one] with in our marriage is . . .”
Receiver: (maintain eye contact with your spouse) “What I’m hearing you say is that one thing you’ve been struggling/happy (pick one) with in our marriage is [repeat what you heard your spouse say without interpreting]. Am I getting you?”
Receiver: “Is there more about that?”
Sender: Either share more or say, “That’s it for now. Thank you for listening.”
Excerpt of a Validation and Empathy Dialogue a Couple Can Practice at Home:
Sender: “When that encounter happened between us, I felt [share with your spouse what you felt].”
Receiver: “What I’m hearing you say is that you felt [repeat what you heard your spouse say without interpreting]. Am I understanding you correctly?
Receiver: [maintain eye contact with your spouse] “And it makes sense that when we had that encounter you were left feeling [restate the feelings the sender shared]. Is that what it was like for you?”
Receiver: “Can you please share with me how I can show up for you in those moments in a way that would help you feel seen by me?”
An Imago therapist would facilitate an exchange between the couple that would help them continue to experience each other’s world and to deepen their connection.
Date Night with a Divorce Attorney
Anonymous for Obvious Reasons
I have no problem with therapists — I’m a millennial, some of my best friends are therapists! — but I’ve been blessed with a beautiful marriage, and neither I nor my husband have ever been to therapy. So when Family First asked me if I’d be willing to try out a counseling session and describe the experience, I figured it’d be fun, as long as my husband was willing.
I considered how best to broach the topic of doing a just-for-fun marital counseling session with a divorce lawyer and quickly determined there is no good way.
Me: Wanna go to a session with a divorce lawyer?
That extremely stricken look was amusing. Maybe we do need therapy? Kidding. Luckily, Aryeh thinks I’m funny — almost as funny as I think I am.
After the initial joke wore off, I gave my husband the details: a remote therapy session with a divorce attorney–turned–marriage counselor who was sick of seeing relationships after they’d soured and who wanted to help healthy couples improve their marriages instead. Aryeh, ever the chill one, was game.
We set an appointment and made sure the kids were in bed. (Let’s be honest; scheduling time to do anything together and making sure the kids are asleep on time is the real key to a happy marriage.) Since it was a Sunday night, a.k.a. the most chaotic day of the week, we cleared the exact amount necessary to make for a neat Zoom background and settled by the kitchen counter on side-by-side stools facing our laptop. Dress code: tired parents looking as presentable as possible.
Mr. Meystelman is in his study in Phoenix, so it’s still light outside in his neck of the woods. He described his background and a bit about the Imago therapy techniques we would be using. We were to use specific prompts, then mirror each other’s words — i.e., repeat what our spouse had just said to us — then use that as a springboard for deeper discussion. Okaaaaaay. Would I be able to repress my deep instinct to giggle uncontrollably, through the awkwardness of staring my husband in the eye as I repeated words that someone else was feeding me?
Facing each other, I fought to keep a straight face while Aryeh had no issue whatsoever maintaining stronger-than-feels-natural eye contact, probably fueled by his deep-seated love of being better at me than most things. (I make it easy; I am a very devoted wife.)
“Share one thing you appreciate about your wife, Aryeh,” Mr. Meystelman prompted him.
We needed to use, like, full sentences, as if we were being prompted by a video producer for a yeshivah dinner.
“One thing I really appreciate about you is that you go out of your way to check in and connect with me during the day, and I especially appreciate when you do that when I’m super stressed about work,” Aryeh told me as he met my gaze.
Well, color me shocked. I was sure he was going to say something about how amazing I am with the kids, but aw, this is sweet! Okay, focus. It’s my turn now, to mirror what he’s saying without responding or modifying his statement, then check with him to make sure I got it right.
“You really appreciate that I go out of my way to connect with you during the day,” I parroted.
“You missed the part about how I especially appreciate it when I’m super stressed about work,” Aryeh pointed out. At Mr. Meystelman’s prompts, my husband then elaborated on why that specific gesture was meaningful to him, and I mirrored his thought to make sure I understood it without adding my own interpretation.
Neither of us had considered that before, but it made a lot of sense.
We’re a very open couple; clear and direct communication is not an area that we struggle with. We hadn’t come to this meeting to have a vent session or solve specific problems. But these prompts brought value and nuance to our usual interactions. I might tell my husband I appreciate him, but I can’t say that I usually distill the specificities of what I appreciate and why they are particularly meaningful to me. And when forced to think about it in a more formal setting, I realized that the thing I appreciate most about my husband is deeply connected to my sense of self, to the parts of my personality that I felt least secure about in the past. That discussion achieved was a much deeper level of connectedness than a simple “I appreciate that you get me” would have done.
Then it was time to do the same exercise for things we’d like the other to change. We generally discuss our issues before (and while) they escalate, but if I was forced to pick a thing that bothered me I guess I could.
Mr. Meystelman, prompting me: Aryeh, it bothers me when…
Me, squirming with awkwardness but persevering: Aryeh, it sometimes bothers me when you’re preoccupied with work during family time.
My husband, who doesn’t need prompts anymore since he picked up the dialogue pattern like a pro within the first five seconds of this session: What you’re saying is that it bothers you when I work during family time. Did I get that right?
Aryeh: Is there anything else?
Me: Yes. I know that you’re working to support our family, and I appreciate how hard you work and what a good example you set for our children, but it’s hard for me to see them trying to get your attention when you’re fully immersed in something on your phone and you don’t hear them.
Aryeh: So what you’re saying is that you don’t like when the kids can’t get my attention when I’m on my phone. Did I get that?
Me: Well, the appreciation point was important too, but otherwise, yes.
Aryeh: Is there more about that?
Me: Well, I guess I feel the same way… it can be frustrating when we’re together and you’re not fully present because you’re distracted by your phone.
Aryeh, after he summarizes like an expert: Is there anything else?
Me: That’s all!
“Do you think there’s something in your life experience that makes this particular issue bother you?” Mr. Meystelman prompted.
Me, in my head: Yes, because it’s universally annoying.
Me, out loud, after I told the voice in my head to stop being a drama queen: Honestly, I think figuring out how to be fully present is something I really struggle with also. Maybe I’m projecting that onto you a little?
I was surprised to discover that discussing our relationship in front of someone else was less awkward than I thought it would be. (Once we got into the swing of things, the cringe factor receded considerably and we did not dissolve into a laughing fit from which we could never recover.) The prompting and mirroring technique may have initially felt unnatural, but it allowed each of us to say everything we felt in a controlled and thoughtful way, without interruption, to a receptive audience.
We continued with this conversation. And while the face value of what we both said was nothing we hadn’t discussed before, sharing the deeper motivations behind it were very valuable. Learning my husband’s motivations added meaning to the things I now knew were more impactful than I had thought — or helped me understand why he was reacting in a specific way to something I might not have considered to be such a big deal.
After the session finished, we found there was a lot to discuss, expound on, and schmooze about, and because we’re us, joke about. Would I do this again? Yes, for sure, especially if Family First was paying for it. Next up, how about an article about what it feels like to be on vacation?
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 798)
Oops! We could not locate your form.