For Utah parents, hurdle to divorce could advance in Legislature
A few nights a week in Utah, rooms in courthouses typically reserved for deliberating juries fill up with parents looking to divorce. And among the first lessons they are taught is a simple, if not emotional, one: Keep the kids out of it.
"Cocoon your child," instructor Neal Gunnarson tells the group of parents.
Utah was the first in the nation in 1994 to require that couples complete what's now a two-hour, $55 seminar before courts will finalize a split. Now, a lawmaker is proposing to require that couples take at least part of the course earlier, hoping that it can reduce a divorce rate among those couples with children.
"If you've gotten so far down the road that you feel like you're pretty much done, you're not going to rethink something that you've spent that long moving toward," said the bill's sponsor, Republican Rep. Jim Nielson.
The measure is likely to pass over objections from those who say it will only worsen an already grueling and painful process. "They're going through a terrible time," said Dianne Passey, a divorce class teacher in Salt Lake City.
The bill puts Utah back in the spotlight for legislation that was unique 20 years ago but commonplace today.
According to a 2008 study by the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, 48 states offer such classes in some form. Twenty-seven states require in statute that parents take the class, and others leave the decision up to counties, other districts or individual judges.
Some mandate a video session while others include roleplaying and other information about how the split could affect children and teens.
Utah lawmakers aren't alone in discussing measures that would, in effect, make it more difficult to divorce in recent years.
A pending proposal in the Oklahoma Legislature would prolong the divorce waiting period to six months. A 2013 North Carolina bill also proposed extending the waiting period to two years. And Colorado legislators in 2012 considered a measure to have couples wait a year.
At one recent class, some wore sweatpants and baseball caps, others pleated slacks and blouses. Some showed up with watery eyes. The classes focus on everything from how to leave the kids out of arguments to how much legal fees can cost.
Some participants played solitaire on their smartphones or whispered to a spouse or sibling.
In the first hour of the course, instructors go over legal paths for divorce, but also point out that couples can still choose to reconcile.
That's the key element the sponsor says should come sooner. Nielson proposes that before parents get custody rights or financial orders, they need first to have been granted the course certificate. The proposal would exempt people seeking protective orders.
When a participant was asked what her husband's name was, Gunnarson said, she replied: "Satan."
Soon after, some asked questions, including whether an ex-husband will still be required to pay child support if he doesn't have a job and what they should do if waves of grief over the breakup don't stop.
"If you're stuck and you want someone to talk to," Passey told the group, "just listen to your gut" and don't be afraid to seek counseling.
From Gunnarson's point of view, not every couple attending his classes needs a divorce. But most will get one, he said. What would parents say, Gunnarson asked, if their child was in the room, asking, "Why are you getting divorced?"
"We decided it's best for all of us," one participant offered.
"The only thing you need to know," Gunnarson told a hypothetical child, assuming the role of the parents in front of him, "is that your dad loves you and your mom loves you."
Alan Hawkins, a professor at Brigham Young University's School of Family Life, said Nielson's bill would help lower the numbers of people who divorce by installing a necessary yellow light. He said academic studies show that about 1 in 10 divorces "are a mistake for everyone involved."
In those cases, he said, repairing the marriage would be the better option.
Opponents are skeptical that the new provision will help. They say that once couples reach the class, they will likely go through with the divorce.
"This is the last thing you need. Especially earlier, when you have bigger fish to fry, and it's unlikely to do anything good," said Nicholas Wolfinger, a professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah.
Utah's divorce rate is just slightly above the national average. It has waned in recent years, mirroring a dip in the state's marriage rate.
One of those who attended a class was Ryan Campbell. He had arrived alone one recent January evening. His wife had already gone weeks earlier. As he sat there, he began to think that maybe he and his wife could get back together.
Then, a new reality started to sink in: A 27-year marriage that produced four children was over.
He said his divorce is nearly final, and that he's not sure that taking the class earlier would have saved his marriage. But it has helped him handle the grief. "I've come from the begging and the fear to being empowered," he said, "and it's OK."