Frisky Q&A: Judge Lynn Toler On “Divorce Court,” Relationship Red Flags, And Settling

Judge Lynn Toler has practiced law for more than two decades, but her legal career has led her down a path few of her peers have traveled. She was elected judge of the Cleveland Heights Municipal Court at the age of 33, and while on the bench, she worked with several organizations focusing on battered women and domestic violence. In 2001, Judge Toler became the host of “Power of Attorney,” but you probably know her best as the judge on “Divorce Court,” a position she’s held since 2006.

Now, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I questioned Judge Toler’s abilities when I noticed my beloved Judge Mablean Ephraim was no longer on the “Divorce Court” bench. But I quickly realized that Judge Toler heard her cases with genuine concern and interest, and offered insight and practical solutions, when possible, for the couples’ problems. She truly is a fair and impartial counselor. So I was really excited to speak with Judge Toler who, along with having an extensive legal and academic career, has also written two books, My Mother’s Rules: A Practical Guide to Becoming an Emotional Genius and Put It in Writing!: Creating Agreements Between Family and Friends, co-authored with Deborah Hutchison.

Keep reading to learn about her craziest experiences on “Divorce Court,” including the time Gary Coleman was a guest. Plus, the relationship red flags no one should ignore, and whether it’s OK to settle with a man who isn’t necessarily on your career and education level.You had been working in a normal legal court before you started with the “Power of Attorney.” Was it difficult making the transition from a courtroom judge to being a TV judge?

I don’t think so, because in the courtroom, in the real courtroom, I had to work to be less—oh, how should I say it?—less boisterous and to hold back my opinion because it’s just not truly judicial. But on television, you don’t have to do that. You can go for broke, and if it’s really bad they’ll take it out.

Do you think your experience dealing with battered women helped prepare you for “Divorce Court” in any way?

I just think it helps prepare you to deal with people, in general. When I was dealing a lot with battered women, a lot of what we were doing was looking at what people weren’t saying, what people were afraid of, and analyzing what’s going on that people aren’t really saying. So you get to be a better read of people, both men and women, because everybody is lying to you. And I think that just allows me to be a better read of people and a quicker study.

OK. I’ve been a fan of “Divorce Court” even when Judge Mablean was on. So do you think the image of “Divorce Court” changed when you came on?

I don’t think so. I think over the time that I’ve been on, when we had a change of executive producers, I think the type of cases we try expanded in scope, but I don’t think there was a real … I mean nobody can do Judge Mablean. Judge shows are so personality-driven that it’s almost hard to compare because they tune in to see what you have to say. So, it changed in that I was different. We didn’t have a different direction, I don’t think.

What would you say was probably the craziest moment for you on the show?

The craziest moment was the guy after the show who was trying to take his kid back from the babysitter, when the mother had given it to [the babysitter]. And he was trying to take the kid. And we had to call the police. That was the worst moment, because he said, “Well, that’s my kid!” But she had custody, and we had never had that situation, where they had come there with that issue that was right on top. That was the scariest moment. The one I remember most that was the funniest was the couple where the bride had slept with the best man as opposed to the groom on the wedding night.

Oh my God, that’s pretty big. How far are they in their divorce proceedings when they come onto the show?

It depends. At any point in time. Sometimes they have been separated forever; sometimes they’re really still together and thinking about it. I mean, it is more of a matter of they want to resolve a particular monetary issue or a possession, like they want Scruffy the dog. And we can do that right now, you know, decide who goes home with Scruffy.

So what was your reaction when Gary Coleman appeared on the show?

I was shocked! I really was. First of all, I knew he was married, but she was so young and I didn’t realize how young she was. And I didn’t quite understand why they wanted to come on “Divorce Court.” They weren’t getting a divorce. They were coming on because he watched the show and thought I gave good advice and he could see that they were kind of heading into a ditch. I was surprised at how smart he was. He was just a smart guy and she was young. And young is what young is. It was fun, though.

So did it surprise you at all when they reconciled? I think they had divorced, and then right before his death they were together again.

I was surprised. Well, let me not say that. I’m never surprised when people reconcile, even if they are really wrong for each other, because people do it all the time. People go back to what they know, even if what they know it isn’t a good thing. So I am never surprised, because a lot of people do reconcile that don’t need to be together — just because it’s easy and it’s simple. People do it all the time.

What are some red flags that you think people shouldn’t ignore early on in a relationship?

I think women, especially young girls, need to look for the sudden rush of romance and love. In other words, you meet him on Monday, and Wednesday he can’t live without you. That’s not love. That’s him having that kind of possessive potential that often signals abusive relationships. If you go to his house and there is a lot of chaos in the house, they don’t respect the women in the house. That’s another huge red flag for young girls. If [men] want to know where you are all the time, and they also get angry about little things, even with you or anybody else. All of those signals are a sign that he’s not somebody you want to deal with because he has that abuse potential.

And with men? Gee, I don’t know. (laughs) Depends on what they’re looking for I guess. If [she] drives you by a jewelry store too early, you might want to run. I don’t know.

So you often discuss little tidbits about your own marriage on the show. Does your work ever come into play at home? Like if your husband sees an episode and does he say, “Oh, I disagree. The wife was right or the husband was right.” Does that ever come up?

No, I’ll tell you what he does. If I mention him on the show, he gives me “the look.” Like, “Couldn’t you have thought of something else to say?” He would have preferred it that way. You know? (laughs)

Is it hard separating you the judge on “Divorce Court” from wife and mom at home?

No, because when you’re at home you’re mom. You’re the first line of clean it up, cook it up, buy it. You know? They don’t care. It’s just that you’re staff when you’re home.

What do you tell your sons? I know your sons are, it looks like, teen and preteen from the photos I saw.

Yes, 15 and 18.

What do you tell them about love, relationships and marriage now? Or has that not even come up yet?

I mean it comes up. I talk about [marriage]. My big thing is to wait, especially if you’re a guy. You’ve got plenty of time. You’ve got to try out all different kinds of women, because it is a long commitment once you make it. And if you make it with the wrong person it’s a mess getting out of it, especially if you have children. So, wait a long time before you get to it.

I ask the oldest one: “Are you sure you’ve got condoms?” Because I know what they do, and I’m too young to be a grandmother. We talk about that and I want to know. It’s important. Sometimes I question the young ladies that come over like, “Who is she? And where did she come from?” I want them to know that I’m paying attention. If she is over here at 11 o’clock at night, what does that tell you about what’s not going on at her house? That kind of thing.

When they’re of age, like the night before their wedding or something, what kind of advice do you think you would give them?

Wait until you’re not angry about it anymore, and then talk about it.

Well, that’s great advice for any situation, not just relationships. OK, so here’s a question I think a lot of people are always wondering: What is more important in marriage, love or money?

Money is not important, unless you don’t have any, and then it’s everything. You know what I mean? Love will not feed you, love will not keep you in a house. Stress will kill a marriage and one of the most stressful things is that you cannot pay your bills. I’m a little bit of a pragmatist, but love does not conquer all.

Recently, there has been a lot of talk in the media about the statistics on black women and marriage. What is your reaction to that? That black women aren’t getting married and aren’t really marriageable?

I think statistics show that we’re less likely to get married than white women, and I just think that is real. I was talking to a group of kids, at a high school the other day, that were all college-bound. Seventy percent of them were girls and 30 percent of them were guys. And that frightens me because we sort of need to arrive together. I think that oftentimes when you have the women getting educated and doing all those things, and the brothers are lagging far behind, we have a hard time getting together on all levels. I think that is part of the problem. I think that there is a group of … I mean, my sister, she never got married. You know, bright doctor, all that kind of stuff, and she never got married. She’s out probably having more fun than I am on a daily basis too, but she says, “It’s tough out there. It’s tough to find somebody.” And I think it is tough too for a lot of black women to find somebody.

I’m experiencing the same thing and so I’m wondering is it better to just settle with someone who maybe doesn’t earn as much as you do or doesn’t have as much of a position as you do? Or is it easier to just play the field until you find someone?

Here’s what I say, and I really do mean this, if you marry somebody that doesn’t have as much education or as much money as you do, you’re not settling—unless he’s not OK with it. If he’s not OK with it, it’s going to come out in how he treats you. I know a lot of friends who have had that situation. “Well, you know … Yes, I’m a doctor and he’s a regular guy.” But at the end of the day that kind of hurts him, it tugs at [his] ego a little bit. You just got to make sure he is secure enough in himself that it doesn’t make it a problem for him.

That totally makes sense to me.

Because I’ve known a lot of women who got caught in that and [men] always say, “You know, sisters, you don’t have to marry a doctor.” And I get that, and I’m all good with that, but make sure that if I do marry you, you’re OK with that fact that I am a doctor and I do go to book clubs. You can’t get mad about it. You can’t say that, “You’re always throwing these thousand dollar words at me.” If this is my vocabulary, this is my vocabulary. It can’t make you angry.

And my sister never settled, never got married. But you know a month ago I called her and she was in the rainforest, and she had just gotten back from Greece, and she just bought a Porsche Carrera. She’s a happy person.

That totally makes sense, and it’s a lot to think about, because I was one of the few black people in grad school, and there weren’t that many black men.

When I was in grad school there were twice as many sisters as there were brothers. It catches up with you. Even my husband and I, you know, I was a lawyer and he was an accountant and we were kind of fine. And then I became a judge, then I went on TV, and after a while we would have a few issues, because I do think it tugged on his ego a little bit. You know, he was a strong guy and he got past it, but you can see how it could bother somebody.

I’m sure fame didn’t help the situation.

Oh, no! Sure didn’t. Not at all!