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Divorce support groups: Finding one that’s right for you

By Michele Diamond, LICSW, BCD

One of the losses commonly associated with divorce is the loss of friends and extended family. The transition between living with a spouse and living without one can be very lonely and isolating. Since often people are feeling depressed at this time, reaching out to contact friends or make new ones, often feels like it will take more energy than they have. If they do contact their friends &/or family, they worry about overburdening them and find that people that haven’t been divorced themselves do not really understand how painful the process is. A divorce support group provides ready access to a group of “fellow travelers” who understand the major life transitions divorce brings.

What is a Support Group?

A Support group is a collection of people who voluntarily come together because they have a common problem and want to talk with others who share this problem. They are typically looking to share their experiences with others in order to lessen the loneliness, anxiety and sadness their problem is creating. They hope to learn from each other (and from the leader when there is one), to gain emotional support, find new resources and problem-solve. Because typically members of support groups are not all at the same stage of dealing with their problem, members gain tremendous relief by hearing how others have managed situations they’re currently going through and/or, feel empowered when they are able to help others by sharing their experiences. A member will often think, “Well if she can get through that, so can I.”

While most all support groups have in common the criteria listed above there are also some big differences in support groups, especially among divorce support groups. One of the biggest differences is whether or not the group is professionally led. Groups without a professional leader, commonly referred to as self help groups, have the advantage of being less expensive and often times more accessible. However unless a self-help group follows a very specific structured model, there is a great danger that these groups will turn into gab sessions when all one does is complain about their problems. This can lead to people feeling hopeless about their situations. Specifically in divorce support groups, members will often want to spend their time talking about their ex’s or compare notes about the legal process and what to expect. While a limited amount of this can be useful, continuing to focus on this keeps people from focusing on their own issues and useful solutions or suggestions to their problems. Without a trained leader, group members will often get stuck at a certain point and not know how to move on. They are already feeling stuck in the mire of their marriage/divorce, they do not need or want to be stuck in the group.

There are many, depending on the area you live in, self-help divorce support groups. They are generally open to anyone (no pre-registration or pre-screening process) and are either free or have a nominal fee. There may be speakers who are professionals, but non-professionals usually facilitate the groups. While these groups may meet on a weekly basis, no membership commitment is necessary. Most all self help groups will allow as many to attend the meetings as the room allows, which may result in little time or attention given to the individual needs of the members. Examples of self-help groups are Divorce Anonymous (modeled after the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous), Parents without Partners and New Beginnings. The latter 2 groups provide social gatherings and support for widows and never married individuals as well as those getting divorced.

Another type of divorce support group includes those that have a religious orientation. Support is provided not only by the experience of being with other people but by embracing the faith of a particular religion. According to some previous members, group leaders have been known to proselytize the religion, if not in the group, then after. One very popular group of this type is Divorce Care, which presents a “Christian perspective” on divorce. This program provides structure through a video that is watched each week, followed by discussion led by lay leaders.

Still another type of group that focuses on getting through a divorce may be psycho-educational in nature. Rebuilding is an example of this kind of group. Developed by the late Bruce Fisher, a psychologist, it is a carefully thought out 12 week closed group (same members attend each week) with a structured psycho-educational curriculum. Professionals run it and there is a regular fee that members pay in advance for the 12 weeks. This is an excellent program. The one drawback is that people are often reluctant to commit to 12 weeks at a time and may be asked to pay one large lump sum payment in advance.

Finally, I, as well as numerous others, provide still another type of group. Led by a mental health professional with special training or knowledge about divorce, it is a closed, often time limited group. The groups I run meet for 6 consecutive weeks with an option to continue at the end of the 6 weeks (most people stay in the group for 18 or more weeks). Group size is limited to no more than 8, there is a reasonable fee, & payment for all 6 weeks takes place at the end of the first session. This insures people’s spot in the group and increases their commitment to attending each meeting. No new members are added after the second session. The focus of the group is on helping members deal with the grief and anger of divorce, set realistic goals & provide support as they take the necessary steps to move on with their lives.

While this type of group is not a traditional psychotherapy group, the group leader uses his/her mental health background, knowledge and skill in helping the members recognize some of the areas in which they are stuck and offers new insights into why this may be going on. Although the primary purpose of the group is not social, often time’s people meet others in the group who then become life long friends. After attending the groups, members report feeling less lonely, more hopeful, better understood and more prepared to face the challenges ahead. As one previous group member said, “it is the only place where I feel truly heard and understood.”

Divorce can often be a grueling and long process but you need not go through it alone. Find the kind of group that’s right for you and join it. What have you got to lose?

All of the aforementioned types of groups provide a wonderful outlet and source of support for many people. What works for one person, may not work for others thus having a variety of options to choose from can only be a positive thing. In fact, because all of the programs provide different things, someone who has the time and resources can combine a number of these options to find what’s right for them. The most important thing is to find the support. Getting through divorce is tough but you don’t have to do it alone.

Michele Diamond, LICSW, BCD is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker in private practice in Wayland, MA. She specializes in counseling and coaching adults and children regarding issues related to divorce and stepfamilies. See website.

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