Voting to expel a group member

The author recalls a group intervention experience involving an individual who's outside behavior was in direct conflict with his group behavior, thus jeopardizing his true progress

By John Breeskin, PhD, ABPP

The event that I am writing about has happened to me three times in 50 years of running groups and, as far as I'm concerned, this is three times too many. I do wish, however, to provide guidance to my colleagues in terms of the issues involved in order to give them a systematic way of looking at this possible event. Eric, a mid-20s young man, was a member of my men's group. He sought our help in order to respectfully terminate a relationship that he felt was no longer viable. His soon-to-be ex-wife was not interested in any therapeutic intervention either for herself or for the two of them so the prognosis was terminal.

The group and I laboriously constructed a series of small behavioral steps that Eric was asked to take in order to bring about the desired termination. Eric agreed with the program in our discussions but found himself unable to follow through on his own over a six-week period. He would sheepishly report that although he had promised us not to call his wife, he found himself dialing her number in a manner that he called “automatic.” He stated that since they were talking to each other he could not really hang up without seeming rude, and the conversations would end up with the two of them screaming negativity at each other.

Similarly, although he promised not to do this, he “found” himself driving his car past her house late at night and waited for her to come home observing whether or not she had a companion with her or not.

He was unable to explain the contradictions between his agreements with us and his behavior. These events occurred repetitively. Finally, I addressed the group, including Eric, saying the following: “Eric, this intervention is simply not working. You are failing to keep promises that you are making to us and it is obvious that your behavior inside the group is not matching your behavior outside of the group.

It is time to vote upon the question as to whether or not group is the appropriate therapeutic intervention. I'm going to suggest the following format.

Each member of the group, you and I both included, will publicly vote for your continued attendance. The vote must be unanimous in order to be carried. When we vote, we will tell you the reason that we are voting the way that we do.”

The poll was taken and the results were unanimous, Eric included. He was voted out of the group and continued with me in individual therapy for a prolonged period of time which enabled him to work through his feelings of dependency and abandonment. It took six months before he was able to accept the fact that his marriage was over and it was time for him to move on. The sticky dynamics which caught both he and his wife were both fear of abandonment and negative co-dependency.

The event that precipitated his reaching that conclusion was totally weird. Eric was strongly attached to a pet cat that, since he and his wife had not had children was the equivalent of their child. The cat, unfortunately, was run over and killed by a car. The death of the cat in some mysterious way precipitated his ability to appropriately mourn for his losses.

At the present time, Eric is happily married and he and his new wife are raising two wonderful children. This article seriously lacks elegance and any empirical database. Life on the street does not follow a predictable pattern. While the details are, of course, idiosyncratic, I hope that the theme can be discerned.

My name for the theme, following the work of Ervin Staub (2008), is Altruism Born of Sorrow.


Staub, E. (2008). Altruism born of suffering: The roots of caring and helping after victimization and other trauma. "American Journal of Orthopsychiatry", 78(3), 267-280.