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The Benefits of Joining a Women's Divorce Group
How Divorce Effects Women
Divorce shatters a woman's self esteem. It also wreaks havoc on a man, but in different ways. Society still holds women responsible for the family. Whether in a married family or a divorced one, women are still the stabilizing forces in the family. Even women who are working outside the home in positions of power are scrambling to attend recitals and soccer games and to balance these parental responsibilities with their role in the boardroom. in 1990, women are awarded custody of the children 72% of the time. Joint custody was the second most common arrangement at only 16%. The financial realities of a single mother's dilemma are enormous. Single mothers are nine times more likely to live in poverty then their married counterparts. In 1992, 53.4% of female headed households with children subsisted below the poverty level. Studies show a drop in income for both men and women after divorce, noting that women experience an income drop of about 30%, while the divorced male will experience about a 10% drop in his income. The effect of divorce on women can have severe physical effects. Divorced women (and men) suffer physical maladies to a much greater degree than married persons do. Early death from cancer, cardiovascular disease, strokes, pneumonia, hypertension and suicide. According to the National Institute of Mental health, "The single most powerful predictor of stress-related physical, as well as emotional illness, is marital disruption." Divorced women also undergo in-patient and outpatient psychiatric care five times more then their married counterparts.
Then there is the burden of dealing with the divorce, itself. Most women are not comfortable with the adversarial atmosphere of the judicial system. They are more comfortable in resolution and nurturance than in being the aggressor. The idea of being able to advocate for one's self is difficult and emotionally draining. Women find they must be the strongest at the worst time of their life, a task that is difficult under any circumstances. It is especially difficult when one's enemy was once her best friend. Even women in the throes of a horrific divorce, still find themselves seeking counsel, or wanting to comfort their estranged husbands. The idea that their partner is no longer available to them leaves them feeling frightened, alone, abandoned and worthless.
Furthermore, the effect of divorce on women also has far reaching emotion implications. A woman's ability to love herself, to feel value and self esteem directly effects her ability to provide her children with a safe, secure environment. It also influences her ability to be a positive role model. In addition, a woman's self-value and emotional well being also effects her ability to re-couple successfully. Harville Hendrix, the psychologist and author of "Getting The Love You Want", points out that each of us seeks our emotional equal in relationships. It then stands to reason that the healthier the individual, the better the chance for a healthier re-coupling. In a society where the divorce rate in second marriages is even higher than in first marriages, we need to identify what is going wrong. Divorce shatters a woman's self esteem. It do(~s~"t'matter if the women leaves or is left. If she leaves, she feels guilty about breaking up the family, if she is left she feels guilty that she wasn't "enough" to keep it together.
Trying to manage the financial, legal, parental and practical issues in the divorcing family, does not leave much time for a woman to deal with her own emotional issues regarding the divorce. Women often say to me," I have no time to think about me, I just must keep going." And so self-esteem and confidence plummet.
How Groups Help
Bringing women together to raise the sense of self is not a new concept. In the seventies, conscious raising groups helped us learn that our fears and feelings were not unique and shameful. our fears and feelings were universal. Groups gave strength to women and helped change a generation's idea of what being a woman meant.
Now in the '90's, groups have again reinforced the "strength in numbers" concept. Women going through divorce need to know two basic things: first, they are not crazy, second, they are not alone.
The divorce groups have grown and changed and I am sure they will continue to do so. I have learned many things from doing groups; most importantly I learned that each group becomes a unique unit, not unlike a family. Like families everywhere, the groups have many things in common, but each group, like each family has its own personality. For some of the participants, this provides them with a "healthy family" experience that they have not had before. The opportunity to be heard, to be able to say what is felt without judgment or criticism, the experience of full acceptance and probably the most important, the feeling of being loved unconditionally- this is what the groups are about and this is where the healing occurs.
As one group member said to me recently "I know you have been telling me it is important to set limits, but when I hear it from other group members- well, I just get it!"
Personally, I have found group work to be some of the most exciting clinical experience that I have had. There is an electricity, a synergy that is produced when a group is cohesive and functioning that is unlike any other experience I have known. As a clinician I am honored to have been able to be a part of this experience.
The goals of the group are twofold: to help women deal with the process, and to help rebuild the damage to self-esteem. No divorce, even the most amicable, occurs without some injury to self-esteem. Women in this culture are raised to nurture, to be caregivers, to be keepers of the relationship. Many women interpret divorce as a failure to do these things. Anger, shame, blame, guilt, doubt, rejection are all concomitants of divorce. They are also the things that damage self-esteem.
Simply put, if divorce is a roller coaster ride, groups provide the safety harness to keep women from falling out.
Bringing women together creates a family of choice, a place where they can be comforted without fear of criticism, a place to exchange ideas and practice solutions regarding issues such as legal, financial, visitation, co-parenting, dating and housing. It is a place where women can laugh and cry together. It is a safe place. It is a place where shattered self-esteem can be healed and growth can take place.
Sometimes potential group members are worried they will not have enough of the facilitator's time. They are surprised that each of them becomes a facilitator, a guide for the other, and in.,this mutual support they find their own strength and are empowered.
On a practical side, facilitator-run groups provide-women with quality affordable support and insight and education. While they are not therapy groups per se, they indeed are therapeutic. In a world where managed health care has made obtaining psychotherapy difficult and in some cases unobtainable, groups offer women a place where they do not have to sacrifice the quality of their care. Furthermore, most women going through divorce have financial problems which for many of them renders individual therapy, even with insurance, totally unaffordable. Again Facilitator run groups make quality care a reality.
Why Facilitator-run as opposed to self-help?
There are many self-help groups that are successful and healing. Certainly, the twelve-step model proves this is possible. Unfortunately, my experience has lead me to have some serious concerns about self run divorce groups, or even divorce groups run my nonprofessionals. often the trauma of divorce unmasks an earlier trauma. It is imperative that there be a trained person able to cope with this kind of phenomenon. Also, it is not unusual to become depressed during a divorce. A trained facilitator is able to identify when grief becomes depression and when a participant needs further care, whether to individual therapy or for medication.
Why not a coed group?
NO, NO, NO! Coed groups are trouble. Even if the strictest rules of dating are set, more often then not, people do begin dating other group members. obviously, they are extremely vulnerable and wounded at the time of a marriage split up and a soft, gentle, supportive listener can feel wonderful. It is not unusual to "fall in love" with someone, who treats us with dignity, value and respect. However, it is easy to mistake loving the person for loving the behavior. I have seen too many romances that began in coed groups ended disastrously. The focus of a support group should be just that-support with unconditional care and validation. A safe place where one can be ones self. A place to regain ones, confidence and to heal from the pain. There is time later for dating.
Women at any stage of the process are welcome to join. Some members are just thinking about divorce and need a safe place to explore their feelings. other members are divorced for some time but enjoy the support and insight. Those who are "further down the path" inspire new members. And "veteran group members" learn, as they support new members, just how far they have come in their journey.
The Divorce Groups help rebuild self-esteem, offer insight, support and often laughter. often, even after the legal divorce is final, women have chosen to stay in group to work on their emotional divorce, parenting issues, dating, self esteem. Some group members have suggested they we change the name of the group to reflect this change in focus. We occasionally consider changing the name, but as of yet, can't seem to find an appropriate title. Often, it just becomes "Our Group" and that is said with a feeling of joy, camaraderie, confidence and pride.
If the court refuses to award alimony at the final hearing, and if alimony is not included in the final judgment, neither spouse can return to court in the future and request alimony due to a change in circumstance. Many final divorce judgments in Connecticut award $1 a year in alimony because this preserves the right to revisit the alimony issue if circumstances change.
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