6 ways to manage guilt about how your divorce will affect your kids

Immediately after you tell your kids the news that is going to shatter their existence, the guilt takes root inside and starts to spread. It won't go away any time soon—but there are ways to manage it.

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As any parent knows, from the moment your kids are born, you spend most of your waking hours hoping nothing bad will happen to them. During a split, you see pain and confusion in their innocent eyes—a situation so unjust that you want to flog yourself. They ask the inevitable questions—“If you love us so much, then why did you and Mommy break up?”—over and over, and the answers you come up with are so maddeningly useless that you can’t stand hearing yourself talk. Friends quote you the divorce rate and remind you that you aren’t the first or the last couple to break up. People who have gone through a breakup tell you, “Don’t worry, you get used to not seeing your kids every day.” You want to punch these people in the nose. Others, less prone to sugarcoating things, tell you their son or daughter barely spoke to them for a couple of years after the breakup, but then they got older and, over time, things started to improve. You want to punch these people too. Nothing salves the guilt. You carry it around day and night.

An essential part of the journey through divorce is to make sense of, and figure out how to process, the guilt that threatens to engulf you. Immediately after you tell your kids the news that is going to shatter their existence, the guilt takes root inside and starts to spread. On most days, you privately ask for more of it, because you’re convinced you deserve to feel all this and more for what you’re making your kids go through.

You own the heck out of it. But the guilt is not useful if it is only going to drown you. It cannot be shed and it should not be ignored. It needs to be faced, understood, and absorbed in a way that will not swamp your spirit. Guilt is the toughest part of the psychological and emotional road you are on.

The guilt you feel isn’t going to be departing any time soon, but there are things you can do to manage it. Here are six.

1. Write about it

I don’t want to get all writerly on you, but he simplest way for anyone to process their emotions on the most basic level is to get them out. To that end, try keeping a daily journal. Write down what you’re feeling. This isn’t for any purpose other than to provide a conduit for a lot of dark and heavy emotions accumulating inside you. The more space you allow them to occupy, the higher your risk of lashing out. Give yourself an outlet.

2. Compartmentalize it

The line between showing your kids real emotions and demonstrating strength and resolve is a delicate one. Though I wouldn’t advise you to suppress your feelings in general, I do think you ought to do so when with your kids. Do deal with it, but deal with it away from them. The more you wear your guilt on your sleeve, the more confusing the situation is for your kids, because they may think you not only feel bad about the grief they’re feeling, which is appropriate, but you also perhaps question your decision, which is not appropriate.

This leads me to my next suggestion on how to handle your guilt.

3. Be honest with your kids about it

You do feel bad. You feel really bad. Don’t be afraid to say this to your kids, but say it without conveying messages you don’t intend. “I’m sorry for the pain this is causing you” is a different message from “I’m sorry Mommy and I broke up.” You’re not sorry for that, because it was a difficult and courageous decision made for their ultimate benefit. Help your kids understand that you’re hurting for them but still convinced about your decision, because grasping this is an important step in their emotional passage.

Alt text My daughter took on my grief during my divorce

4. Fight it

“The hardest thing about depression,” said Pete Wentz, member of the American band Fall Out Boy, “is that it is addictive. It begins to feel uncomfortable not to be depressed. You feel guilty for feeling happy.” The guilt you feel about the effect of your marriage breakup on your kids is huge, and because of this, it can be debilitating if you resign yourself to it. You may not recognize how much your guilt is manifesting in your physical and mental self. If your kids see you walking around as though you’re in quicksand, your behaviour won’t give them much hope. Grab a branch and pull yourself out, not so much so you can see the light, but so they can.

“There are two kinds of guilt,” writes author Sabaa Tahir, “the kind that drowns you until you’re useless, and the kind that fires your soul to purpose.” Don’t show your kids that you’re drowning in your guilt, even if on the inside it feels like you are. Show them fire and purpose. Again, if you feel you’re in crisis, please seek professional help right away.

5. Process it with those who know you best and care for you most

The deeper and more acute the emotion you feel, the more you need someone who really knows you to be able to help you process it. You can try for hours or days to work through the guilt on your own and come up empty, yet a few words from someone who genuinely cares for you can be transformative. There have been many moments since I have been with my partner, Fulvia, when I have broken down, overwhelmed by a wave of sorrow, and an equal number in which she has provided a loving gesture, a few words of calm reassurance, or a tender insight to slowly bring me back and move me forward. This positive effect isn’t a magic trick. It’s the result of sincere, generous, and deeply compassionate love.

6. Embrace it

A psychologist named Andrew Shaul said something to me that I found brilliant: working through guilt isn’t the same as trying to get rid of it. The idea doesn’t seem an intuitive one, but it’s true. “Sometimes,” he said, “what seems to help is accepting the guilt rather than trying to eliminate it. You got married with the best of intentions, but here you are: you’re splitting, and you have kids who are hurting from the decision, so naturally you have guilt. Instead of fighting it, try to process it as a natural consequence. You can look at it as a terrible thing you need to get rid of or an understandable by-product of the decision, which you need to adjust to and reduce your suffering from.” I found this insight to be both completely surprising and totally sensible. You have to face it and embrace it. I just made up that expression. I’m going with it.

Excerpted from Do You Ever Cry, Dad? by I. J. Schecter © 2019 by I. J. Schecter. All rights reserved. Published by Dundurn Press.

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