When my marriage with my now ex-husband fell apart after a decade, I felt a mixture of conflicting emotions. In some ways, I felt relieved to finally see the light at the end of the very long, painful tunnel I’d been running down for the past several years in my unhappy marriage.
Yet, on the other side of the coin, I couldn’t shake this overwhelming sense of guilt I felt about the entire situation even though I’d done absolutely nothing wrong.
I struggled with these negative feelings for months after we finalized the divorce, but eventually, a light bulb moment came. While it took some time, I learned that divorce guilt is a perfectly natural part of the process — and a part of the divorce process you can eventually learn to overcome.
Things to know
- Divorce guilt is a natural part of the process, and it is caused by a sense of remorse that arises from the negative emotions resulting from the separation.
- The guilt experienced during a divorce can be of three main types: anticipatory guilt, reactive guilt and existential guilt.
- There are various ways to cope with guilt during a divorce, such as counseling or therapy, journaling, support groups, or trying to make amends, to help improve one's mental health and move forward.
Let's take a look at the process in more detail:
- Why We Experience Divorce Guilt
- Coping With Guilt During The Divorce
- Dealing With Guilt After The Marriage Ends
- It’s Time To Drop The Guilt And Move On
Why We Experience Divorce Guilt
Many of us know the feeling of guilt all too well. We often experience guilt when we do something wrong, whether or not it was intentional. Sometimes, we don’t even understand why we feel guilty, especially in instances like separation. However, understanding the psychology behind guilt can help us process our feelings and, with time, learn to cope with the guilt we experience.
Most of the time, we experience one of three main types of guilt:
- Anticipatory guilt occurs when we believe an action we’re considering may break a moral code
- Reactive guilt happens when we realize our behavior has gone against our personal ethics or societal norms
- Existential guilt is a more generalized sense of guilt that connects to the belief that “life isn’t fair”
In the case of divorce, many people experience one of these types of guilt because of something they did, something they said, something they thought about doing, or something they chose not to do.
These actions are often what ultimately cause the marriage to fall apart, and the negative emotions like guilt and sadness are the result of the consequence (i.e. the separation).
Regardless of the type of guilt we experience or the different reasons we feel that way, these negative emotions usually evoke a sense of remorse, and this feeling often pushes us to make amends with the person or group we wronged. When we experience these negative feelings as a result of a divorce, however, we may or may not have the ability to make amends.
For example, people whose marriage ends due to infidelity feel guilty because they broke their marriage vows. While these feelings certainly impact the unfaithful partner’s mental health, these feelings are justified and fit the situation. However, you cannot “undo” your indiscretions, no matter how much you wish you could.
Inversely, a partner who was cheated on may experience feelings of guilt because they believe their lack of connection and intimacy may have pushed their partner away. While this is often a farce, you may continue to feel guilty about your inability to keep the marriage afloat for months after you settle everything with your former spouse.
Still, sometimes the reasoning behind your guilt may be far less obvious, especially if your marriage didn’t end due to something like adultery or abuse. You may just feel inadequate or feel like others will judge you because of your decision to separate.
You may also feel guilty for not seeing “the writing on the wall” before you even tied the knot. Or, depending on your spirituality, you may feel guilty because you broke a commitment you made to yourself, your partner, and your higher power.
Of course, many of us simply experience guilt as part of the grieving process as our failed marriage ends. It may not make any sense or be justified, but that still doesn't make it any less real in our minds.
While it may help to sit down and process why you feel guilty about your divorce specifically, it isn’t always necessary. Sometimes, we experience guilt for a multitude of reasons both related and unrelated to the relationship that just ended. Other times, we simply experience misplaced guilt that we need to deal with so we can move on.
Either way, understanding how to cope with these negative feelings will ultimately help you improve your mental health and move forward in the aftermath of your divorce.
Coping With Guilt During The Divorce
Once you’ve labeled your guilt, it’s time to take control and cope with these negative feelings.
Depending on the circumstances of your separation, you may feel guilty during the weeks (or, more likely, months) it takes you to finalize your divorce. However, you can absolutely work on these feelings during the divorce process, even if you are still living with your spouse.
Many people find that counseling or therapy can be particularly helpful during the divorce process, especially if the divorce is emotional and stressful. Professional help from a therapist who is specifically trained to work with divorcing individuals can help you process your guilt, deal with your anger, and even teach you how to move on before the divorce is finalized.
Even if therapy isn’t for you, journaling may help you process your emotions. Similarly, support groups exist that can help you work through the guilt and help you work towards forgiveness, no matter what happened to lead to the separation.
If you want to end the marriage on neutral terms, you may also cope with the guilt by trying to make amends in the best way you possibly can, even if it’s just by acknowledging the hurt you caused and giving your soon-to-be-ex the space to deal with their emotions.
Unfortunately, making amends can be tricky, and may even require professional help from a divorce coach or other mental health professional. Regardless, making amends can be well worth the effort in the long run, especially if you need to deal with your ex because of child custody agreements or other circumstances.
Dealing With Guilt After The Marriage Ends
If your marriage is over, then it’s time to move past this difficult time and focus on yourself. In order to do that, though, you will need to learn how to deal with the guilt you’re still experiencing in the aftermath of your divorce. Luckily, you can do this by following a multistep process.
Before you can even begin to move on from your marriage, you must forgive yourself for all the things you feel guilty about. Forgiveness requires a lot of self-compassion, and it requires you to either accept your past actions or let go of actions that aren’t yours to carry.
Here’s what I mean: If your actions (i.e. adultery or other lies) directly led to the divorce, then you must accept that. You can say, “I made a mistake. I did the thing, and it led to my spouse choosing to leave.” From there, you can say, “I now see the results of my actions, and I accept them, but this mistake doesn’t make me a bad person. I can change going forward.” Once you process that, you can begin forgiving yourself and taking the necessary steps to improve yourself.
Inversely, if the guilt you feel isn’t due to your own actions, but rather someone else’s, you can work through that, too. Instead of “owning” the guilt, you can say, “I was not the one in the wrong here. Although I may have decided to end the marriage, my reasoning was justified.
I will no longer carry around emotional baggage that isn’t mine to carry.” By doing this, you give yourself the space to let go and forgive yourself for trying to “fix things.” This self-awareness is a critical step that will help you heal and move on.
Write About It
Sometimes, even after we forgive ourselves, we may still feel a twinge of guilt here and there. Although journaling isn’t for everyone, there are times when writing about your feelings can really help you process it all and, in time, move on.
This is especially true if you’re hung up on the things that led to your marriage ending and don’t have a way to make amends. In this case, writing about your feelings can be particularly powerful.
If possible, start a journal specifically for the purpose of processing your guilt and write in it anytime those negative feelings start to creep into your body and mind. You can write letters, write down what caused the guilt to pop up, or write reminders to yourself to stop feeling guilty.
Whatever you decide, just make sure it’s helpful to you and doesn’t cause you to ruminate on your feelings.
Revisit Who You Are
Once you let go of the guilt, it’s time to work on moving forward. While some people see a clear path in front of them after a divorce, others feel lost and confused. Either way, it’s alright — you just need a bit of time.
During this time, really sit down and reconnect with yourself. Learn about who you are outside of the marriage that just ended and the guilt that’s been plaguing you. You may want to pick up old hobbies or try an activity like a values card sort to determine who you are and what you value.
This will give you some direction and help you reshape your daily life, which will boost your confidence and mental health while leaving little to no space to feel guilt for what you did or didn't do.
Who knows, you may even find that through revisiting who you are, you can build a new life you like even better.
It’s Time To Drop The Guilt And Move On
It takes a lot to make a marriage work, and sometimes even two people with the best of intentions can’t survive a lifetime together.
Although it may take time, you will work through your divorce and the guilt you feel along the way. Just remember that acceptance is the first step of the process, and everything else will fall into place from there.
And, who knows? Once you drop the guilt and move on, you may realize that the two of you just weren’t meant to be in the first place. Or, at least that was the case in my own life.