By Susan Regan, MFT
In the groups that I lead, people often make deep connections by the end of the series. It is important to recognize that people come into the group for all different reasons: some people need support, some are having such raw emotions they need a place to go, some people need to hear that other people are going through similar things, some are looking for long term support, and others are opening the chapter for the first time about getting some therapy. When we’re expressing our different reasons for being in the group, people oftentimes feel rejected or angry because not everyone has the same needs as their own. Everyone is allowed to have his or her needs. If we’re in unhealthy relationships or relationships that aren’t functioning well, we have needs that aren’t being met and sometimes in a group, we have these unmet needs as well. For example, we may feel invisible, not important or different from other members. If we don’t talk about these differences, then these unmet needs become bigger than the support. Often times in group, people are experiencing the same thing but these are the hard subjects that are tough to talk about. I encourage people to talk about their unmet needs because they’ll never be able to figure out how to get them met or to see if other people have similar needs. Sometimes these unmet needs become really big and take over and there is no way to feel like these needs can possibly be met. Taking the mystery out of the needs in our group is really important and really asking for what is going to help will be crucial.
By the end of a 12-week series, we start talking about whether other people are going to come back and rejoin for the next 12 weeks. Closure is so important for these separation groups because people haven’t had this sense of closure in their relationships. Some relationships have ended abruptly where no one could talk about the ending of a relationship that just happened. We take time to talk about what goals we’ve accomplished, what the connections we’ve made have been like, how they’ve helped us on our healing path, and what we need going forward. We make our needs known and oftentimes people feel like their support group is short and they need more time to work on things. Other people feel like they want to get different kinds of support and those different needs became clear to them during the group process. People use the group in different ways, perhaps to get through the very first part of the separation if their feelings were very raw and they were trying to figure out what was happening to them. They may have learned to talk about their divorce to other people so they don’t feel so separated or isolated and can actually find a way to talk about what is happened to them so they don’t feel like it unravels them so much.
People in the group that stay for long periods use the group as a way to keep on track with the emotional work necessary to rebuild their lives and recreate new relationships. But whatever the case may be and whatever your intentions are for being in or leaving the group, it is always challenging to learn how to talk about it. The group sometimes goes into a bit of a crisis when people start deciding whether they will stay or leave. People feel lonely, excluded, judged, and they personalize other’s decisions, but those decisions may have been based on their feelings of being liked or them not being a right fit with the group. I tell all my group members that the group is not a place to create friendships but it is a place to learn how to have friendships, so I ask people to refrain from getting into friendships while they’re in a group because I feel if people do become friends they’ll share less of themselves in the group. However, I do want people to feel support from the group, so often times if people are having a hard time they might reach out via email to ask people to think about them, send them a few thoughts or call them when they’re doing something major like moving out of their house or going to court to finalize their divorce. Other things that may be difficult include being away from your child for the first time or spending your first holiday alone.
We always have the challenge of learning how to talk about difficult things and often times the group falls silent. Sometimes I ask what the silence is about, whether it’s silent because everyone is thinking really hard about something, or whether they’re debating if they should share or not. Typically, the silence is due to withholding from talking about difficult subjects. A lot of people notice that it was the buildup from not talking about the difficult things in their relationship that actually lead to the relationship’s demise. Members realize that if they had figured out how to talk about the difficult things early on in the relationship, they may have been able to work through things. They realize that communication and miscommunication were often the basic instabilities in the relationship.
There is also the challenge of staying committed. There are so many changes that are going on when people are separating and divorcing that it is hard to stay committed to one’s own feelings. I often ask people to make a commitment to stay focused on themselves no matter what other folks in the group are experiencing. Each member must remember the goals and what they’re working on; if you can stay focused on what your intensions are and what you want to get out of the group from night to night, you can feel like the group experience is fulfilling. However, if you’re swaying and being influenced by everyone else’s topics and not really staying with your own, I see that more as a need to learn to commit to your own healing.
People use different reasons for ending the group. Some of the simpler reasons that guard them from being confronted are that they can’t afford it anymore, because they’re too busy or are having a hard time getting to the location. I always find that there is a deeper reason that people end the group. We can always make an excuse or come up with a reason why we can’t do something. However, if we really want to get close to people and we really want to have full understanding, it is important for us to communicate on a higher level of what is going on. We are allowed to make the choices and do the things that are best for us, but if we share in the reasons why, people can stay connected to us through the process and not take it personally. We made an analogy on how some people use the group differently; some people use it as a booster shot and other use it as an injection. Some people use it as something that is just going to help them get through a superficial period while other people are looking to use the group so that they can create a different path for themselves. Whatever you decide, a group therapy experience can be life changing.