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The
Community
Psychologist

Volume 53, Number 4 Fall 2020

Self Help and Mutual Support Interest Group

Edited by Thomasina Borkman, George Mason University and Ronald Harvey, American University in Bulgaria

New Beginnings: The 40-Year Journey of a Self-Help Support Group

Written by Carol Randolph, New Beginnings

[The founder Carol Randolph of New Beginnings (NB) will tell her narrative (story) of how the group evolved over the last 41 years in two parts. This first part describes the origin and early years when major activities and procedures were developed.  NB began in the late 1970s when divorce in the United States was relatively rare, stigmatized, and often unsupported by family and friends. The second part will deal with formal organizing and the impact of the internet on NB] 

 

I had been separated 15 months after a two-year marriage with no children when I started New Beginnings (NB) in 1979.  All the existing support groups at that time were for single parents. People without kids supposedly didn’t need support: “You’re lucky,” people would say to me. But I didn’t feel lucky. At 27, my dreams of a family had fallen into a black hole, my map of the world was in pieces, and I needed to know that someone understood.

I went to a discussion of a book about learning to be single again. I could barely focus on what anyone was saying because I was fascinated by the other people there–men too! How did their marriage end? Why did it end? How long were they married? If I knew what happened to them, I could somehow make sense of what happened to me. The community of others felt so good.

A co-worker, also separated about a year, after a 22-year marriage, with two children, began answering personal ads in the Washingtonian Magazine. This was before the Internet, cell phones or widespread use of computers. I noticed that many of the authors were separated or divorced. What if instead of looking for one person, they could all get together and talk? So, on a lark, I drafted an ad and threw it on my friend’s desk. She said, “Let’s do it,” and NB was born.

Our 3-line ad appeared in the Sept 1979 issue of the Washingtonian: “Separated?  Informal group forming for discussion, outings, mutual support.” Nine people attended the first meeting on October 3. Five more attended the second meeting on October 17. From diverse backgrounds and a range of ages but united in the shared experience of a marital separation, they talked about what they wanted in a support group–how often to meet, where to meet, how to structure the meeting, what was the purpose.

At first, we had two discussion meetings a month, always held in someone’s home: one in Northern Virginia (also a suburb of Washington, D. C.) and one in Maryland/DC. Many people drove to wherever the meeting was. One person drove 74 miles one way and back, an hour and 20 minutes each way. Meetings had topics–a list that has now grown to over 80–and agendas with suggested questions. Having an outline for a meeting became more important as we increased the number of meetings per topic. It guaranteed a modicum of consistency among meetings of the same topic, even allowing for variations in group make-up. Topics were also a way of limiting group size as the organization grew. Each month had at least one topic for people in the first year of separation (Anger, Aloneness, Emotional Craziness) and one for people farther down the road who were starting to date and establish new relationships (Trust & Risk, Beginning to Begin to Date). We also had a number of topics dealing with personal growth issues (What I’ve Learned From My Divorce, Communicating with the Opposite Sex).

Early on, we added expert speakers–people from the professional community who could talk in more depth or add special insight to a topic: financial planners, attorneys, counselors, or a travel agent knowledgeable about vacationing as a single. 

At our peak in the mid-1990’s, we were running 42 discussion meetings/month on six different topics and two speakers/month, one in Virginia and one in Maryland/DC. We often had a Maryland and Virginia meeting on the same night. If response to one was especially large, and the host could accommodate two separate meetings, we pulled in another facilitator and ran an “upstairs/downstairs” meeting.

A big part of adjusting to a new life as a single person is learning how to make friends and interact as just YOU, not half of a couple. Social events like parties, potluck dinners and picnics helped members do that while also building a support network.

We had our first weekend retreat, a camping trip, in July 1982. For the next 22 years, we had five weekend retreats a year—one for each season plus a Ski Weekend. We had two trips to Cancun (1984, 1991) and one cruise (1993). Monthly Dinner & Movie Nights began in September 2002.

NB has always been a coed group although probably 60% of participants are female.  Same-sex groups—especially for divorce—can be valuable to build confidence and strengthen resolve, but they can also foster a climate where—implicitly or explicitly—the opposite sex becomes the target for blame. If even one member of the opposite sex is present, the inclination to bash the other is tempered. It is a powerful lesson in humanity to see that both genders are capable of wanting the marriage to work and that both experience the same disappointments and betrayals. This goes a long way in helping people move past the anger and pain to a place of healing.

I facilitated all the meetings, but once we hit seven meetings/month, even I knew I needed help. A small group of us took the facilitator training offered by the Washington Ethical Society for their discussion groups. We soon realized that we needed training specific to NB, so in 1983 we hired a consultant to help us design such a program. That same model is used today.  It includes a written application, 16-hour weekend training running mock discussions, co-facilitating actual meetings and quarterly refreshers on specific skills.

All our discussion meetings have ground rules, and they are repeated at the beginning of every meeting. I believe very strongly in ground rules. They establish boundaries, and that reassures participants by creating a safe space. When participants know what is allowed and what isn’t, it is easier to intervene if someone strays from personal experience or tends to talk too long. Our ground rules are: (1) Speak from personal experience, using *I* statements; (2) Speak briefly, so everyone has a chance to talk; (3) One person talks at a time; (4) No side conversations; (5) Silence is okay—we are glad you are here.

The one about *I* statements is the most important. It keeps people from giving advice–statements that always begin with “You should.” Even though motivated by a desire to help, *you* statements will not be heard by someone who isn’t ready to hear them. What we can hear is how someone else approached the same problem; then we can make our own decisions about possible solutions. *I* statements also prevent personal attacks and generalizations.

From time to time, someone asks about a ground rule of confidentiality. We have no way to enforce such a rule, and it might even be counter to our goal as a support group. Someone could talk at a meeting about something they are struggling with, and another person at that meeting might want to tell another member who shares that same struggle. Everyone in the group has always understood and honored the purpose of the group.

In the beginning, there were no fees or membership dues. The host provided refreshments as an out-of-pocket donation. I prepared a monthly newsletter that was mailed to anyone who wanted it. I used the copier at work to print it. We asked people to donate stamps; some people gave a lot, some gave none; it was impossible to keep track.

We didn’t know we were starting an organization. A lot of things along the way would’ve been easier if we had. The group kept growing, as did the work (and costs) to support it. Our table at a Self-Help Fair in the fall of 1980 produced a list of 150 names to add to our mailing list. It was clear to me that we needed a formal structure—nonprofit/corporate status, membership dues and meeting fees—so we could focus our energies on the active participants.  My friend preferred to keep the group small, serving only our needs. I didn’t see how we could do that. Perhaps at that point, I had a glimpse of the possibilities. On this issue, we parted company.  [Part 2 will describe the process of developing a nonprofit organization, mission statement, and how the internet affected NB].

I use the terms “self-help group” and “support group” interchangeably. NB is a self-help group in that we give people the TOOLS to cope, but people have to pick them up and USE them. It is a support group in that it offers a community of others who understand. There is so much that People Who Haven’t Been Through It don’t get. This is true of any support group.  The first time someone enters a room full of others coping with the same life crisis can be a heady experience akin to coming home. It is as if you have left the foreign country of strangers outside and have finally found people who speak your language. Not only do they understand what you are talking about, they share some of the same experiences: “Oh, yes, that happened to me!”  “I did that too.”   

I am continually in awe of this simple process that enables total strangers to share intimate details of their lives. I firmly believe that talking to others, face-to-face, with a trained facilitator to encourage the expression of deep feelings, is one of the best resources for coping with any life crisis.