Shame is the most powerful, master emotion. It’s the fear that we’re not good enough.Brené Brown
Divorce is complicated. No one ever gets married expecting to end up divorced. However your marriage ended, you may feel like a failure, or other people might treat you like you failed, which brings shame. Author and researcher Brené Brown describes shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Your friends, your family, and society may reinforce this feeling of shame. While almost 50 percent of marriages in the U.S. end in divorce, and despite the no-fault nature of today’s divorce legal system, you may still feel a stigma attached to being divorced. Being marginalized and misunderstood only increases feelings of shame. If you are part of a religious community that disapproves of divorce, your feelings of shame may be especially strong. You may not be able to control how others perceive you, but you can combat shame in your life. You can control the way you react to shame.
Marriages end for a variety of reasons—infidelity, incompatibility, or even abuse. There is not a one-size-fits-all reason for divorce, but other people may judge you anyway, not knowing your personal circumstances. In all likelihood, only you and your spouse (and the court) know the truth about why your marriage ended. Whatever your role in the divorce, you may feel regret about the end of the relationship. It’s important to address shame and find healthy ways to move forward.
Shed Light. Bringing shame into the light is a powerful way to strip it of its power. Shame makes you want to hide. Don’t give shame the power to make you ashamed to talk to others about your divorce. A trusted counselor or close friend is a great place to start working through those feelings of shame.
Challenge Shame. When you experience a shame-based thought coming from yourself or comment from someone else, challenge it and ask yourself: Is this true? Is this helping or hurting me? Replace it with truth. I am not a failure. I am worthy of love. I deserve respect. To do this effectively, you must learn to separate your performance from personal identity.
Forgive yourself. If you made some mistakes that contributed to the end of your marriage, you probably know it. Shame says, “I am bad.” Guilt is “I did something badly.” The former convinces you that you are incapable of changing or improving. The latter motivates you to change through the uncomfortable, though useful, emotions of remorse and regret. Everyone makes mistakes. This divorce does not define your identity or devalue your worth as a person. Give yourself grace and compassion.
Connect. Shame loses its isolating influence when you’re part of a healthy community. Seek out non-judgmental friends to support you. Other people who have gone through a divorce or another shame-inducing experience may have the most empathy for your situation. Avoid people who reinforce your feelings of shame, or be direct with them about how their comments make you feel.
If you are feeling stigmatized by your divorce, you are not alone. In a survey conducted for Slater & Gordon Lawyers, 46 percent of divorcees felt that they faced “daily judgment from people because their marriage has failed.” The same study also found that women are twice as likely as men to feel shame after divorce. Man or woman, shame is a universal experience. Don’t believe the lies that you’re the only one.
You don’t have to be one of the statistics. Stigma is based on other people’s judgements. How important to you are these people’s opinions? You don’t have to receive or internalize their judgments. You can only feel shame if you allow yourself to feel it. You are worthy of love. You do belong.
Write down the things you are feeling ashamed about and talk to a close friend or therapist about them.