Divorce guilt comes in multiple forms. It is normal for many of us to feel like we are somehow to blame for the divorce. Culturally, we are taught that keeping the household and marriage successful was our responsibility, even though we cannot do it alone and that it takes two people in a partnership. And naturally, because there was a lot of pressure on us to be perfect when the marriage unraveled, our reaction was to blame ourselves for it. It’s time to give yourself some compassion and learn to forgive yourself.
Forgiveness is a beautiful thing. It’s a gift that we are usually generous in giving others, yet for some reason, we don’t give ourselves the same luxury. For some reason, we think our actions, especially divorce-related ones, are somehow reprehensible and we feel like the worst people in the world for letting everybody down.
We all make mistakes. Affairs don’t happen in healthy marriages. Constant arguing doesn’t happen in healthy marriages. That sinking “Is this it” feeling doesn’t last long in healthy marriages.
Sometimes, we must recognize a divorce is the best answer for all concerned – including your children. It’s a brave step towards a healthier, more fulfilling life. As we’ve seen, what matters now is the future. And for you to have the happiest future you need to forgive yourself and let the past go. I’m not saying it’s easy or can happen instantly, but it’s necessary work so you may begin to move forward.
If you are continuing to beat yourself up over the mistakes you’ve made, this may make you feel like you are paying for what you did wrong. Rather, focusing on taking full responsibility and learning from your mistake is spending your energy more wisely, rather than bogging yourself down with the heavy burden of guilt.
Feelings of guilt as they relate to the breakdown of your marriage can create a heavy weight to bear. Sometimes, the feelings of guilt are justified and sometimes they are not. It is important to make this distinction. The dynamics that lead to the end of a marriage can be very complicated and things are not always black and white.
Many of my clients carry a lot of guilt about their divorce. They feel guilty about how they behaved during their marriage. Or about how they behaved during the divorce. Or they simply feel guilt and shame simply because divorce is happening.
What is it you need to forgive? Often shame or guilt shows up as a generalized fog. You feel this heavy burden, a pit in your stomach feeling. It’s uncomfortable and the last thing you want to do is bring it to your attention. But until you look that feeling in the eye you won’t be able to deal with it. So, take some time to sit quietly with yourself. Have a notebook and pen handy.
When you feel ready make a list of all the things you feel guilty about. Be as specific as you can. If you find yourself writing something general like ‘getting divorced’, simply ask yourself ‘why?’. What is it about ‘getting divorced’ you feel bad about?
Dig deeper and try to break it down into specific, tangible points. For example, you may feel bad about ‘getting divorced’ because you feel you failed at marriage – and that sense of failure is something that feels heavy. Or because you feel it’s letting your family down or is there other reasons?
Work through your list. When we get things into a list, rather than having a guilt mist that fills our headspace, sometimes we surprise ourselves. If possible, work with a coach or a trusted friend to help you examine your list with a fresh, compassionate perspective.
For each item on your list, ask yourself the following questions:
- Is forgiveness needed? It may be that you have been carrying guilt for something you now see wasn’t your fault. It can be easy for someone to transfer blame to another person, such as yourself. For now, simply acknowledge that the wrong wasn’t yours to own and recognize that the guilt you have felt isn’t appropriate here. Let it go and feel the release. Whatever others’ do, is up to them.
- Can I make amends? If you find you did make a mistake, is it something you can “make right” somehow? This could take different forms, depending on your circumstances. It may be that you can apologize for the mistake you made, own up to it, and take full accountability for it. It may be that you can’t do anything about the specific situation you were part of but can give time and energy to a related cause too, by way of restoration. Think about what suits your situation and act on it as best you can. And give yourself some grace.
- What have I learned? Mistakes are always opportunities to learn especially in our interactions with the people who are close to us. Look at what led you to react the way you did. If you had the time again, what would you do differently? Are there particular actions from others that have led you to respond in ways you now regret, for example? If so, can you come up with strategies to help you press pause before your reflex response, and then choose to do something else?
Learn to let it go. Holding on to regret and guilt will not help your future. Sure, you made some mistakes, maybe even huge ones but you’re human, and are you willing to let this ruin your future as well? As you learn to forgive yourself and realize how much you love yourself, then that’s enough to decide to let go. You can’t change the past, but you have the gift of your future.
The Divorce Coach for Men