Borrowing wisdom from the 12-Step recovery program can bring healing from the devastation of divorce and separation.
It’s no revelation that divorce is a traumatic event, but unless you’ve been through it yourself, most people don’t understand the amount of time and effort it takes to recover emotionally. Well-intentioned people ask us “What’s taking so long? You have to get on with your life. Go out and meet other people!” meanwhile, all we want to do is pull the covers over our heads.
Those of us who have been there, or who are divorcing or separating now, know it’s true. It takes time to understand what happened, why it happened and to see our part in what went wrong in the relationship. Why bother? To avoid going through the misery again. We can either learn and grow from our divorce or allow it to destroy us.
In my book, Getting Up, Getting Over, Getting On: A Twelve Step Guide to Divorce Recovery I explain the 12-Step divorce recovery program that I developed as a result my own divorce after 23 years of marriage. Fortunately, at that time, I was a member of Al-Anon (a support group for families of alcoholics). Spending time in that group inspired me to start a support group for separated and divorced people. I didn’t want to be with anyone who would exacerbate my fear, whip up my hostility or increase my bitterness.
In September of 1993, I started a separation and divorce recovery group and although the group has changed members, locations, and leaders, it’s still going on today. Using the 12 Steps, I’ve seen people recover from the emotional devastation of divorce and find self-knowledge, peace and character strength.
Here are those steps, modified for divorce recovery groups, with the original wording from Alcoholics Anonymous in brackets.
Step One: We admitted we were powerless over others [alcohol] and our lives had become unmanageable.
When we recognize that we cannot control another person, no matter how smart, articulate, or convincing we may be, we put more time into our own lives, where it belongs, and can do the most good. We can only control ourselves, our actions and our reactions. We may be able to influence by example, but we cannot force a person to do what we want them to do. By spending our precious time and energy trying to control, manipulate and seeking revenge, our own lives become unmanageable because we aren’t taking care of ourselves and creating our own potential.
Step Two: Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to wholeness [sanity].
Some of us grow in spirituality during crisis and think of the power who is greater than ourselves as God. Some of us will go to a therapist, some will read helpful material, and some will join a group. The main idea is to be open to outside resources to help you through the crisis. Studies have shown that those who have peer support recover faster and more fully than those who are isolated. Joining a divorce support group speeds the recovery process because we gain support and learn from each other—and doesn’t wear out our friends and family members.
Step Three: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.
The Twelve Step program is a spiritual one. We learn by practicing the Steps to connect in a real way with our Higher Power. While the program is spiritual, it does not espouse any particular religion. Also, it’s not necessary to be 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 this 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. We are not the same now as we were when we entered the relationship. We need to understand where that leaves us now 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 [wrongs].
When we admit to God, we are forgiven, when we admit to ourselves and take ownership of our failings, we begin to see that change is possible. When we admit to another human being, we realize that we are human — no more, no less. No one is perfect and everyone makes mistakes. By admitting our shortcomings to a supportive, trusted person, we can make a significant change in ourselves.
Step Six: We’re entirely ready to remove these defects of character.
This Step sounds deceptively simple. To become ready … 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 to be like instead. For example, you may want to replace impatience with patience.
Step Seven: Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.
When we get to the point of having seen our shortcomings, talked about them and decided that we don’t want to repeat them in the future, we have done a lot of good work. What we may not anticipate is how difficult it is to break old habits, so this is where Step Seven is helpful. We don’t have to do this alone. When we ask God for help, we get it. We will receive the support we need to make personal changes that will lead us to a better life.
Step Eight: Made a list of all persons we have harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
We might need to put ourselves at the top of the list. 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? Our children suffer during the divorce process. Are we doing our best to minimize their suffering? Are we using them as weapons against our ex? 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 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. Remember, 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. Some think that to apologize is to admit weakness, but the opposite is actually true. To apologize promptly creates freedom from thinking about excuses and justifying why we did something. As long as we’re alive, we’ll continue to make mistakes but isn’t it 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 constant 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 very 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. We all have our list of issues we need help with.
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 that is experiencing the same kind of difficulty. Being with others really helps.
There is no doubt that the ending of a significant relationship is absolutely hell on wheels but recovery is not only possible, it can lead you to potential you never realized you had. No matter where you are today, or what your circumstances may be, every one of us has enormous potential to create a better life. Take the time to recover and discover who you are today and it will pay big dividends as you move forward.
As we say in the Twelve Step movement, “It works if you work it, so work it—you’re worth it!”
Copyright © Micki McWade/2012 Singular Communications, LLC.