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How to deal with guilt over a breakup

Kate Nestor, a divorce and relationship breakup coach at Stowe Family Law, looks at how to deal with guilt over a breakup.

Breakups are never easy. Whether you are the one making the decision, or the one floored by your partner’s rejection, the emotions can be overwhelming and difficult to deal with. 

And of all of them, guilt can be the hardest to manage. In fact, guilt is a tough emotion to deal with full stop. And is one so many of us struggle with. 

We can spend our lives feeling guilty for doing something (who hasn’t woken up in the middle of the night racked with horror at something they did when they were 17 which actually wasn’t that bad). And then on the flip side, feel guilty when we don’t do something. 

Relationships can be the perfect breeding ground for guilt. At some point, all the clients I work with mention guilt. Those who ended the relationship can be tortured by it, while those who had the relationship ended for them can feel guilty that they did not do enough. 

It seems that guilt is everywhere.  So, what causes this, and what is the best way to deal with guilt over a breakup?

What causes guilt? 

Guilt appears when there is a disconnect in how we behave against our standards and values – when we behave in a way that we believe we should not do. 

Your values are the beliefs and principles that are important to you and the way you live your life. (If you don’t know your values – try this online tool). Understanding what they are will help you understand why you feel guilty when you go against them.

The standards come from the expectations we hold for ourselves, and factors outside our control, including our upbringing, society, culture, media, colleagues, family and friends.

Even just reading this, you can feel the potential impact and weight of the pressures we have on us to behave in a certain way. So, it’s no wonder people feel so guilty when a relationship ends, as there is such an expectation in society for us a) to be in a relationship, and b) to make it work, especially when you have children. 

What does guilt tell us? 

It’s an interesting concept, but guilt can be a helpful way for our brains to keep us safe. Say you express an opinion, or go against an expected way to behave that takes you out of your comfort zone, up pops guilt to take you straight back to the familiar – back to your learnt behaviour, roles and habits. 

Now in some cases, this may be a good thing – questioning guilt is not about being able to behave in any way you like. We need boundaries and mutual respect in all relationships, but what if guilt keeps you in a relationship that is not healthy, with someone you no longer love, or where the power balance is unequal or even abusive? 

Feelings of guilt can also be a good indicator of change, that something is not right, that something in your life is going against your values and standards and causing unease. 

Identifying and exploring guilt 

Guilt has a lot to tell us, so the first step to dealing with it is to understand it. So get curious, tap into your emotions, and start to recognise and acknowledge when you feel guilty. Once you start labelling it, it can be helpful to take the time to explore it. 

The exercise below can help. You can write it down, work through the answers in your mind, or even record them. Pick a process that matches your learning style. And pick a time when you feel emotionally balanced and regulated. 

  1. Explore a time when you felt guilty? What happened? What did you think?  How did you feel? 
  2. Then list, what do you actually feel guilty about? 
  3. Then look at each point – ask yourself: 
  • Was I 100% responsible for this?
  • What parts did I have control over?
  • What role did other people and external factors play?

The overwhelming nature of guilt means we rarely explore what we actually feel guilty about, how much of it was our responsibility, and the context of the situation. By working through these questions, you can see the reality in front of you and take ownership of the parts you were responsible for and could control. 

This ownership is a key element of processing guilt. There will be parts where there is a disconnect between how you behaved and your values and standards. It is important to acknowledge this, so you can learn from it and move on. A few questions you can ask yourself are: 

    • What should I have done differently?
    • What difference would that have made? 
    • How would I feel about it now? 

Identifying different responses and the impact of them can guide how you behave in future situations.

Challenging guilt 

Now that you have refined the skills to identify and explore guilt, it can help to challenge the standards we have created for ourselves. So grab a pen and paper, think through or record in audio the following exercise. 

Think of something you feel guilty about (can be something you have done, or want to do).

For example, I ended my marriage.

Write down all the things you think you should have done (or should do):

I should have stayed for the kids

I should have been less selfish 

I should have put others first, not myself 

I should have sucked it up and waited until the kids went to university. 

I should have tried to love them more 

Now, go back and explore what these standards mean for you? 

Everybody else is more important than me 

My needs mean nothing

My happiness is of zero importance 

I have no value in the world 

My mental health is not important 

I should put my life on hold 

I am not worthy of love 

Taking the second list – ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is this fair? 
  • Is this right? 
  • Can you maintain these thoughts? Or are they damaging? 
  • Do they benefit you? Or anyone else involved? 
  • What is the impact on you? 
  • How does this affect how you feel about yourself? 

By looking at the impact of the standards we set ourselves, we can challenge them and assess how beneficial they are. If they are not, you can work to create more flexible standards that still fit your values, but allow you to meet your needs. 

For example, when feeling guilt about whether you should have stayed for the kids or not – your new standard could  be: 

My children are the most important thing in my world, but it is good to value and take care of myself so I can be a better parent to them. 

This feels much more comfortable and something to not feel so guilty about. 

Acceptance and forgiveness 

Forgiving yourself is such an important step in processing guilt over a breakup. Everyone makes mistakes, and relationships end for all sorts of reasons – rarely is it one person’s fault. 

So accept the role you played, but do so with the grace and kindness you would show your best friend in this situation. What would you say to them if they were in your shoes and struggling with guilt? 

Give yourself time to process, and space to heal. Learning lessons now will help you avoid repeating the same mistakes in your next relationship. 

Guilt is a powerful emotion, and one that you can learn a lot from. The skill is understanding how to recognise, explore and acknowledge it, so that it becomes a tool to learn from, not an emotion that overwhelms and destroys you. 

So, learn and live by your values, set yourself standards that incorporate your needs, and stop feeling so guilty all the time – especially for those things you did at 17. 

Kate Nestor is a divorce and relationship breakup coach at Stowe Family Law. You can find out more about the work she does with clients here. 

Kate is a Break-up & Divorce coach at Stowe Family Law where she supports a wide variety of clients at every stage of a relationship breakdown.

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