Twelve Steps to a bearable, beneficial divorce
American author, psychotherapist adapts the technique of Alcoholics Anonymous to help people heal and restart their lives.
A Separation Photo: Courtesy
With more than two out of five marriages in the US and nearly one out of three
in Israel ending in divorce, marriage breakups are a common and painful
phenomenon with which many partners are unable to cope emotionally. Some relief
has arrived – at least for part of this potential audience – from an American
psychotherapist and former divorcee basing her technique on the 12-step program
used for seven decades by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
English language, soft-cover volume is called Getting Up, Getting Over, Getting
On: A Twelve Step Guide to Divorce Recovery.
The author is Micki McWade,
a psychotherapist, collaborative divorce coach, parent educator and
clinical social worker with a practice in New York that focuses on divorce
She works with matrimonial attorneys to help clients divorce with
dignity and established the Twelve-Step Divorce Recovery Group model, which has
been functioning since 1993. She also supervises Twelve-Step Divorce Recovery
groups and teaches Parents Apart classes, which help parents recognize and avoid
the pitfalls of divorce for children. Her latest book is her third, after Daily
Meditations for Surviving a Breakup, Separation or Divorce and Healing You,
Healing Me: A Divorce Support Group Leader’s Guide.
AA’S ORIGINAL 12-step
program, which has helped countless alcoholics overcome their deadly habit,
entails admitting that one cannot control one’s addiction or compulsion;
recognizing a higher power that can give strength; examining past errors with
the help of a more experienced member; making amends for these mistakes;
learning to live a new life with a new code of behavior; and helping others who
suffer from the same addictions or compulsions.
McWade writes that in
1990, she herself decided to separate from and divorce her husband of 23
“I was feeling more fear than I had felt in my entire life.... We
had four [teenage] children, a house, a dog and a cat. I had not worked full
time since the children were born.
Before we were married, because of
family illness, I lived at home with my mother. I hadn’t gone away to college or
lived on my own. Now I would be the only adult in the house,” she continued.
“The marriage had been troubled for a long time, but the breakup was far worse
than I had anticipated.”
But she had been a member of a support group for
families of alcoholics, because a member of her family had died of it, so she
was familiar with the original 12 steps.
She also knew by heart the
famous “Serenity Prayer” written by the 20th century Christian American
theologian Reinhold Niebuhr that was adopted by AA: “God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and
the wisdom to know the difference.”
So McWade established her Separation/
Divorce Recovery Group, and her own divorce process went smoothly (she has since
“I reinvented myself after I divorced,” she said.
went back to school and found a career I love. Others can too. Divorce is not
the end. It’s a doorway to a new reality.... So many opportunities for change
occur during this process. We can use these opportunities to create wonderful
new things if we don’t stay in the ‘victim’ role,” she wrote.
process, she continued, is “like having a leg amputated.
We are in a lot
of pain, we miss it terribly even though it may have hurt a great deal before,
and we are definitely off balance. The first impulse may be to replace it as
fast as possible; to grab a new leg and make it work – no compatibility test or
size consideration, no waiting for some healing to take place.
We think: ‘I can’t walk with just one leg!’ [and] just hide the wound and act
The problem, McWade explains, is that acting too soon can mean
not picking the right replacement and later facing another
“Healing will be superficial, and the infection from the first
wound may undermine the new attachment.
We need time to
Thus, she says, 12-step groups, meditation, getting in touch with
nature, developing new friends and individual therapy are some of the means
available to help people heal from the trauma of divorce.
AS THE AA’s
original 12 steps and McWade’s adaption include dependence on a higher power,
they might upset atheists (although most Americans at least tell pollsters they
believe in God).
The author is aware of this.
“Some of us call our
Higher Power God; some the Universe; others believe in angels, and the list can
go on and on. Some of us use the power present in the group as our Higher Power.
The love, support, strength and healing found in the recovery work, and the
relationships established within the group are evident and
McWade concedes that “many people have a problem with the idea
of a Higher Power.” Some people rejected religious practices they learned as
children or never adopted them at all. But she continues that “it may be helpful
to remember that the idea of a Higher Power” is bigger than any one
Religious practices are not God, only avenues to God, and we
don’t have to be religious to have contact with our higher power. We just have
to ask and be open to the possibilities.
But a traditional Jew reading
her book could be forgiven for understanding her amended 12 steps as something
like a Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur service in which a person confesses his sins,
vows to improve himself by replacing sinful behaviors with positive
characteristics, prays, meditates and cleanses his soul.
STEP ONE: We
admitted we were powerless over others, that our lives had become
During and after divorce, she explains, people tend to
think the worst of their partner and have much less influence on them, so they
feel powerless. The antidote to this negative situation, she explains, is to
focus on one’s own responsibilities and actions.
“Some of us are in the
terribly uncomfortable legal process of divorce, being on the opposite side of
the table from someone who once our partner. Our children hang in the balance.
Our home and personal possessions are in question. Nothing seems
“While the individual cannot force others to do anything, they
can control their own behavior, being honest, open and caring....
in charge of how we handle things, and we’ll live with these decisions for a
long time.... Taking responsibility for our own behavior, regardless of the
stimulations, means that our actions and reactions belong to us. We need to stop
just reacting to others and make conscious decisions about what’s helpful in the
situation as a whole.”
Step Two: Came to believe that a Power greater
than ourselves could restore us to wholeness. Divorce is a major life
transition, and change can be frightening as well as expanding.
process, she writes, is made easier by having support. Recovery groups are one
way to define a power greater than ourselves because they connect us to others
who are going through, or have been through, the same traumatic
McWade estimates that to heal, it takes about one year for
every five years of marriage or serious longterm relationship, and she advises
her readers “not to rush it.”
Step Three: Made a decision to turn our
will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.
things start to happen when we let go instead of attempting to control
everything, she says, and faith is built a step at a time with practice. She
adds that the 12-step program is a spiritual one.
“We learn by practicing
the Steps to connect in a real way with our Higher Power.... It isn’t necessary
to be spiritual or religious to find help in the program; an open mind is
enough. We do the best we can and then turn the outcome over to the care of God,
asking for wisdom, courage and guidance in making the many important decisions
that are necessary during the divorce process.”
Step Four: Made a
searching and moral inventory of ourselves.
It is important that we
assess our strengths and weaknesses after a marriage or long-term relationship
ends, says McWade. We are not the same now as we were when we entered the
relationship. We need to understand where that leaves us in the present and
decide which characteristics to eliminate and which to nurture. Awareness is the
Step Five: Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human
being the exact nature of our failings. This step helps us keep
When we admit our failings to God, we are forgiven. To admit
them to ourselves is to take responsibility.
When we admit our
shortcomings to another human being, we realize that we are human, she
continues. We take ownership of our failings and begin to see that change is
Step Six: Were entirely ready to remove these defects of
“This Step sounds deceptively simple. This may involve backing
out of a long-held stance. We may have to stop a destructive habit.
at a behavior or characteristic you want to give up and decide what the opposite
Rather than beating yourself up for having the characteristic,
it’s more advantageous to focus on what you want instead.”
Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.
Humility, suggests McWade,
is an “underrated characteristic and a key ingredient in this step. Some of us
think that being humble means putting ourselves down or subjecting ourselves to
abuse by others. It doesn’t mean that we should exaggerate our defects or
shortcomings or feel terrible about them – just be aware of them.... Cultivating
humility allows us to learn and therefore continue to grow.”
Made a list of all persons we have harmed and became willing to make amends to
Sometimes we have to put ourselves at the top of the list, says
McWade. Have we neglected our health? Are we using alcohol or drugs to get
through this? Are we allowing ourselves to become exhausted by constant running
or malnourished by eating junk food instead of a healthy meal? As for one’s
ex-spouse and children, “Are we doing our best to see that their suffering is
minimized? Are we using them as weapons against our (ex) spouse? Do we burden
them with our problems, rather than talking to a friend or therapist?” Step
Nine: Made direct amends to such people, except when to do so would injure them
“Many times an apology is all that’s necessary. Other times,
we need to change our behavior or break a bad habit. Before taking action, we
need to evaluate whether we are doing this step from genuine remorse or in an
attempt to manipulate a situation.
Sincerity is a key factor. Making
amends won’t be worth much if we continue to do the same thing.”
Ten: Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly
Apology, like humility, is vastly underrated, she
“Some think that to apologize is to admit weakness, but the
opposite is actually true. To apologize promptly creates freedom because we
don’t have to spend time thinking about excuses and justifying why we did
something. As long as we’re alive, we’ll continue to make mistakes but it’s
easier to trust a person who can admit when he or she is wrong, than someone who
always needs to be right.”
Step Eleven: Sought through prayer and
meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood God,
praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that
“Prayer is asking and meditation is listening for the answer. Both
of these practices are so helpful during divorce. This is something we can do
for ourselves and is within our power. We might pray for strength, wisdom and
guidance on a particular problem, and the courage to make the necessary changes,
rather than holding on to the past.”
And finally, Step Twelve: Having had
a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we try to carry this message
to others and practice these principles in all our affairs.
practice these steps as you go through divorce, people will ask you how you
managed to get through it without becoming stuck and bitter. It’s at that point
you explain the tools that you used. It’s also enormously helpful to study the
Steps with a group who are experiencing the same kind of difficulty.”
rest of the book provides practical ideas on creating a support group and
keeping it going, along with slogans and quotes that can be used and advice on
learning to laugh and listening to music.
McWade’s 12-step guide to
recovery from divorce obviously will not speak to everybody, but without
undergoing expensive psychological therapy, it may turn an individual inward,
causing him to reflect on damaging behaviors and change them for the better.