Surviving Your Split

How to Overcome Your Divorce Guilt

How to Overcome Your Divorce Guilt

Happy Thursday, Friends!

Here’s hoping that you are excited about starting the How to Feel Better Series as I am. The first topic in this series?


What an ugly word and a terrible feeling.

Guilt comes in all sorts of mutating forms before, during, and after divorce. We may feel guilty because of a specific/concrete action we have done, or, more likely, divorce guilt permeates our lives like a mist running through our bodies. It’s a general, lingering feeling that comes from a variety of factors—things that have nothing to do with us but nevertheless continue to threaten our happiness.

It is normal for many of us to feel like we are to blame for everything leading up to the end of our marriage.  Society certainly has not helped us break from that. Many of us were raised to say, “Sorry” for everything, even though something may not have been our fault. Culturally, we were taught that keeping the household and marriage successful without any mistakes was our responsibility, without so much a thought that it takes two people in a partnership to make a relationship work. And naturally, because there was a lot of pressure on us to be perfect and act a certain way, when the marriage unraveled, our reaction, was to blame ourselves for it.

But I’m here to tell you to knock that shit off.

If there’s only one thing I want you to remember in this upcoming How to Feel Better series, it’s the following:

In Order to Overcome Guilt, You Must Forgive Yourself. 

Forgiveness is a beautiful thing. It’s a gift that we are usually generous in giving others at home, at work, at Starbucks when the barista screwed up our order for the third time this week, yet, for some reason, we don’t afford ourselves the same luxury. For some reason we think our actions, especially divorce-related ones, are somehow reprehensible and we feel like the worst people in the world for letting everybody down.

But you know what? The only person you have let down is yourself by not being kinder to you. You deserve to breathe, to dream big and plan for the future, to laugh again, to not be judged.

Accepting responsibility for your own shortcomings and working on them to avoid mistakes in the future is one thing. But constantly blaming yourself for things in the past 1) is neither helpful nor healthy and
2) doesn’t change a single thing.

So why not put that energy you spend on feeling bad about the past into something awesome as hell, like creating the good life you deserve and the chance to start over?

Forgiving yourself is challenging right now because you are looking at the divorce with warped vision. Right now, you are looking at it with 20/20 hindsight, where you have the luxury of picking your past self to pieces. And that’s just not fair.

It’s time to change that way of thinking. Feeling guilty stops now.

Hindsight glasses don’t exist. Neither should your guilt when you did the best with what you had at the time. Image via PixieDust.

I know what you’re thinking, because I went through that same personal hell during my divorce, too.

“But Martha…that’s easier said than done! I just feel so damn guilty all the time!”

And you know what? You’re going to until you let all that BS go and just be. Sure, you have made mistakes in the past. But who in the hell hasn’t? Remember that it takes two to tango in a marriage. You must accept that you did everything within your power at the time to make the marriage work. And even if you, for some reason, have still convinced yourself that you didn’t, the past cannot be changed anyway.

So, how do you forgive yourself, exactly?  I’m glad you asked.

How to Move on from your Guilt and Forgive Yourself: Reflections and Exercise

It’s been a while since we’ve done one of the Surviving Your Split exercises. And for those of you new to the community, welcome, and you will learn that we do a lot of easy helpful exercises in these newsletters that will help you feel better faster.

When a wave of guilt hits you, please remember this:

Guilt is a gray looming fortress—a mix of the Tower of London and Fort Knox, where you are trapped. But here’s the funny thing—all the doors are unlocked, there are no guards, and there’s no reason for you to stay there. So why not leave?

Guilt is your past holding you prisoner. It’s impossible to plan for the future if you keep holding yourself in the past.

Unlike this prison, Guilt is something that you can escape! Read on to find out how. Image via Tower of London.

The next time you are feeling guilty and are unsure of how to forgive yourself, ask yourself this one question:

“How will this guilt serve me in the future?” 

Think long and hard about this question….

*Momentary pause*

Oh, I see that you are drawing a blank space on answering it.

Gee, that might be because guilt DOES NOT serve you, so let it go.  Then do this next step.

Write down why you feel guilty. To get you started, I listed some of the thoughts running through my head when I was dealing with guilt.

I feel guilty because maybe I should have suggested we go to couples therapy sooner. I feel guilty because maybe I should have brought up the fact that we weren’t communicating anymore. Maybe if I had done that, things would have been different. 

Sound familiar?  Here’s what you need to understand about the words of guilt.

Guilt speaks the language of “maybe, should have, would have.” These are not action words—they are passive words that your guilt is using to make you create some picture-perfect false reality that doesn’t exist. It’s time to kick that language and those thoughts to the curb.

The next time you find yourself with those thoughts running through your head, nip it in the bud with compassion for yourself and neutralize those words with forgiveness. Remember those guilty thoughts running through your head? Take a look at how to start countering them below, and then write your own counter-thoughts for the things that are making you feel guilty!

I feel guilty because maybe I should have suggested we go to couples therapy sooner.

The Forgiveness Mindset: We went to couples therapy when we thought we needed it, and did everything in our power at the time to fix it. You were brave to try it, and should not feel bad about any of that.

I feel guilty because maybe I should have brought up the fact that we weren’t communicating anymore.

The Forgiveness Mindset: It takes two people for a marriage to work and you were not responsible for both you and your husband. You did what you could with the strength you had at the time. Be proud of yourself for that. 

Now it’s your turn! Write down the specific things that are making you feel guilty, then neutralize them with the compassion you deserve. Do this whenever the guilt sneaks up on you, and as long as you are mindful and consistent with this practice, you can keep the Guilt Monster at bay.

There are plenty of exercises on the way that will help you feel better. Stay tuned…it’s definitely going to be a summer of getting your life back.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you! What ways will you use this exercise to learn how to forgive yourself?

And as always, if you have any questions or comments, let me know! I love hearing from you and learning how I can help you get back to being happy.

Until next time, remember to take care of yourselves. You deserve it.


8 thoughts on “How to Overcome Your Divorce Guilt

  1. Kim

    I would like some help in dealing with my grown children and the guilt I feel from the divorce that disrupted their lives. It’s been 2 years and my 32 year old daughter is still passive aggressively lashing out at me. My 30 year old son seems ok with things he says he is, but of course my guilt has me questioning whether he really is.

    1. Lynn

      Honey, please remember the facts. These are your GROWN children. They are out, living their own lives and making decisions to impact their own happiness. You have every right and responsibility to yourself to do the same. You can’t live for your children. Mine are 11 years old and I fight with that fact every day attempting to get beyond feeling guilty for turning their lives upside down just for lil ole me. So if I know for ME I need to stop feeling guilty as young as my kids are, you DEFINITELY need to let yourself off the hook for how grown folks are behaving. I understand love can make us feel illogical things, but truly. You’re not responsible for their attitude, whatever it stems from.

  2. Michelle Falsken

    Hmmm. I understand your oints, however I rightfully should feel guilt. I do not make it into the lump .

    1. Marty Kay

      Listen, girl. We all make mistakes. You are not fully to blame. It takes 2 to get married and it takes 2 to get to the point of divorce. Even if one goes outside the marriage, there must have been a need not bring met. Guilt is paralyzingly. You must forgive yourself, not wallow is what is in the past and realize time will help heal. God forgives and can heal whatever you’ve done, even if you think it is unforgivable and worthy of guilt.

  3. Mary Ellen

    Thank you Martha. My ex husband is instrumental in keeping my guilt alive. I really like the exercise you give and will be trying them out.
    Mary Ellen

  4. Anthony

    I divorced a year ago and have been feeling guilty about wanting a better life partner.
    She’s not a bad person, far from it. She does everything possible for our only son, and has worked hard to provide for him, as have I. But over the years – 17 of them, there has been very little ‘us’. She either gave attention to our boy, or the TV, the iPad, or pretty much anything which meant not focusing on me or our relationship. Our last family vacation was in 2006 – ten years prior to our divorce. The personal aspects of our relationship were degrading – don’t expect it more than once a week or so, then 2 or 3 months, and always “Be quick!” But I stayed for love and our son. Hoping everything would get better. Then I found the divorce papers that she had already had prepped by City Office. So I gave her what she wanted, but still hoped it would change. It never did.
    A year on, I have a wonderful new partner and everything is good, except I can’t get past through the guilt of a failed marriage and the divorce. And ultimately, it’s going to kill my relationship with the new lady. But, after reading these points, I will endeavour to get past the guilt. I have to.

  5. Bethany

    I feel guilty for hurting my husband. I love him so much but our marriage was miserable. We fought constantly, He refused counseling, and everything was always my fault. I filed for divorce, and even though I’m excited for the future, I still miss him and I feel bad for hurting him.

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