QUESTION OF THE DAY: How did you get over your guilt at leaving your marriage?
This is a hard one.
Hello friends —
A reader named Laura asked me this question the other day and I've been pondering all week how best to answer it.
First of all, for anyone out there who is suffering right now within the suffocation-machine that is guilt, I offer you my most sincere condolences. It sucks. Truly, I am sorry.
Secondly, as painful as guilt can be, we certainly don't want to be people who are incapable of feeling it. That would make us remorseless sociopaths, and we don't want to be remorseless sociopaths. So there is a level at which this emotional response is both normal and needed in our lives.
Thirdly, though — while recognizing that guilt has a certain societal/psychological function, we must never give our lives over to the dedicated worship of our shame. Because anything that you devote your attention to for 24 hours a day, you are worshipping. It took me a long time to realize this, but it is true. I held my guilt so close and nourished it so constantly that I made it into my deity. And I did not want the god of my life to be a dark cloud named Guilt.
I suffered enormous guilt for leaving my marriage. But I simply could not stay in that relationship: That became a non-negotiable truth. I was dying in there. Still, I was deeply ashamed and remorseful for needing to leave. I was never forgiven for leaving, either. Therefore, I had to learn how to forgive myself, or my life would have been over. My life would have been a monument to shame.
Listen — if you have sincerely tried in good faith to make amends with somebody, and that person will not accept your remorse, you must move on. I have always admired the Jewish tradition on this subject. According to Jewish religious law, you are required/allowed to ask forgiveness three times from a person whom you have harmed. They must listen to your plea, and then they can decide whether to forgive you or not. After three attempts, you are done. You are not required to ask a fourth time. You are permitted (indeed, required) move on, and so are they. You cannot force anyone to forgive you. I think this is a humane and realistic system. As Coco Chanel famously said, "Don't spend time beating on a wall, hoping to transform it into a door."
Then you must work on forgiving yourself. For me, self-atonement took time and care and therapy and prayer. I recommend all these things to help you through it. Also, exercise, sunlight, good friends, and nourishing reading. Most of all, forgiving myself required that I stop regarding myself as "Liz" (this person whom I knew so well and judged so fiercely), and start regarding myself as a random human being who was suffering deeply. How would I comfort a random human being who was suffering deeply? Would I mock her and defame her, for having made mistakes? Would I scorn her as an idiot, a failure, a loser? Would I condemn her to be tormented forever for having been young, human and uncertain? Or would I reach out my hand to her and say, "Nobody walks this path of life without failures and confusion and errors. You, too, are a child of God. Let it go. Everyone deserves the chance to live."
Even you, with all your faults and stumbles and missteps and mistakes. EVEN YOU deserve a chance to live. Invite yourself to come back into the light. Start today.