Getting Over the Shame of Divorce

“We cannot grow when we are in shame, and we can’t use shame to change ourselves or others.”
― Brené Brown: I Thought It Was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame

While it’s easy to feel ashamed of many things in life, the process of divorce and its aftermath vie for a top spot on the list.

Triggers for feeling shame over a divorce include:

One-time friends who avoid you like the plague because they either think divorce is contagious or you will want to relieve them of their mate.

People who are suddenly wary of you. You are not to be trusted. You’re too needy, damaged, on the brink of sudden impoverishment, or a bad person (whatever that means).

Maybe you are unconsciously tapping into some unhappily coupled person’s misery, thereby making them feel threatened. What do threatened people do? Attack. But “nice” people don’t attack in any obvious way, they do it by avoidance and implication. They shun you like the plague and imply you’re defective, all to assuage their own (often barely conscious, and certainly unpalatable) dissatisfaction with their relationship or fear they will end up alone.

What creates that shame? Both internal and external messages, like:

It’s easy to think you “failed,” since people will actually ask you questions like: “How do you feel about your marriage failing?”

And the ever popular: “In retrospect, do you think you made a mistake getting divorced?”

In addition, there is the inner cacophony of self-doubt and self-downing that plagues all but the most resolute divorcing and divorced souls.

A more subtle aspect of the aftermath of divorce is heightened self-consciousness, similar to what you may have felt in adolescence.

Naturally, thinking you are a failure, maker of big mistakes, unworthy of people’s attention, and out-of-step with most adults can lead to feeling shame.

But, what is there to be ashamed of? What you did took courage. No one gets divorced unless their relationship has ceased to work. Staying in an untenable, unhappy, soul-stultifying relationship is clearly the sadder choice. It may appear easier in the short run, but takes its toll in the long run.

If you are plagued by feelings of shame and critical internal messages, cognitive behavior therapy can help.

Let’s look at some possible thoughts that could create disturbing feelings, including shame:

I failed, therefore I am a failure.

People will know I failed and think less of me.

People will see I am alone and think something’s wrong with me.

People will think I am unlovable or defective.

That will prove I am deficient, less good, less worthy of happiness, and deserving their pity, criticism, and condescension.

The only thing to do with unhelpful thoughts is to challenge them until they lose their power to wound and stifle you.

You might choose to think:

I did not fail. I succeeded in taking necessary steps to free myself from a relationship that no longer served me, or allowed me to grow into the person I want to be.

People may think less of me. What a great opportunity to learn to care more about what I think than their opinion of me.

How can I possibly know what anyone else is thinking?  They may actually be jealous of my new-found freedom.

The only thing my divorce proves is that I am no longer married to that person. It says absolutely nothing else about me. Furthermore, I am clearly efficient in taking care of business when I have to, whether that was initiating the split or picking myself up after it.

If people pity, criticize, or condescend to me that is a reflection of where they are. All three are good ways for them to distance themselves from whatever my divorce catalyzes in them. Once again, it’s not about me.

How does feeling ashamed help me? Why not cultivate thoughts of victory, empowerment, self-sufficiency, independence, flexibility, openness to new experiences, and unconditional self-acceptance? At least, those will make me feel optimistic, bouyant, and at peace.

In addition, divorce can be a tripwire triggering old feelings of shame from childhood. If that’s true for you, please talk to a therapist or counselor. Divorce is very good at re-awakening feelings of abandonment and their attendant notions of not deserving happiness. Working through those issues to a place where you can feel safe and whole feels a boat load better than wallowing in shame. Luckily, you get to choose what you want to think and how much energy you put into remaking your life. Acknowledge how difficult and disturbing it is to deal with the fall-out from divorce; especially, if it engenders feelings of shame or reactivates old thoughts of unworthiness. The good news is you can take that irritating grain of sand from your divorce and turn it into a luminescent pearl of courage and resilience.

Copyright Nicole S. Urdang

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Nicole Urdang

Nicole S. Urdang, M.S., NCC, DHM is a Holistic Psychotherapist in Buffalo, NY. She holds a New York state license in mental health counseling and a doctorate in homeopathic medicine from the British Institute of Homeopathy.