I Feel Guilty for Leaving Him in His Time of Need. How Do I Deal?

Dear GoodTherapy.org,
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
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Dear 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.

Kind regards,

Susanne Dillmann
Susanne M. Dillmann, PsyD, is a licensed psychologist based in Enscondido, California, where she specializes in posttraumatic stress/trauma. She has worked both abroad and within the United States, where she has applied a collaborative approach in helping trauma survivors grow and heal.
  • Leave a Comment
  • Laura Reid

    Laura Reid

    June 1st, 2012 at 2:16 PM

    I had the most horrific, uncaring and horrible therapist who used shame and humilation to control me.
    After four years, I have grown some balls and am tweeting my experience @BoothCampTherapy on Twitter.

  • Dawn


    June 2nd, 2012 at 4:22 AM

    I have been going through a similar but possible worse situation. Where did you get help?

  • Susanne Dillmann, Psy.D.

    Susanne Dillmann, Psy.D.

    June 5th, 2012 at 3:40 PM

    Hello Dawn,

    Thank you for your courage in posting your comment. I hope you can tap into this reservoir of courage & strength to reach out and connect with a therapist, who can support you through this process and help you advocate for your safety.
    One great place to look for a therapist is right here at Good Therapy.org – just search for a therapist by your zip code. If you do not have the funds or insurance for therapy and your spouse is struggling with the aftermath of war, know there is a wonderful organization called Give an Hour that is a referral site with info on therapists who offer free therapy to those who are struggling with the impact of war (just search Give an Hour).
    Last but not least you can call 2-1-1 or go to their website and find information for women’s shelters in your area if you need to leave quickly.
    Regardless of how you reach out for help, reach out – your life is valuable and you have a right to actively take care of yourself.

  • audra


    June 1st, 2012 at 2:38 PM

    I think that there are a lot of women who feel very guilty about leaving a marriage, even when they know that it is not a healthy situation for them to be in. That’s just how most women are- they are hesitant to break up the family and are afraid of causing more harm.
    But the thing is that the longer you stay, the more you are setting yourself up for even more hurt and possible harm. We have to learn to take better care of ourselves, because there is no one else who is going to do that for us.

  • Leighton


    June 1st, 2012 at 4:34 PM

    if it feels right to leave him
    then it’s the right thing to do
    he will manage
    you need to get your own life in order before you can really do anything to benefit others

  • LaDonna


    June 2nd, 2012 at 6:53 AM

    It is so easy to say just leave him, you will be better off without him- but if you haven’t been in that situation then you don’t know how difficult it is to just up and leave behind someone who has been such a huge part of your life for so long.

    And if he is threatening violence against you, himself, or your children, then you have to take those kinds of threats seriously. Don’t bring any more harm to your family then you may have already experienced.

    I am not condoning violence, or that you should stay just because you are afraid to leave. But you do have to think things through before amking any rash decisions.

  • terry


    June 2nd, 2012 at 6:20 PM

    very nicely put.guilt is something that can really make me feel bad about myself and not let me be t rest.been there done that.but your explanation of guilt was really good and opened my eyes should I say!I always thought whatever the guilty feeling told me was true but now I know it follows a set of rules-rules that may not always be right!

  • Jillian


    June 3rd, 2012 at 8:38 AM

    I don’t want to seem like I am brushing off the needs of someone else, but it is time for women to stand up and consider their needs too.

    For too long don’t you think that we have spent a whole lot of time taking care of other people and neglecting our own personal needs?

    And where has that gotten us? Really, nowhere. We are great providers (for others) and care givers (to others), but we aren’t really all that good of taking care of ourselves.

    I think that for us to continue to make strides, then we have to do a better job of addressing our own needs too.

  • jacquetta sims

    jacquetta sims

    June 4th, 2012 at 3:29 PM

    I don’t mean to be too blunt. . . well, maybe I do. . . but do you really think that men care whether they are leaving us in a time of need when thely leave us? I can easily tell you the answer to that question, and it’s no. They don’t pay half as much attention to our emotions and emotional well being as we pay to theirs, so I say that it’s time for us ladies to start thinking like the men of the world. If it’s not working for us, then let it go, and let him pick up his own pieces the way they have always left us to pick up ours!

  • Kathleen


    June 5th, 2012 at 11:38 AM

    @Dawn, since we are a military family I got help through the Army’s Family Advocacy Program. I have also had many resources available to me through my community’s domestic violence shelter (you can do a Google search for your area), and found a lot of good resources here: helpguide.org/mental/domestic_violence_abuse_help_treatment_prevention.htm
    If you are looking for a therapist, you can find one through this web site as well. I hope you are getting through your situation okay. It’s hard, but it gets better. Take care. :)

  • Vanessa


    June 5th, 2012 at 3:56 PM

    If you are feeling this sense of guilt, do you think that it could be because deep down you don’t want to leave? Maybe there is still a relationship there that is still worth saving?

  • Pascale


    July 10th, 2012 at 2:55 PM

    I thought as well that such a long relationship was worth saving-met 85,married 1992,1 daughter- we ran away Sept 05 after many months of threats & insults finally a huge smack for which I still get teeth surgery. I knew the reason of the changes. Because I still felt tenderly somehow for him, because he leaves close to my birthland family I visit, we had a close encounter this year, I still wonder how cause he was dressed like the devil & after short cuddle he went & threw himself in the port, then when he recovered he mentioned again my sadistic smile…This time we split up calmly. I said I return for legal separation but maybe I can divorce here from Uk..? Had 2 women therapies but still cannot manage, in charge of his daughter 18 yo…I just gave her my flat…

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