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Guide to Surviving Divorce Guilt

You got divorced. You knew it was the right decision. Still, you experience guilt over your divorce and its aftermath.

Or, you just asked for a divorce. You know it was the right decision. Still, you feel guilty as you and your soon-to-be ex-spouse move toward the next steps in your divorce process.

See a pattern here?

Divorce guilt is common. The particular reasons for the guilt vary from couple to couple – infidelity, financial issues, disagreements – but it’s a shared experience nonetheless.

The thing is, no amount of guilt over the past can change the present. There comes a time when you must put aside your guilt so you can move on with your new life.

Why humans feel guilt

Guilt happens when you get caught up in a loop of self-blame. You might blame yourself for something you did, something you didn’t do, or even for not recognizing when someone else did something to you. 

You might ask yourself repeatedly, “Why did I say that?” “Why did I do that?” “Why didn’t I notice that?”

Rumination and self-flagellation can be pretty harsh. In fact, they’re far harsher punishments than you’d probably mete out on someone else. 

A moral emotion

Guilt is considered a “moral emotion.” In a sense, it can be good for society. It keeps people in check and influences how people behave and make decisions. Guilt is how you hold yourself accountable for doing the right thing and taking responsibility when you don’t. And research shows that people who are prone to feelings of guilt are also more empathic and trustworthy. 

Healthy vs. unhealthy guilt

Guilt comes in two flavors: healthy and unhealthy.

Healthy guilt is when you’ve done something you’re not proud of and are moved to take appropriate responsibility. When you’ve done something wrong or hurt someone, it’s a healthy and natural response to feel remorse for it, apologize to the person you wronged, and try to make it better. 

Unhealthy guilt is when you take on responsibility that isn’t yours or overestimate some self-perceived harm you’ve caused. While healthy guilt is normal and productive, unhealthy guilt can be self-consuming and destructive.

How to overcome guilty feelings

Although time will eventually smooth the jagged edges of your divorce recovery, it’s a slow and individualized process. You may think you’ve gotten beyond the hurt and guilt only to have it resurface when you least expect it.

But you can take some important steps to ensure that you’re not just taking one step forward and two steps back. 

Self-forgiveness

There's nothing more disempowering after a divorce than keeping yourself stuck in a cycle of self-blame. When you forgive yourself, you not only release yourself from the torment of reliving a situation over and over, but you are finally free to learn from it and move on. No matter what your role in the divorce was, you still deserve a little bit of grace along the way.

Self-compassion and understanding

Despite everything that's happened, you’re still a good person, and your core values are still intact. You are human, however, and after some mistakes, you want nothing more than to return to who you are at your core. You deserve a good dose of self-love and understanding after an emotionally tumultuous time that’s rocked your world. 

Reflecting on factors that were out of your control

Marriage takes two, and no matter how hard you tried, you can’t control everything and keep all the plates in the air at once. For all the times you thought, “If only I had … ” the fact remains that you were never really in total control. At some point, you had to sit back and rely on your spouse and others to hold up their end of the bargain. And often, they didn’t.

Identify positives and lessons learned

If marriage is anything, it’s a great big learning opportunity. Sometimes, the lessons are wonderful and happy. Sometimes, they’re downright painful. 

You may look back and see many positives during your marriage. While the negatives were painful, they can help you recognize and understand your part in any mistakes that were made. This learning can motivate you to not make the same mistakes again.

Focus on healing and improvement

After divorce, you can finally focus on yourself after being caught in a storm for so long. It’s time to self-soothe and find ways to heal. 

Devoting some of your new-found free time to your own well-being and healing is one of the unsung silver linings of divorce. 

Free downloadable worksheet: Create Your Self-Care Plan

Don’t be tempted to overcompensate

If you have minor children, your divorce guilt may have revved into overdrive. Of course, you hate thinking that your kids are suffering the consequences of your actions. Some parents try to compensate for this by throwing material things into the mix to make the kids happy. But this sets the bar very high, and kids can get accustomed to things their parents can’t (and shouldn’t) sustain. This could set you up for some serious resentment when you eventually scale back. 

Actions you can take to feel better

Sometimes it’s hard to see a situation clearly when you’re smack in the middle of it. Feeling guilt for things you think you’ve done or didn’t do can fit in this category. 

Taking care of your physical and mental health should be priority number one at a time when we have this vast blank canvas available to create a new life. This may be the perfect time to try one or more of the following:

  • Keep a journal. Keeping a journal is a material way to measure your recovery. Over time, you’ll be able to look back at how far you have come and realize how strong and resilient you really are.
  • Create a vision board. Thinking about your goals is one thing. Seeing them in living color on a daily basis is another. Being constantly reminded of your dreams can help prevent you from backsliding into the past. 
  • Get physically moving. Whether that means hopping on our bike to go grocery shopping or sweating it out at the gym, physical movement releases feel-good endorphins that make it hard to be consumed by negative feelings.
  • Take up a new or old hobby, or enroll in a class. Keeping our brains engaged keeps us from going down the rabbit hole of what-ifs.
  • Reach out to others. Being alone has a way of keeping you stuck in an unhealthy headspace. Humans are built to relate to others. Calling friends, joining groups that get us out with people with the same interests, or volunteering can get you back out and interacting with others again.
  • Take a break from social media. While the premise behind social media is connection with others, it often makes people feel worse about their own lives. Nobody really lives the curated life that we see on social media, but it’s hard to keep that in mind when you feel your own life is less than optimal. 
  • Talk it out. Forget the stigma. In 2021 alone, nearly 41.7 million people received some kind of professional mental health help in the U.S. Divorce is an overwhelming life transition that hits most people hard. Getting the professional help of a therapist or divorce coach can just be good self-care. 

Read: Crush Your Post-Divorce Goals with These Helpful Tools

Guilt can create an unwelcome and unhealthy presence in your life after a divorce. But it won’t change what has already transpired, and it will only keep you chained to things that weigh you down and keep you stuck in the past. Self-forgiveness, a broader perspective, and a little outside support can help you get out of your negative loop and back into your life.

At Hello Divorce, we understand that divorce is far more than the legal process of dissolving a marriage. While we offer online divorce plans and other associated professional services, we also support you with a large library of articles and resources that can help you move through and beyond your divorce into your new and exciting life. Let us help. Schedule a free 15-minute phone call to learn more.