Many people struggle in dealing with regret after toxic marriages end. Feelings of embarrassment, guilt and anger can be common. They may feel like they threw away years of their lives, or they may feel like they somehow failed because they didn’t leave sooner. While these feelings are a natural part of the grieving process, ultimately my hope is that you can give yourself grace and forgiveness. If you’re dealing with regret, it may be helpful to keep the following in mind:
You likely had good reasons for staying as long as you did.
Maybe you stayed because of your children. Maybe you stayed because you didn’t have the money to leave. Or maybe you stayed because life was crazy between work, childcare, health issues, or caring for an aging relative and you just were not in a place where uprooting your life would have been possible.
All of those reasons are good, legitimate reasons for staying in a situation that may not have been ideal. It could be that you were rationally weighing your options and the best option for you until now was to stay. If that is the case, don’t second guess yourself now and beat yourself up for not leaving sooner– you made the best decision you could at the time.
Find things from that time in your life to be thankful for.
While your spouse may have treated you poorly, that does not mean that the years together were completely wasted years. Maybe your marriage produced two wonderful children. Maybe you moved with your spouse to a new town where you met friends who enriched your lives. Maybe you traveled or learned new skills or hobbies or advanced your career during this time.
There could have been happy moments such as holidays or unforgettable moments, where you laughed or cried together. Be thankful for those. Just because you need to get out of your marriage now, doesn’t mean the years you spent in it were wasted.
Hindsight is 20/20 in dealing with regret.
The reason people say hindsight is 20/20 is that it easy to look back in time and see things more clearly, but while you’re living through the experience, it is impossible to see the future or even be objective about what is happening at that moment. Maybe now you can see that your wife’s drinking was always a problem or that your husband’s comments early in your marriage were signs of his increasing narcissism.
Maybe you feel you should have left after the first time your husband lost his temper or the first time your wife ignored your attempts to talk about problems in the marriage. But was it really possible at the time for you to see those events were symptoms of larger problems? Only with the benefit of years of additional information can you put those events in a greater context. You didn’t have the context or experience back then; you were simply just trying to survive. So be kind to yourself–you did the best you could with the information you had at the time.
The grass is not always greener on the other side.
Perhaps you feel that if you left sooner, your life would have been happier, or perhaps never married that person to begin with. It’s possible that your life would have been better with a different person, but it’s also possible that a different path in life would have been plagued with problems as well. Maybe you would have avoided the financial problems in your current marriage, but you could have married someone with mental health problems. Maybe your high school boyfriend would have doted on you more, but if he had had chronic health problems, that road in life would have been difficult as well.
There are a thousand different ways life with a different spouse could have turned out, including struggles with finances, addiction, medical issues, mental health issues, and conflict with in-laws. Before you go down the mental path of what if, or my life would have been happier had I chosen someone else, realize the grass is not always greener.
The hardest periods of our lives teach us the most valuable lessons.
Periods of crisis and grief teach you compassion for others. It is impossible to understand what someone else may be struggling with until you yourself have grappled with sadness, anger, and feelings of helplessness. These times teach you resilience, as you pull on strength you didn’t know you had and solve problems you once thought you were not capable of conquering alone.
These periods give us insight into ourselves, and other humans in general. While knowing that you are growing as a person may not lessen the intense feelings as they come, I would encourage you to keep a notebook during this time and jot down insight and truths you learn through this process. Keeping track of your personal growth will lessen feelings of regret or remorse for staying as long as you did.
Seek professional counseling if you get stuck.
If some time has passed and you’re still angry at yourself, or dealing with regret, then it’s time to seek professional help. Experiencing strong emotions is a natural part of healing. But experiencing the same emotion and the same dialogue over and over is not, and that’s when you need to turn to an expert to help you make progress on your healing journey.
If you have been telling yourself that you should have left sooner or staying as long as you did was a mistake, know that you are not alone. Many people feel this way. In fact, this self-doubt is a natural stage of your healing process as you try to come to terms with all that you have been through and how not to repeat these mistakes in the future.
However, once you have processed these feelings, I hope that you can let go of these negative feelings directed at yourself. Provide comfort to yourself as you would a friend. Congratulate yourself for finding the strength to leave when you did. Give yourself grace and let go of dealing with regret.