Healing divorce guilt takes time and patience.
“I realized, it is not the time that heals, but what we do within that time that creates positive change.” ~Diane Dettman
One of the hardest things about ending my marriage was the divorce guilt I felt in the aftermath of the separation. My son has Microcephaly, a neurological disorder, and I spent a lot of time worrying if he’d really be able to process what had happened.
The divorce guilt found its way into my bedroom at night, in the form of thoughts that plagued my mind: How could you do this? You’re so selfish! This is the worst thing you could have done to him! On and on the mind churned with these comments, most of which came in the form of self-attacks.
Because the feeling of guilt was so strong, an equally strong reaction developed in response. I felt the need, because of my guilt, to defend and rationalize why I had left my marriage. It was as if I lived in a constant state of justifying, to myself and to anyone else who would listen, why I was the good guy and why my Ex was the bad monster. I lived for almost a year between these two extremes. On the one hand, tremendous guilt, and on the other, tremendous righteousness.
I wanted so badly to get rid of the guilty ache in my body and, a few months after the separation, I found myself reading every book I could find on self-forgiveness. I even traveled across the country to attend a seminar with a famous forgiveness teacher, all in the hopes of ridding myself of this constant feeling of guilt that just wouldn’t quit.
Nothing worked. Try as I might, I just couldn’t make this feeling stop. Then, after doing some inner work on myself, the guilt finally began to lift. Since that time, I’ve talked to many friends and clients who’ve also faced extreme guilt after choosing to leave their marriages.
Below, I share what I learned about divorce guilt in the hopes that it will support others on this journey as well.
Consider that You Didn’t End the Relationship
This may seem strange, and you might find yourself saying, “Well, yes, I did end the relationship, after all I was the one that left!” While you might have been the one that walked out the door, filed the divorce papers, or called it quits, that action did not occur in a vacuum. Often, the one that leaves the marriage ends up being painted as the bad guy. What so many people don’t understand though is that leaving the relationship was the final step in a process.
It’s important for you to examine what that process was. I myself felt so guilty for leaving, for giving up on marriage, for breaking my wedding vows. At one point in the course of doing work on myself, a therapist asked me: “When did your ex first leave you? When did you first feel that your ex wasn’t participating in your relationship?” It was a powerful question that truly helped to balance my own guilt. I recognized that many times along the way, we had both emotionally ‘left’ the relationship. This helped to balance out the view of myself as the bad one and had me see that we were both equal partners in creating the conditions for the divorce.
Feel Your Own Pain
This cannot be overstated, yet it seems to be the most challenging thing for us, humans, to do when we’re hurting. At times it feels like we’re wired to avoid feeling pain at all costs. As kids, many of us were taught to stuff our emotions down and hold it together. Very few of us were taught how to process emotions in a way that actually cleared them out of our system and so they linger, often taking the form of self -recriminating thoughts. What I discovered during my divorce is that the more I could feel and release my emotions, the clearer, and calmer I felt.
One important note, our culture does not understand this healthy form of emotional release. If anything, our society teaches us that we should “get over it, already!” We have hundreds of ways to numb ourselves from feeling: food, TV, shopping, video games, and substances, just to name a few! I know from experience that the more I was able to go into my room, put on some music, and have a good long cry, ironically afterward, the better I felt!
Step into the Shoes of Your Ex
This was the hardest, yet the most effective process for helping me to release my guilt. I came to realize that my guilt was a way of protecting me from truly feeling the pain that I had caused my ex. It was much easier for me to feel bad about what I had done versus actually feeling the consequences of what I had done. It was, on some level, easier to feel bad about it. When I really looked into my guilt, I came to understand that it lived for me at the mental level; it was a thought. My guilt kept me stuck in my head and that was somehow easier than being in my body where I would have to face facts.
The body doesn’t lie and the fact was that my actions did have consequences, for both my Ex and our son. Of course, it wasn’t my intention to hurt either of them, yet the fact remained that my actions did impact them and did cause pain. I learned over time, that the way out was through. The more I was able to step into my Ex’s shoes and feel the pain that my leaving had caused him, and my son, the more the guilt released by itself. This allowed me to take responsibility for my part in the ending of the relationship, and leave him with his part. This process took time and required patience and persistence. In the end, it was worth it as my heart emerged feeling healed and liberated.
I can still remember the days of suffocating under the guilt and the feeling that it was never going to change or get better. For anyone out there who may be going through a painful breakup or divorce… from someone that’s been there, it does get better! It requires work, especially if we want to come through this process with a heart that’s healthy and open to love again. Yet it doesn’t stay dark forever. The old adage holds true: Time does have an unbelievable capacity for helping to heal and mend even the most broken of hearts. You will feel joy again, the sun will peek out from behind the dark clouds, and believe it or not, your best love may still be yet to come!