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Learning to cope with divorce in an unlikely place

January 22, 1987|MICHELE L. NORRIS

A church may seem like a strange place to talk about ending marriages, since most of them begin in one. But more than 500 people crowded into the Rolling Hills Covenant Church last weekend to do just that.

The free seminar, sponsored by the Los Angeles Superior Court, the South Bay and Long Beach bar associations and several community agencies, was designed to help spouses and family counselors better understand the legal, emotional and social aspects of divorce.

A panel composed of judges, marriage counselors, sociologists and professors sat at the very spot where clergymen officiate weddings and offered advice for those whose marriages didn't last until death did them part.

"The very idea that so many people would come to a church, of all places, to talk openly and candidly about their divorces is a testament to how many marriages are falling apart these days," said Margaret Chopin, an El Segundo resident who attended the seminar and is going through a divorce.

"This would never happen a few years ago. I remember a time when no one dared utter the word divorce in public."

But times have changed and divorce is no longer a taboo subject, primarily because it is so commonplace. The federal government estimates that one in three married adults have experienced a divorce, including President Ronald Reagan--the first president who has been divorced. By 1990, the projection is that half of all marriages will end in divorce.

Already in California, there are as many divorces as marriages, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Superior Court said.

The growing number of divorce cases has created a cottage industry of family counseling services, self-help books and seminars like the one held last weekend to help spouses get through what counselors and sociologists sometimes refer to as "The Big D."

Panelists advised parents to avoid asking children to take sides in the divorce, refrain from bad-mouthing each other in front of children and to maintain a sense of humor.

They also advised the audience to join support groups and read up on the subject. "Part of the trauma of a divorce is the fear of the unknown, of not knowing what is going to happen to us," said Donald Westerland, executive director of Family Service of Long Beach. Such books, as well as videotapes and other sources tell what to ask and expect of lawyers, counselors and the courts.

But there's no such thing as "divorce made easy," many experts say.

"The fact that it is more socially acceptable cannot abate the hurt and anger that people feel when they go through a divorce," said Commissioner Abraham Gorenfeld, judge pro tem in the Torrance Superior Court.

"They may not experience the stigma in society, but that doesn't necessarily help ease their pain. There is no way around it. Divorce is a very painful experience."

And that pain was evident on Saturday as many members of the audience laughed and cried along with panelists who described the comedies and tragedies of divorce.

Many of the panelists had to choke back tears when describing their own custody battles and extended goodbys.

Ciji Ware, life style editor of KABC radio and television and author of "Sharing Parenthood After Divorce," provided a poignant account of her custody battle for her son Jamie, who almost had to have an abscessed leg amputated while the couple was going through lengthy divorce proceedings.

The panelists agreed that custody disputes cause the most trauma in a divorce. However, judges and other court officials who attended the conference, said the increasing reliance on joint custody is helping to diffuse much of the bitterness.

"If there is any advice I can give to parents it is to realize that you don't stop being parents when you stop being married. I realized that my son did not have to go through a meat grinder just because my former husband and I could not make it," she said, as several members of the audience wiped away tears.

The audience represented a cross section of society, with almost equal numbers of men and women filling the pews in the spacious church.

"I came here half expecting to see a lot of people who looked and felt just like me," a middle-aged woman said. "But people here are from almost every age and income group. I guess divorce is an equal-opportunity home-wrecker." She declined to be named because she had not yet revealed her plans to divorce her husband.

Most of the participants were from the South Bay and Long Beach areas but some came from as far away as Orange and Riverside counties. Most of the people who attended raised their hands when asked if they found the seminar helpful.

"This sort of thing is really a big help when you are moping around thinking that you are the only person whose life has been devastated by a divorce," said Jeff Nienberg of Redondo Beach. "It helps to see people who have survived the ordeal. It gives the rest of us some hope that we are going to get through this and we are going to be OK after all."

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