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Counsel for Law School Marriages : Class Addresses Psychological Aspects of Student Life

November 17, 1985|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — It is not that law students are less than human; it's simply, as Pepperdine University psychology Prof. Clarence Hibbs put it, that they could use a little humanizing.

Law students, said Hibbs, "are found to be argumentative, demanding, questioning, short-tempered, impatient and emotionally unresponsive."

Indeed, he added, tailoring his comments to his target audience of the American Assn. for Marriage and Family Therapy, holding its 43rd annual conference in New York not long ago, "learning to think like a lawyer may make that person a great lawyer, but a lousy spouse."

Class for Couples

It was not that Hibbs had left the Malibu campus with the specific intention of denigrating the future giants of American jurisprudence. Rather, the psychologist and chairman of Pepperdine's division of social sciences was bringing with him a prescription for enriching graduate school marriages. He spoke of his elective class for Pepperdine law students and their spouses--thought to be the first of its kind, Hibbs said--that "addresses the psychological aspects of the law student's life, especially his/her marriage."

Hibbs said the program evolved in large part in response to the changing demographics of graduate schools in general. In 1941, he said, about 5.5% of men in graduate school, and 2% of female graduate students, were married. Currently, 57% of male graduate students, and 50% of the women, are married.

More Female Students

At the same time, graduate schools have seen a dramatic rise in the number of female students. Between 1971 and 1977, said Hibbs, there was a 71% increase in the number of women who had five years of college or more.

But, said Hibbs, the divorce rate of these men and women has shown a parallel growth as well. "Evidence is increasing," he said, "that the divorce rate in graduate student marriages is abnormally high in relation to the general population."

While lacking specific figures on the graduate student population at large, Hibbs said the divorce rate for women with five years of college or more was "the second-highest of any." Only women who lack a high school diploma show a higher divorce rate, he said.

Feeling Left Out

One obvious scenario that might explain the pattern, he said, is that "the tremendous time in a graduate school program provides less and less time for the relationship." While one partner is madly pursuing his or her professional goals, "the spouse who is not the graduate student often feels left out."

As a consequence, said Hibbs, "the marriage often becomes a utilitarian function in the graduate student's life, while the real stuff takes place at school." Gaps in the relationship may widen, he said, so that "what began as a great adventure may become the burden that causes the marriage to break."

Meanwhile, the graduate student is fast engaging in training that may omit the very human skills he or she may need. Lawyers and law schools place "a high value on rationality," Hibbs said. The casualty, he said, is feelings.

Ironically, said Hibbs, "interpersonal skills are neglected even when it is known that the lack of such skills serves the profession poorly." To make matters worse, some of "the very skills which may be necessary to become a 'successful' professional prove disastrous when applied to marriage.

"New research suggests that interpersonal skills are something that professionals need to be learning as well as intellectual skills."

Among law students, the group Hibbs has worked with during the five years his marriage-enrichment class has been offered at Pepperdine, "the emotional development may actually be stunted by the education they get." It's fine to aspire to be a big-gun attorney, Hibbs said, but "to learn to be a good person is also needed."

Held in the evenings, so that both student and presumably employed spouse may attend, the class focuses primarily on stress reduction, problem-solving and on what Hibbs describes as "learning to have people really listen."

The latter may sound redundant, particularly among fledgling professionals whose future may hinge on the verbal or grammatical vagaries of their opponents, but, said Hibbs, "you'd be surprised how many people say their spouses don't fully listen to them."

One exercise, for example, involves having the student couples talk to each other, "and then stopping, and talking about what they have just said."

As for reacting, once they have listened, "learning to be more emotionally responsive," Hibbs said, "is often counter to what people are learning to do in the practice of law."

Although the class may function therapeutically, Hibbs said, "We don't try to do therapy, but to the extent that you strengthen the relationship, then I think you make them stronger overall."

And at least one goal of the program, Hibbs said, is "so that they can get it to where it's not such a win-lose situation, because the law profession is such a win-lose business. We're trying to get it to where it's a win-win marriage."

Of the 56 couples who have taken Hibbs' course, ranging in marital duration from two to three weeks to eight years, five are known to have divorced. Data from a questionnaire directed at students who have taken the course are being analyzed, Hibbs said.

His class provides two units of law-school credit. It is offered on a pass-fail basis, but failure, said Hibbs, comes only from non-attendance.

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