You feel sorry for your husband and you feel guilty, so you’re staying in an unhappy, unfulfilling marriage. You have good reasons for not wanting to leave: your husband isn’t physically well, or perhaps unable to support himself. You don’t want to break your marriage vows. Maybe your children are young, and you don’t hurt them or other family members.
“Marriage guilt” isn’t necessarily a sign your marriage is over….but it is a sign that something has to change in your life. You can’t change your husband. You may not even be able to change your marital situation or living circumstances. But there is one thing you can change, and that one thing can change everything.
The one thing you can change is you. You don’t have the power to change anyone else. Some of us don’t even have the power to change ourselves – which is understandable! Change is hard. But choosing to change something about yourself is the only way to deal with the guilt that keeps you in a marriage you wish was over.
There is nothing wrong with being unhappy in your marriage, for wanting to leave your husband and start a fresh life. There is nothing wrong with you. In fact, there’s a lot that is good and right about you! You’re caring and compassionate enough to feel guilty for wanting to leave your marriage. You care about your husband and family. You know how hard it’ll be to talk about separating or getting divorced. You aren’t a bad person for wanting to start a new life. You’re an unhappy woman in a difficult situation.
When Guilt Keeps You Married
Give yourself time to reflect on the thoughts below. You don’t have to make this decision right now, or even this month. You have time to think about your options, to explore ways to deal with your guilty feelings, and to find support in the right places. You might consider getting free divorce consultations, visiting “save your marriage” websites, talking to a relationship therapist.
Allow yourself to feel guilty for thinking about leaving your marriage while you explore your options. Don’t let marriage guilt paralyze you.
Give yourself time and space to breathe
You may have to wrestle with your guilty feelings for a long time. Divorce is one of the biggest decisions a woman can make, and it’s not something that should happen overnight.
Explore different ways to get good relationship advice; don’t rely on your best friend or family to advise you. You want to make the best decision for you, your husband, and your family…and that takes time.
Give someone advice about staying married because of guilt
What would you tell your sister, mother, or daughter about staying in a marriage out of guilt? What advice would you give someone you don’t know? Here’s a comment to think about:
“My relationship was over for three years, but I stayed because I didn’t want to hurt him and it’s hard to leave after an eight year relationship,” says J. on How Do You Leave a Man You’ve Loved for Years? “So we just kept being miserable, putting on a good show for friends…I found comfort in online chat rooms…met someone and had an online relationship for a year. I wanted it to be over with my fiancé. He found out and I feel so guilty for not dealing with things sooner. I don’t want to hurt him more. He wants to work it out, but we were over a long time ago. Plus I still resent him for the years of misery. My guilt keeps me in this marriage because I don’t want to hurt him more, and I still care about him. What do I do?”
Sometimes it’s easier to give other people advice than make decisions in our own lives. And, sometimes the advice we give is good, wise, and exactly what we need to hear.
Remember that guilt is for women who did something wrong
Guilt is an appropriate emotion for wives who somehow betrayed or purposefully hurt their husbands, children, or marriage. Having an affair, for example, is a common reason to feel guilty. It also makes leaving a marriage more difficult. If you feel guilty because you did someone wrong and you haven’t made things right, then it’s time to make amends. They call it “coming clean” for a reason…it hurts, but it will help you heal and move forward.
It’s important to figure out the source of your guilt. Is your husband making you feel guilty, or are you the sole source of your guilt? Have you talked to anyone about how unhappy you are? How are you working through your thoughts and emotions? These are difficult questions, but they will help you figure out what to do when guilt keeps you trapped in a marriage you wish was over.
Figure out what’s keeping you in the marriage
Women stay in unhappy relationships and loveless marriages for a variety of reasons. Something – or someone – holds them back from leaving and starting fresh. Sometimes the reasons for staying are good, sometimes they’re not. Are you staying married for reasons you think are good? If you feel stuck in marriage for reasons you believe are bad or unhealthy, then you have a starting point.
I stayed in an abusive relationship because I didn’t think anyone else would love me. I didn’t want to start dating again; it was much easier to stay in a bad relationship than leave and start over. I didn’t feel guilty and I wasn’t married to the guy, but I just couldn’t bring myself to leave. Ending any relationship is hard. Leaving a marriage when you feel guilty is agonizing.
Accept that even the “most right” decisions bring pain and heartache
“I’ve been married for 25 yrs and my marriage has been over for many years,” says Sara on 6 Ways to Deal With Guilty Feelings When You Move On. “I do love this man, but I’m not in love with him anymore. Our relationship has been one-sided and I was always trying to please him. My husband only thinks about himself and what makes him happy. I told him I want to leave, but he keeps saying he’ll change and never does. I’ve been trying to leave but he makes me feel so guilty. He keeps telling me to wait until after the holidays and it will be easier for him, but what about me? I know I deserve to be happy, but I can’t shake the guilt.”
Sometimes the healthiest decisions are the most painful ones. Even healthy, good decisions that are beneficial in the long run (exercise, eating healthy, going for regular pap smears) are painful in the short run. Your guilty feelings aren’t necessarily a sign you shouldn’t end your marriage. Your guilt just means you love your husband and you know how painful it’ll be to leave.
Talk to women who left their marriages
Here’s a comment from one of my readers who was stuck in a bad relationship for three years…
“I realized that this is not how I want to live my life and none of this is OK,” says Jessie on Should You Stay Married Even Though You Live Like Roommates? “Even if my husband changed he has already taken so many years from me…and I am taking the rest of my years for myself. I still feel immense guilt for ‘doing this to him’ which is what he said when I ended our marriage. I sometimes forget what it is that HE did to ME. We are now separated and it is still really hard. But everyday I wake up telling myself that I am worth it. I deserve to be respected and loved. Writing in a journal, getting family/ friend support, and a good therapist are the keys.”
Have you talked to anyone about how guilty you feel about leaving your marriage? Find someone you trust. Call a helpline, counselor or trusted family member. You’re facing a huge crossroads in your life, and you need support. Swallow your pride, and admit how things really are going in your life. You won’t regret it. The truth will eventually set you free…but it will hurt first.
Getting help with guilty feelings
In Escaping Toxic Guilt: Five Proven Steps to Free Yourself From Guilt for Good!, Susan Carrell says your life should not be a massive guilt trip.
Are you staying in a marriage because you feel responsible for your husband’s happiness, health, and life? Do you value the feelings of others more than your own? Do you have unrealistic expectations of yourself? If so, you may be trapped by toxic guilt.
Trying to win the approval of others – your parents, husband, colleagues, friends, children, or church – while being trapped by toxic guilt can strain your relationships, drain your energy, and dominate your life. The five easy-to-follow steps in Escaping Toxic Guilt can liberate you from these self-defeating patterns and put you on the path to living life fully, joyfully, and on your own terms.
Are you feeling trapped in a marriage because you feel guilty, or even ashamed to leave? Think of one small way to start coping with your guilty feelings today. Maybe you need to examine the roots of your guilt or the deeper reasons you’re staying married. Maybe you’re blaming your reluctance to leave your marriage on your husband or kids…but it’s really you that’s keeping you trapped.
Feel free to share your thoughts below. Writing is one of the best ways to figure out what you really think and feel, and can help you deal with the guilt you feel. What is holding you in this marriage? Who will be affected if you leave your husband?
If you already know you’re leaving your marriage, read 7 Ways to Deal With Guilty Feelings After a Breakup.
Is your relationship in trouble? Get 7 Steps to Fixing Your Marriage from relationship coach Mort Fertel. It's free and helpful, no strings attached.
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