When you’re having a problem, isn’t it a comfort to talk to someone who has “been there, done that”? Healing from the trauma of divorce and separation in isolation is extremely difficult, and may even be hazardous to your health. There’s something comforting about being with others who understand the painful process and lifestyle alterations of divorce: lots of heads nodding in agreement while you talk of your suffering and your accomplishments can be very healing indeed. According to research, one of the many benefits a group can offer is a boost to the immune system! Some groups not only offer support but also help fight for their members’ rights and advocate for social and political change. And, in helping others, you will find yourself moving a little more quickly in the healing process. Groups — large and small, professionally operated or member-run — can provide not only understanding and support, but an exchange of useful, pragmatic information.
If your previous circle of mutual friends is no longer available to you, you may have to make your way alone in an unfamiliar world, and this can be a frightening experience. This is where a group of “fellow travelers” can be helpful. But how do you know what kind of group is right for you?
Some things to consider
- Therapy or Support Groups: A therapy group is run by a professional therapist. You will be charged a fee and there are attendance requirements. A support group is usually led by a community volunteer or church leader, or it may be facilitated by a professional. Many of these support groups are free and have an open attendance policy.
- Size: some groups are so large they may feel intimidating and you may not get the attention you need. On the other hand, you may like the anonymity of being part of a crowd.
- Men only, women only, or mixed: A coed group can be an opportunity to work on male/female relationships in a safe, controlled environment. A group consisting of women only will help women develop supportive female relationships; and a group of all men will help men safely express their feelings without too much embarrassment.
- Location: In the hectic balancing act of jobs and children, during and after divorce, it can be helpful to attend a group relatively close to home.
- Frequency: Some groups meet once a week, others once a month. Choose one that will meet your needs (if you’re in the early stages or a difficult patch, you may want to attend a group that meets more often than once a month).
- Philosophy: Is there a religious orientation? Twelve-step approach? Is it open to the public?
- Commitment: Some groups require a commitment of ten weeks, or three months, or some other time period. Others are open-ended, meaning you can attend every week for years, only requiring a two-week notice to the group before you quit.
Finding the right group for you will be easier if you pay attention to your intuition and your gut level feelings. Keep trying until you find the right fit. The following exercise should help you decide which group is best for you. The first time you go to a divorce support or therapy group, take a pencil and paper with you. Either during or immediately after, jot down words that describe how you’re feeling (e.g., tense or relaxed, unheard or validated, ignored or welcomed, shamed or accepted, etc.). Now do this again the second time you go, and once more on the third. Are you still feeling the same as you did the first time and second time?
If your experience is mostly positive, continue with the group. But if you notice you have written mostly about uncomfortable feelings, then it may not be the group for you. Keep looking until you find a fit. Remember: a group is meant to be a supportive learning environment. In your analysis, take into account however, that you will not feel uplifted each time you go. Grieving and the divorce recovery process takes time.
Suggestions for after you begin
- Arrive on time! Nothing is more disruptive to a group process than late-comers.
- When you’re wounded and your self-esteem is low, another hurdle you face is allowing the group the opportunity to “give” to you. Work on believing you have earned the right to receive good things from other people.
- Respect each others’ privacy — don’t talk about group members outside the confines of the group.
- Think about the friends in your life and you’ll see that with time the level and depth of their friendship was revealed — the same goes for a group experience. Notice how their words and actions match. If you begin to see an old pattern that has not served you in relationships, ask the group for feedback.
The group experience
Ellen was in the initial stage of her divorce and came to me for advice. She and her husband were living separately, and she felt she had no friends in the community. Her sense of isolation was overwhelming, and she had sought medication for the anxiety she was experiencing. She was being represented by a friend of the family — a criminal attorney, instead of a matrimonial attorney — who was inadvertently creating even more anxiety for her. I suggested she attend a support group and there she found immediate acceptance and validation. She was literally lifted to a higher, more positive place in just one session! Ellen is now attending the group regularly and is feeling much less “crazy” and more in control of the divorce process. With the group’s support, she asked her attorney to slow down, got the name of a matrimonial attorney she could consult, found out she needed more information before signing final papers, and allowed the group to give her feedback concerning her financial worries. Ellen ultimately ended up with a satisfying divorce settlement, and no longer needed her medication. Men have a tendency to “tough it out” rather than seek support. But when they do reach out, they often find a strong bond with others in the group and a safe place to express feelings. Ken expressed great relief when he spoke with tears in his eyes saying, “I thought I was the only guy in the whole state whose heart was being ripped out every time the kids had to be dropped off at their mother’s on Sunday nights.”
When you commit to a divorce support or therapy group, you “take the members with you” in spirit when you go into difficult situations. You’re never really alone. And sometimes, members will physically accompany you if you need and ask for some extra help. Recently, Maureen (one of my group members) had to go for a custody hearing and told the group that she was scared. Shelly, another group member, volunteered to accompany her to the court and wait for her while the hearing was taking place.
If you can’t find a group in your area, you may want to start one. Talk to your local library about using their community room for meetings. Talk to a minister, priest, or rabbi in your community to see if they’d be willing to lead one if you were to act as the contact person. Being proactive about starting a group can help you to feel more in control of your life, which is important in these uncertain times.
Your group may need some written resources. Two workbooks I’ve found extremely useful are, Surviving, Healing & Growing: The How to Survive the Loss of a Love Workbook by Colgrove, Bloomfield & McWilliams (Prelude Press, 1991) or the Divorce Decisions Workbook by Margorie L. Engel & Diana D. Gould (McGraw-Hill, 1992) to help you with the “homework” of divorce. Your group may want to set aside a meeting to watch John Bradshaw’s videotape “Surviving Divorce” (Sagebrush Productions, PO Box 6077, Santa Fe, NM 87502). If you’re interested in a very effective, twelve-step approach to divorce recovery, take a look at a new book by Micki McWade entitled Getting Up, Getting Over, Getting On (Champion Press, 1999).
These “groups” can be a less intimidating way to start getting the support you need. There are many such support groups on the internet. I checked out several of the interactive kind called “chat rooms” and interviewed participants about what benefits they got from the experience. One said he liked the anonymity. Another said, “I make friends and it helps with the long, lonely hours.”
When I was in the chat room, however, I found the pace of conversation too fast for me. Several people were “speaking” at the same time and it seemed like a jumble of voices. It certainly didn’t feel very supportive, and I didn’t feel heard at all — but, each to his own. I think it’s important to see people, hear their voices, receive and give hugs, and be validated by one-on-one eye-contact — and all of this is missing in the online chat rooms. I also felt uneasy because I had no idea who I was talking with: although the chat room was advertised “for divorced persons only,” the participants might still be married, never married, or for that matter they could be children disguised as adults! I’m not saying you shouldn’t explore this possibility for support — just be cautious.
Solitude is as important as a group experience at this time. In solitude comes the opportunity (if we’re not afraid) to slow down, to reflect, to gain a deeper inner vision of ourselves, our responsibilities, and our needs. However, if we spend too much time alone, we risk believing our inner voices; the ones that beat upon us. A group offers the opportunity to check out what we “learned” in solitude, and to find out if what we’ve been telling ourselves is true.
One of the best ways to affirm you are growing and recovering is to hear your support group assure you of “how far you’ve come.” In the group you will meet others who are “back where you once were” in the journey, or ahead of you in their healing; some who are ready to begin new relationships, and others who are just beginning the recovery process. Wherever they are, you’ll find many common threads as you share your divorce experience with them.
Pamela D. Blair is a psychotherapist in Hawthorne, NY. She specializes in divorce, marriage, and grief counseling; offers support groups; and publishes a newsletter entitled “Surviving Divorce.”