Below is an email from a reader who explained that she is going through a divorce, and that the divorce was HER decision. She asked me if I could give her some advice for when a woman decides to leave. In other words, how does one deal with the immense guilt of leaving your husband, when he didn’t want the divorce? (or didn’t know it was coming.)
“It would be so much easier if I could stamp him as a cheater, alcoholic, slacker, loser, abuser. But I can’t! He has been a good father to our children, a loyal husband as far as I know, and a good provider for our family. I am in therapy for all the feelings including guilt. The fact is, this has hurt him and ripped his heart out (those were his words).”
I have a few thoughts for when a woman decides to leave:
First, the fact that she has been so honest about this whole thing, admitted what’s really going on, taken responsibility for what she’s done, and is seeking a therapist’s help puts her so far ahead of the game when it comes to healing.
In lots of cases like this, I see both men and women who take the guilt they have about leaving their spouse, and spin it. What I mean is, they somehow start to blame the other person, and then become angry at the other person, and then they turn into a nightmare for that person by being cruel and vicious. What they are really doing is taking the hatred they feel for themselves and putting it on the other person to try to alleviate their own guilt.
When a woman decides to leave, here are some common feelings she might have:
It’s an awful feeling to live with, and in my opinion, such a waste of energy and time! Guilt serves no productive purpose, so just stop it right now. Even if a person’s husband/wife has some serious flaws and there’s an obvious deal breaker such as abuse, cheating, drinking…whatever it was, people who decide to leave feel incredibly guilty for a long time–because of the kids, or just feeling like they are abandoning this person. If this is you, please re-evaluate what guilt is doing for you. I’m sure it’s nothing good.
Guilt can also make you settle financially in your divorce in a way you wouldn’t have settled had it been the other way around. You might accept less child support, give him the house, do whatever it takes monetarily to appease your guilt. And it won’t work. You’ll still feel guilty.
Guilt can also make you hate yourself, which is so totally unhealthy. Please get help if you feel guilty and it isn’t going away. You have to find a way to get rid of the guilt and regain self-love. Otherwise, you will never be able to move on.
When a woman decides to leave, fear might set in. “Will I be OK financially? Will I have to sell the house? Will my kids be OK? Will I be alone forever?” Fear is normal, and everyone fears change. That doesn’t mean you aren’t doing the right thing. I bet if you asked anyone who has ever made a huge life decision if they were scared, 100% would say fuck yes!! Fear is normal, but try to turn it into a positive, meaning fear can drive you to hard work, good decisions and success.
FEELING LIKE YOU’RE NOT ALLOWED TO BE SAD
Just because it was YOUR decision to leave, that doesn’t mean you aren’t hurting just as much as he is. Some people feel like maybe because they initiated the divorce that they don’t have the right to feel hurt, like they’re not allowed to miss him, or to grieve or cry or be upset. Maybe they feel like if they express sadness to someone, the person will say, “Well, this is what you wanted, isn’t it?”
Listen to me. You have every right to mourn your marriage if you are the one who decides to leave. It’s healthy to feel and process those emotions.
Some people who leave might feel like they are doing something wrong, like others are judging them. I say if they are, that’s their issue. There is no shame in leaving a situation you feel is toxic and there certainly is no shame in trying to have a happier life. Every divorce situation is unique, and no one knows what the person is going through behind closed doors. I personally think if a woman decides to leave, there must have been a pretty good reason because no one wants to get divorced. It’s a last resort.
“Am I doing the right thing? What if I regret this later and try to get back together with him and he’s already met someone? What if I can’t make it on my own? What if the kids end up screwed up because of me? Am I being selfish? Can I make this work?” Sound familiar? This is your non-productive guilt playing into things.
I am going to say this about doubt. Currently, I am madly in love with my spouse. I would never in a million years break up with him unless I was absolutely sure it was the right thing. Get the picture? If you were truly happy, divorce would not enter your mind. Ever.
Have confidence in your decision. The best thing I can recommend for doubt is to get a piece of paper and write down all the reasons the marriage isn’t working. Don’t show it to anyone, just keep writing and look at the paper every time you are wondering if you are doing the right thing. Include things like, “The night he did this…” “The time he told me…” “How I felt the night after so and so’s wedding…” Be specific.
Now onto the positives you might want to think about if you are the one leaving:
1. Your kids will be better off with two divorced parents who get along, then a household with no love, lots of fighting and coldness. They could grow up mimicking what you and your ex have in your relationship. They could think that is right. Or, they could see each of you in good, healthy, happy romantic relationships with other people. And, they could grow up mimicking that!
2. Leaving someone takes guts. Be proud that you are doing what’s right for your children and yourself, and that you left and didn’t take the easy way out by staying, maybe because he has money, or because it was comfortable.
3. Ask yourself this. Does your husband really deserve to be with a woman who doesn’t love him anymore? Doesn’t he deserve better? Your leaving him opens the door for him to possibly find love with a woman who appreciates him and wants him. And, I bet down the road, he will realize you did a good thing for everyone.
4. People always say “live in the present,” and although I am a huge fan of that, there is one instance where living in the future might benefit you: during a divorce. Living in the present during a divorce is stressful, but if you focus on your goals, and the life you are trying to create for after the divorce, the divorce might seem more manageable. Think about why you are doing all of this. If you stay, you know what to expect in the future. If you leave, it’s scary, but if you know whatever happens it will be better than what you have now, then you are doing the right thing.
I have a good friend whose husband blindsided her, and left her for another woman who he married two minutes after the divorce was final. I have said to her often, “Sometimes I feel like you are lucky because you didn’t have a say in this.” Sometimes it’s easier to be the one who was left versus the one who left. When something happens to you, you have no control. So, there’s no guilt.
In closing, divorce is very painful for both people, regardless of who left who. There’s really no way around that. But in the end, what ends up happening is, who left who doesn’t seem to matter much anymore, and both people go onto their own paths in life. What matters the most is how well the parents co-parent because that will have an effect on how the kids’ lives turn out.
Like this article? Check out, “9 Signs of a Healthy Romantic Relationship
We are all in this together
ugh…so much pain here. But also people finding themselves and seeking to have a life worth living….that resonates with me.
Im a man who is has been desperately trying to get my wife to join me in saving our marriage of almost 20 years, 8 years dating before that.
No infidelity, no abuse, just the classic drifting apart as we raised two kids (now high school age. We both worked and paid the bills. We both cleaned and did things around the house.
We drifted apart and didn’t notice it, or just ignored it as life was too busy and the kids needed our attention.
We hit a low point three years ago where we were barely even speaking to each other in the house and we had put ourselves into a financial hole (no budgeting, no planning, not caring due to depression).
I finally convinced her that we could not fix this on our own and that we needed help- a coach (marriage counselor)…and it worked! We started communicating, we started having fun together, we started to talk more and do more together, all while kicking the can down the road on anything hard to talk about. As we continued and got back to a better place, still not having addressed the hard stuff (like why we haven’t had sex in 9 years) – even while acknowledging that the hard stuff was there. During our therapy sessions, she would always say she wasn’t ready to talk about those things. I acknowledged that and agreed to give her more time. 6 moths in and the work (from the therapist) started getting harder and more uncomfortable as we edged towards the tough stuff. She decided that we had got everything we could out of him and didn’t want to see him anymore. I said, fine, lets get someone else. Time went on and she did not make any effort to find someone. So I did – first for myself to help me deal with the stress and depression of it all as it was affecting my health, my work, my personal relationships, etc…I shared with her what I was going through and she encouraged me to get the help but was reluctant o work on our relationship anymore ‘why cant you just enjoy the life we have? Why do you need to try and make it better?’ She acknowledged the effect on me of her not being willing to join me in working on our relationship but was consumed by the anxiety of facing the tough stuff we had been bumping up against.
I started to feel better about myself through my therapy and kept encouraging her to join me. She finally did for a few sessions (with my therapist) but then stopped as she felt like she was being ganged up on and that my therapist wasn’t a neutral third party.
This has continued and she has been stonewalling working on our relationship and pretending everything is ok. Fast forward another year to 2021. While I have continued to struggle with a yo-yo of emotions and fighting depression, she has continued to pretend everything is ok. When I explicitly asked her to join in me in working on our relationship as I could not do it alone, she said er life was too busy between work and the kids activities and she had nothing left for me and if that wasnt acceptable then too bad. Then she decided we should get a puppy. I said no as there clearly wasnt any spare time in our lives for a puppy. The last dog we had had been basically ignored by everyone in the family except me. I took him for walks twice a day, year round and was the only one that paid attention to him.
I said I wasn’t willing or able to make that commitment to another dog and so no puppy. she insisted that she would do everything for the dog. I asked , where will you find the time to do so if you don’t have the time for our relationship? She didn’t have an answer but insisted that she would take care of it. A work friend had puppies and we now have a golden doodle who is a lovely dog but, like any puppy, demanding of time. Shorty after we got the dog, I asked my wife – did we have to pay anything for her? $2600 she replied….this is the same wife who manages our checkbooks/finances (because she insists on it, even as she refuses to work with me on budgeting or planning beyond the coming week) and makes me justify any expenses I have. I just walked away, not believing this answer and not sure how to appropriately respond.
Fast forward to now – she has been great with the dog – getting up with it every morning for a walk and walking it every night when she gets home. Talking about the dog has become her only other thing we talk about aside from the kids.
I have written down how I felt at this point and shared with my therapist to get feedback before sharing with my wife. She thought it was great – direct about my feelings and what I needed from her(my wife), and laying out that I cannot go on like this and that I needed her to choose to join me in fixing our relationship or let me go.
I gave it to my wife, she read it and said that of course she would join me in fixing our relationship and then commenced to criticise me for all the things that I do that annoy her and that I needed to work on. I sucked it up and acknowledged that, yes, I am far from perfect and have things I need to work on….and that I was working on those things with my therapist and needed her to do so as well. She said that she wanted to pick the therapist after talking to her primary doctor for a referral. Three weeks later, she did so. The voicemail for the referred therapist said he was not taking any new patients. She said she would ask her doctor for more referrals. Three weeks later, she emailed me in the middle of the day and said thanks for being patient these past few weeks and that she had three names to call. I replied thanking her for keeping me in the loop. We didn’t talk about it in person later or since. That was three weeks ago and no mention of it since.
A little additional back story is that (late september) after having the dog for a week or two and trying to get it to sleep in a crate or on floor next to bed (all from the wife, not me). She broke down and brought her into the bed. Which meant that she insisted on lights out (we both usually read before going to sleep) as soon as she brought the dog to the bed. I did so and then proceeded to be kicked and nibbled by the puppy the rest of the night….and every night for the next few days. I finally said enough and went to sleep in the spare room – slept great. I have slept there every night since except for a few nights when the kids had friends over late and I slept in the bed with wife and dog again. It felt wrong – not because of the dog but because it felt like I was slipping backwards. I realized that just that little bit of separation had shown me that I needed some space and that I was happier with that space.
I haven’t been back in the bed since then and see the wife for dinner after work and then again in the morning before work. Its like we are roommates that share custody of a couple kids and a household. the more I pull away and separate from her, the better it feels, while at the same time, its very sad as I realize that the relationship that we had is not coming back I have been working through all of this with my therapist and asking if I’m wrong., crazy, selfish. She said no, you can’t control what your wife does, you can only control your own choices and if/how you respond to her decisions.
After several years of agonizing over this and fighting for our relationship, I’m realizing that it isn’t there anymore to save. The only thing keeping us together is that living together is the current status qou and change is hard and scary. But I look around and see a lot of friends who haven gotten divorced – some amicably, some terribly, but they are all in a better place now individually and truly happier – not perfect, not without issues, but in a better place and happier.
Now, I’m working with my therapist to figure out what a better place looks like for me. What would a happier life look like. Its going to take some work and it wont be easy or quick but I will get there.
I hope you all do to, whatever that looks like for you.
Life and Marriage requires hard work and commitment. It sounds to me that there is some depth but the issues seem to be shallow. Sometimes overreacting to small things or expecting a “grown up” i.e. a therapist to tell you what to do is a sign of immaturity, so be careful about letting your immaturity blind you from the actual depth you may have. When you do mature you might realize your mistakes. The sad thing is that there are behavioral patterns, and psychological emotional disorders and defense mechanisms that can come out of your subconscious and move you around like a puppet. When you get older, hormones, neurotransmitters get out of whack biologically and they throw off your thought patterns and reactions to things when you have too much or too little of something. We have emotional attachment types that are often formed by our early years and old and recent traumas can put in place all kinds of defense mechanisms that can hurt marriages. Sometimes when our inner angry voice needs confirmation bias it reaches out to our support system and we can poison the well with those around us against our spouse. For good times and bad and sickness and in health is what most of us vowed to do. That means commitment when the going gets tough. The current generation doesn’t know much about War or Depression so a dog pissing on the carpet might seem like a big deal. Your wife shouldn’t have gotten the dog because you needed time together to work as a couple. You need to help eachother regulate your feelings by being attuned to each other and support each other in a loving way. As you grow and change, your relationship should evolve. Most therapists don’t have a clue about chemistry and emotions are based on our bodies creating neurotransmitters and hormones based on which emotional operating system we are using i.e. the sympathetic (fight or flight) or the parasympathetic system (calm rational). The reason why the divorce rate is so high, and it is tragic, is because people encourage and justify very shallow and selfish thinking and don’t have the depth to look beyond the surface as to what is going on. 50 percent of marriages end in divorce and that is tragic and unnecessary. As a society we should be doing a lot more to educate and help harmonize and give younger and older couples the tools to better understand how to work together if there is underlying love. 9 years without sex; have you asked your wife to go to an endocrinologist to have her thyroid and homones checked? Hypothyroidism can torpedo a woman’s sex drive. Most therapists don’t know this or mention this and it would be tragic if something like this was wrong and you could have had help. God be with you. Remember, anyone who tries to hurt your marriage is not your friend. If you are looking for confirmation bias and trash talk your spouse, your support system might give it to you, but if they really cared about you they would make sure that you weren’t overreacting or being shallow and encourage you to look at every possible option to reconcile.
I’ve had to listen to countless men being left and for whatever the reasons, it’s all sad and in reality God did not create us for Divorce, what’s worse no one can re marry unless the other is deceased, God doesn’t give blessing to adulterous relationships.
Thank you for this article “Honey, I want a divorce”. My wife divorced me unexpectedly after 20 years, and after 13 years I am still not completely sure of her reasons. Her behavior during and after the divorce is largely explained by what you have written, and has shed some much-needed light on this part of my life which is still painful even today.