Group therapy vs. individual therapy (or both?)
August 10, 2015 5:33 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for some input on how best to proceed regarding my divorce and whether group therapy or an individual therapist would be best.

(this is long with details about my divorce - TL;DR at the bottom)

Ex-wife (let's call her Mary) and I were together for 17 years, married for 11. She was my first love. We have a son who just turned 9 and we have roughly 50/50 custody.

Our marriage slowly eroded over time and when she admitted she was unhappy, I had hoped counseling would help us. I fully admit we were both at fault, in different ways, for where things were but held out hope our relationship was strong enough to resolve things. She halfheartedly went with me for four sessions and then told me she'd already made up her mind.

I relented and moved out in late 2011, with our divorced finalized in August of 2012. In Wisconsin, you need to attend parental classes before you can get divorced. We attended the parental classes together and she informed me that the guy she was dating (we'll call him Carl) was taking the classes with his soon-to-be ex-wife too. They have two daughters together. Seemed fast for me, but out of my hands.

Mary sold the house and moved in with Carl in the fall of 2013. The got engaged over Christmas and were married in May of 2014. This is relevant, I promise. I'd started dating and have been with my girlfriend (let's call her Kathy) since the summer of 2013. No plans for marriage or living together, likely ever, at least for me. I realize this may be an eventual deal-breaker for Kathy.

Fast forward to March of 2015, a mutual friend of mine and Mary's was having a party. Mary, Carl and I (among others) were invited (I could've brought Kathy along, but she had previously made plans with her parents). Mary and Carl were supposed to be out of state visiting family, so I accepted the invite as spending time with Mary and Carl would not be enjoyable for me. A few days before the party, Mary hurts her arm and can't travel with Carl. So, now she can come to the party. I'm not dreading it but whatever.

At the party, everyone there (literally, everyone) was with their significant other. I vaguely knew a few other people there, but ended up spending most of my time there chatting with Mary. It's been important to me to keep things cordial for our son's sake. We caught up on each other's jobs (Mary works at the church we both attend) and talked about our son's interests and plans for the summer. Conversation was kept light and for the most part, I had fun.

The next day, while dropping off my son with Mary, she said she had something for me and gave me a Tupperware container with a cupcake in it (from the party - I left before getting dessert) and an envelope. I assumed it was from the party's host but it ended up being from Mary. In it, was a letter from Mary indicating that over the last few months, she realized that she's still in love with me and wants to be with me. She's changed as a person, this 'break' that we've been on has made her realize what she needs from a relationship and she wants our son to have his family back.

I. was. floored.

Thankfully, I didn't read the letter in her presence and had some time to compose my thoughts. She texted wanting to talk about it right away and I told her I needed a day to process. We met the next day and I first verified that she and my son are safe (I assumed the abruptness of her love for me was out of a need for a safe place to live - while she could likely afford to live by herself, it would be challenging to do so on her salary). She confirmed that they were and if they were not, she'd have already made plans to live elsewhere. She told me things weren't terrible with Carl but they weren't great either. She told me she wanted to be a better partner and realized what she needs to do to make things work between us.

I told her that I'm much, much happier since we'd split and how I had no interest in pursuing anything with her romantically ever again. I told her that if she needed me to have our son more frequently if her living situation would be changing that I'd do what I could to help. She thanked me and left.

Since then, things have been pretty much back to 'normal'. My son seems to be oblivious to any issues that are going on between Mary and Carl. Mary assured me that there'd be no reason for him to suspect anything and his personality hasn't changed noticeably. I filled Kathy in on things and reassured her that Mary and I were never going to be anything but co-parents. Kathy was flattered that I "chose her all over again" and our relationship seems as strong as before.

But, I'm stuck with all these confusing feelings and it feels unhealthy to keep them all inside. I didn't tell Mary all the things I wanted to (how it would take me years to trust her again, how I'd always be waiting for that other shoe to drop, how her giving up on couple's counseling was a huge mistake, how she'd put our son and our friends and families through all this for nothing, and so on and son on) for the sake of our son. I alternate between being furious at her and being totally numb. I want my son to have a healthy and strong relationship with his mom, regardless of the feelings I have toward her.

A recent scan through the local paper advertised a divorce support group and I'd also been thinking about finding a therapist to help me unpack things. I'm looking here for some guidance about where one might be more appropriate than the other (not to say that I couldn't utilize both) and some personal experience with using either group therapy or a therapist to deal with relationship issues.

I have the support of wonderful friends and family, who've both helped me a great deal during these trying times. I've got a great job, a few hobbies to keep me occupied and Kathy is delightful. But I'm still left with this gnawing at me.

TL;DR - I'm looking for advice/experience about using group therapy or an individual therapist to help process relationship issues.
posted by Twicketface to Human Relations (11 answers total)
Best answer: I would start with individual therapy. Then, if your therapist thinks it would be helpful, add group therapy to the mix.

A divorce support group could be helpful, but it's not therapy.

Anyway, group therapy isn't your starting place. Individual counseling will help you get a handle on your issues. Group therapy gives you a way to work on your particular issues by interacting with others. But in order to work on the issues, you need to understand not only what they are, but where they come from, and how they manifest. Then group gives you lots of opportunities for your issues to arise, and for you to explore the interpersonal dynamic of those issues.

I've done individual without group but never group without individual. And if I had just gone through the kind of roller coaster ride Mary took you on, I'd definitely want a fair amount of private time with an individual therapist where I could focus exclusively on my own emotions surrounding this series of events.

BTW, she is SO far out of line, and you are SO right to keep her at arms' length. Ugh.
posted by janey47 at 6:03 PM on August 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'd definitely go for individual therapy. You've got a lot that you need to process and work through, including some really justified anger and I think you want a real professional to be there to help you though that. I've been part of an excellent group therapy group, too, but it was facilitated by two licensed psychologists and really was as much about the process of balancing the whole group's needs and emotions as it was any one indivual's problems. I'd also want to know more about the divorce support group. Who's running it? What are their credentials? What's to stop it from becoming just a relentless spiral of negativity? I think in individual therapy you'll get more help in figuring out "and so, what's next?" once you're ready for that.
posted by MsMolly at 6:04 PM on August 10, 2015

My general feeling, having done both group and individual therapy, is horses for courses.

For dealing with divorce aftermath in general, a group setting is probably a great idea.

For dealing with your own individual and specific circumstances, an individual therapist is probably best.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 6:07 PM on August 10, 2015

1. I have done both kinds of therapies. Both have their benefits, but for you, I might suggest an individual therapist since you have a pretty complicated situation that might benefit from extra examination - more than you would get in a group therapy setting with the common thread of "moving on from a divorce."

2. I would seriously unpack these feelings in parentheses here:

But, I'm stuck with all these confusing feelings and it feels unhealthy to keep them all inside. I didn't tell Mary all the things I wanted to (how it would take me years to trust her again, how I'd always be waiting for that other shoe to drop, how her giving up on couple's counseling was a huge mistake, how she'd put our son and our friends and families through all this for nothing, and so on and son on) for the sake of our son. I alternate between being furious at her and being totally numb. I want my son to have a healthy and strong relationship with his mom, regardless of the feelings I have toward her.

There is a lot of residual divorce anger expressed there (IMO) that should probably get worked through. Mary's weird and painful about-face certainly brought it up, but clearly it was still simmering.
posted by pantarei70 at 6:07 PM on August 10, 2015

Three can keep a secret if two are dead. If you go to group and talk about all this drama, it may get repeated. It sounds like that could open a huge can of worms with serious consequences. So I would go with individual therapy to start with. Maybe after you have dealt with some of this, group could work without you going on about details that could harm various people if it got out.
posted by Michele in California at 6:24 PM on August 10, 2015

Oh man, I feel for you. But first, I would look into therapy for your son. I see a lot of talk about you and your ex-wife's partner and you and your partner, but nothing for your son.

Can there be a therapy for you and your ex-wife and then your son? Without Carl and Kathy? Because it doesn't seem like you all ever resolved the issues surrounding your divorce. It sounds like you would actually like to go back with Mary if she jumped through some hoops. But in none of those verbiages, does it sound like you are considering your son, he's like a bystander, which he is not. You sort of leave it up to Mary. Oh la.

I wouldn't do it in group, no. I would do it in family. You, Mary and your son, later on. Whether it's too split finally, or get back together, I would find a competent family therapist and go from there.

I'm sorry you're going through this, but you have to take a long hard look at yourself and ask if you want to go back with Mary, or continue as you are, what is it that you really want? Is it her love? Or love from a new woman? I ask, because I know what man I love, and I understand Mary's position, and you may want to go back to it but be fearful, and that's okay. The heart only knows what it knows.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 6:27 PM on August 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

I agree that individual therapy sounds best for your situation. If you *didn't* have active sources of social support, I'd probably lean toward doing both. But the tone of your post makes it sound like individual therapy would give you the opportunity you want to do some in-depth processing of your feelings.
posted by jasper411 at 6:54 PM on August 10, 2015

Best answer: I would strongly vote for individual therapy. There's nothing wrong with group therapy, but often it's focused on a specific issue, problem, or challenge - and what you've written seems more complex than that. It's not just working through a divorce or the aftermath of ending a relationship. This is a few years later, you're in another relationship, etc. I don't think there are many groups for people whose divorced spouse wants to come back but everyone has kind of moved on.

As pantarei70 said, there's stuff simmering there - and it sounds really, really justified. You put in a lot of work to try to keep your relationship together, accepted the ending with (what sounds to me) a mature and reasonable response, and now you're getting hit with, "Hey, let's just get back together now!" out of left field. And this wasn't a short relationship between the two of you, which means you've likely already done a lot of work to move on, and make some peace, and find a new life.

For now, I would avoid, at all costs, telling Mary any of the things you feel were left unsaid. Keep things firmly in the realm of discussing parenting and your son, as needed, of course. Don't give her any reason to think that a discussion could lead to a relationship again.

Then work with the therapist - they can help unpack every drop of crap that's happened, help you figure out all the complex layers around how you feel about it, find a plan to move beyond it, how to not feel anger/numb about it, etc.

After you work things through with the therapist, you'll either leave things as they are - or it might be helpful to write a letter to Mary, or have a one-time discussion, or whatever's appropriate. But wait until you've sorted things through for yourself a bit more.

(You didn't indicate that this was something you wanted but if there's any part of you that's remotely interested in pursuing a relationship with Mary again, the therapist can help you figure out how to do it in the healthiest, most reasonable way.)
posted by VioletU at 7:14 PM on August 10, 2015

Yes, I think group therapy is good for talking to other people going through very similar situations. ("Yeah, starting to date again is really weird.") Your situation seems somewhat unique. I don't think there's likely a group about this situation, and your situation is probably too different from existing groups (going through a divorce currently, co-parenting with a very difficult ex-) to make them useful.
posted by salvia at 9:01 PM on August 10, 2015

I went through something similar but not quite the same (my ex-wife wasn't married yet).

Individual therapy, for sure. Single parenting, working, etc is a lot on it's own. Couple that with your ex-wife chasing butterflies and screwing with people's emotions and it can become a bit much to deal with.

I also advocate any use of a divorce support group (I was part of an online group...many of these people I'm still friends with years after my divorce). Any opportunity you can take to not completely overwhelm your family and friends with all of this should be grasped.
posted by PsuDab93 at 6:22 AM on August 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you so much for weighing in - you've all given me a lot to think about. I'm in the midst of changing insurance providers but am already looking up therapists in my area.
posted by Twicketface at 2:43 PM on August 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

« Older Mystery Knot   |   Take on exclusion in the workplace Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.