Overcoming guilt after divorce

I was in a very difficult marriage for 15 years, but believed that, as I was taught by my family and religion, to stick things out and to stay as I vowed, “for better or for worse”. But as things became worse and worse with my ex-husband, I was getting worried about our children seeing how he abused me and also that he had been treating them badly too. Now I feel guilty that by divorcing him I may have broken my vows and that others in our church look at me with shame for breaking up our family. I need help but don’t know where to start.

Many women (and men) stay in troublesome relationships for various reasons, including holding onto, partly conscious but mostly unconscious, beliefs instilled by their family of origin, religion and the greater (still deeply patriarchal) society.

This includes sticking things out and staying in destructive relationships even when it is clearly a very untenable situation.

That you stuck with it for 15 years is a long time to have tolerated this abuse towards you and your children. You may have hoped that you could change your ex-husband or that things would get better over time. Many women have this hope at the start.

But, often with abusive partners, unless they get long-term professional help, they rarely change. On the other hand, I wonder about what made you feel attracted to a man who more than likely may have shown signs of abusive behaviour before you got married.

Often, abusive partners show early warning signs, including being very romantic and attentive to win you over (many people talk about the relationship seeming too good to be true, because it more than likely is); being very jealous when you are with others or giving attention to others, especially if they are perceived as a threat to him (this could include family, friends or colleagues); checking up on you all the time and making you feel guilty or getting angry when you do not respond or come home when he expects you to; playing the victim in many of his relationships and dealings, i.e. that he is always the wronged one who suffers; “gaslighting” you – which is a form of psychological manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual, making them question their own memory, perception, and sanity; being controlling over you, your choices and situations; telling you more than usual that you are the best partner his ever had and that there is no need to wait but to rather commit and tie the knot immediately.

This can be flattering to anyone’s ego and they often unwittingly fall into the abuser’s carefully orchestrated trap. In addition, this kind of behaviour is further exacerbated and underpinned by deeply entrenched patriarchal beliefs and practices.

We are all relationally situated in, and influenced, by our families of origin, community, religion, and the larger society’s values. This influence is especially powerful regarding our intimate relationships and what the role of men and women should be.

We are all exposed to the dynamics of our early relationships and home environments. The ways in which we were treated as children become the bedrock and blueprint of our later adult relationships.

Is it possible that you were unloved, abused, neglected or mistreated as a child? Often, we “forget” many of these relational dynamics of our childhoods, both how we were treated as well as how our parents and other caregivers treated each other, as well as the general tone of the home environment. Mostly, unconsciously, these are internalised as we develop from a very dependent state to greater and greater independence.

If our childhood home environment was mainly chaotic, unpredictable, frightening and unloving, we internalise these states and it becomes part of our character formations and internalised relational beliefs and practices.

These are mostly unconscious, in that we are not aware of how these early relational dynamics continue to play repetitively in our lives, through how we treat ourselves and the kinds of partners we feel attracted to.

Often I hear people say, “but he was such a wonderful guy when we dated and was so attentive and caring. I don’t know how he became such a monster in our marriage!”

But dating is a time when we are all caught up in our projections of the perfect partner as well as try to present our best side to the other in order to win them over.

Once this honeymoon phase is over, we may have developed strong ties and a sense of feeling that we finally found love that we stick with our partners even when we have a nagging voice warning that something is awry.

More than that, if a person is accustomed to abuse, their tolerance level for abuse becomes very high, and they may not have strong warning bells going off, because abusive behaviour has become familiar to them.

The way forward would be to find a mental health professional to assist you with processing both your recent past and possible related childhood issues. Once worked through, this will minimise the chances of repeating this kind of relational dynamic in your future relationships.

Regarding the guilt, I would say that this is “normal” because mostly loving parents who care about their children want them to grow up in a healthy and undisturbed home environment.

But in my view, I believe that you had done your best to make this work but as you may know, we cannot change others, especially those close to us.

You could not change your ex-husband, he chose to treat you and your children in an abusive way, you needed to do what was right, the wise choice was to leave for their safety and yours.

What others, “die mense sê” (the people say) or think about you is their problem, not yours.

Focus on yourself, focus on healing and focus on a better life with new and more healthy beginnings for you and your children.

They need you, they need you to love them, especially through learning to love and value yourself.

This is what is most important for your healing and growth.

Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist. Write to her at helpmecarin@inl.co.za or send a WhatsApp message or SMS to 082 264 7774.