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An Unconventional Marriage Counselor

July 31, 2013

By Jay Nachman

From the Penn Law Journal Summer 2013 issue.

Lynn Toler L’84 is a strong believer in the institution of marriage.

Whether that is ironic or not, you, ahem, be the judge. You see, Toler, that’s Judge Lynn Toler, has been the Emmy-nominated host of the syndicated “Divorce Court” since 2006.

“I think marriage is stabilizing, it’s a great launching pad for the next generation and it’s good to have support because the world can be a hard place and you have to have someone in your corner,” says Toler.

Toler offered her views on what it takes to make – and break – a marriage in a talk last fall at the Law School and in a subsequent phone conversation. 

The five-foot-one-inch Toler speaks with the assured authority of a judge and emphasizes the points she feels strongly about. But her style is informal, and with her humorous stories, quips, and ready laugh, she brings to mind comedian Wanda Sykes.

Marriages fail, she says, because, “We’re not doing it right to begin with. We’re not doing the work at the front end. Couples need to discuss their master plan, economic decisions, where they are going to live, who is going to be the primary breadwinner. People get tripped up for those reasons.” 

Toler knows that not only from the stream of unhappy couples she has on her show, but from experience. While working as a lawyer and working long, billable hours she met and married a man with four children. (They subsequently had two children together.) Her mother, a loving, but persistent critic, said she made “alarming life choices.”

Following marriage, Toler said, “I was the primary breadwinner and the primary bread baker. I did the traditional woman thing.”  She did the cleaning and the cooking and the child-rearing and the thousands of other things large and small that kept the household running.

And resentment began to build because she had not heeded the advice of a friend who told her, “‘Don’t do anything you don’t want to be doing for the next 25 years. People don’t volunteer to clean the house and do the laundry.’”

“I was angry about it and didn’t know it for quite some time.” Toler said she had to learn to let her husband know what she wanted him to do.

While communication is a necessary ingredient for marriages, less necessary she said both kiddingly and seriously, is love. Toler explained, “You can’t base marriage on the rush of love, but love is the primary and exclusive thing we consider. We don’t do the homework we need to do to make sure it’s a rational joining. It should be a love thing, but it should be pursued in a practical manner. Do the homework before you get married.”

Once married, she said, “you have to address the marriage on a daily basis. You have to pay attention. There is more to marriage than managing the business of life, you have to keep checking in with one another.  I’m talking about saying, ‘hey how are you doing,’ for 15 minutes on a daily basis. If you fail to do that, you stop feeding the marriage. We’ve learned to take walks together or have coffee outside together in the a.m. to check in with one another. It makes you talk and reconnect. It puts it in your schedule.”

It’s a formula that has worked for her. She has been married to her husband since 1989.

She added, “Don’t marry someone you are crazy about. Wait until you’ve hated him a few times.”

“My husband and I have such different views on money and what it is for. We have had some very ugly times about that,” Toler said. “We have had to agree to bring up things at the right time. Not right when we first get upset but also not to sit and store them.

“We have a way we let the other one know that we’re about to say something the other one won’t like, but at the same time we’re not looking to argue. It’s ‘I’m not trying to start anything, but let me say this.’ It puts us in the right frame of mind to disagree without anger.”

That works for her, too.

Toler didn’t have any show business aspirations, or a desire to be a marriage, and divorce, authority. In fact, her aspirations were pretty much non-existent during law school. She was admittedly “not a dedicated student” who did just enough to get by. “I recommend none of this,” she advised.

It was when she returned home to her native Cleveland in 1984, and began working for a law firm, that she got serious about her career. Knowing that she had to produce or there would be repercussions motivated her.

At age 33, Toler was elected judge of The Cleveland Heights Municipal Court by one vote (six after a recount), beating a rival who had been “practicing law longer than I had been alive.”

Handling assault, concealed weapons and domestic violence cases, she found the work rewarding because she could make changes before crimes escalated into something more serious. “I really felt what I did was important.”  However, she realized, “As a judge, I was keeping a lid on the chaos after the problem occurred. There were young women making bad life decisions at age 18 and 19. Nothing I could say would change what they were doing.”

She created innovative programs for young offenders such as Woman Talk, a program designed to mentor young, at-risk girls, and early intervention programs for people who were mentally ill.

Toler won re-election with 80 percent of the vote. “I think I was a really good judge, but I think the best work I did as a judge was not in the robe but in the classes I held,” Toler said.

In 2001, Judge Toler became the host of the nationally syndicated show “Power of Attorney,” which eventually led to her current show.To this day, she is not sure how her audition came about. “I was a sitting judge in Cleveland Heights and I received a phone call from 20th Century Fox Television. They said they heard I was interesting and would I like to audition so I did. I don’t know how they heard about me.”

When she left the bench for the television show, her mother accused her of “failing up.” But her mother has come around and enjoys it when Toler gets recognized in airports. And Toler credits her mother’s “emotional acuity” for much of her success. “She taught me how to read people and emotions.”

In fact, her first book was My Mother’s Rules: A Practical Guide to Becoming an Emotional Genius. The book celebrates her mother’s keen insight into the development of emotional maturity, and how she transmitted that trait to her daughter.

Her second book, published last August, is Making Marriage Work: New Rules for an Old Institution.

As its name suggests, in Divorce Court Toler resolves the disputes of divorcing couples who agree to submit to binding arbitration with respect to some item or money.  The show has expanded over the years to include “advice episodes” in which couples come on the show to have Toler help them resolve marital issues.

One of her favorite episodes was one in which the bride slept with her best man rather than the groom on their wedding night. Divorce Court “is not Masterpiece Theater. I get that. I’m not changing the world for the better,” Toler said. “It’s a look at the human condition with a sense of humor.”

Nonetheless, she believes the show has a certain value. “I try to say at least one thing about relationships and how to make better decisions every day. I talk about practical things that help people get along. I do get feedback from people about those messages.”


You can follow Judge Lynn Toler on Twitter at @RealJudgeLynn.