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 process.

  • 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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