Dealing with Guilt, Shame, and Social Stigma of Divorce
- Wednesday, October 17, 2007
Many divorced people, and especially those who hold strong religious values, tend to regard divorce as outward evidence of an inner character flaw. It is assumed, and sometimes stated outright, that a person following God would never have ended up at a destination called divorce.
"Divorced" means "defective" in the internal self-talk of many religious persons. Whether or not this is openly taught in the congregation or the community, this is the core message that often forms in the minds and hearts of persons struggling through a divorce. And feeling defective and less than acceptable, divorced people are susceptible to feelings of guilt, shame, and failure.
When we sin against a known law of God, guilt and shame serve the useful purpose of calling us to repentance and forgiveness. As we reflect on our own lives and conduct, God’s Holy Spirit searches our hearts, showing us places and situations where we may have been selfish or sinful. As with all instances of revealed sin, we need to confess our wrongdoing and then move in positive directions, turning away from evil. In such cases, our sense of guilt is positive—it impels us to examine our hearts, renounce our evil ways, and repent—turning away from wrong choices and negative directions.
Yet often our feelings of shame are not rooted in a willful act of rebellion against God or in a revealed sin. Instead, they may have their origin in the difficult circumstances of our lives, such as a divorce against our choosing. We may carry a vague sense of personal failure about being divorced; we may internalize a sense of shame or inadequacy that is inappropriate and unhelpful. Looking around at those who seem successful and capable, we may feel "less than" or "unworthy of" others. If we had somehow functioned better as a husband or wife, we reason to ourselves, we would still be married. Others can do this better, we may feel, but somehow we are incapable of succeeding at it.
In such cases, our sense of guilt or shame may entrap us—limiting our ability to function in normal and natural ways. By seeing ourselves as unqualified or unworthy, we tend to fulfill our own low and negative expectations. We may underperform, underachieve, and spiral downward into depression or other physical or emotional afflictions.
Having Access to an Objective Listener
In such cases, we need to break free from the sense of shame or guilt that imprisons us in the miseries of the past. We are likely to need outside help as we confront our misconceptions about our own identity and our own future. A trained counselor or caring minister can be invaluable in the process of sorting through our feelings of shame. Without an objective listener, we may not make needed progress toward healing and recovery.
Cathy found it so. "I blamed myself for the divorce—not at first, but later, after the reality of things began to set in. At first I blamed my husband—he left me and moved in with another woman—but later I started blaming myself. I kept thinking that if I had been a more loving wife, or a more beautiful one, or if somehow I had taken better care of my husband—he would have never left me."
Cathy felt ashamed and inadequate about her performance as a wife and partner. She found herself constantly worried and anxious, thinking back on her five years of marriage, seeing herself as the person who had "caused" the divorce by failing, by falling short, by being less than perfect as a wife, mother, and household manager. Her sense of shame was partly about the fact of being divorced—yet at a deeper level it was rooted in low self-esteem, a nagging sense of self-doubt, and a lot of blaming herself for circumstances and situations beyond her control.
Six months into a regular weekly counseling regimen, Cathy began seeing things differently—especially herself. She began to accept herself as imperfect, as we all are, and yet realize that the primary responsibility for the end of her marriage had to rest with the person who decided to end it: her ex-husband.
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