The Guilt and Shame of Divorce
By Kim Johnson
With twelve words, my twenty-year marriage melted into thin air. And there was nothing I could do about it. It was quick and brutal. He said, “You were right. I’ve fallen in love with Jill* and I’m leaving.” He walked away without looking back, not even a glance to see my reaction. The words hung in the air as I stood there in disbelief trying to grasp what was happening.
Working through the shock and pain was not easy. With time, I’ve been able to heal and move on. However, the toxic, bitter feelings which replaced those initial emotions have continued to plague my heart and mind. Handling the guilt and shame has not only been difficult, but at times nearly impossible.
The excruciating pain caused when someone you still love walks away, leaves you feeling like you never mattered, which chips away at your soul. Those who haven’t been through a divorce are simply and understandably oblivious. Yet, being oblivious doesn’t seem to stop them from having an opinion when the word “divorce” is mentioned. Some feel sorry for “those people.” Others have whispered criticisms like: “Why couldn’t they make it work?” “Why did they give up so easily?” “That will never happen to me!” The judgement and criticisms are frequently quick, and too often without sympathy.
It can be even worse in the Christian culture. Some believe that divorce stains one’s life like a scarlet letter. Others take it a step farther, believing a divorced person may never have a future relationship because they consider remarriage to be adultery. The condemnation can feel like it is coming from everywhere. So, divorce unwittingly invites shame and guilt to become unwanted houseguests that seemingly never leave.
When it comes to divorce, guilt usually stems from feeling you personally did not fulfill a promise, or didn’t do enough to make the marriage work. You can feel guilty about disappointing yourself, your family and even God. Perhaps in hindsight there were red flags about this relationship you ignored. You feel guilty because you didn’t heed the warning signs. There are so many reasons for divorce guilt that it is impossible to list them all. No matter the cause, guilt can be part of the process.
On the other hand, guilt is not always useless as an emotion. Guilt can also be part of a healthy process of re-examining your choices and decisions made prior to your marriage, during the time of dating, and also within the marriage relationship. Unfortunately, it’s easier to focus on the negative feelings than allowing them to motivate you to move on.
Where does Shame Come From?
Shame is another feeling that is associated with divorce. However, it is very different from feeling guilty. Where guilt is based on believing we’ve done something bad, shame is thinking we are bad. This comes from feeling embarrassed or humiliated due to the perception of doing something dishonorable or immoral. And this is the problem in many communities, families, and Christian circles.
Too often, divorced people are subjected to external shaming because others feel a traditional moral code has been broken; or, perhaps that it is always wrong in God’s eyes. So, instead of a helping, healing hand, there is scorn, contempt, and condemnation. Some even fear that divorce is contagious. Subsequently, the external shame shifts to internal and can cause you to isolate. The natural progression of shame is to feel abandoned by your community (you’re a loser) and for some, abandoned by God.
Jesus, Guilt and Shame
Judgement from yourself and others creates another obstacle in moving forward on the journey to heal and overcome the guilt and shame of divorce. Battling the condemnation, feeling your choice was happiness over holiness or weakness over commitment, is to misunderstand God’s grace. His love and mercy are demonstrated best in the story of Jesus’ interaction with the woman at the well.
In John 4, we’re told Jesus was traveling through Samaria on the way to Galilee. This was very significant, even before his interaction later. That area was like the “wrong side of town” in our world today. Samaritans were a mixed race, part Jew and part Gentile, so neither culture respected them. Thus, the contempt was mutual. And yet, here was Jesus (a Jew) taking time to rest in a place where other Jews would avoid like the plague.
It was around noon and Jesus was waiting by the well for the disciples to return with food. That’s when the Samaritan woman came to get water. Again, this was very unusual. Historical traditions of that time tell us women typically went to draw water in groups, in the morning. The fact that she was by herself in the middle of the day indicated she was not just an outcast to the Jewish community. Most likely she was considered or treated like an outsider in her own town.
As we read further, we find out some interesting facts about the woman. This was her routine, to come to the well at this time of day. She had been married more than once, and was currently living with her boyfriend or a male companion. If anyone was hiding in shame, this woman had it written all over her life. Still, here was Jesus, the Son of God, intentionally meeting her on her terms. Did he condemn her? Did he treat her with contempt? Did he turn away with scorn? No, he asked her for a drink of water.
Their conversation took off from there and culminated in this woman’s salivation and a life change she could never have imagined. This interaction is extremely important for those wounded by divorce to understand. Jesus knew all about this woman before she took one step toward the well. Yet, he did not shame her or pile on the guilt. What she had done or how she was living did not matter. He loved and pursued her. And that is how Jesus sees everyone. No stereotypes, or prejudices, whether you have been divorced or not.
The Lesson to Learn
The lesson for anyone who has experienced a divorce is to know that God sees us through the eyes of his son. He does not ignore the painful, broken parts of our life, when healing and restoring our ravaged heart. While it is unfortunate that some Christians nurse those biases and draw spiritual lines in the sand, Jesus invites us to allow him to mend our shattered soul.
Romans 8:1 says, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
In the aftermath of pain, hurt, shame and guilt, it becomes very easy to believe the condemning lies of Satan the accuser. Someone in your life may even be echoing this same message. The truth is, God is not ignoring you and that is not his voice. He is El Roi: The God who sees me (Genesis 16:13).
Practical Steps for Letting Go of Guilt and Shame
There are steps you can take to let go of guilt and shame over your divorce. Give yourself the time and space to grow and heal by doing the following.
- Evaluate what is and what is not your responsibility. Look truthfully at what you contributed to the demise of your marriage. Whether the percentage is 2% or 50%, seek forgiveness as needed. This includes forgiving yourself. Withholding forgiveness and holding on to regret is not healthy and hinders healing. This only exacerbates the pain.
- Assess your feelings of blame. Think critically and be sure you are not taking responsibility for your spouse’s choices or bad behavior. You cannot control them. You can only control yourself.
- Let go of past mistakes. You cannot change the past and beating yourself up for wrong choices will only prolong the pain. What’s done is done.
- Don’t allow others to lay unwarranted guilt and shame at your feet. People can be quick to judge without knowledge of the facts. Remind yourself of the truth and don’t accept blame that isn’t yours.
- Sift your focus to rebuilding your life. Work on your personal growth. Philippians 1:6 says, “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”
- Work to see yourself through God’s eyes. You are not responsible for things beyond your control. Ephesians 2:10: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
The journey through divorce takes a toll on you emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually. So, give yourself time to heal. Be patient with yourself even if others around you try to push you into things when you aren’t ready. Surround yourself with people who understand and who will allow you the time and space you need.
Moving on is a Process
Letting go of guilt and shame is not necessarily a “one and done” process. Satan knows our buttons and he will continue to push them over and over. Revelation 12:10 indicates it is he who accuses us day in and day out. Throwing shame, guilt, and regret in our face is his way of keeping us isolated from God. This is why it is so important to understand God’s mercy and grace. Seeing yourself through the eyes of God’s love will keep you from settling for anything less than who you are in him.
As you allow God to restore your life, use God’s Word to remind yourself of the truth. You are not a second-class Christian, broken and discarded. You belong to God; you have been made whole, and you are redeemed. When you understand this dynamic and the truth of God’s grace, shame and guilt will no longer have a place in your life. Look forward to what God has in store for this next season of your life.