Guilt is virtually impossible not to feel when contemplating a divorce. Even if both spouses have been unhappy and feeling hopeless in a marriage for years, getting a divorce can leave the initiating spouse feeling like a quitter, at fault for the marriage ending, and responsible for triggering all of the painful feelings for everyone involved. While emotions like these can be difficult and overwhelming, feeling guilty is a normal and expected part of the divorce experience for the spouse that initiates a break up. It does not necessarily mean that getting a divorce is the wrong thing to do; it means that thinking about or initiating a divorce hurts. Knowing this, the challenge becomes accepting painful emotions, setting them aside, and making a decision using your head and not your heart. This is often easier said than done, though, so getting help from a professional might be worth considering.
Here are some quick tips for dealing with guilt:
- Expect and accept it. The “leaver” almost always feels guilt, just as the “left” almost always feels rejected and angry. It’s a normal part of considering or asking for a divorce.
- Make your decision to divorce rationally. Make a list of pros and cons about getting divorced like you would for any other important life decision. Focus on the long-term since all life transitions, even positive ones, are stressful in the short-term. Other than considering long-term happiness, do not put emotions on the list as they will come and go. Take your time making the list, updating and editing until you have decided what is best for you.
- Remember that it takes two to tango. Neither spouse bears full responsibility for a marriage ending. While you might be the spouse that announces publicly that the marriage is not working, every relationship is a product of two people and the dynamics between them. Even if one person’s contribution to marital dissatisfaction is more obvious, the other partner still plays an equal role in the relationship’s outcome. It just might be more subtle.
- Reframe your assumptions. For example, you might feel guilty for putting your kids through a divorce. However, the reality of the situation might dictate that getting a divorce will be healthier for them than staying in the marriage, especially if the relationship includes intense conflict, abuse, or emotional neglect.
- Consider if your sense of wrong-doing is appropriate. Is guilt an overly familiar feeling to you? Do you always feel at fault when something goes wrong? Do your friends think you commonly take on undeserved responsibility? If so, you might consider talking to a professional to see if you’re experiencing unhealthy guilt, which is common in many people for a variety of psychological reasons. It can easily confuse the decision making process around a divorce.
Most divorce self-help books address the topic of guilt at length. The Divorce Book by McKay, Rogers, Blades and Gosse does a great job of summarizing healthy versus unhealthy guilt and how to cope with it.