Chapter 8: Growth Groups for Singles

Growth Groups
by Howard J. Clinebell, Jr.

Chapter 8: Growth Groups for Singles

Now the loneliness of the single parent is a strange thing . . . children . . friends and relatives . . . and yet, over and over again, single parents speak of an "overwhelming recognition that I am alone," or of "realizing that I had to get on with it alone."

Parents Without Partners1

Life has more than enough frustration for all of us, but many who are divorced, widowed, or unmarried have even heavier loads. The more than 38 million single adults in the United States2 live with loneliness, pressures and life experiences which are hard for most married persons to imagine. In these circumstances, growth groups can be particularly need-fulfilling.

If you're single -- by choice or by circumstance -- you probably have to work hard at building the need-satisfying relationships which all of us must have to survive. Here a growth group can be an asset, If divorce or desertion has left you single, a group is an investment in your future -- a way to that difficult depth-learning which may help you avoid another marital booby trap. If the cruel hand of death has touched you, a group can help you cope with your loss. If you have the tough assignment of being a two-in-one parent to your children, a group of caring adults can be a sanity-saver. If the single state is what you prefer or have little chance of changing via matrimony, a group may help you establish other satisfying relationships. If your aim is to exchange your singleness for marriage, a group may increase the possibilities of developing a good relationship.

Groups for Unmarried Young Adults

A young adult growth group was my introduction to the power of this method. Twenty-five years ago, my wife and I met weekly (from 6:00 to 7:30 A.M.!) with six to eight single young adults. Our goals were -- to deepen our lives, strengthen our relationships and our faith, and discover ways to serve others more effectively. As a stimulus to sharing, we committed ourselves to certain reading and disciplines. Although I have learned much about small groups since that first exposure, I will always be grateful for the meaning that group generated for us as searching young adults.

Some unmarried young adults suffer from the freezing porcupines' dilemma(Schopenhauer's fable describes two porcupines who alternately huddled together to avoid freezing and were repelled by the pain from each other's quills.) -- they have intense needs for closeness yet cannot risk it because of fear of being hurt. Growth groups can provide emotional re-education3 in how to get close to others so that one can discover that it's worth the risk. Achieving emotional/physical intimacy is the key growth task of young adults. Overcoming blocks to intimacy at this stage prevents the person from adopting distancing as a permanent life-style, and frees him to have deeply satisfying relationships (in or out of marriage ). A group can help young adults increase those relationship skills which foster the intimacy essential to happiness for the single person or the married.

Patricia told her sharing group about her three unhappy engagements, each terminated by her. The group confronted her with questions about her pattern. At first she rejected Larry's comment that he "wondered if she would find a flaw in other candidates too." But, as she became aware of blocks in relating to men in the group, her broken engagements began to have new meaning. Eventually she could face and work on her fear of closeness to males -- a fear that had become evident in the group.4

Growth groups are more than places to deal with hang-ups which otherwise diminish relationship enjoyment. Our culture ordinarily provides relatively shallow interaction between the sexes during dating and courtship (even if sexual intercourse is involved as it often is). The dating games that youth are programmed to play by our society, hide real needs, fears, and vulnerabilities. Growth groups encourage in-depth communication and allow persons to know each other without masks.

Many young adults, single and married, are searching for commitments that excite them. Groups can help such persons develop viable life directions that move beyond the necessary narcissism of youth to the generativity of adulthood. Finding the place where one's talents and the world's needs intersect isn't easy. But when it happens, tremendous growth occurs in both vocational and avocational areas. That first young adult group, mentioned above, aimed at becoming a cell of a more humane society. It expressed its intention in practical terms, by living frugally, contributing substantially (and encouraging others to contribute) to a fund for overseas relief.

Growth Groups for Older Unmarrieds

The marriage- and family-centeredness of our society creates an excluding climate for the unmarried. Furthermore, social prejudices and stereotypes toward older unmarried women make all their other problems in living more difficult. Deabsolutizing marriage and opening many socially valued options for women are objectives of Women's Liberation. As society moves toward these goals, growth groups can help free unmarried women ( and men) to use their human potentials for enjoyment in living and fulfillment in relationships. Groups are particularly helpful in repairing the self-esteem damage of feeling a failure regardless of one's other accomplishments or a "reject" because one has not married.

Older unmarried men also encounter alienating social prejudices. One of these is the tacit assumption that they must necessarily have mother attachments or other neurotic problems, illustrating again that persons are not free to choose not to marry, without social stigma.

Sometime between thirty-five and forty-five, many single women confront the crisis that they probably will not marry.5 Facing this crisis honestly and working through feelings about it, with the help of a group, can free a person to develop a more creative style of singlehood.

The growth perspective helps one to see the positive possibilities of being single. One of these is the opportunity to use the enormous time and energy, which most couples invest in childrearing, in other forms of satisfying and socially useful creativity. (Childless couples also have this opportunity of course.) Another is the freedom and the motivation (need) to develop new models of relating. There's no logical reason why one lifestyle -- marriage -- should be regarded as superior to every other. A single person can help develop a variety of other fulfilling options. A third positive thrust in singleness is inescapable motivation to keep growing as a person. Many married persons can avoid facing their emotional immaturity because its protected by a neurotic marriage. This protection carries the high price of mutual stifling of personal growth. It's much harder for a single person to avoid the challenge to continue personal development. A singles growth group can help one escape from the tripletrap of self-pity, self-rejection, and self-isolation. It can boost the "I'm O.K." feelings that liberate energy for using the positive potentials of singlehood. Just relating deeply to a small group of caring people increases feelings of interpersonal adequacy and cope-ability. It can help one establish family-like relationships to nurture continuing development. Such supportive relationships become increasingly important in overcoming the threat of loneliness in the mature years.

Bereavement Recovery Groups

Bereavement is the result of a psychological amputation. The wounded spirit heals gradually through an inner process called "grief work." In our death-denying society, normal grief work is often blocked and delayed. Beneath the surface, the wound remains unhealed. Frequently the unfinished grief produces destructive consequences. Counseling relationships often reveal that the onset of marital problems and of neurotic or psychosomatic symptoms followed a deep, largely-unresolved loss experience.

The raw, human suffering which could be alleviated by a network of support and sharing groups for bereaved persons is beyond imagination. Such groups offer encouragement to complete one's own grief work and to be a resource to others going through similar shadowed valleys. Growth groups have great potential for liberating grief-trapped people to say "Yes!" to life again.

Operation Second Life for young widows of men killed in Vietnam is a continuing growth group led by two psychiatrists at a Navy hospital in California. It meets two hours weekly with from six to ten members. None of the participants needs psychiatric help in the usual sense. Group membership is always changing as women recover from their grief and graduate after several months. One of the leaders describes the reality-therapy approach used:

The orientation of this group is viewed in the framework of health and normalcy (though) no attempt is made to curtail or suppress the normal mourning reaction. The major focus of the group meetings is on the "here and now" and on gaining an increased understanding of one's individual human potential. Although the past is not ignored, the emphasis is on helping each participant to better understand her own attributes and strengths.6

Discussion ranges widely -- coping with children as both mother and father, decisions about where to live, feelings about the war, dealing with the reactions of in-laws, remarriage. One woman who hesitated to join the group, recalls: "At first I thought it would be very depressing with other widows, but I find it's very comfortable -- comforting. There is an understanding (among us) that is almost like a bond." The psychiatrist believes it is this bond and the deep, supportive, and lasting friendships in the group which account, in part, for the rapid recovery from bereavement. He believes the program provides "an opportunity for a group of people sharing a common life tragedy to exchange constructive ideas, thoughts, and experiences which help them to deal with their lives in a more effective and satisfactory manner."7

In every community, groups for rebuilding life after major losses, sponsored by churches and counseling agencies, should be available. Leaders of such groups should keep in mind the two intertwined dimensions of recovery from loss:

1. The feeling-catharsis aspect involves experiencing and re-experiencing the pain of the loss and talking through the powerful feelings which otherwise may block the healing -- guilt, resentment, self-pity, loss of meaning, anger, powerlessness, bitterness, deprivation, and fear. The leader, in this phase, encourages group members to talk about the lost person and his death. Experiencing the pain of this is part of the healing. If the leader suspects that guilt is infecting the grief wound, he may ask: 'What would you do differently if you had a chance to live the relationship over again?" Talking openly about one's guilt feelings in an accepting group takes the sting out of all except neurotic guilt.7 Letting go internally of one's dependence on the lost person for satisfaction of heart-hungers is the difficult but essential transition to the second dimension of recovery.

2. The re-entry-action aspect of recovery involves rebuilding one's life minus the lost person and taking action to find new sources of need-fulfillment. After the first agonizing days, when the feeling task is central, there is a back and forth movement in the recovery process, between dealing with feelings and coping with the new demands of the reality situation. A growth group can help a person think through and evaluate the options open to him and then encourage him to begin taking small constructive steps. The action becomes part of the healing process one feels better as one uses coping muscles to improve the external situation,

Persons who give no indication of recovering from their loss in a growth group may be suffering from a deeply infected grief wound. If so, getting the person to a skilled psychotherapist is essential.8

Growth Groups for Divorced Persons

Both death and divorce involve loss of spouse, sexual deprivation, change of status, and often economic problems. But, unlike the bereaved, the divorced person has few social guidelines to help him with his feelings and behavior; furthermore, he is more likely to experience judgmentalism from others and deep failure feelings in himself. Divorce, and the disintegrating relationship which led to it, often leave a grief wound infected by violent, conflicted feelings. Unless these are resolved and the wound heals, subsequent relationships will be distorted.

Some people move to greater maturity by using the pain of divorce as growth stimulus. Many, however, carry their problems -- which contributed to the demise of the first marriage -- directly into subsequent relationships. Outside help (e.g., a counselor, or growth group) is usually essential if divorce is to be used as a significant growth opportunity. A well-functioning growth group can help one get a bead on one's problem-causing patterns and attitudes, facilitating change and thus preparing one for better relationships in the future.

A primary goal of post-divorce groups should be to enhance emotional maturity, the absence of which produces immense marital suffering. Berne's TA system is useful. According to this, emotional maturity is the degree of one's ability to keep the Adult side functioning in relationships; emotional immaturity is the degree of dominance of one's relationships by the Child side. The degree of emotional maturity can be recognized by the extent to which one gives love ( rather than just taking it ), tolerates frustration, possesses self-esteem, acts responsibly, respects differences in others, controls his impulses, perceives reality accurately, and empathizes with the feelings of others. Growth in these ways is the best preparation for remarriage (or any other close relationship).

Single Parents Growth Groups

Charles Stewart tells of a retreat for fifty persons, all facing the problem of one-parent families:

Each one had a "story" which needed to be told but which, because of isolation, the hurry of work and care of children, or just plain lack of friends, had not been told to any emotional depth. As a totality they were "hungry for group life", and the retreat was set up to provide them with just that experience.... Each one, in small groups, talked in detail with other widows, widowers, and divorcees about their personal lives . . . they did not need encouragement to talk. They went at it the first night until past midnight, and I don't believe some slept at all the second night.9

Stewart found that they were concerned about the separation process involved in divorce or the death of a mate, the crises of rearing children alone, coping with the pervading sense of loneliness, handling the sex drive, and finding the powers of faith to overcome the "givens" of their situations.

Thirteen percent of U.S. families (one out of every seven and a half) have only one parent as a result of death, desertion, separation, divorce, or an unmarried parent. Growth groups can serve the needs of these parents:

By providing a support group to reduce loneliness, resolve grief, develop new relationship skills.

By giving substitute family ties for the children, thus reducing the heavy pressure of dependency on the single parent.

By letting the parent check out problems in child-rearing, always complicated by the necessity to be a two-in-one parent, with an experienced and caring group of adults.

Parents Without Partners (and similar organizations) offers ongoing support groups in local communities. What is needed, in addition, are ad hoc groups with a specific growth orientation, sponsored by churches, schools, and community organizations, including PWP.

Starting a Mixed Group

In a workshop for growth group leaders, the five single persons agreed to provide a "live" learning experience regarding growth groups for singles.10 We sat in a small circle -- two widows in their middle years, two young adult bachelors, a bachelor girl in her thirties, and myself as group facilitator -- surrounded by the other workshop participants.

To become connected as a group, we put our hands in a stack in the center, closed our eyes, and experienced being together. Then we talked about how we felt -- then and there, including our feelings about being observed. The outer circle was forgotten, for the most part, in the ensuing interaction. The recently bereaved woman shared her continuing struggles and grief. Several reached out to her with a touch. The other widow, resonating to the sharing by the first, spoke feelingfully about her marriage: "I still miss him terribly. I sing in the choir because I can't bear to sit alone in church."

The openness of feeling and risking took the whole group to a significant level. The unmarried woman (successful in her profession) described feelings of envy of the widows for their having been married and of the men for being able to take the initiative in relating to the other sex. The men shared experiences of "near misses," one having changed his mind only a few weeks before the wedding date. He expressed bafflement at why he had suddenly felt he had to withdraw just before moving into marriage on two occasions. He accepted the leader's invitation to see if he could get some light on what puzzled him. A significant clue may have emerged from this interchange:

Leader: What picture comes to your mind when you think of marriage? Dwight: My parents' marriage -- strictly all work and no play, rather dull.

Leader: It sounds as though marriage feels like a life of drudgery to you -- almost like being sentenced to boredom.

After about thirty-five minutes of interaction, each person was invited to describe any directions of continuing growth which he had in mind. After this, the debriefing of the experience began. Even though it was a demonstration, real feelings were involved. Therefore, each person in the "growth group" was invited to discuss how he felt about the experience. Generally, the feelings ( including the facilitator's ) were of having had a much too brief, but genuinely meaningful, sharing -- and a sadness that it was not feasible to continue as a group. I expressed my gratitude for their willingness to be open. We closed with a nonverbal group good-by and the discussion was opened to the other workshop members.

Sex and the Single Person's Growth

Conflicts and frustrations about sex are discussed frequently in singles groups which reach a level of honest sharing. Complicated enough for most of us, sex is a doubly difficult area for unmarried adults. For them, "abstinence and sublimation" are the only options which society and most churches have recognized as not "off limits" ethically. The majority ignore this advice,11 but often at the price of guilt and inner conflict. Because of this, sex is often separated from relationships of trust, commitment, and caring.

In dealing with the issue of sex in a growth group, it's important to recognize that many of our culture's attitudes toward sex are contradictory and dehumanizing. The group should help individuals deal with their inner conflicts and rethink their personal values in terms of what constitutes person-enhancing sexuality for them. Many people (single and otherwise) hurt themselves and others by merely rebelling against old straightjacket morality instead of struggling through to new values which are genuinely life-affirming.

Some basic changes are needed to humanize our mixed-up society which glamorizes sex on the one hand and officially denies it to 38 million adults on the other.12 In the meantime, growth groups can help young adults who are striving to find ways to live constructively as human and sexual beings.

Churches and other organizations should sponsor both all-singles and mixed married-singles groups. As is true of any group in a common age category or life situation, singles groups offer an opportunity to concentrate on the special problems and challenges related to that situation and to learn from each other's experiences. On the other hand, some single people prefer mixed groups and feel "segregated' if only singles groups' are open to them. From the growth perspective, married and single persons are much more alike than they are different. The unifying concern of growth groups -- developing one's fullest humanity -- transcends the many differences which divide us. Homogeneous groups have an important function but so do mixed groups.


Additional Reading Single Growth Groups

("L" = of interest primarily to GG leaders)

Egleson, Jim and Janet, Parents Without Partners' A Guide for Divorced, Widowed, or Separated Parents. New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1961.

L Goode, William J., After Divorce. Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1956.

Hugen, M. D. The Church's Ministry to the Older Unmarried. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1958.)

Jackson, Edgar, Understanding Grief. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1956.

L Schlesinger, Benjamin, The One-Parent Family. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969.



1. Jim and Janet Egleson, Parents Without Partners, A Guide for Divorced, Widowed, or Separated Parents p. 16.

2. The figure is higher now. In 1960, there were 21 million single women and 17 million single men.

3. If the fear of intimacy is intense, psychotherapy rather than a growth group is needed. Many older adults, married and single, suffer from the freezing porcupines' conflict.

4. Examples of young adult men with similar relationship problems could be cited. The "carefree bachelor" image is often a myth.

5. This crisis is discussed in an illuminating manner in Hugen's book, The Church's Ministry to the Older Unmarried.

6. Linda Mathews, "Viet Widows: A Side of War that Few See," Los Angeles Times, June 2, 1909, Part I, p. 3.

7. For a discussion of the distinction between neurotic and appropriate guilt see Clinebell, Basic Types of Pastoral Counseling, pp. 224-25.

8. See Jackson's Understanding Grief, Chaps. 11 and 12, for a discussion of pathological grief.

9. Newsletter, Institute for Advanced Pastoral Studies, November, 1965, p.4.

10. This account provides a glimpse into the inner world of single people; it is presented with the permission of the group members.

11. Kinsey's studies showed that among single persons over 35, 87 percent of men and 48 percent of women had had intercourse at some time.

12. A task force of the United Presbyterian Church explored the issue of sex and single adults; it challenged the right of society to impose celibate standards on adults who do not choose them. Affirming marriage as the primary pattern of sexual relating does not preclude developing "a plurality of patterns which will make a better place for the unmarried.'' The report concluded: "Sexual expression with the goal of developing a caring relationship is an important aspect of personal existence and cannot be confined to the married and about-to-be married.'' I.D.O.C., "Sexuality and the Human Community,' January 30, 1971, p. 63.