Dr. Divorce 

Valerie Hale’s personal and professional crusade for doing divorce right.

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After all the storm and stress of knowing you’re about to be divorced, waiting in line must come as a small relief. Then again, waiting to sign up for the state’s mandatory divorce education class for parents only accentuates the obvious.

“I wish they’d teach this class before you get married,” says one man in line, trading jokes with his buddy.

“Hell, I’ll probably get married again and be back here in a year!” his friend replies with a hearty laugh.

No one else feels the joking mood. Sporting hang-dog looks, they simply wait their turns, answer rote questions from a clerk about the filing of their divorces, pay the $35 fee, quietly grab hold of the blue course manual, then take their seats in a classroom deep inside Salt Lake City’s downtown Matheson Courthouse.

The atmosphere is like a shopping mall in January. Sitting in individual auras of somber silence, everyone knows life’s next holiday is a long way off. A soon-to-be ex-wife shakes her pen in the face of her soon-to-be ex-husband. But not a word is spoken as people file in—some with spouses, most alone. The silence is temporarily broken when one man has the audacity to open a bag of chips. Contrasted against the quiet hum from air-conditioning vents, it’s a noise almost as loud as a crashing cymbal. Another man, so defiant that he refuses to take off his sunglasses, sits in a back corner.

Fifteen minutes later the room is completely full. Fifty people with their hearts torn asunder. Fifty people so tired and confused they don’t know what they’re feeling. Fifty people worried sick about how they’ll make it through the week. Fifty people adding up the numbers in their checkbooks so legal bills get paid. Fifty people about to get divorced. Fifty people wondering how they’re going to explain that divorce to the kids.

Asians sit next to whites who sit next to Latinos who sit next to blacks. Rich people with cell phones and business ties sit next to the poor dressed in T-shirts and ponytails held by rubber bands. Divorce is the great equalizer.

In a room this dark, you can’t help turning your head to see who’s turned on the lights. After kicking four fierce rows of light into action, Valerie Hale makes her introduction. “You guys ready to get this over with? Yes?” she asks, striding up to the drawing board. “I like working with divorced people. I was divorced once myself.”

A few people shake the jolt of fluorescent light from their eyes. Some attempt enthusiasm, cracking open their blue manuals. The other half stare into space. Hale, dressed entirely in black from head to tow, paces the room’s front with brisk steps. She manages sips from a soda cup between volleys about the latest sports game.

“Now even though you paid for this course, you can come back for free as much as you want,” she tells them. “Sometimes people come back to pay closer attention because the first time they were in a divorce daze. My advice to you? Take what you can use and discard the rest. Suck it in and spit it out.”

A slight giggle rises, signaling the end of any formal academic expectations people had about “divorce education.” It’s not as if Hale hasn’t done this before. Almost weekly she teaches these classes, mandated by the Utah Legislature eight years ago for any divorcee with children 18 or younger. On her resume, a heavily decorated seven-page opus, Hale calls them “psycho-educational parenting presentations.” And she’s taught them for five years running. That’s thousands and thousands of divorced people. Enid Greene, whom Hale remembers as “extremely gracious,” showed up for class after her political and personal meltdown with Joe Waldholtz, the father of her baby daughter. Waldholtz viewed Hale’s presentation by videotape in prison. Oddly enough, as a mother to her own 11-month-old son, Hale would be required by law to take her own class should she ever divorce.

“I’d have to talk to myself, looking in the mirror for two hours,” she tells her class. “So what I’m trying to say is, no one gets out of here alive.”

The class responds with more than a giggle now. For those light enough to laugh in the midst of personal trauma, it’s the laughter of the damned. And Hale milks it for all it’s worth, trying to lead them down a path they might never find if it weren’t for her hands in the air, her rapid-fire voice, and a flair for humor that’s equal parts information and punch line. With every laugh Hale knows she’s imparting something the class understands. People laugh because they understand. They get it.

Hale’s basic scenario is simple: Divorce sucks. But that doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to laugh at it.

Women stew in envy when their husbands leave them for the shapely, gamine young girl named “Bambi.” Men burn with rage when wives leave them for a “Fabio.” Men aren’t too happy to hear about their wives using child-support money for boob jobs, either. (A true story, by the way. “That woman had more plastic on her than a Nissan Sentra,” Hale tells her class.)

Divorce forces people into daring feats of psychological survival. “If you’re numb right now, hold on to numb. Hold onto it for as long as you can, because you’re going to feel crappy afterward. For the next two weeks or so, remaining vertical and maintaining good personal hygiene is your only goal. And whatever you do, don’t listen to country music. Just don’t,” Hale tells her class.

But don’t despair. Hale has tips. Sixty-five percent of all people going through divorce suffer from major depression. Men may drink a little more. Women may use the phone a bit more. But it’s better to get plenty of sunlight, exercise, or bathe in running water, all of which help chase the blues. Short of that, Hale tells them, TAKE DRUGS.

“Prozac is fabulous!” she tells them without a trace of irony. “And it cannot be held against you in a court proceeding. You know why? Because the judge is probably taking it himself. Your own lawyer is probably on Zoloft, and custody evaluators are probably taking some prescription drug just to know what it’s like for their clients to be taking the same drug!”

And the zingers keep coming. Hale works the room like a Baptist preacher at a revival. She has tales of enduring her own divorce, one of which involved a chainsaw and a Sylvania TV set. There are sound effects, miniature skits and more sympathetic gestures than talk-show hosts manage in an entire career. It isn’t the kind of behavior most people expect from a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. But of course, there’s a central, overriding message in this half-mad routine. If there weren’t, the class would no doubt feel just a tad ripped off after paying $35.

“No matter what you read,” she tells the class in a now earnest switch of gears, “the divorce itself is not what will hurt your children. It’s how you handle the divorce. Your children cannot afford to see you act like a lunatic in front of your ex-spouse. High levels of conflict, whether in a marriage or divorce, don’t bode well for kids. It predicts early death, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy—all the bad things. What does this mean? It means that even though you’re getting divorced you have to act like an adult. It means that even though you’re getting divorced you still have to act like a responsible parent. It means you cannot say bad things about your ex-spouse in front of your children, even if it’s true. Is that not a bummer? Hmmm?”

It sure is. Looking at the faces in the classroom, then looking back at Hale, you can tell she didn’t expect anyone to laugh at this. That’s because, this time, Hale’s not joking.

The very idea of mandatory divorce classes for parents struck quite a nerve in Utah lawmakers when the idea was first proposed. Those who recoiled at the notion of government interference in family life shook their heads in disbelief. Anyone who had seen firsthand the devastating effects divorce has on children studied it with calm concern. But years after it became law in 1992, few would have guessed the program would turn out to be perhaps the single most successful piece of legislation state lawmakers have ever passed.

Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. As early as the 1960s, that wild decade of social experimentation, divorce remained a topic few people broached. Children of divorce carried a stigma. Parents felt a sense of shame—an emotion that could strike many today as old-fashioned. As divorce widened in scope, parents took their battles over children and alimony to court. Winners were seen as “fit” parents; losers were branded “unfit.” By the ’80s, the social phenomenon of divorce was so big, and consumed so much court time, that experiments with mediation were under way. Lessons were learned. Today, Utah courts require mediation for divorcing parents who can’t come to an agreement. That way, it’s hoped the court won’t be forced to make a decision.

While lawyers raked in the billing hours, mental health professionals went down into the trenches for research. What they found wasn’t shouted from the hilltops, but it gradually became part of accepted practice: Divorce by itself was not the enemy, it was the way divorces were managed or mismanaged.

Hale likes to cite the words of family law researchers Vivienne Roseby and Janet Johnston: “Just as a marriage can be deemed more or less successful or as having failed, so can a divorce be seen as more or less successful or as having failed to accomplish its purpose. In a successful divorce, the adults are able to work through their anger, disappointment, and loss in a timely manner and terminate their spousal relationship with each other (legally and emotionally), while at the same time retaining or rebuilding their parental alliance with and commitment to their children.”

It’s the alliance and commitment to children Hale cares most passionately about. That’s because it’s children of “unsuccessful divorces” who come out as the real losers. These are the children who hear their parents slander each other, the children who feel torn, and later in life, the adults who struggle to build relationships without the early foundation of good role models. It’s a scenario that takes place in divorced families as well as families intact. But the opportunity for conflict is riper among divorced couples out to win the hearts of their children by repeatedly damning their exes.

And what’s so bad about that? “The child grows up feeling part of him or her is bad,” Hale says. “These children deny part of themselves because there’s a guilt associated with seeing the other parent. There’s a demand that the child must cleave to one parent and chop off the other. That’s a terrible thing to do.”

So it is that Hale’s seen “ward wars,” wherein divorced LDS couples fight over what ward their children will ultimately attend. In her private practice as both a shrink and private custody evaluator, she’s seen depression in children so fierce she calls it “the power sulk.”

“I learned that nobody wins in a divorce. You just survive it like a hurricane. Then you have to deal with the Greek chorus of family members who, even if the couple has worked out their differences, are often intent on smearing someone,” Hale says. “I like to think my forte is being able to shepherd people through this tough transition period. This is some of the most important work in the world, simply because it affects the future of so many children. And I get to do it.”

Her passion didn’t arise out of the pages of some textbook. Managing substance-abuse prevention teams was one of Hale’s first jobs, but she gradually found herself sneaking away to teach divorce management to kids. Plus, at one time she was going through a divorce of her own with a man she married at age 22. Her husband listened to Mahler symphonies and ate macrobiotic food. Hale knew their differences were too great to overcome the day she proposed they go see a monster truck show at the Delta Center.

“He turned to me and said [imitating an icy tone], ‘I’m not the kind of person who attends a monster truck show.’ Then I thought to myself, ‘Well, I’m one of those people who would.’”

That small exchange was part of a larger problem in the marriage. Hale never got to her monster truck show, but she did get a divorce. Then what did she do? She started dating a divorced father, of course. Then she married, became a stepmother to her husband’s daughter, and later had her own baby boy. A family situation like this opened up more vistas of psycho-social examination. Hale and her husband’s ex-wife decided they could even co-author a book about it, tentatively titled, Wife One, Wife Two: A Woman’s Guide To Dealing With That Other Woman.

“I got interested in the content of divorce because I was going through it, and there was so much of it around me at the time,” she says.

Of course there was a whole lot going on in between: starting her own private practice, trips to Australia and Scotland for symposiums on the family and divorce, plus, most publicly, her own radio show on relationships and mental health. You might remember it as the “KISN Tell Relationship Show” on FM radio. At its height, it drew a nighttime audience of 150,000 listeners. It ended when Hale became a mother. At the time, though, she felt duty bound to counteract the evil influence and popularity of Dr. Laura Schlessinger, a person Hale more or less despises.

“She has no empathy,” Hale says in disgust. “There’s no love in her advice. She thinks she knows how people should act, instead of having people look inside themselves. The reason she’s so popular is because some people don’t want to look inside themselves. People call her because they want to get beaten up—they want to be told what to do.”

Of course, the same could be said for Hale’s divorce education class. She tells people the proper way to go about a divorce. But there’s a distinction. Hale’s advice, she points out, isn’t really hers. Instead, it’s anchored in academically tested research. Hale, too, holds a doctorate in psychology. Schlessinger’s doctorate is less geared toward human emotions. Her doctorate concerns human anatomy, or physiology.

Stalwart talk-radio hosts aren’t the only challenge to making sure the public gets the most up-to-date counseling information. As evidenced by a recent cover story in Time magazine, the very notion that children can survive divorce is under attack. With her new book The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, retired university lecturer and therapist Judith Wallerstein argues that divorce, no matter how well done, does deep damage to the child psyche. Wallerstein, who bases her research on interviews with 131 children of divorce, even goes as far as saying that children don’t need to see their parents maintain a good marriage. As long as the family’s intact, all’s fine. Stability is preferable to civility.

Bull pucky, Hale says. From an academic standpoint, Wallerstein’s study is easily seen through. That’s because there was no control group used for comparison with the children of divorce Wallerstein interviewed. Also, Wallerstein’s sweeping demand that marriages must endure no matter what, is wrongheaded. Research shows that healthy, well-adjusted children spring from healthy, well-adjusted parents—divorced or not. Sticking out that marriage made in hell won’t do the children any good if you are miserable.

“It’s not the parent’s job to make the child happy,” Hale says. “The job of a parent is to love their children fiercely and help them get through whatever the world throws at them.”

For the counselor, much of the trick is combining hard science with a sense of humbleness that bars hasty conclusions. As a custody evaluator, Hale comes face-to-face with stories she’d rather not repeat. Make that cannot repeat. As a counselor, she’s bound to keep her patients’ information confidential. It’s kind of like the CIA. Unlike other professions, divorce counselors can’t vent the content of their workdays.

“You can’t do this job all in your head,” she says. “It’s like playing the harp. You’ve got to feel the music reverberate, but at the same time, if you’re going to play it you can’t let it overwhelm you so much that you can’t perform. Sometimes you just have to go home and rid yourself of everything you learn about people. We’re all in this world, and we all survive it.”

And, at the end of the day, survival is what it’s all about. If the state’s research is any indication, mandatory divorce education for parents is a surprise hit. In survey questions completed after every class, more than 90 percent of all participants agreed that the course was worthwhile and helped them understand how children are affected by divorce. Most important to Hale, 91 percent of parents said, after taking her class, that they would work harder with their ex-spouses to create a more cooperative environment for their kids.

Hale gets good marks outside the state’s mandatory class, as well. Nan Klein, a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Salt Lake City since 1986, has many clients who’ve been through Hale’s course. “Without fail, everyone has been positive in feeling that her information is something they can relate to,” Klein says. “She’s a very grounded, creative practitioner who’s also a performer. She’s an incredible resource that we’re lucky to have in this state. Some people might say she makes divorce fun, but a better way to say it is that she makes divorce safe. It’s a very unsafe task to be charting a course for, and I think she makes it safe.”

Hale may lay claim to the title of Utah’s high priestess of divorce education, or at least its pre-eminent performance artist, but the credit for the groundwork must go to Elizabeth Hickey.

Hickey’s office sits directly above Hale’s in a converted Sugar House home known as the Mediation and Divorce Center. As colleagues, they’ve embarked on several joint projects. In one sense Hale works for Hickey, who manages the state contract for teaching divorce education classes in Salt Lake and Utah counties. But they’re different in at least two respects. Hickey holds a Master of Social Work, not a Ph.D. And she’s less animated, but every bit as passionate about guiding families through divorce.

Like Hale, though, Hickey started her career in one arena, then moved to another. As a child custody evaluator for the state in the late ’80s, Hickey interviewed hundreds of children in the middle of the divorce process. Almost uniformly, the children’s No. 1 wish was that their parents stop fighting. But in the process of custody evaluation, there was no room for educating divorcing adults about their children’s needs. The process of a custody evaluation required a fair, impartial assembly line.

At the time, all she could do was write about what she saw. “I kept writing and writing because it was so therapeutic,” Hickey says.

Then, in 1991, she inaugurated her Mediation and Divorce Center. Along with a friend, she secured a small state grant. Classes in divorce education, free of charge, opened. All they needed were students. She sent class brochures to family law attorneys and judges. No one bit. A more direct approach was needed, so Hickey went to the courts to access every divorce on file. But because there were no addresses attached to the filings, Hickey had to match up names in the phonebook. Then, hoping for the best, brochures were mailed. “We literally went to the phone book because we had so much passion to help these folks,” Hickey remembers.

Out of 350 mailed brochures, 30 people came to the center’s first free class. “The doors were opening for us. It was wonderful. But the problem was that these were people willing to learn, or who’d already been learning. The ones who really needed the information were the ones who didn’t know they needed it,” Hickey says.

But the center’s classes continued for eight months nonetheless. The chance for a much wider audience arrived in the form of state Sen. Delpha Baird, a strong children’s advocate who, in 1991, chaired a committee to evaluate child custody, visitation and divorce law in Utah. Baird was duly impressed by the Divorce and Mediation Center—so impressed, in fact, that Hickey was invited to committee hearings about the prospect of making the class required for all divorcing parents.

A legislative analyst put the program, and ones similar to it in Georgia and Kansas, under the microscope. There were dogged skeptics, but lawmakers compromised with an 18-month pilot program in Salt Lake City and Provo. Hickey and her team didn’t mind the commute.

“I’m not even going to mention where opposition to the program came from,” Hickey says. “For the first time in my work I was being very proactive and educating people instead of being impartial.”

The key that turned the legislative screw? Utah lawmakers learned, through mounds of academic research, about the damage inflicted on children by warring sides of a divorce. “Professional people in the trenches knew this for a long time,” Hickey says. “The knowledge was there. It’s just that no one ever shouted it from the rooftops.”

The 18 months up, divorce education became mandatory. Utah courts were first in the nation to administer and require the class statewide. Connecticut followed suit. Arizona, Florida and Colorado took Utah’s example as well. In 1992, Utah garnered national attention, winning the Most Significant Legislation of the Year Award.

Sometimes it’s during times of success when people hit a big bump in the road. For Hickey, it was her own impending divorce. Irony of ironies, it was shortly before leaving for one of her own divorce classes that her husband told her he wanted the break. “I stopped at a red light and saw people crossing the street with smiles on their faces. I thought, what could they possibly be smiling about? For me, happiness seemed so far away.”

It’s at times like these that counselors find themselves painted in a corner. Sometimes, the hardest advice to take is your own. Hickey admits that at times she wanted the revenge of turning her daughter against her father. “In the early stages, the temptation to say bad things is so bad, because you’ve been hurt so deeply, but if you can get through that phase, the better your chances are,” she says. “We have degrees that get us this contract to teach classes for the state, but we make a more meaningful connection with our audience through experience.”

Don’t think the state’s how-to class on proper divorce is a blight on marriage. One of the most important messages of the class is that divorce is no panacea. Hale drives her point home by listing off the three most stressful events that could visit a person’s life. No. 1 is the death of a child. No. 2 is a divorce. Curiously, the death of a spouse falls at No. 3.

“Right now you can just about understand why the death of your spouse would be a lot better than divorce,” Hale tells her class. “That’s because dead people, unless you happen to be Elvis, don’t have an attorney.”

The room erupts with more laughter of the damned. But the point she’s made is disturbingly true. The death of a spouse is final. A living divorced one can haunt you again and again. Parents file for divorce thinking they can walk away from the problems that brought it on, only to find that they must confront those same problems every time they pick up the children for a visit. Like Hale said at the beginning of her class, “No one gets out of here alive.”

While there are no solid numbers, both Hale and Hickey note that the divorce class persuades some people to save their marriages instead of abandon them. If divorce involves as much effort as marriage, the difference can be minimal.

Klein calls it the great paradox of the divorced parent. “You’re actually asking people to do something when they’re divorced that they probably had a problem doing when they were married,” Klein says. “I think that’s fair because it forces people to do something new, and I wouldn’t be in this profession if I didn’t think people could change.”

Neither would Hale. Charging out of the Matheson Courthouse and down the elevator to the garage where her Volvo’s parked, she rifles through her anonymous student evaluations. There’s only one complaint. Someone didn’t like her ringing endorsement of Prozac.

“Oh well,” she shrugs. “I know I got some points across. I just know I did.”

Driving out of the parking lot with a Steely Dan tape as a soundtrack, her conversation branches out into at least seven different topics. And those branch out into several more. It’s bracing, if you can hold on for the ride.

There’s a stop at her office for a quick turn at SIMS, the computer game that lets you write the script for imaginary computer-generated people. On one office wall hangs a portrait of Pygmalion hugging Galatea. The fable, which recounts how Pygmalion loved his sculpture Galatea so much it was eventually brought to life, is charged with meaning. For Hale, it’s about the possibility of change through care and nurture. People are the same as flowers. Both bloom under the right conditions.

The exact same portrait also hangs above the fireplace in her house. Even at home, Hale likes to see a response to her actions. Even if it’s getting her vastly overweight cat to roll over for a bit of cheese. The cat hesitates, but Hale persists, and persists, and persists, and persists. Finally, the fat cat rolls. A critical eye could say there’s something just a tad bit manipulative about this woman of bounteous energy and one-liners. Isn’t she really just a professional busybody of some sort?

“It’s true. I have a hard time letting well enough alone. At the same time I have this quest to make things easier,” she offers. “But everyone has to wonder what kind of difference they can make. Maybe I can change things one drop at a time. Maybe it all ricochets down. Kids of divorce will see their parents act differently, then those kids will grow up to be different kinds of parents, and on and on into generations. Then maybe there won’t be a need for anyone like me. My job would be obsolete. That would be great, wouldn’t it?”

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