Book Review

Lawyer, Analyst Offer Advice: How to Avoid Un-Coupling

Reconcilable Differences: 7 Essential Tips to Remaining Together From a Top Matrimonial Lawyer, by Robert Stephan Cohen, with Elina Furman. Pocket Books, 223 pages, $25.

Can Love Last?: The Fate of Romance Over Time , by Stephen A. Mitchell. W.W. Norton, 223 pages, $24.95.

Are you comfortably paired, snug with your significant other? Feel safe, secure, settled? Beware. That cozy feeling could mean that your boat built for two has drifted into dangerous waters. In fact, if you value your relationship precisely for the security it affords, seek help now-at least that’s what the late psychoanalyst Stephen Mitchell would have urged you to do. Safety in romantic matters is an illusion we nurture at our peril; the more we count on it, the more likely it is that we’re at risk. And as prominent New York divorce lawyer Robert Cohen would add, it’s the couples who disregard warning signs that end up in his office frantically untangling the safety knot that bound them.

What kind of help should you seek? Mitchell and his fellow shrinks can offer you a theoretical understanding of your predicament, as well as the unburdening benefits of talk therapy, but if you want a no-nonsense cure, listen to a divorce lawyer (or “matrimonial lawyer,” to borrow the current euphemism). I’m not arguing that complacent couples are all hopeless cases, that it’s time to call it quits and divide up the spoils. On the contrary: A divorce lawyer is uniquely qualified to offer practical advice on how to keep the leaky craft of coupledom afloat. As Mr. Cohen points out, “After years of listening to my clients recite variations on the same theme of disenchantment and disappointment, I have become a virtual catalog of marital dysfunction.”

Mr. Cohen is to be commended for using his catalog of unhappy experiences to try to turn back the stream of potential clients headed for splitsville. If his book, Reconcilable Differences , were to end up on every bedside table, he could end up unemployed. And the tabloids would suffer, too: Mr. Cohen has assisted at the dis-union of Donald and Ivana Trump, Tommy Mottola and Mariah Carey, Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley. You would think these folk would have more complicated relationship issues than the rest of us (there’s no danger of anyone ever feeling too safely settled with, say, “The Donald”), but Mr. Cohen persuades us that high-profile heartbreak isn’t very different from what “hard-working, everyday people” suffer: “Although many of my clients are wealthy and well-known in their respective fields,” he writes, “their stories are not unique to their fancy Park Avenue apartments and polished boardrooms.”

In each of his seven chapters, Mr. Cohen begins with “Warning Signs,” proceeds to “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (“what not to do”)-and only then offers up possible “Reconciliations.” He anatomizes the dangers inherent in leading “parallel lives”; failures of communication; the tricky business of sexual compatibility; money (“When a new client comes in to see me, the conversation inevitably turns to money, usually sooner rather than later”); infidelity (natch); traumatic transitions; and the insult added to matrimonial injury, “in-laws and family.” Almost everything Mr. Cohen has to say he illustrates with a telling example, and he scatters useful exercises, assessments and “points to ponder” throughout his book. His advice, always pragmatic, can be dead simple (“try taking a deep breath and focusing on what your spouse is really trying to tell you”) and blunt (“I always say that a trial separation is just practice for a real divorce. The fact is, you don’t get back together by separating”). Mr. Cohen’s philosophy, clearly, is that two is better than one, and that a happy union requires constant tending. The key lesson he teaches is remain vigilant .

Mr. Cohen concentrates on the daily drill: what you and I have to watch out for if we want our love to last. When Stephen Mitchell wrote Can Love Last? , he was posing a theoretical question-and providing a big-picture answer. Mitchell argues that the kind of love on which we’re willing to place long-term bets is even more dangerous (in part because it’s more important) than the kind of instant passion that can quickly burn itself out, and that we protect ourselves against the dangers latent in committed love with the illusion of security, a counterfeit coziness. He writes, “[I]n exploring in detail the textures of such established relationships, I have invariably discovered that the sense of safety is not a given but a construction, the familiarity not based on deep mutual knowledge but on collusive contrivance, the predictability not an actuality but an elaborate fantasy.” In order to make love safe, we make it dull-”a protective degradation, a defense against the vulnerability inherent in romantic love.” Mitchell’s solution-not unexpected, coming from an analyst-is to cultivate a heightened awareness not only of the uncertainty of love, but also of the ways we hide our true vulnerability. He would have us keep careful track of how “cozy” is constructed.

Remain vigilant . Be aware . Robert Cohen and Stephen Mitchell, as different as chalk and cheese, join forces in the end. Maybe lawyer and analyst came to similar conclusions because both spend their day listening to other people. Reconcilable Differences and Can Love Last? echo with the voices of clients seeking to separate and patients eager for emotional help. “The stories and names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved,” Mr. Cohen assures us. Mitchell writes, “Because of the need for confidentiality, these people are carefully disguised.” It makes no difference: For the reader, there’s a voyeuristic thrill on every page. And the shock of recognition. “A tall, slender woman with well-defined cheekbones and a stunning sense of style”; “a scholarly fellow, with a keen ear for the English language and a keen eye for classic, tailored looks”; “a woman in her mid-forties … seeks psychoanalytic treatment because she is confused about some of the choices she has made and afraid that her life is in danger of becoming a sociological cliché”; “He was an artist of considerable renown and had been greatly absorbed in his work at the expense of his marriage”-they come in every shape and size, and they all look exactly like us.

Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.