You can’t eat, you can’t sleep, and on some level, you hate yourself. You can’t stop thinking about how you destroyed your family, ruined your kids’ lives, and caused your entire world to come crashing down. If any of that describes how you’re feeling about yourself these days, chances are you’re on a divorce guilt trip.
What is Guilt?
Guilt is the emotion you feel when you believe (accurately or not!) that you have done something that violates either your own standard of conduct, or violates a universal moral standard of conduct.
When you’re guilty you feel a sense of regret for something you’ve done. Or you may regret NOT DOING something you think you should have done. You can even feel guilty about something that was entirely not your fault and out of your control. (For example, people who have survived tragedies when others around them died often feel survivor’s guilt.)
The key to guilt lies in your belief about what’s right and wrong.
If you believe that you’ve done something wrong, you feel guilty. If you don’t believe you’ve done anything wrong, you don’t. That’s true even if your action was exactly the same in both circumstances.
It’s your BELIEF, not your ACTION, that causes guilt.
In the context of divorce then, if you were the one who decided to divorce chances are that you felt (or still feel!) guilty about it. That’s because when you got married you made a promise to stay married “’til death do us part.”
Most people take their marriage vows very seriously.
If your marriage is ending, and you’re still alive, you believe you broke your vow. That makes you feel guilty.
And if you believe that your actions caused the divorce (perhaps by having an affair, or “tuning out” of your marriage), then you REALLY feel guilty! That’s often usually when your guilt morphs into shame.
Guilt v. Shame
A lot of people confuse guilt with shame. They are not the same thing.
Both guilt and shame are associated with feelings of regret. But the difference is that guilt is the feeling that you DID something wrong.
Shame is the feeling that you ARE wrong.
Shame and guilt often go hand in hand. You may feel ashamed AND guilty about ending your marriage. But the feeling of shame goes so much deeper than guilt.
When you feel shame, you feel like you’re bad, wrong, or unworthy of being loved as a human.
Shame cuts directly to the core of who you are. It makes you feel like you’re “not enough.” What’s worse, shame can make you feel like you’ll never be enough.
While guilt and shame are both negative emotions, guilt can have an upside.
For example, when you hurt someone or cause a problem that you could have avoided, your guilt may prompt you to make amends. In that sense, guilt is a social regulator. It acts with your conscience and makes you feel bad when you do something you shouldn’t have done.
That kind of guilt isn’t a bad thing.
When your guilt is proportional to your actions, it’s actually healthy.
The problem arises when your guilt is either out-of-proportion to your actions, or when it lasts for way too long. When that happens, or when you feel guilty over something that wasn’t actually your fault and that you couldn’t control, your guilt is unhealthy.
Unlike guilt, however, shame has no upside. There is no such thing as “healthy” shame.
As shame researcher Dr. Brené Brown notes, guilt can be adaptive and helpful. Shame, however, is primarily destructive. What’s more, shame is often a tool your ex uses to put you on a divorce guilt trip.
Your Divorce Guilt Trip
“Guilt trips” are more than just guilty feelings.
Guilt trips are a form of coercion or psychological manipulation. They are designed to make you feel bad.
Guilt trips are usually inflicted on you by someone who is using guilt as a weapon to get you to do what s/he wants you to do – or feel bad about yourself for not doing it! The person who’s inflicting the guilt trip generally knows exactly what s/he is doing.
Guilt trips don’t happen by accident.
For example, if you’re divorcing a narcissist, you probably have been on the receiving end of more than one guilt trip during your divorce!
Even if you’re not divorcing a narcissist though, your spouse may have tried to put you on a divorce guilt trip anyway. That’s because guilt is commonly used in our society to get people to do what we want them to do. Since divorce rarely brings out the best in anyone, spouses often try to manipulate and hurt each other by “guilting” them both during and after their divorce.
Yet, just because spouses use divorce guilt as a tool to get their way, that doesn’t mean that “guilting” someone is healthy.
The problem is that, in divorce, your spouse and his/her family aren’t the only ones using guilt as a weapon. More times than not YOU are the one who’s putting yourself on a guilt trip by what you believe and what you take on.
The Self-Imposed Divorce Guilt Trip
When someone tries to guilt you into doing something, you usually feel it. On some level you KNOW (or at least suspect!) that you’re being manipulated.
But when you are BOTH the manipulator AND the manipulated, you’re often blind to what’s happening.
What’s worse, because you’re guilting yourself, you feel like everything is “your fault.”
That kind of guilt generally leads to shame. It destroys your sense of self-worth. It makes you feel small.
The trouble is that when you're guilting yourself you may not even realize that YOU are making yourself feel bad! You also don't believe you can change. You think you're stuck.
That's not to say that dealing with your guilt at the end of your marriage will be easy. If you had an affair, or neglected your marriage for way too long, the guilt you feel over ending your marriage can be crippling.
The same thing can also be true even if you didn’t do anything “wrong.” Sometimes you feel more guilty when you decided to divorce simply because you were tired of being unhappy all the time!
No matter what the cause of your divorce guilt is, the key to dealing with it effectively is to find a way to acknowledge your guilt, then let it go.
Like so many other things in life, though, that’s easier said than done.
5 Tips for How to Let Go of Your Divorce Guilt and Move On
1. Admit that You’re Human
A huge part of the reason we feel guilty in divorce is because we haven’t lived up to our own moral code. We expect ourselves to be perfect.
Yet human beings, by definition, aren’t perfect!
We all make mistakes! We all do stupid stuff from time to time.
Beating yourself up from now until eternity for making a bad decision or doing something you now regret is NOT helpful! As a matter of fact, putting yourself on that kind of a divorce guilt trip ultimately hurts – not only you – but your kids, your spouse, and every other person you ever get in a relationship with!
Yes, you need to acknowledge your mistakes. Yes, you should learn from your mistakes and not make them again.
But there’s a big difference between using your guilt to improve your behavior in the future and using it to keep you focused on the pain of the past. Keeping yourself in a state of misery and shame will not only destroy your marriage. It will destroy your life.
2. Apologize and Make Amends
If your behavior led to the demise of your marriage, take responsibility for what you did!
Admit it. Apologize for it. … I mean REALLY apologize for it!
An effective apology requires you to do four things:
- Accept responsibility for what you did. Don’t try to make what you did less important by pointing out that your spouse did bad things, too. If you screwed up, just admit it.
- Express genuine remorse for what you did. Let your spouse know you understand what you did and that you’re sorry for hurting him/her. There’s a BIG difference between saying “I know I hurt you and I’m truly sorry,” and saying, “I’m sorry you feel bad.” The first expresses genuine remorse. The second is a cop out.
- Make amends if you can. There are some mistakes that can’t be fixed. If you had an affair, and the trust in your marriage is gone, you may not be able to get it back. But, if your spouse is open to trying, and both of you want to save your marriage, then do that! Go to marriage counseling. Go to therapy. Do your best to make up for your mistakes.
- Take steps to change your behavior. Apologizing without changing your behavior is meaningless. When you change your behavior, you demonstrate that you’ve actually learned from your mistakes. It’s the only way you can truly grow.
- (NOTE: Just because you apologize, that doesn’t mean your spouse will accept your apology. It also doesn’t mean that your marriage will magically be put back together again. But when you dig down deep and apologize from the depths of your being you will have done everything you can do to make amends! That’s all you can do. What happens after that is out of your control.)
3. Forgive Yourself
Of all the steps that will help you get off your divorce guilt trip, forgiving yourself is by far the hardest. That’s because we’re all hardest on ourselves.
So, it often helps to do a little role-playing in your head.
Imagine for a moment that YOU weren’t the one who screwed up. Imagine that it was your child, or your parent, or someone you loved deeply who made the mistake that you made.
How would you treat them?
Would you scream at them and embarrass them and go out of your way to make them feel worse? Or would you do your best to treat them with love and compassion no matter what they did or how badly you were hurt?
That’s how you need to treat yourself.
Remember that you are NOT your mistakes! You’re more than your mistakes and you’re more than your divorce.
Whether you believe it or not at the moment, you are an amazing and wonderful human being. You deserve to be loved simply because you are human. Period.
4. Learn from Your Mistakes
Apologizing and forgiving yourself is all well and good. But if you keep repeating the same mistakes, forgiveness is going to become harder and harder.
So, how do you learn from your mistakes?
You start by accepting them. That means doing all the things we’ve already talked about, like admitting you’re human and doing your best to apologize and make amends. It also means being willing to stop obsessing about everything you did wrong and focus instead on what you’re going to do right from now on.
Contrary to what you might think, ruminating over the past won’t help you learn from your mistakes. It will just keep you locked in the pain of the past.
Instead, try to figure out, not only WHAT you did wrong, but WHY you did it. What led you to the point where you are now? IS there something you could have done differently that would have helped you avoid the mistake you made? What will you commit to doing differently in the future?
Asking yourself THOSE kinds of questions will lead you to learn from the past and change your behavior in the future.
5. Get Help if You Need it.
Human beings are complicated.
Dealing with your emotions isn’t easy. Understanding them and moving past them can be even harder. Working with a good therapist can help you manage your emotions, let go of your pain, and move on with your life.
Sometimes, as humans, we feel SO guilty and SO ashamed of ourselves that dealing with our emotions on our own just isn’t possible. On some level it’s as if we believe that we don’t deserve to feel good. Subconsciously, we’re locked in our own guilt trip and we can’t see how we can ever break free.
A good therapist can gently guide you to explore the places inside that you don’t even know exist right now. S/he can help you manage your emotions, deal with your guilt, and gracefully let it go.
Ultimately, that’s the key to living a happy and healthy life in the future.
BONUS TIP: Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid
From childhood we’ve been taught that marriage is good and divorce is bad. While that certainly can be true, it’s equally true that being married can sometimes be bad and being divorced can sometimes be good.
Everything depends on the situation you’re involved in, and what you DO with the situation you’re in.
If you do find yourself facing divorce – for whatever reason – and you can learn and grow from the experience, then it’s not ALL bad! (It may not be great. It definitely won’t be fun. But that doesn’t mean it’s a total loss!)
Of course, I don’t mean to imply that getting divorced is always a good thing or that everyone should do it!
The point is that NOTHING is ALWAYS good or ALWAYS bad.
Life simply isn’t that black and white.
So, give yourself a break. Extend yourself some grace. And go back to tip #1 and remember that you’re human!
Letting Go of Your Guilt
Letting go of your divorce guilt takes time. Like everything else in divorce, it’s a process! It won’t happen overnight.
But it can, and it will, happen, if you are willing to invest the time and energy you need to put your past behind you.
Remember: guilt is a conditioned emotion. We have to learn how to feel guilty.
What we learn, we can un-learn.
With the right mindset, and the right help, you CAN put your divorce guilt behind you. No matter what you did, or what you think you did, or how horrible you think you were, you can forgive yourself and move on.
Everything is possible.
So, if you find that your divorce guilt is taking you on a trip to a place you don’t want to go, do yourself a favor. Don’t go along for the ride.
This was originally posted on October 29, 2015 an updated on July 27, 2021.