Psychological Regrets of Divorce

Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images

Whether marriages end acrimoniously or relatively amicably, feelings of sadness and regret often lie beneath the anger and hurt feelings. These often make themselves more consciously felt after the "business" of divorce -- the decision to end the relationship, the legal proceedings and so on -- has finished. Regret and sadness, however, are not necessarily pathological responses. Psychoanalysis suggests that working through regret can help in laying the past to rest and moving on with the rest of life.

Divorce and Disillusioment

Just as love and hope bring couples together at the start of a marriage, painful feelings of disenchantment, mistrust and even betrayal may drive them asunder in divorce. The dissolution of youthful dreams for undying love and unswerving loyalty can occur traumatically, as in revelations of marital infidelity, or over many years, as couples drift inexorably and unhappily apart. Whatever the path it follows, divorce signals the collapse of the ideals which first drew the lovers toward each other. The British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott regards such disillusionment as an inescapably painful process, laden with regret and sadness -- but one which promises a positive way forward, as well.

Defenses Against Regret

From Winnicott's psychoanalytic point of view, an almost causal relationship exists between the experience of disillusionment and feelings of regret. People frequently seek to protect themselves from such painful emotions through psychological defenses , especially at times of heightened vulnerability like the immediate aftermath of divorce. Regret, which often contains feelings of personal responsibility and even culpability, can get distorted through defensive procedures into blame and then projected onto the "other party." A divorcee who nurtures a state of embittered fury over her ex-husband's infidelity, for example, may also be shielding herself from agonizing feelings of failure for not communicating more effectively, for not giving enough affection, etc.

The Importance of Re-Illusionment

Such self-reproaches may actually be unjustified or inaccurate; but so long as they remain suppressed or projected ("It was all his fault!") they remain unavailable to rational thought and potential correction. But when feelings of regret begin to stir, they signal that a former defense has started to fail; painful though such breakdowns in defensive strategies may initially feel, if accepted and tolerated, they may also open the door to new growth and new life experiences. Winnicott argues that creative living depends upon a continual cycle of what he calls illusionment, disillusionment and re-illusionment. Here, "illusion" doesn't mean "distorted perception" but a space for the creative imagination, a ceaseless cycle of creative renewal which inevitably meets the resistances of reality.

Bearing Emotional Pain

Psychological regrets from divorce, in other words, can act as gateways to new creative experiences. But in order to function like this, the divorcee must embrace them rather than flee from them. This applies to divorce following frankly abusive relationships as well as to more mutually influenced endings. Feelings of either victimhood or unassuageable guilt lead to dead ends, from a psychoanlytic perspective. But if tolerated and understood, accepted and worked through, they can be transformed into regret and remorse. Hungarian psychoanalyst Melanie Klein argues that regret and remorse represent more advanced and growth-promoting emotions than blame, envy or resentment. They help divorcees to move forward and grow, even though they feel painful.

From "It" to "I"

In 1933, Sigmund Freud suggested the motif of a well-lived life -- in German, he wrote "Wo Es war, soll Ich werden." One of his most innovative followers, Jacques Lacan, translated this as "Where 'it' was, there 'I' shall become." Lacan argues that to resume a full life after a trauma such as divorce, an individual must transform an experience of passive submission to events beyond his control into an active interpretation -- "'it' happened, but I experienced it my way and now I learn from it anew and reform my life accordingly through my own creative endeavors." Even in the face of trauma and acute distress, creative re-interpretation can subsequently lead a person our of despair and soul-destroying bitterness.

Transforming Regret

The inevitable regrets of divorce -- that mutual love proved too weak to overcome mistrust or hostility, that the loving family life longed for at the start of a relationship will no longer be possible together, that inconsiderateness, self-centeredness or personal weakness destroyed a once-good relationship -- must find acceptance before they can function as wellsprings for renewed creativity (which includes building new relationships, new intimacies). Melanie Klein argues movingly that damaged relationships can foster destructive reactions such as despair or vengeance. But, she insists, they can also powerfully sponsor the desire for reparation, for using sadness and regret to repudiate one's mistakes and build new life paths based on mutual love and creative self re-invention.