Licensed Marriage &
405 Chinn Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95404
Santa Rosa: 707-526-4353
Separation/Divorce Support Group for Women
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The Role of Support Groups in Divorce Recovery
Shonnie Brown, MFT
Some Divorce Facts
The family structure in our culture has changed dramatically in the past few
decades and our ideal of the "nuclear" family living together in one home is no longer a reality
for most people. In California 60% of marriages now end in divorce; 50% nationwide. Five million
women raise children alone with greatly reduced income. One million children are affected by
divorce each year. Although divorce is extremely common, when it's your divorce, you are likely to
feel isolated and stigmatized. This major life loss greatly affects people emotionally and
financially, with radical changes in lifestyle and sense of identity. When property settlements
and children are involved, the emotional stakes are higher and the issues are particularly
charged. Divorce is rarely an easy transition for anyone.
What is "Normal" During Divorce?
- It is normal to feel a full range of intense feelings such as despair, rage, terror,
helplessness, dependency, fear of being alone, thoughts of ending your life. It's also normal to
experience emotional numbness and wonder why you're not feeling anything.
- It is normal to feel that trust is lost and that you will never trust again.
- It is common for one partner to leave suddenly, without explanation or closure, and for the
other to feel abandoned and left with many unanswered questions.
- It's a common pattern for the leaving partner to launch another relationship without any
processing or closing of the old one.
- It's normal to feel continued loyalty towards a partner who has left and no longer loves you
and/or to have strongly conflictual feelings regarding the other for some long period of time;
i.e. "I despise this person but still care for him and miss him every day".
- It's common for one person to have a secret plan to leave for some while and for the partner
to feel rushed through the divorce, settlement and custody process while still in shock.
- It's normal to project your feelings onto your children, become a "superparent" out of guilt
or confide in your children inappropriately without respect for their individual grief
- It's normal to feel completely overwhelmed, unable to navigate your life alone.
Are Some Responses More Common of Women than of Men and Vice-versa?
In my experience women more often feel a need to maintain some form of the
relationship and have a more difficult time letting go of their role as a partner's "caretaker".
Generally, women are more invested in believing that "something continues forever" and hold on to
an illusion of connection. The day to day contact of partnership is so valuable to women that they
will often sacrifice a lot for a little and feel very lost without that connection. Women also
tend to want to protect a divorcing partner from experiencing their own pain, anger and grief.
Men who are left often experience extensive self-blame and remorse. "I should have listened more.
I should have seen this coming. It's all my fault." Men, in particular, may feel an excruciating
bottoming out of self-esteem when left for someone else. It is a strong insult to a man's
self-image to be rejected for another, and men will often turn to other women as friends or sexual
partners to soften the injury.
Abandoned women and men want desperately to understand what their part in the divorce was. A
common response is: "I want to see some logic, something that makes sense. If I can understand,
maybe I can forgive". Unfortunately, abandoned partners are often left with no understanding, no
concrete explanation for the other's decision to leave.
Why a Support Group?
For many divorcing people the very foundation of life has been shattered, leaving them with
feelings of anxiety, grief, betrayal, guilt, rejection, and injured self-esteem. Most of the
people I see describe a "roller coaster ride" of powerful emotions. They believe that friends are
tired of their story and they're reluctant to "wear them out" with the details again and again.
What they want and need is to be with others who understand their unique experience and are able
to validate the intensity and the range of feelings. People want to know that they are "normal" at
a time that they feel "crazy". A supportive therapy group can be the ideal format as it includes
people at all places in the separation/divorce continuum who can not only normalize and validate
each other but actually share information and experience while navigating the transition.
What Issues do People Bring to the Group?
Many people contact me because they feel betrayed, either overtly or at a more subtle level. One
partner's choice to break or dissolve the marriage vows is experienced as betrayal by the other.
Sudden leaving, an affair or a long held "secret" deepens the sense of betrayal.
People also come because they feel ambivalent. One no longer loves the partner, may even feel
abused, but is afraid to separate for fear of being alone. One partner wants to date others yet
desires to stay married. They both want to continue residing together, often out of familiarity or
fear, but are living separate lives and have sunken into an abyss of painful silence and unspoken
rage. Many others call because they were left suddenly, without any closure. They feel derailed
emotionally and want to have closure which may not involve the former partner. There are many ways
a group can assist with this process.
Most clients tell me that they need a safe, consistent place to be able to talk about their
experience without feeling judged or burdening of others. It is common to feel that you are
wearing your friendships thin by "burdening" friends with your despairing feelings and your
divorce story. In truth, telling your story over and over is a normal response to shock and an
attempt to heal from the loss. You need to talk in order to move through the shock and integrate
the seemingly unendurable feelings of pain.
My Approach to Group Therapy and What the Group Looks Like
Every group is unique depending on the personalities and the issues of the members. My primary
objective is to support people's sense of safety as they expose their vulnerabilities and loss of
trust through the divorce process. Therefore, I make every attempt to place people together that I
can imagine working with each other. A wide variety of experiences may be useful in assisting
members in seeing the other point of view or seeing the "light at the end of the tunnel". Yet,
similar experiences may be supportive in the members' feeling a commonality of experience. People
of different ages, length of marriage, etc. have much to learn from each other.
My job as a facilitator includes the following:
- Supporting each member in defining individual goals and working towards them as a participant
of a cohesive group.
- Facilitating individual sharing and feedback and appropriate use of time
- Normalizing and validating the enormity of members' feelings and assisting them in managing
feelings and working through relevant issues
- Promoting giving and receiving of support and education between members
- Supporting members in moving through the many milestones and stages of the divorce process,
encouraging empowerment and risk taking for new experiences
- Helping members locate resources and build individual support systems beyond the group
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