Anyone who has gone through a divorce will know just what a painful and overpowering experience it can be. It ranks among life’s most stressful events but hitherto there seems to have been no emotional support, nothing to compare with the bereavement counselling or support organisations available for other life traumas.
Now Charlotte Friedman has stepped in to serve a need she became all too aware of in 25 years as a family law barrister wrestling with many acrimonious divorce cases.
“I saw so many people who felt very alone and spent all their time talking about how angry and upset they were so that it was difficult for them to hear pertinent legal advice,” she says.
“My experience as a lawyer, hearing how polarised situations became, how people diminished former partners to win children or finances, played out hurt and anger through the law courts, made me acutely aware of a need for a space where those divorcing could be less isolated and talk about their feelings.”
Charlotte had qualified as a family therapist while still at the Bar and, as 2008 dawned, she launched Divorce Support Group which now operates in 30 locations, from Brighton to Edinburgh, with qualified psychotherapists available to run support groups, couples and one to one counselling.
“If there’s even a possibility that a couple may stay together, we help them talk through whether they do want to separate or stay within the relationship. Sometimes they want to determine what, when and how to tell the children that they are divorcing.
“Of course it’s best if parents can tell their children together, presenting a united front and reassuring them that they are still and always will be their parents. Sometimes couples can’t manage that but if they agree an approach and say the same thing it stops children becoming triangulated, caught in the middle of a warring couple, each trying to recruit them to their side.”
Apart from couples and one to one counselling, one of the most beneficial services of the Divorce Support Group is exactly that – support groups. “These are run over ten weeks by our psychotherapists trained in the programme. When a group spends time together, talking to one another, hearing how others cope, they realise that they are not isolated,” says Charlotte.
“It is often easy to get a legal divorce but it is not easy to get an emotional divorce. In a group you discover that you are not on your own and hearing others’ experiences puts yours in perspective. Someone in their 60s might reflect that they are glad this was not something they had to confront when their children were little. Someone in their 30s may be glad not to face divorce in their 60s.”
Although at the outset Charlotte’s services were sought mainly by women, now it involves 40% men and 60% women. “We have seen a huge increase in men coming to us because it has become much more acceptable for them to seek help, to talk about their problems. It also means that in a group men are helped to see a situation from a woman’s perspective and vice versa.”
When making an initial approach to Divorce Support Group, every potential client speaks to Charlotte first. “I take every initial enquiry myself and then put them in touch with the relevant person in their area, whether it’s a daylong workshop, a ten week support group or one to one help. Usually it’s only one of a couple seeking help. Sometimes people call up about and ex or a relative, in which case I say do encourage them to get in touch but it must be their decision.
“It helps that I do understand the legal process and I can recommend suitable mediators or collaborative lawyers but we don’t give legal advice. We support people emotionally. And just because you are going through a trauma doesn’t mean you have to be in therapy. There’s also the problem that families and friends can be partisan and unable to give impassionate advice and coming to us does take the pressure off friends and family.”
Having drowned in the divorce courts myself, spent fortunes on lawyers and doubtless dumped far too much on my nearest and dearest, I certainly wish Divorce Support Group had existed way back then.
At £38 per hour and a half group (£380 for 10 weeks and no school holidays) and 50 minutes individual help for £50, or £65 for a one day workshop it would have been money well spent