Healing and Recovery in a Divorce Support Group: Part One
by Shonnie Brown, MFT

Divorce recovery is often a lengthy and complex process because this type of loss, often accompanied by a betrayal, unhinges the very foundation of one's support. According to well known divorce recovery coach Jerald Young, Ph.D., "Time alone does not guarantee a smooth recovery from divorce... but barriers to transition must be removed and a new foundation laid." Divorce recovery expert Shelley Stile notes that because divorcing people feel so "adrift in a foreign land," they often begin doubting their decision. And renowned divorce therapist Bruce Fisher uses a 19-step rebuilding process to help divorcing people overcome denial, grieve their loss and eventually turn divorce into a creative growth experience.

I agree that divorce is frightening, painful and ultimately transformative. There is often great unconscious resistance (internal barriers) to moving on and responsibly creating a new life alone. And "divorce land", even with its overwhelmingly large number of inhabitants, is definitely a foreign land. Here are a few examples of clients who are navigating through this messy terrain within my divorce support group:

Paula, an anxious young woman, feels desperately alone. Her husband didn't come home from work one day last week. After several hours of rumination on worst case scenarios, she drove to his office and found him with another woman. Upon confrontation, he denied everything and accused her of "prying into his business." It wasn't until Paula found text messages and e-mails to "Sylvia" that he finally admitted lying. Now, he doesn't know what he wants and has moved out in order to "find himself."

Through her tears, Shelley tells us that her husband has been having an affair for the past six months. He no longer wears his wedding ring. They are still living together but he often stays out all night. She is simply a wreck and doesn't know who else to turn to.

Allison's husband has a history of alcohol use, marijuana addiction and failed businesses. For years she has felt responsible not only for the household and finances, but for raising their three kids while working full time. Recently she caught her husband lying about important financial matters. She is terrified of a future as a single mom but is tired of being a parent and not a partner.

And Janet reports experiencing the familiar "roller coaster ride" of emotions that comes with the territory. After 30 years of marriage, she recently attended a codependency workshop with her sister. She now identifies herself as being an enabler to a husband who she considers an "emotionally abusive alcoholic." When she thinks of leaving him, she feels panic. Everything that she thought was secure is now in question.

What we do in group...
My primary job is to facilitate the work that I know these women must do in order to grow or "recover" from this injury. I recognize that they are in pain, feeling seemingly insurmountable loss of structure and normalcy. My job is to create safety, offer hope and validation while the women tell their stories and seek comfort in one another's company.

What makes divorce support groups work is the solace and strength that comes from knowing you're not alone. Divorce was not supposed to happen. When it does, one normally feels completely adrift. But in a group of women (or men), hope for a new beginning is reinforced. The most optimistic person in the room often takes the lead because people want so badly to believe that things will improve.

Participants need to tell their stories and to know that they are "normal" at a time that they feel "crazy". A divorce support group can be the ideal format as it includes people at different places in the separation/divorce continuum who can validate each other and share information and experience while navigating the transition.

The issues...
In previous articles I have discussed the issues that we work with--betrayal, loss of trust, addiction/codependency, abuse and ambivalence. But at the foundation is always the fundamental question: Can I make it alone? So much of what keeps people in unhappy relationships stems from the fear of being alone with one's feelings without the "other" as an anchor.

Here is a list of the most basic issues that are triggered for divorcing people:

1. Grief and loss: The loss of one's partner (despite the real strength of the bond) is often experienced as a death in every sense of the word. The death of the illusion, the ideal, the family and the structure of one's life. It is much, much more than the sum of its parts.

2. Betrayal and loss of trust: Since basic trust is at the foundation of healthy development, to lose trust with one's most significant person or "attachment object" may fracture one's very understructure. Discovering a history of secrets and lies in the relationship further unhinges one from their anchor.

3. Abandonment: Loss and betrayal trigger feelings of abandonment. If one already has abandonment issues, the sense of self without the other is truly fragile.

4. Confronting one's role in the "mutual collusion of denial": This is the process of examining the relationship history and seeing how both partners didn't talk about disappointments and differences along the way. This is the unspoken mutual agreement that we "just don't talk about those things."

5. Panic/deep depression/suicidality: These are the symptoms of all of the above.

The loss of one's partner triggers the most primitive of all feelings. One's very anchor to the earth may be experienced as gone, resulting in an intense free floating panic. These feelings are especially profound when one has a poor or undeveloped sense of self to begin with.

Healing and recovery:
In Part Two of this article (next newsletter) we will examine these issues more fully and discuss how the issues are worked on in the group. Meanwhile, I wish to offer some book resources that have been helpful to my clients:

Emotional Infidelity: How to Affair-Proof your Marriage
and Ten Other Secrets to a Great Relationship

by M. Gary Neuman

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times
by Pema Chodron
(many of her books are useful and appropriate)

Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love
by Dr. Sue Johnson

Rebuilding: When Your Relationship Ends
by Bruce Fisher

The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships
by John Gottman

The Divorce Recovery Journal
by Linda C. Senn and M.A. Mary Stuart

For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered
by E. Mavis Hetherington and John Kelly

©2005-2015 Shonnie Brown, Chinn Street Counseling Center; all rights reserved.