Dr. N. Robert Riordan is a graduate of NYU School of Law and a former U.S. securities attorney for London- and Sydney-based Herbert Smith Freehills. After 10 years of practice in New York, London and Rome, he made the switch from corporate law to private practice as a clinical psychologist. Dr. Riordan now acts as a therapist to dozens of NYC attorneys. The following is the second of a two-part interview with Dr. Riordan. (You can read the first part here.)
ATL: In addition to professionals like attorneys, whom do you see in your private practice?
The remainder of my practice focuses on couples. I work with two distinct types of couples. First, I see couples whose romantic relationships are in crisis. The goal here is to improve their bond to one another. I happen to see many couples where both parties are professionals, and, most often, each member of the couple is struggling to balance personal and professional demands.
ATL: I would imagine that couples come to treatment for a variety of reasons.
I work with many couples whose connection to one another has been strained by things like demanding careers, childrearing, or an unexpected financial hardship. These couples are looking to recapture the connection that originally brought them together and to start working as a partnership again. Also I work with a handful of couples who are facing specific challenges, like infidelity or the loss of a child.
ATL: Has your training as an attorney prepared you for the conflicts that presumably arise in couples’ therapy?
I think that I am more comfortable with conflict than many psychologists, and I do attribute this to my legal training and experience. But not all couples fight in session. In fact, the biggest myth about couples’ therapy is that it involves a feuding couple that comes before an impartial party who will judge their behavior and rule on who is at fault. The reality is that all couples are different; each couple has its own rules. The important issue in treatment is the strength of their bond to one another. Together we work to identify and then correct the harmful loop of poor communication that the couple finds itself in.
ATL: You mentioned earlier that many attorneys are skeptical about therapy. So we can conclude that many of our readers may be skeptical about the couples’ therapy. What would you say to a skeptic?
Many well-educated people assume that they should be able to solve their own relationship problems. Yet, the truth is that very few people know anything about the psychology of romantic relationships. This includes the impact of love on the brain and nervous system, the influence of gender on communication and decision-making, etc. It also includes the importance of one’s underlying attachment style, which can greatly influence an individual’s behavior in the context of a romantic relationship. So, first, it is important for skeptics to know that couples therapy is not about judgment; rather, it is about education in the service of reconnection.
The therapeutic model that I follow, Emotionally Focused Therapy or EFT, has a tremendous amount of empirical support with a very high success rate. I have similar success rates in my own practice. With this in mind, I would also urge anyone considering couples’ therapy to be a good consumer by making sure that the therapist under consideration has the proper training in an empirically-supported model. Just do your due diligence.
ATL: You mentioned that you work with two kinds of couples. What is the other kind of couple?
The second type of couple with whom I work are those couples, referred to me by attorneys or mental health professionals, who are in agreement that it is time to terminate their marriage. These couples are not interested in therapy, and they come so that we can work out the terms of their divorce.
ATL: So you act as a lawyer in this regard?
I act as a mediator who has both legal and psychological training. As an attorney, I address the procedural aspects of the divorce. If the parties are able to agree on all of the terms of the divorce, I can prepare all needed agreements for the couple and submit them to the court.
As a psychologist, I tend to the emotional aspects of the divorce. Specifically, I can help the couple restructure their relationship. It is crucial to restructure a couples’ relationship if the couple has children since they will always be in one another’s life.
Most of the couples with whom I work never step foot into court. As a result, the process is less traumatic. It is faster than many other avenues available; in some cases, the process takes three months from start to filing.
ATL: So, if the divorce is non-contentious, you can effectively divorce a couple in your office?
Yes, while, at the same time, preparing the couple for the psychological challenges that lie ahead of them. A successful divorce is 20% good lawyering and 80% good psychological counseling.
ATL: Do you ever feel a conflict in that you are both a couples’ therapist and a divorce mediator?
There is no conflict because each couples’ goal is clear at the outset. When I’m working as a couples’ therapist, there is no discussion of divorce; these couples are willing to do the hard work needed to revive their partnership. On the other hand, when I act as a mediator, the couple comes to me with a clear wish to end their marriage, and they are not interested in reconciliation. In the latter case, we focus on an equitable outcome and, if applicable, the best interests of the children. We work to make the process as humane as possible.
ATL: So not all divorces are ugly?
Absolutely not. For instance, I work with one couple – both attorneys – whose relationship is stronger now that they are divorced. Life took them in different directions over the course of their marriage. Then they both hit 50 and realized that they each had very different aspirations for the next chapter of their lives. They always loved one another. But now, for the first time in ages, they clearly like one another again.
Earlier: The Attorneys’ Psychologist (Part 1)