Healing and Recovery in a Divorce Support Group: Part Two|
by Shonnie Brown, MFT
In Part One of this article I outlined the major themes we deal with in a divorce support group through the use of typical case examples. In this article I will focus more on these issues as well as on the resistance and the eventual healing process of group members.
©2005-2019 Shonnie Brown, Chinn Street Counseling; all rights reserved.
We must keep in mind that in the case of a unilateral divorce, one partner's decision to leave is often a traumatic life event for the other. The leaver may have thought about this for years but it often feels to the leavee like the earth below has crumbled to pieces. When a partner just walks out with no warning, the other may be left with a sense of complete despair and hopelessness, without structure or vision for the future.
A new participant, Karen, entered the group in a state of shock. Though it had been a few months since her husband literally walked out the door, this bombshell hadn't really hit yet. She needed to tell her story and, even more, to ask normalizing questions of the other women: "Is it normal to not want to get up in the morning? Is it normal to feel like you don't want to face the future alone? Is it okay to keep asking him why he left?" It was as if Karen needed the group as a touchstone to reality.
People do lose touch with the reality they have known (sometimes for all of their adult lives) and almost every response I see in group is a normal one. I tell people in shock to begin by putting one foot in front of the other and rebuild daily structure and support one day at a time. If you feel suicidal or panicky, you need individual help in getting through the early stages. You will learn more about making choices to take care of yourself on a daily basis.
The loss becomes even more traumatic when there is the added betrayal of infidelity. And there may be additional layers of betrayal: a spouse's infidelity coupled with the "family-in-law" turning their backs as well. Or your partner betraying you with a friend, neighbor or coworker. I had one group in which every group member had been betrayed by a partner having an affair with a trusted friend.
Some time after Shelley's husband (see Part One) moved out, it was revealed that his affair was with a mutual friend. Shelley's work in the group focused on her anger concerning both betrayals. In individual therapy and in group, Shelley was forced to work on deep childhood abandonment issues as she faced the bottoming out in her ability to trust anyone. The work of learning to trust again often begins within the group itself. An understructure that has no real foundation in trust must be rebuilt from the bottom up.
Paula, who I spoke about in Part One, truly wanted reconciliation with her husband. She became confused by his ambivalence after a brief affair. One week he would want to "work on the relationship," although he refused to go to couples therapy. The next week Paula would find evidence that he was dating. His method of dangling the carrot of hope and then pulling it away was crazy making and erosive, yet it kept her engaged in what the group saw as a losing proposition. She left the group prematurely because she felt so confused about her direction. Discussing her relationship ups and downs became just too painful.
Group members such as Paula come with a great loss of self-esteem. Think about it. Your world has been blown apart in almost every way imaginable. You feel rejected by the one who was once your safe harbor. And you are questioning the truth in most if not all of your relationships. The ego feels so battered that new members such as Paula are desperately in need of solid ground, yet sometimes they are resistant to doing the painful healing work.
So often, all of the issues that I mentioned in Part One are triggered for a member. Martha, another new participant, was greatly upset by her husband's abrupt disappearance coupled with the dawning realization that he was suffering from a mental disorder. As she slowly opened up in the group, she began examining the relationship history and acknowledging her part in that "mutual collusion of denial." It was helpful for her to realize that she was deeply afraid of the changes that had taken place in him and all the unknowns that this meant for their relationship if it was to continue.
As the group bonds by addressing the primary issues, they grow in self-care and introspection. New work for many participants, but surely a sign of individual growth. We would all like for it to be an easier journey, but it rarely is. Not having to go it alone surely eases the pain.
Please note: Although I am writing about a woman's support group, all these issues are true of men as well. The people mentioned in the article are fictional compilations of client case examples.