Divorce is a challenge for everyone involved.
Fifteen years ago I was an expert witness helping judges decide on custody arrangements. After seeing far too many messy divorces and exasperated judges, I thought that teaching parents how to divorce with psychological integrity was very important. Often separating couples need additional help in order to handle their divorce appropriately. Imagine that you were to get two bad speeding tickets. The state that you reside in will automatically threaten to take away your drivers' license unless you do what?
Take a defensive driving course.
In divorce, parents are raising children under strenuous, emotional circumstances. They may be worried about money, their lawyer's abilities, or just be exhausted by the whole process. Mistakes happen that can hurt the well being of their children. So, the notion of offering a defensive parenting course to a divorcing parent makes logical sense. It is a public health issue. In other words, the state has an interest in protecting children from the emotional ups and downs of divorce. Think of such courses as seat belts in a car.
They may not prevent accidents, but they may mitigate the damage.
Florida was among the first states to institutionalize parenting courses for divorcing couples by passing the Reform of Marriage Law in 1998. It mandates four things:
A liberal Jewish representative, Elaine Bloom, and the conservative head of the Christian coalition in Florida, John Dowless, worked together that same year to pass a piece of legislation called the Marriage Preparation and Preservation Act in an attempt to cut the divorce rate in Florida. It did this by trying to study how marriages come together and then fall apart through a statewide survey. Since then other states and local jurisdictions have followed suit; in fact, some politicians in other states have publicly included the creation of marital education groups as a campaign goal.
Divorce in the state of Florida involves 50,000 to 60,000 minor children each year, which adds up to real risks of long term emotional and financial problems in divorced families. Because of these statistics, the Act was introduced to cope with the high divorce rate. The results have been largely positive.
A study in the Journal of Family Psychology about premarital counseling had some encouraging findings. Of those questioned who had gone to premarital counseling, most did not go for more than a month; possibly because they were doing it because it was required by the state and not because they felt that they needed it. Being forced to take courses can sometimes lead to uninterested students. However, the study did find that these couples seemed interested in learning about marriage and educating themselves about the ups and downs that married couples face. This is good to know, because learning what to expect in a marriage can soften disappointment and normalize the need to work things through when problems inevitably come up. In other words, the end result was valuable, even if the starting motive was hardly ideal.
What about divorcing couples specifically? According to the article: "Does Mandatory Divorce Education for Parents Work?" published in Family Court Review, courses offered to divorced or divorcing parents were evaluated based on the responses of couples immediately upon completing them and six months afterward. The results were inspiring. Those who took the courses said that they were better able to handle the child-related issues that came up during and after the divorce process. It also seemed that many couples benefitted greatly from the courses regardless of their initial interest level when starting it, which means that such courses can benefit many people.
Every little bit counts. What we are really pulling for is a societal change, with the realization by parents, siblings, friends, clergy, therapists, and yes, lawyers, that divorce is a vulnerable time in a family's life that can hurt children, and much can be done to minimize the damage. This change is happening with the increasing awareness of mediation, collaborative law and parent support groups. Even many litigation attorneys now pride themselves on being sensitive to the needs of the kids. Change is in the air. More and more, parents want a good divorce despite the fact that they were unable to have a good marriage. These courses can help.
Some libertarians will argue that these courses are a civil rights violation. Aside from dramatic cases like child abuse, parents are entitled to be left to their own parenting styles. I have heard it said that people should be free to make their own mistakes even if they may undermine their children. This, some would argue, is the price of freedom.
The answer to this contention goes back to defensive driving and seat belts. Sometimes society as a whole has a compelling reason to limit freedom for a higher good. In this case, that good is the well being of children going though the stress of their parent's divorce. Parents may not be protected from their bad mistakes - but children are the most vulnerable members of the society and therefore deserve that protection.
For those of us working on The Intelligent Divorce Project, this topic is not just academic. As of this week we are proud to announce the opening of our new online Family Stabilization Course, which has been recently approved in the state of Florida according to the guidelines of this legislation. It took us over a year to get it right and it can be taken in other states as well. Our course is typical of many other such venues online, offering a parent the opportunity to take a course in the privacy of his or her own home. And, like others, our Family Stabilization Course is offered at a low fee: the parent learns about the hazards of parenting during divorce, takes a short test and then receives a certificate documenting that they indeed learned something of value about helping their children.
We are thrilled to be part of something important.
A special thanks to Pamela English for her help in writing this article.
© Mark R Banschick, MD