7 Steps to Healing a Guilty Conscience, Post-Divorce

So you blew it. You cheated, got caught and now you’re divorced. Your friends are taking your spouse’s side and your dog won’t even look you in the eye. Guilt: not just for Jewish mothers anymore!

I’ve said it a million times, there is no easy divorce. But when your actions were the catalyst behind it? Yeesh. One way ticket to sad town on the pain express, please! Moving on and rebuilding your life cannot happen unless you deal with the ever present guilt weighing you down. Ignoring it or pushing it down might give you a short term quick fix, but over time the guilt will fester and seep into aspects of your life you couldn’t have imagined.

You are of no use to anyone sitting in the corner smacking your temples with closed fists. No one wins in the corner. Plus you’ve become a fire hazard. And seriously, your boss really wants you to get back to work because if this keeps up she will have no other choice than to fire you. Then you’ll be sad, guilty and unemployed. So take this bad experience, learn from it and grow beyond it. Let the guilt serve a purpose, learn to work through it and move on. How?

Identify the actions that led to the guilt
Go beyond just “I slept with my kid’s soccer coach!” Explore what happened and why. Were you bored or lonely in your marriage? What led to the soccer coach? Before it happened, could you have talked to your spouse? Did you not express your unhappiness due to fear or cowardliness? How did you get there and what could you have done differently?

Identify the source of your guilt
Now that you know how you got there, where is your guilt really coming from? Do you feel guilty because you hurt someone you love/loved? Or is it more that you let yourself down and betrayed the standards you hold yourself to? Is it society? Or your family? Is it a combination? Is it guilt that you don’t feel guilty enough?

Take responsibility
You’ve figured out the source now take responsibility. When we do bad things, there is a childish urge within us to blame others for our actions. For example, if your spouse just took better care of himself/stopped nagging so much/was younger/had more interesting things to say you wouldn’t have strayed. Um, no. You’re a grown up now, you have to hold yourself accountable. Accept responsibility, whether it was one hundred percent your fault or whether you can weasel your way out with a lot of excuses. You are to blame and that is ok.

Depending on the situation, you may have a lot or just some apologizing to do. Writing a letter to your former spouse taking responsibility and apologizing may be the only thing on your list. If the situation is more complex, you may have some kids and friends to apologize to as well. No matter how long your apology list is, make each apology thought out and heartfelt. It’s quite possible the recipient may not be very open to what you have to say, but expressing remorse is about you as much as it is about them. The final apology on your list should be the one to yourself. As cheesy as it sounds, you’ve got to talk to yourself like a crazy person, or journal to yourself like a teenage girl. Tell yourself you’re sorry for letting you down.

Forgive yourself
So, you talked to yourself in the mirror or closed the journal you hope no one will ever, ever find, and you have apologized to yourself. Now it is time to forgive. Shockingly, you are only human like the rest of us, meaning, you make mistakes. Was this a biggie? Yeah. Maybe even the biggest of your whole life. But it doesn’t make you evil, or beyond forgiveness. The only tragedy here would be if you went through all this life-changing turmoil and learned nothing from it. So forgive yourself, give yourself a clean slate and start fresh.

Learn from this
Remember step one, where you figured out how you got to cheating? That was an important step because now you can use that knowledge to feel out a future cheating situation way before things get out of hand. If your eye starts wandering in a new relationship, you have to tools to assess why that is, and maybe, just maybe you can speak to your partner and work things out before you end up at a hotel with the president of the PTA. Or you won’t work things out, and you’ll break up with your partner in a mature way that doesn’t involve them dumping the crap out of you when they catch you with the president of the PTA. Use this guilt ridden situation to learn about yourself.

Learn how to accept mistakes and how to move on from them with grace. Give yourself the chance to improve and to strengthen your empathy muscles when someone inevitably wrongs you in the future.

Focus outside yourself.
Maybe it’s the lapsed Catholic in me, but penance is a great way to work through guilt. Go modern Catholic over old school Catholic though, as throwing money at a situation doesn’t really help. Instead of, or in addition to, writing a check to a worthy organization, get involved yourself. Donate your time and efforts to a local soup kitchen or mentoring program. Get involved in your community and see how full your heart will feel as you realize you are needed and appreciated. Soon your self esteem will build back up and you’ll be ready to dump the guilt and start anew.

And of course, if all else fails, seek therapy! There is absolutely no shame in doing so. In fact, just the opposite: Working on yourself is a lifelong endeavor and I applaud it.

Have a word of advice to share with others? You know what to do: Leave a comment below, on Facebook, or in a tweet.