Breaking up is hard to do
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."
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.
In his time at the courthouse, Coakley says, he began to notice something was missing. "I had begun to look around for what was available in the system. I didn't see anything. These divorces were family problems, and they had to be solved by bringing the family in."
The course he developed, Coakley says, "is not really counseling." He and Joan Hill, a graduate student in psychology he hired to help him, do not evaluate their students. Instead, they train their participants in how to behave.
Coakley has already expanded his course's target population. His original concept was to help divorced couples who return frequently to court. Now he also encourages judges to send him those who are not yet divorced but are having trouble completing their agreements.
"I would like to have people when they get into court right away," Coakley says. "We love to have the newbies sit in with the vets."
His course borrows liberally from self-help literature available at bookstores -- such as Joint Custody With a Jerk: Raising a Child With an Uncooperative Ex by Julie Ross and Judy Corcoran. For the program, Coakley has structured his classes to start with the clips from the movies When Harry Met Sally... and The War of the Roses, the first a cinematic version of true love, the latter, a portrayal of a bitter divorce.
Then the students -- separated at this stage into groups of men and women -- read a story told in the voice of a young adult, the offspring of bitterly divorced parents. The twentysomething daughter tells about her listless life as a beach bum in California and her brother's drug problems. She attributes their troubles to divorced parents who were too busy squabbling to pay attention to their kids.
Coakley asks his students to write two good-bye letters as homework for that first class, one to their relationship and another to their former family unit.
Coakley has designed the exercises and others that follow to lead to the climax of the course, which takes place in the sixth session: a face-to-face meeting between former spouses.
At that confrontation, the couple is in the room with Coakley or Hill. Before students go in, Coakley and Hill instruct them to sign a pledge promising to address their estranged husband or wife only when the "session facilitator," usually Hill, requests them to do so. Hill says she lays down the law right before the session starts in earnest.
"I spend the first 15 minutes telling them how to behave," she says. "The purpose of this is to practice emotional neutrality." That means no eye-rolling, moaning, or grimacing. To keep the couples in line, she says, "I tell them, 'We'll talk to the lawyers and the judge if we need to.'"
Once they've agreed to the terms, the men and women read each other a list of three "requests for action" they would like to make of their partner. Each partner is then required to write down his or her ex's requests and read them back without any change in the wording or interpretation in the tone of voice.
One woman, who had lived with a man off and on for some 20 years and was raising their 7-year-old child, recalls that she asked him "to allow our child to call me when he was in his custody, to refrain from drinking when the child was in his care, and to quit filing legal motions." In return, he asked her not to lie about her name when she was being served papers, not to demean his religious faith to the child, and to stop "hiding the baby" when it was his turn for custody.
In the sessions after the face-to-face meetings, Coakley leads the discussions. Coakley talks more and listens less than Hill, students say. "We are not allowed to get personal," Phalen says, "and he talks all the time about himself."
The psychologist, twice divorced, has some first-hand knowledge to share with his students. He and his first wife produced a son and a daughter during 12 years of marriage. Both children are now almost grown, Coakley says. He married his second wife in 1993. The marriage lasted barely a year.
Whatever he may tell his students, he did not want to talk about his marriages for this story. "We were good co-parents," he says. "We didn't have a bitter divorce; let's just leave it at that." He declined to contact his first ex-wife and mother of his children. "Carol didn't agree to be part of this," he says.
But in class, students say, Coakley talks extensively about his first wife. Phalen says that when she was in class with her ex-husband, Coakley went on for such a long time about the woman that Phalen's ex finally passed her a note that said, "I think he still misses her." A nearby student saw the message and leaned over and wrote, "Duh!"
After the one-on-one meeting with their former spouses, the students return for individual and group sessions, now with the men and women together. At this point in the course, the psychologists instruct the students to compose letters for their children, which the parents will read out loud to the kids together.
The 10th class typically involves a family session. The parents read to their children a co-parenting pledge, promising to practice healthier, more respectful communications with each other in the future.
Coakley sees his course as a bargain. He says the sessions cost on average $30 an hour -- much less than most counseling, which often starts at $100 an hour. For their money, he says, his students receive more than 100 pages of instruction. Aware that some lawyers suspect his motives -- that he's in it for the profits -- Coakley insists his course is not a big moneymaker, but he wouldn't say how much money it makes.
"This is rewarding work. But it is not easy work," he says.
Although none of the judges the Dallas Observer spoke to for this story had ever sent anyone to jail for not attending Coakley's course, they are serious about disengagement counseling. Typically, judges send couples to Coakley when they have shown up at the courthouse so regularly or so bitterly that the judges have lost patience and, more significantly, fear for the welfare of the couples' children.
Sometimes they insist that the parents complete the course before the judges will hear any outstanding motions in their divorce cases.
"I don't order everyone," Judge Miller says, "but I think there is a real need for it."
Coakley estimates that this past year some 160 people attended his 12-week classes and that the vast majority of those came because Dallas judges insisted they do so. Another 20 people, Coakley believes, didn't bother to obey judges' orders and never showed up.
Student Ken Kleinman says Coakley's course was worth the money. "The most valuable thing we have is our kids," he says. Kleinman, an insurance broker and the father of a 7-year-old, split with the mother of his daughter and has married another woman, but he had returned to court over his paternity agreement numerous times. "The game is learning to throw emotions out the window," Kleinman says.
His former partner J.J. Pepper, a showroom manager at the World Trade Center, is equally satisfied with Coakley's course. In court, she says, she has never been able to get a word in edgewise. "I haven't gotten to answer other than 'Yes, sir,' to the judge," she says. "My child has been lost in the shuffle." In Coakley's course, she believes she finally found a place where she can tell Kleinman what she wants for their child.
One mother of a 4-year-old, who attended the program a year ago and agreed to speak if her name was not used, recalls: "My first impression was, it was a real racket. But it really did help." The mother and the father of her child tried to iron out a paternity agreement, but when they came to an impasse, the judge ordered them to go to disengagement counseling.
Since completing the counseling sessions, the estranged couple have only one set of issues to resolve: where their child will go to school and how his education will be paid for. The 40-year-old woman, who works for Neiman Marcus, says the couple now get along so well that they take family vacations together with their son.
She says one benefit of Coakley's course was that she was able to see couples much worse off. "When my ex and I went in, we realized how horrible everyone else was. We thought we weren't so bad after all," she says.
It is Coakley's handling of the "horrible" cases that has drawn him his sharpest criticism. To some, Coakley's course not only takes money from men and women who may be struggling financially, it also exacts too high an emotional cost for its more vulnerable participants.
Paige Flink, the director of The Family Place, a nonprofit organization that provides shelter and other services for battered spouses, says some of her clients, whom she wouldn't name, have been ordered to attend disengagement counseling with their former batterers. She recalls that one woman who had lost part of her hearing from beatings was forced to face her abusive ex-husband one-on-one. Another client, Flink says, was shaking uncontrollably after meeting with her ex. "Anything that puts a victim in contact with their abuser, we have a problem with that," Flink says.
The Family Place's clients often are represented by low-cost lawyers and have not been able to communicate to the judges the harassment they are facing. Since Coakley makes no claim that he assesses the individuals in his program, Flink assumes he is not in a position to identify abuse victims.
About a year ago, Coakley and Hill met with the entire staff of The Family Place to discuss the problem. The psychologists say they have since modified their course to create what they call a "solo track" that doesn't require a meeting between former husbands and wives.
Women who tell Hill by the third or fourth session that they still have no intention of meeting with their spouses -- and that they fear for their physical safety -- are given the option at that point of going "solo."
"We don't tell them at the beginning, but we let them know as the course develops," Hill says.
Coakley concedes that his solution is not airtight. He knows that without really assessing his participants, he doesn't know what abuse has taken place. But he believes that in the big picture his course improves the emotional odds for the children of divorce and that that benefit outweighs any possible risks. "I'm sensitive to what happens to women in a divorce," Coakley says. "I'm crazy regarding what happens to kids."
For Flink and others like Ginger Patrizi -- a lawyer who has represented abused women in divorce cases, among them the wife of a Dallas police officer who was sent to Coakley -- that's not good enough. The women's advocates believe that the emotional and financial costs of Coakley's course are grueling and unnecessary for their victims. "My client had a real tough time...and she didn't need that," Patrizi says.
Some women's advocates consider Judge Dee Miller a traitor because she once overturned a unanimous jury verdict compensating a woman $325,000 for abuse she allegedly received from her husband. Miller commented to a reporter afterward that "most bad marriages have physical pushing and shoving."
Miller also has sent numerous couples to Coakley.
Miller selects couples who have already received their divorce but have returned to court several times to fight over custody issues. She remembers one couple who first came to court when their son was younger than 2. She continued to see them again and again until their son entered the Marines. Each time, she says, it was obvious they were pulling the child apart with their conflicts.
"The idea is, everyone hates each other at the end of the divorce, but some people won't let go of each other," Miller says. "When they go to counseling, they don't come back [to court]."
Maybe so, but no one at the courthouse can verify that claim. No one has yet tracked the participants in Coakley's program to find out what kind of difference it makes.
Coakley says he hopes that soon Dallas court records will be sufficiently computerized and that he can acquire grants to oversee a study to quantify the results of his program. But until he gets hard numbers, he says, he just relies on his instincts as a part-time community college teacher of psychology. "I hope that this can somehow be a meaningful educational experience," he says.
For Cher Lon Phalen and her former husband, who had as bitter a divorce as any pair, Coakley's course may have made a dent -- or maybe not.
They met almost six years ago when the husband worked as a Federal Express courier and delivered a package to Phalen. She is a statuesque, auburn-haired, 31-year-old. He was, she says, a guy with a handsome all-American face and a disposition that gave her the impression "he wanted to give you the world." They married in 1993, conceived a daughter in 1994, and divorced in 1995.
This spring, they returned to court for the third time. Since their divorce, Phalen has befriended her ex-husband's new wife. By doing so, she has seen what she views as his luxurious home in Las Colinas, purchased with the significantly bigger income he earns since becoming a contractor in fresh seafood delivery. She wants to increase the amount of her child-support payments from $475 to at least 20 percent of his monthly income, which she believes would give her at least $200 more.
But before District Judge Frances Harris would even listen to Phalen's motion, she ordered that both attend Coakley's course. Phalen had to shell out $500 for Coakley's course as well as additional attorney costs just to have her request heard.
For Phalen, asking for more child support wasn't just about the money, it was about the principle. Her former husband needs to be hounded, she believes, to get him to pay up. He didn't pay anything, she says, until their divorce was completed and the courts ordered him to. In the meantime, she lived on welfare for the first year of her child's life. When she did get an order from the court, she says, he missed payments.
She has managed to pull her life together. Buying her career clothes from thrift shops, she landed a job selling computer-related equipment and now earns $40,000 annually. But she still wants him to pay his share for the cost of raising his child.
"Being a single mom, you get your own balls, so to speak," Phalen says. "Hey, I am a 5-foot-10-inch redhead with a black belt in karate. I don't mess around."
Her ex-husband laughs when he hears the story Phalen told about him spitefully paying her $900 in back child support in $1 bills and chalks it up to what he calls his ex-wife's habitual lying. "It's a funny story," he says, agreeing to speak only if his name is not published. "It would have been even funnier had it happened." (Phalen insists the events happened. She says he paid his back child support to the court in small bills and in turn the judge gave it to her. Typically, child-support payments are not made directly to the judge.)
Her ex-husband says the charges about him being behind in child support also are exaggerated. "I've never been more than one payment behind," he says. "She doesn't realize how lucky she is. Some women don't get any."
In her 10th week of Coakley's course, Phalen has found the disengagement classes more rewarding than she expected. "It's even helped me with my co-workers," she says.
The course has irritated Phalen's ex, who says he definitely wouldn't go if the court hadn't ordered him to do so. He particularly disliked the class and homework assignments when they had to write good-bye letters to their former relationship. "That was a crock," he says. "I had closure four years ago."
Having almost completed the course, the pair are still bitter. "I don't think things will ever be right between me and her," he says.
But the couple, who have a 4-year-old girl, seem to have made some progress since starting disengagement counseling.
Two weeks ago, Phalen says, her child-support payment check bounced. She called up and asked whether she could redeposit it after he put more money in the bank. She also asked whether she could get the money for the overdraft charges her bank had made.
"The old [ex] would have asked me to send proof of the charges to his lawyer," Phalen says brightly, "but this time he just paid it."
A week later, however, Phalen wasn't so optimistic. Her new child-support check had bounced again. This time, she didn't even bother asking him for the fees, though he made good on them again on his own.
Regardless, she was going back to court.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.