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 film 390 (photo credit: Courtesy)
A Separation film 390
(photo credit: 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).
The 152-page, 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 issues.
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 years.
“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 remarried).
“I reinvented myself after I divorced,” she said.
“I 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.
The divorce 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 panic. We think: ‘I can’t walk with just one leg!’ [and] just hide the wound and act normal.”
The problem, McWade explains, is that acting too soon can mean not picking the right replacement and later facing another rejection.
“Healing will be superficial, and the infection from the first wound may undermine the new attachment.
We need time to heal.”
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 powerful.”
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 religion.
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 unmanageable.
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 stable.
“While the individual cannot force others to do anything, they can control their own behavior, being honest, open and caring....
We are 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.
The 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 experience.
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.
Good 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 first step.
Step Five: Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our failings. This step helps us keep perspective.
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 possible.
Step Six: Were entirely ready to remove these defects of character.
“This Step sounds deceptively simple. This may involve backing out of a long-held stance. We may have to stop a destructive habit.
Look at a behavior or characteristic you want to give up and decide what the opposite might be.
Rather than beating yourself up for having the characteristic, it’s more advantageous to focus on what you want instead.”
Step Seven: 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.”
Step Eight: Made a list of all persons we have harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
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 or others.
“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.”
Step Ten: Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
Apology, like humility, is vastly underrated, she says.
“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 out.
“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.
“If you 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.”
The 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.