When Bruce Smith faced divorce in 2006, he didn't know where to turn. Like many men, he found it difficult to admit that he needed help and was confused about what to do. Now the 53-year-old Smith, a father and stepfather who works in product management, is easing the way for other men facing this difficult life passage.
Five years ago, Smith founded a grass-roots group for divorcing men called the Divorce Men's Network. The Minnetonka-based nonprofit, supported through sponsorships, membership fees and donations, offers men everything from legal advice to dating tips. With the organization's anniversary celebration coming up Saturday, Smith, now remarried, talked about the group's growth, challenges and why he's adamant that his is not a "men's rights" group.
Q: You were divorced 10 years ago. When you look back, were there signs that your marriage was in trouble?
A: I knew there were problems, and my ex-wife and I were both unhappy, but I did not think it would end in divorce. When I was laid off, I think the relationship started to suffer even more. Still, when the "D" word came up, it seemed to come out of the blue. Years later, as I researched divorce, I found out that divorces actually increase if the man is the major breadwinner and he is laid off, because household financial security lessens.
Q: What was the biggest challenge of being divorced?
A: Not being able to see my sons every night. I was the dad who read my kids stories every night and put them to bed. The thought of divorce was heartbreaking for me. Then you've got this scary, mystical divorce process to navigate and the war stories of people spending tens of thousands of dollars getting divorced. It's hard to make sense of it all. What many men don't realize is that divorce is an identity crisis on steroids. Our roles as a husband and parent are shattered. Guys don't know how to handle that.
Q: Do you think divorcing men's challenges are different from women's?
A: Like with women, there's fear, a lot of shame and guilt. Both sides experience those for different reasons. But with men, society has brought us up to be fixers, supporters of the relationship. We're supposed to have the answers. When we feel confused, sad or scared, we're supposed to "man up." Reaching out for help is seen as a sign of weakness.
Q: You emphasize that you're not a "men's rights organization." Why is that?
A: We're not a bunch of men beating our chest saying, "Things are not fair." We don't try to change laws or lobby legislators. We focus on what we can control and work toward by using an unbiased process. Our mission is to be a positive experience for men impacted by divorce by providing education, support and advocacy.
Q: How easy is it to get men to come to your meetings?
A: That's the biggest challenge we have as an organization. Women gravitate toward support, but men think that it's "weak" to ask for help. So we approach advertising differently. We don't define our organization as a support group. We're all about education. We bring in divorce industry professionals to share insights. For example, project coach Peggy Carlson has come to our group a few times to offer low-cost tips on how to create change in your home. That's important because positive change in your home helps anchor personal change. It's a visual reminder. We also bring in a broad range of experts offering legal and dating advice, ideas for defining your personal mission and values, and creating emotional strength. We have a writing therapist and a personal trainer.
Q: Has that strategy led to growth?
A: Absolutely. Five years ago, through our meetup group — meetup.com/thedivorcedguys — we held our first class with one person. Now we have more than 250 meetup group members, and we hold two to four meetings a month. We primarily serve the seven-county metro area, with meetings at libraries and community rooms. Men range in age from their mid-20s to their late 60s. About 90 percent of them are fathers. Our goal is to expand nationally and internationally.
Q: Do you charge for meetings, or is it donation-based?
A: We understand that divorce can be financially hard for many men, so we try to keep membership costs low. The first meeting is free. Then we offer a six-month membership for $50, and a year for $90. We're also working to create a scholarship fund to assist men in a difficult financial situation. We won't turn anyone away.
Q: You like to offer fellow divorced men your "PREVAIL" philosophy. Might you share it here?
A: Sure. I created "PREVAIL" as a way for men to focus on seven strategies that will help them thrive as they move through divorce: Peace (such as meditation), Relaxation (hobbies), Exercise, Volunteerism, Allies (like-minded friends), Inscription (such as journaling or taking a writing class) and Limits. Each strategy is scientifically proven to manage emotions or create happiness.