Feeling Guilty You Got Divorced? Here’s What You Can Do About It

When a marriage comes to an end, especially when there are children, guilt is a common response. Guilt arises as a result of inflicting pain on another. Parents have an understandable sense of responsibility for bringing hardship into their children’s lives. A parent whose marriage fails is likely to feel, “I made a mistake.” Guilt for bringing discomfort to one’s children is a normal response to divorce.

Guilt arises for other reasons. Divorce has many liberating aspects. Raising children is hard work and divorced parents get “unexpected time off.” Divorced parents may feel guilty they are reveling while their children suffer. When I got divorced there was a joke about this; perhaps you’ve heard this story:  A divorced couple run into one another at a party/bar. Ralph says to his former wife, “Wow, you look terrific!” Anna replies that she feels great; she’s been working out five days a week.  “You look healthier too,” says Anna to Ralph, who is tanned and relaxed.  Suddenly, Ralph looks at Anna. “How are the kids?” he asks. “The kids,” she replies, “I thought they were with you.”

We laugh at this joke because it belies the notion that divorce brings only misery The truth is that divorce can be a very positive life change.  Divorce can be liberating in comparison to the stress of an unhappy marriage.   It can allow you to focus on your wellbeing and give you free time. It can benefit your children as well by expanding their ties to their extended family.  At the same time, the joke’s ending plays into our guilt that divorce shortchanges the children; it implies that the children have been forgotten or overlooked if both parents are out on the town and looking so well. The story highlights the parents’ discomfort about the congenial nature of their interaction: they’d forgotten they were supposed to be hostile and instead had showered one another with compliments.

Another source of guilt may arise from feelings about aspects of your behavior during your former marriage. Feeling badly about how you behaved is normal. All marriages face innumerable difficulties and marital partners are rarely polite, nice and generous to one another 100% of the time. Chances are that you behaved just as badly as your ex did at times in your marriage.  In moments of extreme emotion perhaps you said things to your ex that you now regret. You may have remorse about things you did as well.

It would be unusual if you did not at some time feel guilty for the collateral damage wrought on children, friends, or family members.  Here are two concepts to keep in mind:

  1. It’s never too late to apologize. “I’m sorry” carries a lot of weight–if you mean it. You may want to apologize to your kids, your ex or both. Asking for forgiveness is always an option.   To your kids: “I’m sorry that Dad and I were not able to stay married. It had nothing to do with you. It was not your fault. We will always love you and be your parents.”   To your ex: “I’m sorry I hurt you. I’m sorry for the way I behaved. I hope you will forgive me enough so that we can be friends.”
  2. Be sure your feelings of guilt don’t overwhelm your capacity for befriending.  The benefits of befriending are worth the dangers of crossing the divide between your ex and you that guilt may have created.


Posted by Judy Rabinor

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