Carla knew that her husband was a good man and a good provider who was a dependable and loving dad. But she simply didn’t love him anymore. She wanted a divorce. The guilt was nearly unbearable.
Mitch was a sex addict and married to his high school sweetheart. Conducting a double life for years, he was seemingly a model husband and family man. But the guilt he harbored about his clandestine activities caused him to be hospitalized due to a nervous breakdown.
Marlene hadn’t seen her children in nearly a year. Her daughter’s high school graduation was her chance to reconnect and begin to rebuild their relationship. Feeling guilty for having left her daughter’s father, and for having been absent for so long, she chickened out and didn’t show up – yet again.
Closely intertwined with shame and regret, guilt shows up in many different ways in divorce. Nearly every divorce has at least one party who is feeling some sort of guilt, shame or regret. This guilt comes from a sense that you have done something wrong. It may be from feeling that you have committed an offense against your spouse or children (that they won’t grow up in a home with two parents, etc.), your family, or your god (divorce often has religious ramifications). Guilt is regret that has been fed hormones and steroids and has grown out of control.
Often times, at least one of the following three “deadly marriage sins” are present before divorce: abuse, addiction, and adultery. But what if none of these “sins” were a factor in your divorce? Then your reasons are much less overt. Perhaps you honestly no longer love each other, or you’ve grown apart. Perhaps you no longer have anything in common. You never fight and maybe you even consider the other person to be a good friend, but you no longer want to be married. Divorce guilt will make its presence known in this situation because you’ll question whether you are making the right decision. You’ll wonder if you should stay in the marriage because things aren’t dreadful.
Society has established the ideal that we get married and stay married until we are parted by death. This ideal was created thousands of years ago, when life expectancy hovered around 40 years of age. Today, living robustly into our 90s is common. Being able to choose a life mate that will be the absolute right one for potentially 70 years is a tall task. People evolve, change, and develop in different ways and at different paces. Sometimes, we get lucky and find that person who will progress in the same way we do. Sometimes, that person serves a purpose in our lives for a period of time, but the relationship has a natural life cycle that comes to an end organically when it begins to outlive its usefulness. It doesn’t make one of you wrong and the other one right. It just is. Free from story and free from guilt. But that may not stop you from feeling guilty about it.
As if the guilt you feel naturally isn’t bad enough, there may be some who seemingly take delight in practically ensuring that you feel guilty. From your soon-to-be former spouse, to your children, friends, co-workers and sometimes, even your own parents or family – everybody has an opinion (or more likely a judgment) about how you should conduct your life, and they may do this by casting shadows of doubt on your decisions. Because we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to look good and avoiding looking bad to others, this is precisely the type of interaction that has a deleterious effect on you.
Feeling guilty serves no purpose whatsoever. Becoming a masochist and crawling into a hole does not change the past or the present. It does not take away what you did or did not do. It does not heal the other person’s hurt or anger. What it does do, however, is affect your future.
The impact of guilt on negotiations in a divorce is huge – and usually not positive for at least one of the parties. Guilt can become the third entity in a negotiation and is definitely a foe. In the context of negotiation, usually the party who feels the most guilt will respond in one of two ways.
The first way goes something like this: “I am horrible. I don’t deserve to have anything. Please just don’t hate me forever. Please don’t tell all of our friends and family what a bad person I am. Just take whatever you want. You deserve it and not me.” This person has become their own worst enemy, and without careful supervision, might give away the entire proverbial farm.
The second way that divorce guilt shows up is more difficult to spot because it sends signals to attempt to throw the other party off the trail. This person projects his or her guilt onto the other person, usually in an angry, forceful, and vengeful way. This party is likely to highly litigate the case and take unreasonable positions in order to attempt to extort the other. While this kind of behavior seems counterintuitive for a person who is feeling guilty, it makes perfect sense. The attempt is to deflect wrongdoing away from themselves with a lot of “noise”.
Regardless of whether you are more like the first kind of guilty person or more like the second, one thing is clear: guilt does not serve you, especially in negotiations. The end result is that the guilty party will end up with an unsatisfying result, one that will likely have a lot of regret attached to it.
You are good a person who may or may not have behaved badly. The first step to overcoming guilt is separating who you are from how you behaved. For example, parents can be angry at their child but still know that they are inherently good. Give yourself that same benefit of the doubt. You are not your behavior.
Do not mix your feelings of regret and culpability with the integrity of the legal process. Allow your divorce negotiations to be driven by law and equity – not your feelings of guilt. Separating these will be your first step in relieving yourself of these poisonous feelings.
The next step is to look forward and not back. In The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle writes that the past no longer exists. You can’t go back and touch it, interact with it, or be with it. It is gone. The future doesn’t exist either. The only moment that exists is the present moment. I recall a saying that has stuck with me: “Don’t be stressed over something in your past, because there is nothing you can do to change it. Focus on your present and create your future.” Seize your present moment and decide that this moment for yourself will be free from guilt and regret.
This article has been adapted with permission from Breaking Free: A Step-by-Step Divorce Guide for Achieving Emotional, Physical and Spiritual Freedom ©2013, by Rebecca Zung. Rebecca is the founding partner of the Law Office of Rebecca Zung-Clough, PLLC in southwest Florida. With many years of experience in family law, she strongly believes in divorce with dignity. www.zungfamilylaw.comBack to Top