As if you didn’t have enough to juggle in a divorce while trying to work through alimony, dividing up your assets, child custody and support issues, paying attorneys, gathering documents, court appearances and more, you also have to deal with the psychological components of divorce as well.
The financial and legal issues can many times be reduced to a series of business transactions if you’re in a certain mindset, but the psychological components are much more tricky. You assume there’s going to be anger and frustration along the way, but you may not be ready to deal with divorce guilt which can be as intense as any other feelings you’re experiencing.
Why you may feel guilty
A marriage is a promise to love and cherish another human being forever, bound many times by sacred vows repeated in religious ceremony in front of a gathering of all the people you hold most dear. When a marriage goes bad, guilt can stem from the fact that you feel you didn’t fulfill a promise.
Even if you can readily lay blame off due to the actions of your spouse (i.e. adultery, drugs, etc.) you’re likely to review your own actions to see if you missed something along the way or you fell short on your own end that could have changed the other person’s behavior.
If you can’t come up with a good reason that you missed something in the marriage, you can still feel guilty for not seeing the signs that would lead to divorce while you were still dating. They may not have been there, but you are sure to play the “what if” game as part of your coping process.
Guilt is good?
In some cases, guilt is good. As long as it’s a healthy form of guilt. At the very least, most people in marriages that end in divorce will experience some form of guilt or another.
When you experience guilt, as long as it’s not prolonged, obsessive or irrational, it usually means that your moral compass is just fine. Guilt is a normal reaction. It means that despite your troubles, you still have empathy and compassion for others. Although you feel crappy, guilt can be humbling and comes from a place that makes you think much deeper about how you will treat others going forward.
Unhealthy guilt has no rational purpose in your life, but that doesn’t mean you won’t experience it. The conversations that will go on inside your head will involve a lot of hows, whys and denials. You may need to have some irrational inner talks with yourself to help you get to a rational place. The key is not to wallow and get stuck on repeat too much. Much like a death, there is a grieving process in divorce. You need to progress through these steps before emerging on the other side.
You also need to be careful that you don’t cross a line from feeling guilty to feeling shame. Shame is not healthy and can be a destructive emotion that can linger and impede your ability to heal from a divorce.
As you rewrite your life after divorce, any feelings of guilt you may have will start to dissipate. How long will that take? It’s impossible to say because every marriage, every reason for divorce and the way every person processes guilt and divorce is different. Don’t try to sell yourself and tell yourself you’re over things too quickly, especially when deep down you know you aren’t. You will know when you are ready to set guilty emotions aside.
How to move through divorce guilt
There are several things you can do to make sure you don’t get stuck in an endless cycle of divorce guilt, one where you continue to beat yourself up for either real or imagined transgressions.
Start by forgiving yourself. Whether you did anything wrong or not or whether you think you did anything wrong or not, you can’t start healing from guilt until you actually forgive yourself.
It may sound easy, but for a lot of people, it’s not. We tend to forgive others more quickly than we forgive ourselves in many cases, and divorce is no exception. You have to realize that you can’t change the past, but that you can prevent yourself from making the same mistakes in the future.
Another way to forgive yourself is to realize that some relationships simply reach a point where it is time to end. People change. Priorities change. Circumstances change. You change. Your spouse changes too. The lifelong promise you made with your spouse was made at a different time and place. Some things in life were just meant to end, despite what we want.
Realize that feeling guilty doesn’t change a thing. As much as you may want to still be married, or have a chance to fix things you did that caused a marriage to fail, feeling guilty about it won’t allow you to travel back in time and change the past.
Guilt is a product of living in the past and when that happens guilt is holding you as a prisoner. You can’t move forward if you’re always looking backward. Spend time thinking about the future, as hard as it may seem at first, and when you realize guilt serves no good purpose in your future, you’ll start to loosen the ties of guilt that are binding you.
Revisit your values. If you have always been a kind, generous and honest human being in your life, it’s time to reconnect with those values, instead of laboring through guilt which is not a normal emotion for most people. If you have donated time or money to causes because it made you feel good, don’t withdraw from those efforts. Remind yourself of who you are in a natural state. Decide who you are and what you would like to be and do going forward. When you crowd your life with positives, it makes it harder for the negatives to compete.
Take some write steps. If it helps you, take time to put your thoughts and feelings down in writing. For some people, this works wonders.
A couple of caveats though…
Don’t do it if you’re not comfortable in general with expressing yourself in writing. Trying to come up with the right words could just create more conflict and may make you feel worse.
Also, don’t spew endless venom. It’s okay to vent some, but you can also do more damage if you write page after page of hate, either directed at yourself or directed at your spouse.
When you engage your brain in a writing exercise, one of the things you do is set your subconscious in motion as well. Your brain will incubate on a problem in ways your conscious mind never imagined. Your subconscious could provide you with answers that will allow you to move forward and move past intense feelings of guilt. Be mindful when you start to feel better or when a new way of looking at something pops into your head. It’s not a mistake or random. It happened because you were taking steps to heal yourself.
Get professional help. With a divorce rate approaching 50% in America, there is NO stigma or shame in going to therapy to work through all the issues related to your divorce, including guilt.
Zero stigma. No shame. None.
A therapist can be a referee for your mind. They can point out what’s rational. What’s normal. They can also give you exercises that will help you move forward. You can keep any help you get as private as you want. But there’s a good chance if you open up to some of the people in your life, you’ll be surprised at how many people have actually sought and benefitted from talking to a trained professional.
Guilt can also put you in a funk and there may be times when you will want to consider taking medications to help pull you out of the depths of despair. Prozac and other similar medications are safe and effective for lots of people.
On the flip side, if you’re feeling guilty or experiencing a host of negative emotions, not getting as much help as possible is actually crazy.
The hardest part is admitting you need help, but once you take the first steps, you will be making positive changes and you will start to feel better, pretty much guaranteed.
Online therapy can be a great option to consider. With sites like BetterHelp, you can talk with a licensed therapist anytime from anywhere starting at $40 per month. Go to BetterHelp here to get started.
Don’t carry someone else’s guilt. Getting you to stay in a bad marriage or laying blame on you through hateful or pointed comments meant to torpedo your emotions is all designed to lay a guilt trip on you that you don’t need. Your load in between your own ears is more than enough. Why add to it? There’s simply no good reason for it and there’s no reason to engage in a debate that will likely not be productive either. They won’t change their mind, but they could get inside of yours. You don’t need to dish it out and you certainly don’t need to take it either.
Don’t overcompensate. Have you ever thought of buying your 16-year-old a new car (or a pony) while you’re driving a clunker after a divorce? What about sending your son to study abroad for a semester in college when you’re barely making ends meet at home?
Overcompensation is a classic response to guilt, and not just when it comes to children either. When negotiating a division of assets with your spouse, if you’re feeling guilty, you may be tempted to accept an inequitable financial settlement or give up too much time in a parenting plan for no good reason at all other than you’re feeling internal wrath.
Keep in mind that overcompensating sets the bar higher than you may want when you get over your guilt. And when you decide to draw the line, you could actually have it backfire on you through resentment that you aren’t coming through like you did in the past.
It’s hard to keep an even keel, especially if you love your children, but you must remain clear-headed and realize that even more than material things, what your children need from you more than ever is unconditional love. Even if it means saying “no” when warranted.
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