There are many reasons for feeling divorce guilt or shame. If we caused the end of the relationship because of addictions, abuse or adultery, those are valid reasons to feel guilt. True sorrow and remorse should be felt and expressed. Amends should be made as much as possible.
But many who come to Midlife Divorce Recovery, also have divorce guilt feelings because of a divorce they did not want. They are ashamed that they couldn’t save their marriage…embarrassed that their ex-husband didn’t think they were worth loving … guilty about disappointing themselves and their family or disappointing God.
And if all of that isn’t enough, without knowing it, people can make us feel guilty after divorce because it’s taking us so long to recover.
Friends and family say dumb things after divorce like:
- “It’s been six months, just move on!”
- “Why would you be sad after the way you’ve been treated?”
- “God hates divorce. You needed to stick it out.”
Most people who haven’t been through divorce, especially after a long marriage, simply don’t understand the gut-wrenching pain that is caused when someone we have loved for most of our adult life now thinks we’re not worth loving. The grieving and healing cycle after divorce is usually much more complicated and longer than most other kinds of grieving. That is often because of the guilt and shame we feel.
After divorce, we feel like a failure. We feel ashamed and embarrassed and guilty, either that we married the wrong person, or that we couldn’t keep our family together, or that we stayed too long or that we just weren’t enough, and hundreds of others things we feel guilty about.
What Is Guilt?
Guilt is one of those helpful emotions we feel when we have hurt someone. Guilt also shows up when we think we have failed at something that was important to us. Most of us, especially after long marriages, are defined by our marriage and by our role as parent. When we think we have failed at two of the most important parts of our lives, we feel shame, guilt and embarrassment after our divorce happens.
Sometimes, the person who was left, takes on guilt that they do not deserve. As women, especially, we feel responsible for how all of our important relationships are doing. We tend to feel guilty even if our ex-husband’s leaving was more about his lack of character than about us.
We often feel guilty for someone else’s bad behavior. And many times, the partner having the affair or leaving the marriage is trying to make us somehow be responsible for their own bad choices.
DO NOT TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR SOMEONE ELSE’S DESTRUCTIVE ACTIONS!
We all make mistakes in our marriage. At times, we all could have done things differently and better. But when our partner says things like, “If you hadn’t gained weight, I wouldn’t have had to go looking for someone else” or “If you hadn’t traveled so much with your job,” or “If you had been more exciting in bed,” I wouldn’t have had to go find someone else.
If there are problems in the marriage, each of us must own up to our own mistakes, and we must also have the guts to speak up and say what’s bothering us. We should not go find someone or something outside of the marriage to solve problems that need to be faced and solved together.
It’s cowardly of any person who sabotages the marriage by having an affair, or watching porn, or developing addictions, and then somehow tries to make those things our fault.
Take responsibility for your own mistakes and your contribution to problems in your marriage. Apologize if you need to. Ask forgiveness if you need to. Make amends and change your behavior …
But DO NOT take responsibility for failures in your relationship that are not your fault, no matter how hard your ex is trying to blame you for the end of the marriage.
Most women, who look for help getting over divorce, didn’t want the divorce. In fact, by the time they get to Midlife Divorce Recovery, they have usually tried everything they could think of to save their marriage. They have tried counseling. They have tried separation or giving him the space he has asked for to “find himself.” (He usually finds himself with another woman!)
At some point, we come to the end of trying to save the marriage, and finally realize we can’t be the person we are meant to be and stay in a relationship that is toxic to us and maybe to our children, too. We finally get to the point of saying “Enough is enough!” and file for a divorce we do not want and tried desperately to prevent.
With that decision, comes the guilt about the divorce and the constant obsessing:
- Why didn’t he think I was enough?
- Why didn’t I see this sooner?
- What could I have done differently?
- Why was another woman (or alcohol, or gambling, or work, or porn) more important that me and our family?
- Why wasn’t he willing to work on our relationship?
- Do men who leave their family regret it?
All of those questions point to some imagined failure in ourselves. We feel guilty for not being able to save our marriage by ourselves … which is impossible.
Not one of those questions has any answer that will either fix things or change where we are. So our only question every day has to be: “Where do I go from here?”
Almost all of us who didn’t want the divorce feel guilty for what it does to our children.
All of us who feel guilty about our divorce, want to get that gnawing pain out of our heart. We see ourselves and the divorce as the source of any problem our children might have. Also, many divorce recovery books make us think that children of divorce are doomed before they even get started. THAT IS NOT TRUE!
By the way, many children wonder why it took us so long to take the step to divorce when they know that our marriage was toxic for everyone. One RADiCAL child said, “Stop! This is embarrassing! What more do you need to see?!”
After the divorce, there are some parents who disappear into their new relationship and pretty much abandon the children. In most cases, both parents try to make life as good as they can after this bombshell. At the same time, most of us try to make sure the kids still “like” us, and feeling guilty about the divorce may make us do things that are not good for our children.
We fall into divorce guilt parenting:
- Thinking we can buy their loyalty or happiness
- Trying to make them reject or dislike the other parent
- Easing up on rules and discipline
- Focusing on them and not on getting better ourselves, which is what children need the most during our divorce.
My son, Grady, developed a program called Parenting Through Divorce that is part of our MasterPlan. He interviewed some of his 30-something friends who had survived the end of their parents’ marriage. He gives his honest look at what children of divorce need and reassures us that they are not damaged forever because of our divorce.
How To Get Rid Of Guilt
The first thing we need to do to get rid of guilt over divorce is to evaluate what we can rightly feel guilty about and what is not our responsibility.
- Acknowledge and fix the mistakes we’ve made the best we can.
- Stop taking responsibility for someone else’s bad behavior.
- Stop continuing to beat ourselves up for mistakes we’ve made in the past.
- Stop letting others make us feel guilty
- Stop feeling guilty for getting out of a relationship that was not good for anyone
- Focus every day on making our life the best we can for us and for those we love.
Often, others make us feel shame after our divorce because we have done something that they feel is wrong. Examples of some external shaming of divorce is when parents, communities or our faith family makes us feel like we are breaking a traditional, moral code, even if divorce is best for us as an individual.
Some older relatives might make us ashamed if they feel like divorce is wrong in God’s eyes. Some churches are judgmental instead of embracing people who are going through divorce.
That needs to change! (We are trying to address that!)
I personally agree that God’s perfect plan is for marriages that last forever. But we are human beings, and we make mistakes. God provides a way to allow people to leave a marriage. A good reference for that theological discussion is Rubel Shelly’s Divorce And ReMarriage: A Redemptive Theology, Leafwood Publishers, Abilene, Texas.
In an article in “Psychology Today,” Beverly Engel, L.M.F.T. talks about the differences in guilt and shame:
“Shame and guilt can feel very similar—with both experiences we feel bad about ourselves. But guilt can be understood as feeling disappointed in oneself for violating an important internal value or code of behavior.
Feeling guilty can be a healthy thing: it can open doors leading to positive behavior and change.
With shame one can also feel a disappointment in one’s self but no value has been violated. As Gershen Kaufman explained in Shame: The Power of Caring, ‘The meaning of the two experiences is as different as feeling inadequate is from feeling immoral.’
Shame is incredibly unhealthy, causing lowered self-esteem (feelings of unworthiness) and behavior that reinforces that self-image. As we are learning more and more, shame can be an extremely debilitating emotion.”
When we let ourselves be overcome with feelings of guilt and shame after divorce, that can lead to depression. Make sure you talk with your physician or counselor about your feelings of sadness, guilt and depression. Some depression is caused by specific events (like divorce). That kind of depression is called “situational depression.” It’s normal, but if it goes on too long, it can morph into a more serious and debilitating kind of depression.
Some things we can do to make sure that we keep our thinking appropriate and helpful.
- Find a divorce recovery program.
- Get connected.
- Get organized.
- Get healthy.
- Take one day at a time.
- Figure out what you want moving forward.
- Have an agenda for healing and creating the life you deserve.
We can help you do all of those important things. Here is a link to our Divorce Recovery/Life Transformation MasterPlan.
Stop feeling guilty and depressed because of your divorce. Take control and get your life back. Get your self back!
Very interesting article and I’m interested in the crash course. I did sign up. I’m 2 years in to my divorce journey. Most of what I read is for women, or at least from a woman’s point of view. For me I was cheated on and left. I was left (thankfully) with the 3 kids. We were married 27 years.
I’d like to see some more gender neutral writing.
I do not normally get involved in other’s personal business, however, this couple is an exception. I am writing for a friend of mine, Carlton. I am very worried about both him and his wife, Charlotte. Carlton recently left Charlotte, recently meaning the last 3 months or so for another woman. We live in a small town and I fear that once it becomes public about his affair he will face terrible shame. It is a surprise to the few of us who know of the affair. His wife, Charlotte adored her husband, Carlton. It is my understanding divorce papers have been filed. I do not know which of them filed for divorce. I feel this couple, my friends got off track and need to realize what all they have together. I worry about my friend, Carlton. The shame, humiliation and shunning he will face from cheating on Charlotte will be astronomical. I would like for him to rethink what he has done by bringing this affair between him and Charlotte. Carlton could not possibly love anyone more than he loves Charlotte. I fear he got wrapped up in the affair and lost sight of what he has in Charlotte. He will face terrible embarrassment, I wish to save my friend from this embarrassment. How can I help him to see what he has done is wrong? How can I help my friends? This woman who came between Carlton and Charlotte needs to go on about her business and leave Carlton alone. Carlton needs to remember the love and care he has for Charlotte. I hate, I mean hate to see Carlton and Charlotte to divorce. Please help them, help me to help them. Please help me to know how to bring my friends back together, to save Carlton from… Read more »
Sadly the piece above was written from a very bias female perspective.
Men have issues of guilt, shame and depression but, according to the article, this is experienced by women. So much for an enlightened viewpoint!
When women say marriage is bad, they are offered support and 85-90% of column and webspace. When man has issues in marriage or more correctly, after the marriage; he is told to manup and stop fussing.
I know that this may have been directed at women who have faced these issues. But don’t lose track of the men who go through the same thing. Not all men are the instigators of divorce.