How To End A Marriage — Without Feeling Guilty

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Endings are a part of life. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t hard or painful. Let’s face it, calling a relationship quits is difficult, and ending a long-term marriage is exponentially more so.

It takes real courage to tell your partner that the marriage is over and finally ask for a divorce. Just thinking about doing so probably keeps you up at night, plagued with feelings of guilt — guilt about hurting your spouse, damaging your children, wrecking your life, and more.

Do you feel guilty?

Let’s look a little closer at these feelings (because guilt certainly doesn’t feel good) but recent studies show it may actually be healthy. And once you understand how guilt works, you can actually use it as an indicator to end your marriage in a clear and conscious way.

Psychology Today explains that guilt is a common feeling of emotional distress that signals us when our actions (or inactions) have caused or might cause harm to another person.

Guilt is also a way of recognizing that we have not lived up to our own values and standards.

Author and researcher Brené Brown describes guilt as "adaptive and helpful — it's holding something we've done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort."

While we certainly do not want to feel psychological discomfort, guilt presents an opportunity to acknowledge and rectify our mistakes.

So in a breakup or divorce, guilt may be a red flag that alerts you to go slowly, proceed with caution, and pay attention to your words and actions — you may be hurting or in danger of hurting your family. Or you might be acting in a way that is not in line with your values.

So how do you end a marriage while honoring your values and without hurting your spouse and your kids?

That’s what we’re going to look at and put you on a path to a healthy and guilt-free divorce:

1. Be sure that your marriage is over and understand why.

Before you communicate to your spouse that you want a divorce, you really need to be absolutely sure that you want your marriage to end. Ask yourself: "Have I done all I can to save my marriage?" Or: "Do I have anything left to give to this union?"

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If after some serious soul searching, you are clear that you have nothing left to give and you definitely want to end the relationship, start to plan how you will tell your spouse and how you will conduct yourself during and after your divorce.

Let’s start with an understanding of what went wrong in the marriage. When you broach the topic with your spouse, you will want to communicate why you are seeking an end to the marriage. It is much more difficult for people to move on after a breakup if they don’t understand why the relationship wasn’t working.

Even if you feel that your marriage has been in decline for decades, your spouse may be in denial or not fully aware of your unhappiness. If you and your partner have been in therapy or in close communication, you may have already explored the reasons.

But if you haven’t or would like further clarification, here are some of the many reasons marriages break down:

  • Lack of communication
  • Loss of trust and/or Infidelity
  • Issues and conflict have intensified with common triggers (i.e. money, change in jobs, health, children, personal ambitions, religion)
  • Imbalance of power and control issues
  • Growing apart, leading to increasingly different lives (we live so much longer now)
  • Abuse of any kind (emotional, verbal, physical, and/or sexual)

In previous eras, couples soldiered on even if they were unhappy. But baby boomers gave up on the concept of the dutiful-but-unhappy spouse back in the late ‘60s and ‘70’s and subsequently spiked the divorce rate to all-time highs.

While the divorce rate has somewhat slowed, we are left with the legacy that we don’t want our marriages to be loveless, or full of frustration and disappointment.

(Note: Before you take action, make sure you’ve had appropriate legal advice. In a long-term marriage, there are likely to be joint assets and children. It’s important to know your rights, especially if you anticipate a difficult ending/divorce.)

2. Set realistic expectations.

The best course of action is to set realistic expectations for yourself and your spouse. Know from the start that ending a long-term relationship will involve some stress and upset feelings for both of you. You'll each experience a different mix of emotions and the intensity depends on how you handle the end of the relationship.

Even if you’re initiating the break, you will most likely feel sad, disappointed, and lonely at times. You might also feel angry and suffer the occasional sleepless night.

The process of ending a long-term relationship is likely to take some time.

RELATED: The 5-Step No-Nonsense Guide To Breaking Up With A Man Like An Adult

There is the legal aspect of it: how busy are the mediators or attorneys? How backed up is the court system? Is there a waiting period in your state? Do you agree on child custody? How complicated are your finances? Do you know your assets and liabilities?

The practical aspect: what changes are going to come your way? Will one of you be moving out? Will you need to sell the house? What is the schedule going to be like with the kids?

The emotional aspect: how is your spouse taking the news? Do both of you have the time and space that you need to process your emotions? Do you have family, friends, professionals who can help support you? How will your children adjust?

There are distinct and identifiable stages of divorce: telling your partner, deciding on a divorce process, dividing assets, figuring out support, creating a parenting plan (if there are any minor children), getting the finalized settlement, and implementing your new independence/plans.

Each of these aspects and stages will take some time to move through, manage, and process. And each of them provides the opportunity for you to act in line with your values and intentions.

3. Create a "good" ending.

Chances are you know your partner better than anyone else. You know what makes him or her tick. You know how to keep your spouse calm or how to set them off. Ending your relationship is going to be a delicate business.

RELATED: You Can Be Happy After Divorce (If You Don't Do These 13 Things)

The initial conversation about divorce usually sets the tone for how the split will proceed. Is it going to be collaborative and compassionate, or adversarial and duplicitous? You want to set the stage for your conversation to go as smoothly as possible and reflect your intention for how you want the divorce to unfold.

I’m going to share some ideas/suggestions, but at the end of the day, you know your partner best. In your gut, you can feel what will work well and what will flop. Take the following tips and make them your own:

  • Choose an appropriate time to tell your spouse. Chances are that there is no perfect time, but there very well may be an "awful" time, such as in the middle of a crisis. Try to schedule the talk when you and your partner will have the time and space to process the information. And understand that when we communicate bad news — whatever it is — that it will cause a reaction and typically a lot of anxiety. Your spouse may be shocked, surprised, caught off guard, and will likely be on a different timeline than you are in terms of processing the information.
  • End the relationship in person, face-to-face, in a comfortable, private, and safe place. Ending a relationship in public should only be an option if you are worried about abuse. Please don’t even think about telling your spouse over the phone, in an e-mail, or God forbid, in a text. The idea is to talk with your partner in a kind, direct, and truthful way. Stay courteous and considerate. This will help to preserve their self-esteem and create goodwill for the rest of the divorce.
  • Take care not to say things that you don’t mean. Sometimes when we’re feeling guilty, we will make false promises: offering our spouse lifelong friendship, help with moving and finding a new place to live, or that you will take care of him/her in their old age. Be clear on what you’re willing to do or not do and stick to those values, boundaries, and limits.
  • When communicating why the relationship is ending, share your part in it rather than your spouse’s part in it. Talk about your role in the marriage and why you feel the way you do. Refrain from creating and sharing a laundry list of what your partner did wrong. Don’t share what pissed you off or how they disappointed you or caused the breakdown of the partnership. This type of exchange will most likely either anger your spouse, shut them down so that they can’t hear what you’re saying, or lead them to believe that you are asking them to change — and your partner will view this as an opportunity to make promises to be different.

If the time for promises and change has passed, then you want to create a clean break. It’s better to express gratitude for the years you’ve had together, and hope for the future that you’ll both find deeper happiness, and perhaps a more suitable partnership.

Prepare yourself for the emotional rollercoaster. 

If you find you’re on an emotional roller coaster, there are ways to take care of yourself. Make time to exercise often, get enough sleep, and eat regular, healthy meals. Doing these will help preserve your health and reduce the effects of stress. Do all you can to stay calm and positive.

Find the right support by seeking out family, friends, and divorce professionals. Create a team to aid you through the process.

Take time out for yourself to relax. Be gentle and compassionate with yourself while you heal.

Treat yourself to a few comforting and healing experiences, like a walk on the beach, a vacation, a religious retreat, a massage, a long bath or hot shower, meditation, or your favorite food. Anything that will create calmness and a sense of being cared for is a balm for your bruised soul.

Keeping a journal of your thoughts and feelings as you go through this adjustment can provide many benefits.

Journaling provides an outlet for your emotional upset. Describing your pain and difficult situations in writing will help you gain perspective on those emotions and issues. It feels good to purge pent-up feelings, and also as time progresses you will be able to note your newfound growth and forward movement.

Journaling is cheap, requiring only a notebook and a pen, and can be done at any time, making it an ideal self-help strategy.

It may take more time and energy to create a "good" ending than you'd hoped. Pay attention to your feelings, especially the guilt, and do whatever you can within your control to create a kind and compassionate ending (or one that fits your values).

Approach each stage of divorce at the end of your relationship with a mindset that reflects who you are at your core.

Treat your spouse with respect, give them the time and the space needed to process their feelings, and ask questions. Take responsibility for your part in the breakdown of the relationship and be definitive in why you are ending the marriage. Express gratitude for the time you’ve had together, and how the relationship has helped you to grow and mature.

Set the tone and the expectation for the way the partnership will come to an end with the way that you handle yourself, starting with the initial divorce conversation and continuing through the subsequent stages of divorce.

By being true to your values, you will end your marriage with integrity and take care of your spouse and children in the process.

Kira Gould is a certified divorce coach specializing in working with women who would like to get unmarried with clarity, compassion, and positive intention.

This article was originally published at Getting Unmarried. Reprinted with permission from the author.