He’s a fictitious client, but not that fictitious.
He’s a lawyer. At school he had the ambition of getting into a top university and doing a law degree. So, he got top A Level results, and is invited to do law at Oxbridge. He gets a first.
Along the way he meets Sophie who’s studying international business studies.
While still at university he sets his next goal: get hired by a top firm to do his professional exams. Being such a stellar candidate, the Magic Circle firms line up to offer him a place.
He accepts one of these and begins to see the next horizon of ambition opening up to him: get qualified so he can actually call himself a lawyer, become an associate of the firm, and then work his way up to be accepted into the hallowed sanctuary of the partnership.
While he’s grafting at the coal face, he asks Sophie to marry him. They have a big, expensive party. White dress. Beautiful photographs.
She’s working for an investment bank and they handcuff themselves to a mortgage for a bigger house that they can’t really currently afford, in a good part of town, knowing that their income can only grow.
The early years of married life are full. They’re both caught up in parallel achieving and, although they see little of one another Monday through Friday, it’s exciting and they share their sense of themselves as a successful, young career couple.
Then Sophie becomes pregnant. It was in the plan, and they’re both delighted. For a while she slow tracks her career to spend more time with the baby.
Meantime, George is working away. He has specialised in International Capital Markets and, if not pulling all nighters to meet the deadlines on deals, he’s travelling across Europe and The Middle East.
Baby number two comes along. And Sophie starts to have a different take on life. She enjoys motherhood and wants to be successful in work without having to follow investment banking career rule protocol. She wants to make work fit life for a change.
She hires a coach, quits the bank (they’re doing another cull so that she walks away with some cash), and sets up a niche business doing organic baby foods that she markets to her network of professional mothers.
Part of the life she now seeks is about spending more time with George and her children.
At which point, it starts to become apparent to her that George is not around much to spend more time with.
She tries talking to him about it.
“We can’t all run flaky businesses,” he says, “and one of us needs a secure income.”
Months and years pass. Nothing changes. George is missing his children’s first words, their first steps, their bath times, their funny little sayings, their first days at school, their first report cards.
Sophie tries talking again. She’s sad that he’s missing out and that his children are too. It would be great if he’d at least come to parent-teacher evenings with her.
But by now he’s been appointed as an equity partner and really does feel that he has something to prove.
“I need your support,” he says. “Not your criticism.”
Things continue as is. Or so it seems.
The first thing I know about any of this story is, in fact, a call from George’s HRD.
“He’s top talent,” she says. “But his performance appears to have hit a wall. His associates and peers are complaining about him, and his Managing Partner is concerned. We’ve all been very understanding, but there’s a finite period of time that our support for him can continue. I think he has some work life issues…”
Then, George himself is sitting in front of me.
“My wife, Sophie, left me,” he says and begins to unravel.
He has never questioned her or their marriage at all. They’ve been together forever, so he has assumed they always will be. Sure, he knew she was pissed at his hours, and his travel, and the dedication he puts into his job, but she’d known that this was his thing when they married. It had been hers too early on. It was unfair that she’d changed the game on him.
Now he’s embroiled in a different kind of legal battle. They’ve, of course, engaged their separate top divorce lawyers and are going through the painful minutiae of their lives. The children, money, property. Who gets what.
Yes, he’s aggrieved that she has up and left him.
But it’s only now that he confronts how important she and his children have been to him. He has hired a cleaner and the firm has a laundry service he can use. But it’s hardly the same as walking into an orderly home day after day. And he wonders whether he can offload his Waitrose online shopping to his PA or how else he’s going to ever return to the phenomenon of the abundantly full fridge.
And he’s seeing more of his children than ever now.
Because that’s the agreement the divorce lawyers struck in court. Which is as odd as it is sweet. Seeing them there, all by himself, in what has been the family home. Forming new relationships with them. Finding the words to say he loves them.
And with that he has lost the ability to oversleep at weekends to catch up on his energy. At least every other weekend, when he has them. Though, in any case, sleep is shot. There’s no such thing in his life as rest.
He has spent the first months since Sophie left in continued denial. Imagining she’d come back; that this was just some big protest to capture his attention. She has it, so why isn’t she returning?
Imagining too that he could wall off his broken heart when he went to work. But he can’t. His emotional upset spills over. Being exhausted, he can’t focus. His fuse is short and he snaps at the least little thing.
And the longer she’s away, the more reality is hitting him. Still, he struggles to understand just what’s happening to him.
He can’t believe that she says she no longer loves him.
He can’t believe the words that are being conveyed to him about his behaviour via his legal council.
Neglectful. Abandoning. Emotionally abusive.
He can’t believe that the courts are on her side.
“Of course my numbers are down,” he says. “How could they not be?”
His heart is no longer in the game and his head is scrambled.
“What’s the point?” he’s asking himself. “What has ever been the point?”
Good questions. Questions that I wish on his behalf he was not having to ask in retrospect.
And I suspect there’s going to be more pain yet for George before there will be answers. But even George himself, with the benefit of hindsight, can offer some reflections on how it could have been different.
Top of his list is that he didn’t listen.
“I just avoided what was going wrong. I imagined it was a phase and that it would go away.”
The moral of this tale? Don’t take your marriage or core relationship for granted. It should never be a finite thing. It needs to adapt and grow with one, other or both of you, and if it doesn’t you’re setting it up for failure. If you find communication difficult, confront that as early on as possible. Even seek out a relationship coach or counsellor to help you have the tough conversations that you might not otherwise have.
While you build your career and are learning the intricate skills that will allow you to advance and propel it, learn too what it takes to have a good relationship, and allow yourself to grow as a person and not just as a professional.
What about you? What other advice would you offer George? What lessons might you learn from him?