Balancing Act: Mandatory ‘Divorce Class’ Is Divorced From Reality

By Heidi Stevens
Chicago Tribune.

I wish I had higher hopes for the mandatory class Oklahoma is now requiring couples to take before the state will grant them a divorce.

On the one hand: “The program will cover resources available for families on subjects that include substance abuse, addiction, family violence, behavioral health, individual and couples counseling and financial planning,” according to a Tulsa World newspaper report.

On the other hand: “(Republican representative Jason) Nelson said broken homes have an impact on social services, the prison population and the school system. As a result, divorce affects all taxpayers.” (Same report.)

Gov. Mary Fallin signed a bill last week, sponsored by Nelson and Republican senator Rob Standridge, requiring married couples with children under 18 who seek a divorce based on incompatibility to pay for and complete the program.

“It seems like a small thing to ask people to do, to take a course, when the challenges that come from divorce are so permanent,” Nelson told Tulsa World.

Seriously, I can hear advocates saying. What’s one class?

One class is one more example of the stigma we attach to kids of divorce as sad, broken future prison inmates.
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One class is one more example of a culture so obsessed with “traditional family” that it often forgets to talk about the children who thrive with one parent or gay parents or four parents.

One class is one misguided attempt to talk adults out of a decision they most likely arrived at after countless hours (sometimes years) of soul searching and hand-wringing and researching and counseling.

People whose marriages are dissolving don’t need a stranger hired by the state to pretend to know what’s best for them or their children. They need guidance and resources and some plain old empathy. I doubt a class designed on behalf of “the taxpayers” is going to offer any of the above.

My kids were 2 and 6 when my ex-husband and I divorced. They are now happy, healthy 4- and 8-year-olds who perform well in school and surround themselves with good pals and talk candidly about their feelings and feel cherished and adored by all members of their non-traditional family.

You can show me statistics about what they’re more at risk for because their dad and I are no longer married, and I will remain unconvinced that we did the wrong thing by splitting.

Holding my certificate of divorce hostage until I completed the marital version of traffic school would also not have changed my mind.

“If you are going through the whole divorce process and have kids, if we can do anything to keep people together, we should,” Standridge told Reuters. “Marriage is a lifelong contract with the state and with your children.”

If states want to help families work through the difficult challenges of divorce, they should offer classes that promise to demystify the process, guide parents to helpful programs and yes, speak candidly about the very real hardships. They should make those classes optional.

What they shouldn’t do is introduce the classes as a punitive, defensive maneuver aimed at protecting our schools and prisons from broken-home delinquents, while simultaneously implying divorcing parents are breaking a promise to their children.

Parenthood is a lifelong contract with your children. Marriage is not.

The whole thing strikes me as one state’s attempt to kick parents while they’re down, even as it pretends to lift them up. I hope it’s not the beginning of a trend.

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