Divorce Anonymous: Recovery from the Grief of Divorce

By Deirdre Hally Shaffer, MSW, LCSW

In 1935, two men Bill Wilson, a New York stockbroker and Dr. Bob Smith, an Akron surgeon, founded Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) to offer suffering alcoholics a successful road map for to achieve sobriety and to help others to do the same. Over the years, AA principles have been applied to codependency (AlAnon) and other forms of addiction including drugs (Narcotics Anonymous), gambling (GA), and overeating (OA). In fact, many AA members say that if the rest of the world followed a 12-step program for living with our fellow humans, we’d have less strife, both in our homes and our world.

Can a version of the 12 steps also provide a path out of divorce? Here’s how it might work:

Step 1 – Admission of Powerlessness. We begin to accept that our life has taken a course that we never dreamed possible. We can try to accept that we have no control over the choices that other people (ie: the ex) make, our financial stability, the response of children to divorce, our housing situation, and the reaction of family and friends. We may also, temporarily, feel like we have no control over our emotions.

Steps 2 and 3 – Be open to Something-Larger-Than-Us. For some, a belief in a ‘Higher Power’, God, or a concept such as Universal Goodness can keep them on an even keel and moving forward during such a difficult time. Consider people who lose a loved one, but their faith remains unshakeable. This is the kind of faith that helps them heal and recover. Divorce is like a death – of your dreams, hopes and your life – so finding spiritual strength may help you mend your life.

Steps 4 through 8 – Look Inside Yourself, Admit Your Role, Learn and Grow. It’s very difficult examine our thoughts, motives and actions in the midst of divorce because the blame game usually takes front and center. It takes willingness and maturity to take a look at our own contribution to the marriage ending, especially in situations in which we were wounded, betrayed and deceived. It also takes time to stabilize the raging emotions and see the situation clearly. If done honestly with a willingness to learn and grow, we will hopefully move toward a resolution with our spouse that can include an apology for our words, actions and attitudes that harmed the relationship.

Step 9 The Apology is for You. Acknowledging and accepting the behaviors you ‘own’ through an apology to your ex-spouse can bring you a sense of renewal. It allows you to be done with the past and look toward a fresh start. It does not even require your ex-spouse to reciprocate. AA members often refer to this as ‘cleaning your side of the street.”

Step 10 –Developing Your Best Self. This step is a roadmap for how you want to operate vis-à-vis your ex-spouse, in-laws, new romantic partners, etc. It is especially important where co-parenting requires ongoing contact with your ex, the new partner and extended families. Striving to be the best person you can be by handling issues with respect and apologizing when you don’t can only lead to healthier life for you.

Steps 11 – Don’t Forget Your Inner Self. Whatever approach you take toward a healthier, more stable spiritual and emotional life, stay with it. Know that you have come through this tough time and take the opportunity to craft your life.

Step 12 – Reach Out. You have a lot to offer to others, not only going through a divorce, but through any major life crisis. Share your journey, so that others can have hope they will get through this, too.

Let’s call this version of the Twelve Steps “Divorce Anonymous”; a road map to recovery from divorce grief. Along with other AA tips like “One Day At A Time,” “Let Go, Let God,” “Keep It Simple,” and “HALT” (which stands for the need to stop and regroup when we are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired) , these guidelines can help us to stay sane through divorce and rebuild our future. One Day at a Time.


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