Breaking up is hard to do

Headed for divorce court? Act nice, or the judge will send you to psychologist Barry Coakley, Dallas' official referee for bickering couples.

Cher Lon Phalen, a divorced mother, grimly recalls her first class in a 12-week course at the Coparenting Institute of the Southwest.

On a Wednesday evening three months ago, Phalen and a handful of other divorcées crowded into a claustrophobic conference room on the second floor of a nondescript office building in Farmers Branch. The women, she says, appeared as glum as the setting. Almost none of them wanted to be there.

The brainchild of Dallas psychologist Barry Coakley, the Coparenting Institute offers "disengagement counseling," a pioneering program that attempts to teach estranged couples how to have, if not a happy divorce, at least a civilized one. It consists of three months of weekly group meetings (men on Tuesdays, women on Wednesdays), multiple homework assignments ("relentless and tedious," says one participant), and a handful of family sessions. In his promotional material, Coakley claims his program will help "divorced (or divorcing) couples lessen their conflict, find common ground on their differences, and parent their children in healthy ways."

Peter Calvin
Ken Kleinman would advise his friends getting a divorce to go see psychologist Barry Coakley.
Peter Calvin
Ken Kleinman would advise his friends getting a divorce to go see psychologist Barry Coakley.

Coakley's goals would seem reasonable to most people -- most, that is, except for the bitter, bickering couples who generally wind up in his classes under orders from judges fed up with refereeing endless family feuds.

Only one of Phalen's classmates had volunteered to pay the course's $500 fee, she recalls. The others were there under court order. "The rest of us were asking her, "What are you, out of your mind?'"

Coakley started the program in 1995 when changes in state law permitted judges to order couples who could not agree on child custody issues to seek family counseling. Stricter enforcement of child-support laws has, ironically, fueled the need for Coakley's services. Parents who pay but don't have custody want to have some say-so in their children's lives. "If they are going to pay, they want their rights," Dallas County District Judge Dee Miller says.

However they wind up in Coakley's hands, some participants say the courses have helped them reach truces with their former spouses, in part by pointing out that legal bickering with one's ex wastes money that could be building a college fund for a child.

But some divorce lawyers and women's advocates say Coakley and the judges who order couples to attend the Coparenting Institute may be giving short shrift to serious issues -- chemical abuse and domestic violence, for instance -- underlying some failed marriages.

Coakley's program in most cases involves a face-to-face meeting between estranged husbands and wives. Advocates at The Family Place, a shelter for domestic-abuse victims, say that raises a troubling question: What happens when a battered wife, struggling financially to make it on her own, gets ordered to pay $500 for the privilege of attending Coakley's course with the man who beat her?

Still others question whether a 12-week course can truly change the hearts of bitter men and women still clinging to bad relationships.

"You can spot them as soon as you walk into the courtroom. They are just waiting for an opportunity to see their ex," says Diane Snyder, an 18-year veteran lawyer in the Dallas divorce courts. She and other lawyers say that in some cases Coakley's course is little more than a $500 fine for couples who won't behave. "The courts are looking for an easy way out," Snyder says. "They don't want to deal with these people."

It's easy to understand why family court judges might get exasperated with the quarreling. The court files of cases sent to Coakley overflow with bile. In one, a man sent the court photos of his ex-wife kissing their toddler on the lips -- proof, he said, that the mother was inappropriately affectionate with their child.

Another woman accused her ex-husband of pushing her down a flight of stairs when she was pregnant, a charge he denies. "The police came. They asked me if I pushed her. I said no. They took me to jail," he says.

One man alleged his former spouse showed up at his relative's house and stayed three hours at an engagement party for him and his new fiancée -- even though it wasn't her custody time with their child. "Do you think I wanted her to be there?" he asks sarcastically. His former wife told the court that he had physically assaulted her and that he drinks too much when he has custody of the child.

Barry Coakley is the man who is supposed to set these couples on the right track so they can raise children cooperatively.

Coakley's voice is gravelly. His dress is casual -- blue jeans and a navy blazer. But it's his bright light-blue eyes, set off by salt-and-pepper hair, that you notice most when the 56-year-old psychologist, who holds a doctoral degree from Texas Woman's University, talks about his counseling program.

"I began disengagement therapy before I knew what it was," Coakley says. "My first attempts were a disaster. [The students] were angry. They certainly didn't want to do counseling, and they absolutely didn't want to pay the money."

For the past decade, Coakley has regularly appeared at the Dallas County family courts as an expert witness, testifying about his psychological evaluations of children and adults in cases of suspected physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Coakley has earned a reputation as a vigorous defender of people facing termination of their parental rights.

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