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Photo by Leon Rafael

Local groups offer survival strategies

By Julie Marshall

Divorce is like being in a horrific car crash, every day, for years. That’s how one 50-year-old divorcee puts it. It’s an earthquake with continual aftershocks, says another, or the death of your lifelong partner in which friends and family judge how you handle it and expect you to get over it, but no one sends you casseroles or Hallmark cards.

And the bad news is that divorce is on the rise. A Bowling Green State University study shows the American divorce rate, for those in their 50s and beyond, has more than doubled since 1990—and the trend is apparent in Colorado and Boulder County, local experts say. This means that in 1990, nearly 1 in 10 people ending their marriage were baby boomers; today it is 1 in 4. And these are deeply entrenched, long-term relationships spanning 30, 40 or 50 years.

There is good news, however, say those who have survived divorce. Boulder is home to proven, unique and ever growing resources that can transform impending disaster into a positive future outlook. Our community hosts seminars, meetup groups and social outings for any stage of the divorce process—even for those still on the fence. The end result, participants say, is a pool of new friends who actually do understand what divorce is like, and who are there for you on any occasion, such as filling in for family when you are ill or just in need of a visit. One of the most popular programs is based on the best-selling book Rebuilding: When Your Relationship Ends, by the late Boulder family therapist Bruce Fisher. Graduates of this 10-week course, like Leha Moskoff, say it is a game changer.

“Everybody who gets divorced doesn’t have to suffer through it,” says Moskoff, 41. “You can come out on the other side with support and the opportunity to grow.”

Rebuilding Your Life

At the tail end of an 18-year relationship, Maggie Toth realized that breaking up was not another DIY project. She tried therapy. “It was helpful,” says the 55-year-old from Superior, “but I ended up feeling stuck, like I needed more.”

Her therapist suggested the Rebuilding Seminar in Boulder. She hesitated at the cost—$600—and she wasn’t excited about two months of serious work, including lectures, workbooks and reading. And then there was the issue of acceptance, having just ended a same-sex relationship.

Skeptical at first, Maggie Toth found the post- breakup course she attended open, welcoming and “an evolutionary process.” (photo courtesy Maggie Toth)
Skeptical at first, Maggie Toth found the post-
breakup course she attended open, welcoming and “an evolutionary process.”
(photo courtesy Maggie Toth)

“I figured this was not for me, because it was going to be very heterosexual,” Toth says. “But it was my pain that finally outweighed my fear.” And it was no ordinary pain, but “the kind that starts in the morning when you get out of bed and stays with you until you are asleep at night, just ruminating throughout your whole body. I was suffering; I felt very alone.”

Three years after graduating, Toth says the course was open and welcoming, and an “evolutionary process” in which she found out her “miserable” relationship was the symptom of core issues that she needed to change (like the type of partner she gravitated toward). She’s now one of the group leaders helping others through the program, and she’s even noticed a small increase (one or two per class) of classmates who are gay or lesbian. “We’re really all the same. Our pain is the same—it’s just a different pronoun.”

Rebuilding is successful because participants are “strongly encouraged” to speak, open up and discover who they are, and there is a no-dating rule during the session, says Boulder’s program founder, Norm Gibson. Gibson worked with Dr. Fisher, whose book has sold more than a million copies in 25 languages.

“The worst thing anyone going through divorce can do is isolate,” Gibson says. At Rebuilding, “we overwhelm them with automatically having 30 or 40 new friends.”

Baby Boomers and Empty-Nesters

Norm Gibson, founder of Boulder’s Rebuilding Seminar, with co-leader Mary Harbison. “The worst thing anyone going through divorce can do is isolate,” he says. (photo courtesy Norm Gibson)
Norm Gibson, founder of Boulder’s Rebuilding Seminar, with co-leader Mary Harbison. “The worst thing anyone going through divorce can do is isolate,” he says.
(photo courtesy Norm Gibson)

Since 2005, the divorce rate in the Boulder and Denver metro areas has steadily remained at 4 percent per thousand residents each year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2014, that amounted to 124,072 individuals who got divorced. “That’s pretty high,” says Gibson, 68, who was divorced in 1995.

Anecdotally, Gibson and others say they see an increase in those 50 years and older attending their seminars—couples ending decades-long relationships.

As to why divorce seems to be trending upward overall, Gibson points to relaxed divorce laws, less stigma and an increase in women becoming better educated and more economically independent. But the recent surge in baby boomers splitting up has more to do with empty-nest syndrome, living longer and refusing to endure unhappy marriages because “there is still a lot to look forward to,” he explains.

Ending a long marriage or commitment often carries a lot of shame, says Mary Harbison, a therapist and life coach who co-leads with Gibson. “I like to think we are normalizing divorce,” she says. “So many people feel like they have made such a big failure, but it’s not that simple.” For instance, baby boomers who got married in their 20s may not be the same people in their 60s and want different things in a life partner, experts say.

While American culture often fails to embrace people changing their definition of family, Harbison says, Rebuilding helps people to see that change can be the healthy choice.

Moskoff, who graduated from the program this spring, says her decision to divorce wasn’t supported by a close friend. “I worked hard to become pretty clear about where I was in my life, and [my friend] just couldn’t meet me in that place,” Moskoff says. “I didn’t want to be judged or second-guessed.”

She gained new friends through Rebuilding, including 15 strangers who showed up at her door to pitch in on her house-moving day, just six weeks into the seminar. “These are people I had only just met and hardly knew,” she says. “It was incredible. They were all smiles and really helped me during what could have been a very traumatic event.”


Other Resources

Divorce coach and mediator Mandy Walker (photo courtesty Mandy Walker)
Divorce coach and mediator Mandy Walker (photo courtesty Mandy Walker)

Promoting a divorce seminar in the shadow of Rebuilding is a David-and-Goliath marketing challenge, says divorce coach and mediator Mandy Walker (pictured at left), 58, who got divorced at age 50. Still, there are alternatives in Boulder, including seminars, online support groups and social events to help those in every stage of the process. Here are a few:

Beyond Divorce Recovery and Empowerment Program is a 10-week, small-group (8-12 people) seminar based on the book Beyond Divorce: Stop the Pain, Rekindle Your Happiness, and Put Purpose Back in Your Life, by divorce coach Jeannine Lee, who co-facilitates the program. It costs $498 and runs three times per year; the next start date is Jan. 10.

“We focus a lot on forgiveness,” says Lee, 61, who lives in Boulder, “because unless you
forgive, you are still tied to the other person and will never be free.” Visit www.rebuildingafterdivorceseminar.com.

Boulder Divorce 911 Meetup is an online informational (not recovery) group for both men and women. It offers weekly $10 classes on basic divorce information, such as finances, parenting and housing choices. Total members: 49.
Divorce 911 is for those who find themselves saying, “Oh my God, my spouse wants a divorce and I have no idea where to start,” says Mandy Walker, who facilitates it.

Wildflower Group is a free online support group just for women with a focus on self-care. It meets monthly at Panera on 29th Street and also is facilitated by Walker. Total members: 133.

“We focus on emotional topics, such as fears about money and dating,” Walker says. “You can come and talk about whatever is on your mind; it’s really supportive without judgment. There is a lot of compassion, and sharing of resources.”

For more information about Divorce 911 and the Wildflower Group, see www.meetup.com or email mandy@mandywalker.com.

—Julie Marshall