Understanding the guilt of leaving, when leaving is right.
It's a strange reality - we wake up to the fact that we have been in a bad relationship (sometimes even realise it was abuse, the 'Aha' moment')... we do the work of leaving... which is right!
Then we are hit with guilt.
And the word 'hit' is an under exaggeration.
It can be truly overwhelming and push us to regret our choices, to seek forgiveness or closure from our ex, to stop the task of recovery.. or, for many... to support us in going back to a bad situation.
So why do we experience this guilt?
Well, the answer is complex, so complex I wrote an entire book to account for it - where 4 primary emotions (Fear, Obligation, Guilt and Shame) emerge as outcomes of abuse.
But if I were to simplify the message on guilt, which is the task here - I'd offer a short summary. A summary that is intended to prick curiosity, not offer a simple answer - as the route to true freedom from these emotions is investment in the work it takes to recover.
Guilt is an emotion that springs out of obligations.
We feel we 'should', we 'ought', we 'must'... we feel this in our DNA. This has been reinforced in a drama cycle of abuse to be linked to the emotional care towards our abuser - we should behave, we need to meet their needs, we need to earn love... we are to blame when pain arrives.
It's drilled into us - through behaviours that groom us, shape us, blind us and addict us into a model we serve again and again, hundreds if not thousands of times.
The primary learning - we are to blame when things go wrong.
We have learned that we are the route to calming them down - by taking the punishment and blame - and supporting the needs of our abuser to be met.
Ugh... icky, but true. Icky to realise.
When we leave - we truly break this pattern. We reject our partner, we upset them - we are in fact the cause of the relationship ending. We left, we ended it.. or we are choosing to not go back.
But this time, we are seeing blame in place of a choice to be free and to meet our own needs, as we are too practised in this way of thinking. We see the chaos it seems to cause, to end the relationship - and so we attribute blame to the emotions created (in us and them).
But here is where it feels like it makes no sense - if we were able to be rational. As we are right to leave - we should reject abuse and we should build our lives towards love, for us.
But...We are just too rehearsed in putting ourselves last and we feel guilty in response to this and remember the many narratives that we were at fault.
We leave with voices in our heads that used to help us to appease, avoid and recover from the drama cycle... and they are VERY hard to shake off.
We are so, so used to needing our partner to return to calm before we can give up on guilt, that now... we are stuck with it. Our partner is not calm and we are agitating them further. The act of leaving is the act of holding the relationship in the place we most fear - a distressed abuser.
How do I stop feeling guilty?
The first step is to educate ourselves on how this happened, to look at the diagram above and understand how we came to live this way and how it changed us.
The next step is to understand how fear, obligation, guilt and shame are overlapping and hand-in-hand. They feed off and fuel each other. We need to learn how to notice and soothe each, in the context of likely trauma outcomes.
Then, we create closure and build an ability to meet our own needs - recognising that our needs must be met and that this process creates guilt, but invites self-compassion as an alternative response.
The answer is time, work and redeveloped coping skills.
There isn't a shortcut - but there is a route to recovery.
An exercise to support short-term release
One exercise you can try is a thought exercise that helps to ease guilt in the short term.
Consider this... what is best for your abusive ex? Is it best to live a life where they enact abuse and get no outcome, creating fear and shame in the person they think they love (if they do in fact think this)? OR
Is it better that their lover shows them a lesson, that could transform their life. Shows them that when you abuse, people leave?
Could it be, that you are helping them by leaving them? Likely, you are.
If so, could you let go of guilt - realising some life lessons have to hurt to create change?
Notice, that I am leaning on your obligations to your ex in this exercise. Not ideal, but often where people are when they feel early guilt. Realise that there are many, many reasons to not feel guilty - and nearly all of the reasons you do, are made-up ideas that others wouldn't support.
But this won't create the solution you need, which is substantive work on yourself.
Where to go next?
I put the whole journey into a book (I'm a Chartered Clinical Psychologists, and also a survivor of domestic abuse), the UK government funded me to create it as a 6-month digital programme - and it is available for you here.
One of our users fed back, in a formal evaluation...
"The GOGL Programme has changed my life. I now have an understanding of my experiences that I had never been able to face before. It has provided light bulb moments throughout, and has given me the time and space to understand my abusive relationship and how to avoid relationships like this in the future. It gives me great strength to know that the programme is there for me, so I don't feel alone in my journey."
It starts with taking the first step, recognising the guilt is unjustified and you need a repair, within yourself.