Inside the Drama of 'Divorce Court'

Husbands and wives square-off in emotional, drama-filled divorce battles.

April 12, 2010, 5:10 PM

April 12, 2010— -- From Tiger Woods to Sandra Bullock, the emotions of high-profile marital heartbreak have long been splashed across the covers of tabloids.

And when it comes to high-profile divorces, like Paul McCartney and Heather Mills' $50 million bust-up to Madonna and Guy Ritchie's $75 million split, it's the stuff that broken dreams are made of -- houses, property and megabucks.

Last week, Jamie McCourt asked that her soon-to-be ex-husband, Dodger owner Frank McCourt, pay her $1 million a month for expenses.

Perhaps you've heard it said that love is like Velcro; lovers come together quietly and part noisily. Nowhere does that seem more true than on the Los Angeles set of "Divorce Court," the longest-running court series on TV.

Watch the story on "Nightline" tonight at 11:35 p.m. ET

Judge Lynn Toler, who became the show's host in 2006, is a real judge, but "Divorce Court" is not a real court. Legally, only the state can grant divorces, but couples who have filed for divorce come to argue about the division of property or money and -- according to Toler -- vent feelings that have gone unacknowledged for too long.

"We talk to people who are upset, and what the divorce system does these days, it doesn't allow anybody the emotional period on the marriage sentence," she said. "Here we give people the opportunity to be heard. Then I decide who gets Fluffy the dog."

For many couples, property is at the center of the divorce battle.

"I think that property is very important in this day and age," said Helen Fisher, a professor of anthropology and human behavior researcher at Rutgers University. "It defines you; you worked hard to get it. It's meaningful to you, and when you divorce, a lot of people have a lot of battles over their property for good reasons."

What typically happens during the half-hour program is a reality-show spectacle of middle-class misbehavior -- elevated by Toler's insights. The Internet, she said, seems to have exacerbated divorce.

"I don't have any statistics on it. I haven't done a study, but from what I see in here it's a mess," Toler said. "Before when you wanted to cheat, you had to go out and meet the person, and now on the Internet you have millions of people on your disposal that could walk into your life...And this is what kills me, they meet on line and then she gets on a plane to go see him...and they get married. And they got kids and she's wondering why it didn't work out."

Formula for Longest-Running Court Show

With below-brow details of sundered relationships and crowd-pleasing zingers from Toler, the "Divorce Court" of today is quite different from the version that aired in the 1960s. That program featured actors performing scripted dialogue and used an in-court reporter -- also an actor -- to give off a whiff of "truth." The latest incarnation of the program has been on the air since 1999.

"We can tape eight cases in a day and 24 cases in a week," said executive producer Mark Koberg. "And we can bank an entire season in about four and a half months."

After more than 2,000 episodes, there's no shortage of showbiz. Those who've heard Toler's advice include disgraced evangelist Ted Haggard and his wife, who appeared on the show in April 2009, and Mr. and Mrs. Gary Coleman, who came on in May 2008.

"I think [Gary Coleman's] very smart, emotionally damaged. His wife [Shannon Price] was very young. She didn't know how to deal with him... and I tried to give him some ways to handle his own emotional situation," Toler said.

Why do people tune in to watch divorcing couples so much? Koberg said it's because it's voyeuristic.

"I think people really like to see how these people are acting crazy and acting outrageous and silly and the funny things they do," he said. "And I think they want to be informed and take away lessons from what the judge tells them."

Toler said the show offers couples something of value.

"I provide them with some emotional resolution. The legal system is not designed to say to one person, 'I'm sorry you've been hurt,' and say to the other person, 'You were a bad person for hurting her like that,' and you get that in 'Divorce Court.'"

To stay out of the courtroom -- whether it be staged for TV or otherwise -- you can take the judge's advice.

"You should stay one step ahead of your emotions," Toler recommends. "People say, 'I can't change how I feel about situations.' Yes, you can. You really wanted that donut ...but if I put a gun to your head, you'd put it down...because people act more on how they feel than how they think. And if you act on how you feel, you are doing a lot of things that are counterproductive to the marriage."

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