Starting Over

Starting Over is a self-help book by Thomas A. Whiteman and Randy Peterson, published by Pinon Press in 2001. I found it at McNally Robinson, a Western Canadian chain of bookstores.
Whiteman is real licenced psychologist with a Ph. D. degree from Bryn Mawr, a real university. I don’t take that for granted in the authors of self-help books. He is an entrepreneur, with a counselling practice in Pennsylvania, called Life Counseling Services and a connection to Fresh Start seminars. The book is founded in the working experience of a qualified professional. The appearance is that Whiteman has the experience and the ideas, and collaborated with Peterson to produce a book so I will generally refer to Whiteman as the author.
Since the public, the publishing industry and the counselling professions have been influenced by “recovery”, humanistic, transpersonal and transformational psychology, even qualified professionals often spout pop psychology nonsense in self-help books. While Starting Over is not entirely free of pop psych jargon, it seems to be well grounded in common sense. There is some God-talk in the book and I wondered if this was intended to be useful to evangelical Christians who might have religious problems with the divorce process. I confirmed that later when I Googled Thomas Whiteman and Fresh Start Seminars. Whiteman seems to have developed a Christian-oriented version of his principles through his work with Fresh Start, which is noted at the Fresh Start Web site and other sites like JCSM. In “Starting Over,” he presents his advice in a less religiously oriented manner. His ideas are not particularly religious or faith-based but he makes the effort to help an evangelical Christian accept divorce and accept the idea of remarriage.
Starting Over is for people who did not expect or initiate the end of a relationship. It starts with survival, and tries to get to starting over. It emphasizes taking responsibility for one’s recovery, accepting that recovery is going to be a long, painful process, and that healing requires forgiveness and justice.
Chapter One addresses taking responsibility, which requires consciously recognizing that the marriage is over and taking deliberate steps towards starting over. Divorce isn’t an agreement. If one partner wants to leave, it happens. The writers encourage people to believe that there is a natural healing process which will happen if we take responsibility for working to start over.
They use the theory or image of Five Stages of Grieving in Chapter Two, and through the next few chapters. As I posted last week, the Five Stage theory is only a rough model of the process of grieving for death and dying. I doubt that there is scientific evidence that divorcing people – either the ones who leave or the ones left behind – go through all five steps in any order. Whiteman basically takes the idea of Five Stages and redefines the Stages in terms of divorce. He says that people will slip quickly through the first three stages of Denial, Anger, Bargaining, and Depression and then often slip back and forth between stages before they finally feel better and reach Acceptance. He also says there is a vital extra step.
He defines Denial as a response to emotional shock, in which a person will deny the reality of the situation and will, as a result, be unable to be open to change and to entering into new relationships. He suggests that denial may often last only a few days, although in some cases it last for months or a lifetime. He explains that Anger is natural and legitimate. He suggests expressing anger in legitimate ways, and in framing the issues and identifying anger as a response to perceived mistreatment. He says that it is important to re-examine our perceptions of the breakup as a way of reducing and resolving the anger. He advises avoiding confrontation that will escalate the anger, redirecting energy spent in anger to more constructive projects, and resolving the anger by altering perceptions of the original injustice.
His discussion of Bargaining is brief and to the point. Bargaining with oneself or the ex in the hope of reconciliation is tempting and risky. Usually the other spouse is not open to it, and often the other spouse has an agenda and will manipulate you. You may sell yourself out by being weak in the hope of leaving the door open to reconciliation. You may also bend yourself out of shape by trying to change yourself to please a spouse who will be unhappy with life, no matter what you do. His advice for Depression is to expect it, tolerate it, avoid addictive behaviour, and to get help if it lasts too long or becomes too intense. He explains Acceptance as the end state where you have stopped obsessing about it, and move on with your life. I think he has perhaps taken that Stage out of order, to try to conform to the popular model. He introduces an important sixth step in Chapter Two which he discusses at length in Chapter Five. He advises that we need to aim for forgiveness. More on that later.
Chapters Three and Four state that recovering from the emotional pain of marriage breakdown can take, usually, two years or longer. Progress through the stages is a climb up a slippery slope. Anger and depression will recur. I think he also says that even after passing through the stages, you may need more time and some work on a healthy self view and healthy connections before you should start a new intimate relationship. Whiteman counsels avoiding intimate relationships for a couple of years after a breakup because you will be too fragile and needy and your judgment will be impaired – you will be either too vulnerable or too defensive to succeed. He counsels avoiding rebound relationships. People enter into rebound relationships to prove that they are lovable – to themselves, to the ex who left them. Often a rebound relationship is with a person with the same character as the ex, and has the same weaknesses as the original relationship. Sometimes the rebound relationship is with a person who exploits your vulnerability and need.
Chapter Five discusses forgiveness. Whiteman explains that he does not counsel forgetting the other party’s actions or excusing the other party’s misconduct. Forgiveness is not earned or deserved. Forgiveness is an authentic release of animosity. Whiteman is very careful to explain that forgiveness is not a matter of taking the moral high ground and saying that you have forgiven the other person. He advises that you have to see the person with new eyes, to assess the person realistically and to stop being angry. He suggests that the process will vary, depending on whether the other person wants forgiveness, and whether there is going to be any kind of ongoing relationship. These are not simple terms and concepts. The idea that the other person will want forgiveness means that the other person must be willing to meet and hear your grievances and acknowledge that he or she has harmed you. An ongoing relationship doesn’t mean a reconciliation. It may refer to custody and access arrangements with the kids, working in the same company or profession, going to the same Church, belonging to the same clubs and organizations, or just being in the same circle of friends.
He suggests that it is appropriate, where the other person is open, to discuss each person’s the grievances in neutral language, and resolve the animosity – even if there no ongoing relationship. If there is going to be a relationship, but the other person acts as if you as if you are entirely in the wrong, it is still possible to state your views, be heard and move on. His view of the importance of forgiveness may reflect an underlying theological approach to psychology, but his view is also logical and supported within conventional scientific models of pyschology.
Chapter Six is about Self View. He puts forward some of the standard ideas about developing a positive outlook and taking care of oneself. He refers at one point to the slippery concept of self-talk, and he lapses into some jargon in this Chapter. Mainly, he puts himself at a distance from the popular ideas of entitlement and self-esteem. He advises that we should develop a balanced view of ourselves as valuable people in a community of valuable people. We shouldn’t feel deprived or denied if we have not enjoyed great achievements, and we shouldn’t demand praise or flattery for slight achievements. We should take care of ourselves and respect others. We should examine ourselves and let go of emotional baggage that contributes to an incorrect or unfair self-appraisal. As with all advice in self-help books, the advice in this Chapter can be taken selectively, but Whiteman does his best to be clear and helpful.
I can deal with the rest of the book quickly. Chapter Seven encourages participation in wider communities and discourages isolation. It warns that we need to look at the explicit and implicit message we get from our friends and to discount the messages that support an unhealthy self view or unhealthy behaviour. Chapter Eight encourages supporting and helping others.


One response to “Starting Over”

  1. Your review and notes are thorough and detailed. Sounds like you’re giving the book an honest examination. I hope you find its guidance and suggestions useful as you deal with recent events. – Randy

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