The Power of Guilt

15 12 2008

journaldmIn blended families, there are few things more powerful than guilt. It is the emotion that fuels many of the negative things that happen in stepfamilies. It is the reason that Dads become permissive parents and allow their children to run wild. It  is often one of the reasons Moms are combative and challenging to co-parent with. In 2003, the Journal of Divorce and Remarriage published a study called Divorced Mothers’ Guilt. The study found that the guilt they felt for putting their children through divorce often kept them stuck in one emotional place and unable to move on with their lives.

Anecdotally, I can attest to this just from listening to moms during interviews. I have always been curious about the moms who originally ask for the divorce and then act as though they are the victims or become vindictive or angry later when they weren’t at the time of the divorce. It could be the guilt talking.

And so for all of us, how do recover from guilt? How do biological and stepparents move on from feeling guilty about an affair, or a divorce or a remarriage? If anyone has some good ideas, please feel free to comment. In the meantime, here are some of my thoughts:

Say your sorry. Take the children out for one-on-one time and apologize. Call or e-mail your former spouse and tell them you are sorry for everything that happened. Marriage researcher John Gottman describes in his books how repair attempts can reduce conflict in relationships. If the breakup of the marriage happened because of an affair, leave defensiveness behind, own up to your responsibility and say your sorry.

Look to the future. Instead of remaining stuck in anger and guilt about what happened in the past, focus on your hopes for the future.

Remember we’re alone. Each of us has our own particular path to walk in this life. A divorce and remarriage will affect children for their rest of their lives, but at the end of the day they will have to deal with it on their own. Give them the tools they need to move through their emotions in a healthy way instead of letting them manipulate you with your guilt.

Let go of what doesn’t serve you. Guilt is really a useless feeling. It doesn’t move you anywhere, just keeps you stuck in the past. Wouldn’t you rather choose to let go of the guilt? Challenging things happen to children. How they respond to it can build their character and yours if you allow everyone to move on emotionally.

Be true to your inner truths. Guilt can strip biological parents of their core values. For instance, if a parent would typically believe that boundaries are good for kids but lets them all go because he feels guilty, he is not only depriving his children of the parenting they need, he is abandoning his own belief system. Seriously, guilt is that powerful.

So what do you feel guilty about? How does the guilt of your partner or the ex affect the dynamics between all the members of your blended family?



2 responses

16 12 2008
susan kuhn frost

I strongly disagree with this author’s assertion that guilt is useless, that guilt keeps us stuck. My point of view is that any painful emotion is “mail in the mailbox” for us to listen and pay attention to. If we will sit with it, or with any emotion, and listen to what is really true inside for us, we will find the next, life-giving step for us and our families.

If we don’t listen to ourselves, then the best we can do is follow someone else’s formulaic advice, a reasonable step but no substitute for discovering one’s own truth. And I do believe that after a certain age, children know the difference with laser-beam sureness. Faced guilt is liberating, unfaced guilt, like the author says, is subtly self-destructive.

Guilt isn’t useless, it is just that we have lost the tools and support to use it for the purpose it is intended, our own growth. It’s hard to face oneself even with a lot of help, and darn near impossible without it. Nothing we have done excludes us from the possibility of healing.

24 12 2008

Hi Susan:

Thanks for your comment! Though I agree with pretty much everything you said, I think that guilt can keep people stuck in one place emotionally and if that guilt is not faced it is a corrosive emotion – to ourselves and our relationships.

You are absolutely right, nothing exludes us from the possibility of healing…except for our ourselves. Sometimes guilt keeps us from allowing ourselves to heal.

At the end of the day, everything we do helps us to become better people if we face our mistakes, own up to our failures, and put ourselves in the shoes of the people we’ve hurt. (And vice versa!)

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