If you’re feeling guilty about the end of your marriage, you’re not alone. Few people are comfortable breaking their marriage vows, causing pain and hurt to the person they once loved and distress to their children. Even if it was your spouse’s decision to divorce, you could still be feeling guilty especially when it comes to your kids. While your guilt may fade with time, it won’t go away on its own. Understanding how to overcome the guilt from your divorce is another essential step to finding happiness.
Joining me for this episode of Conversations About Divorce is divorce advisor Karen Covy. Listen in as we discuss:
- What feeling guilty means
- Where guilt comes from
- What you can learn from your guilt
- How we compensate for our guilt
- How to handle guilt in a healthy way
Here’s what you need to know about feeling guilty.
Feeling Guilty Is Healthy
Feeling guilty is not a pleasant feeling; you feel mean, you feel rotten. It comes from treating someone else in a way that you would not wish to be treated.
The fact that you are feeling that way though is healthy. It shows that you have compassion and empathy for others. What’s not healthy though is moving from thinking that what you did was bad to you are bad. When you do that you cross the boundary from guilt to shame and that can quickly become destructive. If you’ve reached this point, then it’s time to seek professional help.
Don’t Ignore Your Guilt
Like any emotion that makes us feel bad, it’s tempting to try to ignore your guilt. We try to push it away thinking that will stop us from feeling horrible. It’s a strategy that’s often used for other hard emotions like anger, jealously, rejection. But experts know that stuffing these feelings away is purely a short term remedy. It doesn’t resolve anything and often times we see these unresolved issues come squishing out somewhere else later.
Are Your Values In Conflict?
One reason we experience guilt is because two or more of our values are in conflict. To know if this is the case for you, you will need to sit down and identify your core values. It helps to write these down. We acquire our values throughout our childhood and often times people haven’t spent the time in adulthood to identify their values and to be able to clearly articulate what they mean. For example, you may value loyalty and family. Your spouse being unfaithful would compromise your value of loyalty but at the same time, you see ending your marriage as challenging your value of family.
Identifying the conflict in values doesn’t make the guilt magically disappear but it does give you more to work on.
Where Do Your Values Came From?
As stated above, most people acquire their values as they are growing up. Typically this happens subconsciously as we take in influences from our parents, our teachers, our religious leaders, our sports coaches and extended family, for example. Now’s a good opportunity to re-assess your values and to ask that given your real-life experience, is that value still valid. Is it still something to which you still feel bound?
For example, you may have believed that divorce was never an option, that marriage was forever. That was true for your grandparents and it was true for your parents, even though they wouldn’t describe their marriages as happy. Now, as an adult you have more awareness of the challenges of troubled marriages and you have your own firsthand experience. Maybe you’ve experienced abuse, infidelity, or addiction. You’ve experienced the cruelty, the despair, the hopelessness. Now you’re modified your belief to marriage should be a mutually sustaining, supportive, loving relationship that requires the commitment of both parties.
Were Your Expectations Unrealistic?
Most people make their wedding vows with the commitment and intention of keeping them but they’re made blind. None of us know what the future will hold and many of us marry at an age where we have had little exposure to the complexities of life. How could you possibly have known what living with someone who has untreated bipolar disorder would be like? How could you have foretold the harm of living with an alcoholic who repeatedly chooses alcohol over your marriage? How could you have known your spouse would become a dependent and not a partner? And who could know what parenting would be like with someone with a completely different parenting philosophy?
I often counsel my clients that our society will happily devote four years in high school to learning math skills that many of us never use and usually zero time to communication and interpersonal skills we use on a daily basis for the rest of our lives. And then with this training we are expected to select a mate to be with until death, come what may?
There are other unrealistic expectations … in business we hear that it’s OK to make mistakes. It’s not something to cover up. We learn from them and go on, having acquired the skills so we don’t make the same choices again. That approach applies to almost every other area of our lives. Job not working out? Find a new job. Don’t like your neighborhood, too far away from work? Move. Friends who are toxic, creating turmoil and chaos? Find new friends. But marriage … the overwhelming message there is still that marriage is forever and these days, that’s just too simplistic.
This is when you need to be kind to yourself. Recognize that your expectations were unrealistic, perhaps through no fault of your own, and forgive yourself.
How Can You Honor Your Values?
One strategy I use with clients who express guilt over the end of their marriage is to work with them on identifying how they could conduct themselves through the divorce process that would allow themselves to honor their values. For example:
- How will you conduct yourself during negotiations?
- What sort of settlement would make you feel good?
- What sort of parent do you want to be?
- How will you work with your spouse on co-parenting?
- How will you talk to your children about what is going on?
The result of this is a long list of commitments that can be shared with the other spouse. These conscious commitments help guide people through the unfamiliar and turbulent divorce process and helps them avoid spur-of-the-moment actions that create further pain and hurt. It allows them to move forward experiencing less guilt.
Don’t Accept Guilt From Others
It’s common for the spouse who is being left to try to use guilt to get their partner to stay or as a negotiation strategy. It’s a tactic that other family members and friends may also use. There is no reason for you to accept the guilt they’re throwing at you. Now is the time to be true to yourself. Your best response is a simple, “Thank you, but that’s not how I feel. I don’t see it that way.” Engaging in a debate isn’t likely to productive – you’re not likely to make them change their mind.
Overcompensating for guilt is one way of trying to handle it but it’s not healthy or productive.
An example of overcompensating is accepting an inequitable financial settlement in the divorce process or agreeing to a parenting plan that heavily favors one parent without a solid reason other than guilt. While this may assuage immediate guilty feelings, it doesn’t help in the longer term when the consequences of the agreement start to be felt. Financial hardships and less time with the children can easily start to build resentments and these can be just as damaging as guilt.
Another common pattern of overcompensation is spoiling children most often through material possessions or extravagant indulgences when their basic essential need for unconditional love and support is not being met. Children often don’t need more stuff. What they really need is undivided attention and that’s something that money can’t buy.
Your Guilt Will Fade
I wish I could tell you that your guilt will go away. I can’t. But I can tell you that with time and a different perspective, will come acceptance and with that your guilt will fade. While you may still feel guilty for your actions, maybe wish you had handled things differently, you may have more compassion and understanding not only for yourself but for others too. You’ll understand that you were doing the best you could with the skills you had at the time.
Karen is a popular speaker and has been featured on the Channel 7 News, WCIU You and Me This Morning, as well as numerous radio shows. She is the author of the popular book, When Happily Ever After Ends: How to Survive Your Divorce Emotionally, Financially and Legally. You can download her divorce toolkit for free from her website KarenCovy.com.
Are you struggling with deciding if divorce is right for you. I have resources that can help. Start with my free audio program Deciding To Divorce.