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Divorced Dads and Support Groups

by Mel Feit

why support groups work and the important lesson they have to teach us about coping with divorce… The lesson that comes out of the support group is probably not what you think it is.

My counseling practice is now devoted exclusively to helping individuals. There was a time, though, when I ran support groups, mostly for men, coping with the effects of divorce.

Each of my groups had ten participants. I insisted on only two rules. The first was confidentiality within the group (what’s said in this room stays in this room). The second rule was No Personal Attack. I permitted criticism of one man by another only if it was delivered helpfully and with encouragement. Otherwise I ruled it out of order. As a result, the support groups became safe and special places where men felt free to express embarrassing feelings and unpopular ideas. Friendships were formed. People cared about each other. The sessions were often emotionally and intellectually intense.

I know this may be a slight over-simplification but I came to believe that there were essentially two kinds of men enrolled in my groups. The first, I’ll call him “Mr. A,” was very forthcoming about the details of his divorce. He would put the nasty particulars of his failed marriage on the table for the entire group to dissect and analyze. He was emotionally available and articulate. He was eager to ask for help and willing to receive support.

I was always inspired by witnessing the process: Nine men with different occupations, of diverse cultural backgrounds and political philosophies, would combine their life experiences and bring intellectual firepower to bear on helping one man solve his problems. Creative ideas would fly across the room, some of them quite original and constructive. And because Mr. A was open to these ideas, he seemed to get the maximum benefit from the support group.

And then there was “Mr. B.” While actively participating in the group by trying mightily to help others, Mr. B was reluctant to reveal much of himself. I did my best to pry it out of him but Mr. B seemed uncomfortable with being the center of the group’s attention. He preferred to focus on everyone else. I remember thinking that Mr. B was missing out on the whole point of being in a support group, the receiving of support. Mr. A was getting most of the help.

But, regrettably, despite all the help the Mr. A’s were receiving, they usually didn’t make much personal progress. Something was wrong. Week after week, the Mr. A’s would report the same set of problems they had the week before. The group would become frustrated. Sometimes months would go by and not much would improve for the Mr. A’s.

The Mr. B’s, though, mysteriously, and in a way that seemed to mock the very concept of a support group, would tend to resolve their most difficult issues, apparently on their own. Court cases would be won, communication with their ex-wives would improve, relationships with their children would get better. I was happy for the Mr. B’s but I confess to feeling challenged by their successes. Why were the men in my groups receiving the least support succeeding the most?

Eventually, I figured it out. Here’s my explanation: By concentrating on people with problems similar to his, Mr. B was actually getting a fresh perspective on his own problems. He was able to easily see and understand the mistakes that other men were making. By stepping out of his own misery and helping others, Mr. B was able to more readily understand why he was having his difficulties. By dispassionately analyzing the predicaments of others, he found an objectivity that allowed him to view his own problems within a larger social context. He gained creative and critical awareness of his own issues. He got smarter.

All those hours in which Mr. B was helping Mr. A, the brain of Mr. B must have been working silently, behind the scenes, making comparisons and connections and finding solutions. Perhaps by being too self-absorbed, Mr. A never got the chance to do that.

Whatever the psychological reasons, it may be that the old adage is true, at least when it comes to divorce support groups: It really is better to give than to receive. Or, in other words, the best way to help yourself, it turns out, is to help others… I think that’s pretty cool.