My husband has recently been diagnosed with PTSD from his experiences in the military and his severe childhood abuse. While we had a generally loving and healthy marriage, his rage outbursts and need to control me (out of fear of abandonment) has been resulting in increasing physical and emotional domestic abuse. After the most recent incident, I told him I had to leave him out of fear for my own safety. He did not take it well and ended up in the hospital after threatening suicide. While he willingly admitted himself into inpatient treatment, he still expects our marriage to work if he continues to get treatment now that he is out. I don't know if I want to continue this relationship anymore as I am drained, emotionally and physically—I love him, but I don't want to subject myself to any more trauma, and I honestly don't know if I can ever feel the same for him. The guilt over leaving him during this difficult time and his 'If you leave me, I have nothing to live for' statements has been eating me up inside, and I am terrified for his safety. I know it is best for us to separate (at least for a little while until we both get better), but he won't accept that option. Can you help me deal with these horrible feelings of guilt, and is there a way to make this transition easier on him? -Survivor
Guilt is a powerful emotion that does not like to be disobeyed. It is often quite loud, slippery, insidious, and overwhelming—yet it is not always right. Emotion experts believe that guilt is a social emotion, which arises when we behave in a way that goes against social rules, morals, or expectations. Since we are a highly social species that depends upon the social pack for survival, it makes sense that an intensely undesirable emotion arises when we break from the guidelines of the pack; in fact, the intensity and undesirableness of guilt is designed to get us to make a U-turn, align our behaviors with the guidelines of the social group, and resume our membership within it.
Understanding this gives you an avenue by which to determine whether listening to your guilt is wise. Rather than using the intensity of your guilt to determine whether to listen to it, you can look at the societal guidelines the guilt is in reaction to and determine whether abiding by these guidelines is wise.
Identify what societal guidelines your guilt is rooted in and spend some time deciphering what exactly you feel guilty about. Once you have a sense of the guidelines your guilt is in reaction to, weigh these against the guidelines you are basing your decision to separate on. From my perspective, your decision to separate from your spouse is rooted in a belief that you have a right to safety and to live free from abuse. The right to live a life without abuse is a human right, a constitutional right. Do the guidelines that are fueling your guilt outweigh your moral and legal rights to an abuse-free life?
I hope that engaging in this exercise can help you understand that your guilt, although strong, is not based on guidelines that are safe for you to abide by. While understanding this will most likely not make your guilt go away, it can provide you with a perspective that can help you tolerate the guilt, allowing you to ride it out.
Keep in mind that you do not need to get rid of the guilt, even though it would be lovely if it did go away; it is possible to have the guilt and not do what it says. Imagine your guilt to be a toddler who is having a massive temper tantrum in the grocery store—you need to be like the savvy parent who holds the child’s hand and proceeds to continue with the shopping trip, wailing child in tow. Your guilt can act up, be strong, powerful, and horrible, but you do not need to do what it says, nor do you need to focus on it.
One last tip is that all emotions pass. Hang on to this fact when your guilt is really powerful, and feel free to engage in activities that produce other emotions, such as peace, calm, and empowerment.
Finally, due to the violence that has been in your relationship, I recommend that you discuss the details of your separation with a therapist—be it your individual therapist or your spouse’s therapist—and that your spouse’s therapist is kept informed. A trained therapist who knows the details of the situation and is actively working with your spouse can help him through the transition. While it is your responsibility is to treat your spouse with kindness, respect, and genuineness, it is not appropriate for you to sacrifice your safety or well-being in order to make the transition easy. All the best to you, and keep in mind that standing up against abuse is vital in order for healing to begin.