Guilt and divorce by Lana Levin (Clinical Psychologist)

Guilt implies wrong-doing. I think it is important to preface this section with this: for people to truly feel guilty, they will look to make a repentance. No behaviour – bar murder, rape, child or animal abuse and such – is unforgiveable. Most behaviour, accompanied with true penance, can be forgiven. However, a “sorry” needs to be accompanied by behavioural change. Without such behavioural change, an apology is meaningless.

When it comes to divorce, many people will point fingers as to who is “wrong” and who is “responsible for causing the hurt”. In truth, and in my experience, many events result in the ultimate breakdown of a marriage and most of these events involve both parties, and as such “wrong-doing” is the responsibility of both parties. While it may be one parties’ decision that eventually culminates in divorce, the reality is that there are no winners in a divorce and all too often one party acting as a superior person, who is blameless in the events, results in damage to all concerned – most importantly children.

The leaver/initiator

When one considers that people normally stay in a bad marriage for up to 8 years before finally leaving it, there are a myriad of feelings that come with such a decision. One of these feelings is guilt. From the initiator’s perspective, s/he may feel guilty about several things: breaking up the family; bringing “shame” onto extended family; about “betraying” the spouse; feeling happy and relieved to be free of the marriage; that s/he has failed and as such is somehow “defective”; or questioning whether s/he made the right decision or if more could have done.  For many, it is not a cut-and-dried issue and many people struggle with feelings of guilt for some time after they have left the marriage.

These feelings are often tempered by the cold realities associated with some of the reasons why s/he may have left. If a third party is involved, this may seem obvious. In many instances, there may be a “non-human” third party, i.e. something that takes the party away from the marriage such as work, drugs, alcohol, pornography or friends. It is often harder to pin-point when there isn’t another actual person involved, but rather a sense of emptiness as a result of these behavioural escapes. With the advent of social media, this realm has become even more complicated, as people do not even need to leave home to be “seeing” and chatting to someone else. For these people, the guilt about leaving can be profound, as they question whether they are indeed entitled to feel empty in the marriage and thus have a right to leave the marriage, when there “is no real reason”. This form of guilt can be crippling, as people often go round in circles, questioning themselves and whether they did indeed make the right decision.

If a person leaves their partner for another partner, it results in a crisis related to many aspects: a desire to be free of responsibility (including children), or a desire to “start fresh” and a wanting to feel “alive” again. These issues are pertinent for people when a marriage has become boring or empty, and as a result the affair becomes the solution: the person can still keep a family (and thus the pretence of a happy, socially-acceptable life), but have the energy of a new partner and the excitement that comes from both sneaking around as well as getting to know someone new.

For the person who left their partner for another partner, and who has some emotional integrity and ability to introspect (i.e. not a narcissist), the guilt is often associated with breaking up the family; abandoning children; wanting more from life; feeling like a failure; feeling like a fraud; for wanting happiness and not having it with the marital partner; and to a lesser degree for spending money on someone else (not the spouse and children).

Lana Levin BC 2016The non-leaver/non-initiator 

How does guilt affect the person who has been left behind? In most instances, the leaver has already prepared him/herself emotionally while still living with their partner, for the separation. However, the person who is left, has not had the same emotional preparation, so the actual departure results in a shock and an emotional destabilisation that really rocks the person’s foundation. However, the person left behind can also suffer from feelings of guilt. Often these are intimately connected with feelings of inadequacy: “what more could I have done?” or “could I win my partner back, if I change my hair/body etc.?”. The latter question can spur the person into pursuing cosmetic surgery/improvements, or going to the gym to change the body, or changing the way the person dresses. The non-leaver could also decide that a “second adolescence” is required to prove that s/he is “ok” and “thriving” (and thus “over” being left). Very often this behaviour is all connected with strong feelings of guilt, as the person is really trying to over-compensate for his/her feelings of inadequacy about being left. This is very much socially driven behaviour, as much as it is behaviour aimed at proving that one is “not beaten” by one’s partner leaving.

Guilt can be very much associated with these feelings of inadequacy, as one questions how one could have missed all the warning signs of a deteriorating marriage, or was the last to know about an affair, or could have not known the extent off the partner’s unhappiness. There is a strong sense of shame and the non-initiator protects the ego by pretending to her/himself that the decision was mutual and that s/he was ultimately going to do the leaving. This type of defensive response is almost necessary for the person to feel some measure of control over the devastation that occurs when their partner leaves.

One of the most difficult aspects of marital breakdown is examining one’s own role in the breakdown. By this, I mean that both partners must assume a level of responsibility for the marriage ending. While it is very easy to blame the other partner, one must be very careful to look at one’s own contribution to the breakdown of the marriage – including an affair – and how perhaps one enabled the exit door to be opened. This sort of introspection is extremely painful and difficult to do and really takes a level of maturity that is hard to do when one is hurting.

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