By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter and Facebook. She is pleased to announce the publication of Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-lasting Relationship (Sourcebooks).
Terry’s new book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around, was published by Sounds True in February of 2020 and can be ordered here.