"When Will I Be Loved?" (Monday at 9 on NBC) focuses on three women who meet in a divorce lawyer's office and help each other through the separating-and-starting-over.

They wouldn't have met in any other circumstance, said Katherine Helmond, who plays the eldest. But because they have something in common, they become friends and help each other through the separating-and-starting over.

Helmond plays Barbara Patterson, whose life has been built around her husband (Michael Tolan) and who, when he wants a younger model, finds she has no persona of her own. Stefanie Powers and Crystal Bernard (of "Wings") are the other two women, Maxie Howard and Julie Weston.

"This piece is a bit of a melodrama," said Helmond. "One of the things it does say is how divorce affects people from three different walks of life, three different backgrounds, three different ages. It's mainly a woman's point of view."

Helmond is better known to TV sitcom fans as Judith Light's free-thinking mother, Mona, on ABC's "Who's the Boss?" But this time, she's not so sassy.

"The character I play I have a great deal of empathy with because I have seen this happen," she said. "It's a woman who has a rich, powerful husband and she is one of his possessions. She is an asset: She dresses well, she entertains well, and her life is totally wrapped around him. When the divorce comes, she is a nonperson. All of her contribution to his career and comfortable life at home had no value past the day that they were divorced.

"It's kind of difficult for some people to sympathize with because she's going to get some alimony. What they don't realize is she becomes a zero; she has no background, no tenure in a job. All their friends are his friends, wrapped around his business. After all of the things she did well and graciously, she's having to compete with women 20 years younger."

But, Helmond said, Bernard's character is young and pregnant; the older woman can lend help at a time when the younger woman's husband (Christopher Meloni) is absent.

"Suddenly someone needs her again and that helps her past that time. Her involvement with that younger woman brings that vitality and that life, so she's helped past that time.

"The other aspect of this that I really liked is that it shows these three women who ordinarily would never get to meet each other -- or if they did, would never socialize -- they bond together. Bonding to other women, they see that there is support out there, there is sympathy, there is help and people who have great worth and value.

"It's about finding your own self-worth first of all and not pinning everything in your life on a relationship with a man. You have to find your own values and self-worth and independence; then marriage and a family can be an adjunct to your life. You have to be happy in yourself."

Having worth and value are important to Helmond, 56, who left Galveston, Tex., many years ago without family backing and without training, except for high school and community theater work, but full of belief in her own abilities.

Since then, she has appeared in television and movies and on stage, including much summer stock (she ran her own theater in the Catskills in the '50s) and repertory theater.

Many of her movies have a strange sense of comedy or the supernatural, among them "Time Bandits" and "Brazil" for Terry Gilliam; "Family Plot" for Alfred Hitchcock, Phillip Saville's "Shadey" and Frank LaLoggia's "Lady in White." Even on television, she has leaned toward the unusual, such as the offbeat series "Soap" and her role as Mona on the otherwise conventional sitcom "Who's the Boss?"

She has also taught acting at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York and at Brown and Carnegie Mellon universities.

Her career has earned her many kudos, including the New York Drama Critics Variety Award, the Los Angeles Drama Critics Award and the Lawrence Derwent Award (for "House of Blue Leaves"), the Golden Globe Award, and Obie, Tony (for Eugene O'Neill's "Great God Brown") and five Emmy nominations.

And in the divorce-filled world of Hollywood, she has been married only once, to set designer/artist David Christian, a fellow Texan she met the summer of 1962 while performing at New Hampshire's Hampton Playhouse. They moved to New York, where he designed sets to support his love of painting and she worked as a secretary so she could act evenings.

Just because she's never gone through divorce doesn't mean she's unfamiliar with its pains, she said.

"Many times, if you stand outside a situation and you observe -- and I have unfortunately observed divorces in my own family and friends -- sometimes when you're outside the arena you can look in with a clearer eye than when you're emotionally caught up in it. I've observed women in various backgrounds and ages just falling to pieces.

"It seems that divorce is such an easy answer -- let's say, people jump to it because they think it's going to be an easy answer. I don't think people are prepared for marriage and I don't think they're prepared for divorce."

"When Will I Be Loved" was written by Nancy Sackett and executive-produced by Gladys Nederlander and Winifred Gorlin for Nederlander Television and Film Productions.

The director is Michael Tuchner, whom Helmond described as "an Englishman who has a working wife and who has been through a conservative, middleclass, organized marriage with the two children, and it ended in divorce. He couldn't understand what went wrong. So he grew up, and when he remarried, he married a woman who is a career woman. He has a very, very sympathetic point of view."