Divorce education building bridges of friendship

by MADISON MURPHY

Belinda Hartranft, a shopaholic and soccer mom, divorced her husband after 10 years of marriage. The decision to divorce came quickly after Hartranft discovered her husband had been cheating on her.

Alma Perez, their paralegal through Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake, admitted that although Hartranft’s case was alarming, it was the most speedy and successful divorce she ever processed.

Generally, divorce is not a pleasant experience. It can include separation, conflict and bitterness. Hartranft used her divorce to build a stronger bridge between her ex-husband and children.

Fifty percent of the nation’s marriages result in divorce, according to Jim Stringham, a therapist of 15 years.

According to “Common Ground,” Utah’s official newsletter for divorcing couples, the parties involved make separation more difficult than it needs to be. “[They] feel like they have to compete with each other… like there is a battle to be won,” the newsletter notes.

How then, can two people avoid a battle and instead benefit from a divorce?

LAS offers clients a divorce education course before they separate. Through the course, clients can learn how separation can strengthen relationships, rather than taint them.

“Divorce education courses discuss how [the divorce] will affect the children … as well as the steps taken during their divorce so that they know what is actually going to happen,” Perez said.

Divorce education courses and mediation are required by law. David Musselman, a mediator from the Divorce Mediation Institute of Utah, said mediation is a way that people can resolve their disputes without going to court. It helps the couples negotiate better and learn how to modify their behaviors. “It costs less, it saves a lot of time and it helps the couple to reach a conclusion without a judge,” Musselman said.

After the course, Perez said Hartranft’s divorce took just three months to complete, giving their relationship a firmer foundation for friendship.

“It made me see things differently,” Hartranft said. “I realized how important it was to let things go instead of continuously fighting. Divorce was just the better thing to do, and now we can have a good friendship.”

Musselman mentioned that mediation has a 90 percent rate of effective cases. That may be an outstanding result, but what about the other 10 percent? Is divorce the only solution a couple can come up with?

Like Belinda Hartranft, Edye Wagstaff felt her only solution was divorce. After five years of counseling, Wagstaff and her husband decided to divorce. “From the very beginning we were in therapy through religious leaders and psychologists … it never helped,” Wagstaff said.

She and her husband were both stubborn. If they hadn’t separated, they never would have considered their big issue to be a small and simple one. “It gave us an opportunity to step outside and look at our relationship with a different perspective,” Wagstaff said.

Wagstaff said she feels therapy works only if both people are going to be honest with themselves. “They need to be willing to respect the responsibilities of their own weaknesses,” she said.

Wagstaff and her husband happily remarried after two years of separation.

Therapist Jim Stringham handles about 45 sessions a week, a third being couples. He knows from experience that therapy, mediation, or divorce education courses can never promote happiness unless both parties are willing to change.

If the couple cannot sort things out, Stringham often splits them up to do individual sessions. He has learned that it is important for a person to work on their problems separately before trying to work them out as a couple. “If there is not enough commitment … it doesn’t work,” he said.

Wagstaff and Hartranft consider themselves lucky. Their divorces were definitely painful at first, but in the long run it was for the best.

“It was probably the weirdest divorce,” Wagstaff said. “But it saved our marriage…. Everything became so healthy. We learned that we could trust each other in every aspect of our lives.”

Hartranft said not only do her children spend time with their father regularly, but she also speaks with her ex-husband on the phone almost every night. This journey of separation strengthened their friendship by encouraging them to see what they value most in life.

“I totally recommend those classes to anybody,” Hartranft said. ”It teaches you how to deal with your kids and it gives you options and suggestions. I had to realize he was ready to move on — and I needed to get there too. I am a much better person now than I was, and I have grown to appreciate myself better…. Thank you Alma and all of Legal Aid.”