Divorce guilt is simply feeling bad because you chose to leave your spouse, initiate divorce, or otherwise believe your actions caused the end of your marriage.
It is normal to feel guilty or question your decision, especially when you think about the potential impact it can have on your family or others around you. Guilt is a reason to stay married, but it is not one that will inspire either of you to truly work on making the relationship a thriving, committed, connected one.
I see women get stuck on the divorce that they very much wanted and see the value in. Explicitly or implicitly, they feel guilty and that guilt holds them back.
Many women feel guilt about divorce. Divorce guilt lasts as long as you choose to, though it does take time to get over a big breakup. A good solid year is a generous measure of time to grieve.
Struggling with horrible guilt after filing for divorce? Consider finding a therapist online using a therapy platform like BetterHelp. Read about my experience with BetterHelp.
Recently a mom emailed me:
“I want to divorce my husband but I feel guilty.”
I feel so guilty for leaving my marriage. My husband is a really, really nice guy. He is a great dad, loves me a lot, has a good career. There was nothing really wrong with our marriage. I just didn’t love him any more and wanted out.
Now, our divorce is almost finalized, and we have all been so devastated — especially our kids. Now they have to schlep back and forth between two homes, go through the pain of having divorced parents, my ex is devastated, his parents and our friends are devastated, and we are both poorer having to support two homes. Even the dog loses since she stayed with me and misses her ‘dad’!
Of course I am very sad about all of this, but I just could not be married to him any more. We are not intellectual or professional peers — I am growing a digital business I am passionate about, while he is 100% content in his middle-management corporate job with good benefits.
I stopped being sexually attracted to him years ago, even though he is still a very handsome and fit man. Instead, I find myself fantasizing about and/or flirting with men in my professional circles who are mentally stimulating to me, understand my career and creative drive and ignite in me something I think I never experienced with my husband — deep, feminine PASSION (some of these guys are fat or old or not handsome — and I still find them so, so sexy!). These are men who jibe with my own growing social circle of equally driven and creative people — people who my husband never really connected with or felt comfortable around (even though, in all his decency and devotion to me, was always kind to and made an effort for).
I don’t have any commitment to any of these men, but simply feeling that way around them made me realize that by staying in my marriage, I am missing out on something I deeply crave and long to nurture.
Now, on the other side of my marriage, I see that I may not ever find that kind of romantic connection that I crave, and I may be lonely. I see those I love most suffering because of this decision, and I am left feeling selfish, guilty and all-around rotten.
In short: I wanted the divorce — so why do I feel so sad?
“Remember that just because one feels guilt, doesn’t mean they are guilty,” says Michelle Pargman, a Jacksonville, Fla., licensed mental health counselor.
“Guilt is energy that can be used to further explore what one can do differently in the future. Grief is helpful to identify as a byproduct of divorce — whether the loss comes from the relationship itself, or the lost expectation of what was the original vision for the marriage. Once we acknowledge these feelings, we can address them — whether through individual counseling, group support, or identifying mentors, religious/spiritual leaders, or friends.”
I have heard many similar stories, all of which resonate on some level. I am glad I am not married to my ex, even if he is a good guy. Lots and lots of reasons, including some mentioned above by my emailer. But there are times when we are getting along, when we are chatting like old friends at the kids’ T-ball game, the kids are exhausted from schlepping back and forth between our apartments, I remember all his good qualities and all the benefits of marriage, and I think:
Can’t we just be adults and make it work? Can’t we just agree not to fight any more? Be in one home, be practical, get over this trite, adolescent notion of forever soulful romantic love, have no expectations your husband will fulfill you and just be realistic already – FOR THE KIDS’ SAKE?
Then he will blame me for my kid tripping in the hallway of my apartment and getting a bloody boo-boo on his head, or cancel a visit with the kids last-minute because he wants to see a concert and all those cozy notions are thrown out the window quicker than a Las Vegas divorce.
Maybe it means I’m selfish. Maybe it means I can’t control my anger. Maybe it means I am an indulgent adolescent artist, but I don’t want to be married to my ex-husband, so I am not married to my ex-husband. We were great together in many ways, but we also bring out the worst in one another — something that neither of us are committed to overcoming. Also: I just don’t want to be married to him.
Also, also: That is OK.
All these feelings are totally normal, even if they are conflicting. Sit with them all, and feel them all. They are all part of the grieving and healing and celebrating process that is a breakup or divorce.
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“I regret divorcing a good man.”
Sometimes, women regret divorcing a good guy. I know of one couple who split up because she felt like he cared too much about his career, and she was lonely. He was a good guy, her life was fine, but she wanted more. She fell in love with her gay fitness instructor (who, needless to say, did not return her sentiments), ended the marriage and when her ex went on to marry a much younger woman, have two babies and grow his restaurant business into a venture netting in the hundred-million-dollar range, she regretted her decision.
You likely will not, but just get on with it. Find the value in your experience, forge a new journey and land in a new and different — possibly better — place.
Why do we feel sad or guilty about divorce?
You may feel sad, guilty, or ashamed about getting a divorce because one or all of these:
- You loved him, and now you don't and you are grieving that loss.
- You hurt him and you feel guilty about that. He's a good guy!
- You upset your entire family, hurt your kids and upended your life. That is a lot of responsibility for one person to take on.
- You are worried your kids will hate you for the rest of your life.
- You took a risk and are worried that you will regret it later.
- You already regret your decision to divorce.
- Everything in your life is changing and that is always hard.
- Your original plan, your dream of how your life would look and what you thought you wanted didn't work out, and you are working on letting that go.
1. You feel you are breaking your commitment
You ended a relationship that you committed to (broke your commitment), and the reasons are likely your own happiness.
2. You may listen to society’s pressures or standards
Women are taught that our highest calling is to sacrifice for family and children. In other words, we are taught early on that our happiness is frivolous and selfish.
We are told from all sides that children in single-mom homes suffer and are being punished for their parents’ inability to keep an unhappy marriage together. Mothers always take the blame for this nonsense.
Wives are instructed to be the glue in a marriage — a straying husband, or unhappy husband, or frayed marriage is pegged on her letting herself go / not being attentive enough / being a bitch and nag / not good enough.
Even if on an unconscious level, you take on the sexist shaming of moms’ sexuality. Any desire you may have to date, find romance, get laid, test the dating waters, poke around on a dating site — or be public with a man you are deeply in love with (and maybe cheated on with) — is met with a bountiful dose of society’s madonna-whore complex when it comes to mothers: We are told that good mothers are virgins, and our children will shrivel in horror should they be subject to their mothers’ expression of womanhood.
3. You are dealing with grief
You are legit grieving a relationship that once brought you great joy and comfort.
You are also legit grieving a relationship / dream / family that you very much wanted, that was part of a dream and a plan and an assumption about what your life would be — and no longer is.
Again, all of this is normal. Work through your rotten feelings, and understand where they come from.
While I am here to tell you that it takes two people to make a relationship work, and both parties have a responsibility for a relationship not working out, there can be some overt actions society tells us are wrong that place the responsibility on one spouse, such as:
- Battling an addiction
- Physical or emotional abuse
- Managing finances poorly — including racking up debt, overspending, and inability to keep a job / refusal to work
- Lack of sex
- Simply wanting to leave to live your own life
If you are feeling guilty for wanting a divorce
If you feel guilty for leaving a marriage, and you are really beating yourself up, here are a few things to consider:
- Be honest: Is your husband really working on this relationship? Or has he passively given up, too.
- Is he happy? Be honest.
- Do you worry that if you leave, he will hurt himself, or otherwise be miserable? (Co-dependent alert!).
- Do all your friends and family think this marriage is really bad for you and urge you to leave? Listen to them. We are often our own worst judges.
See where I am going here? I get that you feel bad, but our society has established it as women’s jobs to keep our men happy, fed, laid and our marriages intact.
In reality, you are a woman with needs and desires and since we can now earn our own money, vote, and own land in our own damn names, marriages mainly serve as a source of emotional and sexual fulfillment. Once that is gone, there isn’t a whole lot of reason to stay.
How divorce guilt holds moms back
Where feelings of guilt related to your divorce get messy, is when you hold yourself back in implicit and explicit ways. You stay stuck. Here are common ways women’s divorce guilt keep them stuck.
Divorce guilt can make divorce more expensive and painful
If you are just starting out on your divorce journey, regret or guilt can manifest in all kinds of toxic ways that make the divorce process that much more painful for all parties involved — including hiring litigious attorneys, playing dirty and costing everyone money and heartache. (Read: Our guide for how to prepare for divorce)
If this touches a nerve, take a deep breath. Ask your higher power for grace, kindness, and forgiveness — of him, and yourself. Seek out the lowest-conflict divorce you can. This might mean working with a mediator or filing yourself for divorce online.
Divorce guilt can hurt your co-parenting relationship
No matter how you feel about your ex, or your marriage, or the end of that relationship, if you have kids together, here are the facts:
He will be in your life forever. The sooner you figure out how to co-parent amicably, the better. Read these rules for successful co-parenting — no matter how toxic your ex.
You may find that he is a better dad post-divorce, and now that you don’t fight with him any more, and have the kids half the time, you are a better mom.
You might like him again (it has happened).
Divorce guilt keeps you from dating and finding love (and fun!)
PSA: Moms are women. Women are sexual, mature adults who need companionship, sex, and romance. Maybe you simply are not ready to date yet, and that is ok.
But are you not dating because of guilt? Do you feel like you don’t deserve to be in love?
Do you feel weird to have a sex life with someone who is not your kids’ dad?
Do your friends and family lay on the guilt about taking time away from the kids to date? Or worse — do they pressure you to hurry up and get married again while you are still young — and create a “real” family again for the sake of the kids?
Maybe you are dating, or even have a partner — but hide this part of yourself from your kids, shrouding that whole, very important part of yourself in shame — which I promise you: your kids pick up on this whether you think they do or not.
Here is what you should do:
- Poke around an online dating site, like eHarmony. I’m also a fan of matchmaking services, especially for busy moms.
- Get laid. Post-divorce sex is often mind-blowing. Trust me: good sex is not hard to find.
- Therapy can help. Learn about all the top online therapy sites, which can be more affordable and convenient than regular therapy.
- Hang out with the right people. Maybe spend time with the funny gay guys at the gym, or join my closed Facebook group Millionaire Single Moms, where single mothers chat openly, while also supporting moms struggling through guilt and shame.
- Make some new mom friends. Single motherhood takes a freaking village, and having a group of friends to support you and make you laugh can make the hard days a little less hard. We reviewed a bunch of friendship apps to help you make connections in your area.
Divorce guilt means you hold on to a house you can’t afford
I see moms holding on to properties they can’t afford in the name of:
- Shielding their children from the stress of moving house (fact: research finds that financial stress / poverty is the #1 biggest risk factor in divorce)
- Maintaining a lifestyle she believes she is entitled to / the couple sought while married (fact: you’re not married to him! You need a new dream now!)
My advice in 95% of these situations: Take that money and run!
If you can’t easily afford the house, you have no business being in it. You also owe it to yourself to move forward to a new, hopefully more fulfilling life. New scenery is in order. This article will help you decide whether to keep the house, or sell.
Divorce guilt means you hold on to keepsakes you don’t use
My general rule: If you are not using it, it does not bring you joy, or otherwise serves as a dark reminder of unhappy times — get rid of it. And no: Your kids do not want your engagement ring. It represents a failed marriage, and likely heartache for them. They don’t want that shit!
What do you do with this extra, guilt-free cash? Invest in making your life better!
- Invest any proceeds in a new home — one that is efficient, easy to care for, frees you up to build and enjoy other parts of your life.
- Invest in your retirement
- Invest in a new career or side gig. Read: Top-paying careers for moms
Or pay off debt.
How to cope and get over divorce guilt
Here are ways to get over your divorce guilt:
- Consider therapy with a company like BetterHelp.
- Focus on your own self-care.
- Hang out with people who get it, get you, and see happiness in you when you don’t have the courage to see it yourself. Again: Millionaire Single Moms on Facebook.
- Decide that tomorrow you will wake up, the guilt will be less than the day before, and that it may take a long time for it to be 100% gone. That’s cool.
- Find success stories about other thriving single moms. I have a bunch in my book, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin).
- Pay attention to how you identify yourself. You know those women who have been divorced for 30 years, and in the first 2 minutes of meeting someone new they unload that their husband left them for another woman / abused her / was living a double life / etc.? Don’t be that woman. She has one identity: A victim of divorce. You are not her. You are an adult with full control of who you are and your happiness. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise: YOUR HAPPINESS IS CRITICAL.
The best revenge is living your best life — and sometimes you need to take revenge on yourself.
What I mean is this: Today you feel all kinds of shame and guilt for wanting to leave your relationship. Fast-forward to next year and your life is incredible: You are in shape, feel great, dating a great guy (or dating a lot of guys), thriving in your career, your finances are shaping up and your kids are doing AMAZING.