When Nancy's husband left her after 25 years of marriage, she suffered "a terrible feeling of rejection, a horrible depression."
For Judy, "the hardest thing was trying to leave the kids out of it."
John, who had been married just 6 months when he discovered that his bride was having an affair, "went through a whole span of feelings--abandonment, embarrassment."
Gwen's marital breakup left her with the sense that she "was completely alone in the world."
All four victims of marriages gone bad found solace and unity in Divorce Anonymous, a support group that meets weekly.
Nancy and Gwen, who along with the others asked that their last names not be printed, last year helped establish an Orange County chapter of the Los Angeles-based organization. About a dozen participants--some returning, some new--show up for the free meetings, held every Monday night at the YWCA in Orange (for information, call (714) 633-4950).
The "DA" program follows the 12-step approach of Alcoholics Anonymous, focusing on internal strengths rather than external blame. "As in AA, our philosophy is to take one day at a time," Gwen said.
Discussions are more conversational than structured. "Our meetings aren't monitored by a therapist," Gwen said. "We give each other support and advice."
"Many times, people return to the group after dropping out for a while," Nancy said. "Going through a divorce is like being on a roller coaster. You can be up one day, down the next. It's nice to know (Divorce Anonymous) is there when you need it."
Sometimes therapy alone is not enough, explained the 52-year-old Laguna Beach woman. "I've been in therapy ever since separating from my husband 3 years ago," Nancy said. "But this group helps me in a different way because you're with people who are going through the same things.
"Our stories are always so similar that it sounds as if we were all married to the same person," Nancy added with a laugh. "That helps. You look at these other people who are all wonderful, and you realize that even wonderful people get left."
"It's easier to see your own problems in someone else than it is in yourself; you learn from seeing how other people are reacting to the same difficulties you're experiencing," said Judy, who described her ex-husband as a "womanizer."
Most participants are, in DA jargon, the "dumpees"--spouses who were abandoned. And most participants are women.
"We've noticed in the group that the men who are dumped are at first devastated but recover a lot faster than the women," said Judy, 56, of Anaheim. "Men tend to remarry sooner because there are more single women than single men in the over-40 age brackets. Also, women many times have to start over, whereas men already have jobs."
Gwen, 48, married her high school sweetheart right after graduation, immediately started having children and never pursued a college education. "Even talking about having a career of my own was an insult to (her husband); it meant that he couldn't take care of his family," she said.
Today Gwen temporarily lives with her daughter in Orange while taking college classes. "I still don't know the direction to go in," she said. "I need to get some kind of training."
On the day her husband left her 2 years ago, Gwen panicked at the thought of being alone. "I was obsessing on the fact: How am I going to stay by myself tonight?" Gwen recalled. "Now I almost laugh at that."
A rare male participant in Divorce Anonymous, John cautiously waited until age 34 before marrying last summer. "I didn't take marriage lightly; I really thought that I had found the right person," he said.
He and his fiancee dated and then lived together for a total of 2 years before their marriage. So when he realized her infidelity only a few months after their wedding, he "was thrown for a loop."
"It was quite a blow," John said. "The marriage meant a lot to me."
After spotting a notice for Divorce Anonymous in the newspaper, John tentatively attended a meeting. "The first night I went, I didn't say much; I just listened," he remembered. "They made me feel welcome, anyway. You don't have to talk if you don't want to.
"You begin to open up after a couple of meetings. I thought what happened to me must have never happened to anyone else in the entire world, but I learned that wasn't true. When I finally told the group about my experience, another man said, 'You just described my wife.' "
That feeling of commonality, participants agree, is the magic of Divorce Anonymous.
"Your friends don't know how to react; you get a lot of free advice," John said. "But divorce is something you have to go through yourself in order to understand everything involved."
"Friends and relatives can listen to you for only so long," Judy said. Divorce Anonymous, she said, "is a good place to go to talk things out."