5 Ways to Deal with Feelings of Guilt and Rejection Post-divorce

When a marriage dissolves, it’s a natural to experience feelings of guilt or rejection. Guilt can arise when a parent feels responsible for bringing pain to their children or for their behavior toward their ex-spouse. On the other hand, feelings of rejection probably stem from feeling left or betrayed by your ex. Whether a person is feels more guilt versus rejection is probably related to the reasons why their marriage ended.

So let’s take a closer look at both guilt and rejection and examine two common scenarios – whether someone is a dumper or a dumpee in the divorce process. These two terms were coined by divorce expert Dr. Bruce Fisher in his groundbreaking book Rebuilding When Your Relationship Ends. Fisher writes “Dumpers are the partners who leave the relationship, and they often feel considerable guilt; dumpees are the partners who want to hang on to the relationship, and they often experience strong feelings of rejection.”

Since relationship patterns are complicated, it’s important to remember that the roles of dumper and dumpee aren’t always clearly defined and that sometimes they can be reversed. For instance, a partner might be told by their spouse that their marriage is over, and then they decide to file for divorce. Surprisingly, it’s not always the dumper who files for divorce. Sometimes the dumpee simply gets tired of waiting and takes this bold step as a way to take charge of their life.

By the way, some people have a strong negative reaction to the words “dumper” and “dumpee” while others can relate to these terms and like using them. In spite of these qualifications, I firmly believe that these categories are relevant to understanding both feelings of guilt and rejection after divorce.

When you think about it, aren’t guilt and rejection two sides of the same coin when it comes to post-divorce emotions? It makes sense that a partner who decides to terminate the marriage would experience more guilt, while the person who feels left would suffer from feelings of rejection. Notice the difference in their priorities. The dumper typically focuses on personal growth and will say things like “I have to find myself.” On the other hand, dumpees usually express a desire to work on the relationship and will say things like “Just tell me what you want me to change and I’ll work on it.”

Although it’s not an exact science, we might expect about that roughly the same amount of people would identify themselves as the person who was left (dumpee) as the one who decided to leave (dumper). However, in a small percentage of divorces, people say their divorce was mutual. In these cases, it’s normal to feel both guilty and rejected at times.

Guilt is a complex emotion, which probably explains why Dr. Fisher outlines two types. Appropriate guilt and free-floating guilt differ in their intensity and impact on a person’s life. Most people feel appropriate guilt when they believe they’ve done something wrong that hurts another person. Some parents feel guilty because their marriage was abusive and they didn’t take action sooner. Others may feel guilt or regret because their child may be struggling emotionally with post-divorce life. On the other hand, free-floating guilt usually exists from our childhood reservoir of unexpressed guilt feelings and it leaves us feeling anxious and fearful about many situations. Appropriate guilt can be worked through more easily than free-floating guilt. In my experience, both types of guilt can be resistant to change and can lead to depression if they aren’t dealt with. For many people, therapy is an essential tool to help process these difficult emotions.

Feelings of guilt or rejection are closely tied to feelings of self-worth and self-love. Part of the healing process after divorce is recognizing and accepting the way you feel about yourself inside affects the way you relate to people in the world. As you learn to accept and love yourself, your feelings of guilt and rejection will diminish.  When you’re connected to feelings of self-worth, you’ll have more energy to relate to others in meaningful ways.

Here are five ways to deal with feelings of guilt and rejection about your divorce:

  1. Accept the fact that it’s normal or typical to have these emotional reactions to the ending of a relationship. They’ve probably been there all along (in your marriage) and are simply intensified during and after the divorce process.

  2. Get to the root of your feelings of guilt and/or rejection. Self-awareness is the first step in recovering from painful emotions. Examine whether you consider yourself a dumper or dumpee and the impact this has on your emotions.

  3. Apologize to your ex or children if you behaved badly during or after your divorce. It’s never too late to make amends. A sincere apology can help you to forgive yourself and can promote healing for your children. Asking your ex for forgiveness, if you feel it’s warranted, can help mend the past and promote friendship post-divorce.

  4. Acknowledge that all relationships end. Just because your relationship is over, it doesn’t mean you’re inadequate or inferior – or there’s something wrong with you. Give yourself a break.

  5. Cultivate supportive relationships. Being with people who accept and support you can help ease feeling of guilt and rejection. Get energized by the possibilities ahead for you.

In closing, looking at how feelings of guilt or rejection may have impacted your behavior can facilitate healing. A parent whose marriage ended may experience guilt because they brought pain to their children. An apology can go a long way to promote forgiveness. Lastly, developing a mindset that you don’t have to be defined by your divorce experience is a crucial step to moving forward after divorce.  We’d love to hear your reactions to this blog and would appreciate your comments.

Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

I’d love to read your comments on this page. Be sure to order my new book “Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship.”


10 Responses to “5 Ways to Deal with Feelings of Guilt and Rejection Post-divorce”

  1. Tarah says:

    Thank you so much for writing this. I was the one who left… the dreaded ‘dumper’. I have written a very honest account of what it was like being on ‘the other side’; the one who leaves. I’d like to share it with you.http://startingoverasms.wordpress.com/2013/07/08/being-the-one-who-leaves/

    Thanks again for a great article.


    • Terry says:

      Tarah, You are welcome!Keep writing as it is healing and can help others. I hope you continue to visit our site and enjoy the blogs! Regards, Terry

  2. Ilona says:

    Thank you, Terry for writing these kind words. It’s always useful to have understanding comments shed light on the emotional processing that goes on in divorce.

  3. James Monty says:

    Very good article. I have one concern though. Number 4 of the 5 reasons seems out of place. I think the attitudes of younger people in relationships today mirrors that sentiment to the extent it becoming an expected happening. There is far to strong an attitude of, “If it’s broken throw it away and get a new one” in society today. It seems as if the nineties generation has taken the end of relationships as a foregone conclusion and as a result there is a troubling acceptance brought into the relationship that makes it far to easy for partners to call it quits; the, “Well,
    we tried” escape clause if you will.

    • Terry says:

      James, Your point is well taken, however, I’m not advising that readers bail our of a marriage quickly or that relationships are disposable. What I’m saying is factual though because all relationships end – through death or divorce – and this doesn’t make us defected. I don’t believe that we can define ourselves by our parent’s divorce or our own. For the most part, no one intends to divorce and we’re not a failure if our marriage doesn’t work out. Many people suffer needlessly from too much quilt or shame post-divorce. Regards, Terry

  4. Kim says:

    It’s also possible to feel both guilty and rejected in either roles. I was the “dumper,” but it resulted after years of trying to communicate my loneliness and lack of connection. Even after offering a way to work on things, I was denied. The way the divorce was communicated to our child was purposely done to hurt me and hurt our son as well. This piled on even more guilt.

    Only by owning up to my faults and not taking all the blame (I firmly believe it takes two to end a marriage) could I begin to lose some of my guilt. Honestly, I think some guilt will always be ther because I’ll always feel like I forced my child into this change, but I keep him in my thoughts and decisions in order to never shake up his world again.

    • Terry says:

      Hi Kim, You seem like a loving, compassionate mom! Your comments are right on – it’s normal to feel both guilty and rejected in either roles. I went through this myself and it did take time to shake the quilt. My two children (from my first marriage)are adults and both doing well. Remember, we don’t have to let divorce define who we are. It’s great to hear from you and I hope you come by to our website soon! Regards, Terry

  5. stalinn says:

    thanks for the article, it helped me especially about “The self- worth ” I still can’t figure out if I am a dumpee or dumper, she left I apologized, waited, and then got another engagement, then she calls me back that she loves me, I don’t know how sleep or the cramps to vanish, help me

    • Terry says:

      Hello, Sometimes people fit into both dumpee and dumper. I can’t provide counseling over the internet but advise that you seek help from a therapist or divorce coach in your area. Separation and divorce are stressful and it can be helpful to have someone sit down with you for a series of sessions to help you sort things out. Regards, Terry

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