No Going Back After Divorce: 4 Steps to Release Your Regret

Young woman sitting alone looking out windowWhen your life doesn’t go as planned, it’s natural to look back with regret. Experiences and time spent seem like a waste when you’re robbed of the opportunity to finish what you started. This may seem particularly true with the end of your marriage.

Regret is common when you’re going through divorce or separation. You might even question whether you would make the same choices knowing what you know now. Thoughts about the past may make you angry because it seems like everything was a big waste of time, or perhaps you feel like you invested poorly in the stock of your life. If you made a poor choice in a partner, or committed to a relationship you knew wasn’t right, the feeling of regret may be even stronger. Wishing you could go back in time and do it all over is normal.

Regret is very closely linked to anger and grief. It’s a natural part of recovering from the end of a marriage, but like anger and grief it can become problematic if left unresolved. There are certain emotions that easily pass through the system, but regret can be an emotional artery clog because, like resentment and shame, it survives in the dark recesses of your own mind. Regret is simply a construct of time because it can happen only when there is something in the past you haven’t been able to resolve in the present. Focusing or fixating on the past with a regretful perspective is toxic and may land you in a state of bitterness that is much harder to undo.

Living with a feeling of regret is often painful and depleting. Energy that could be used for a new life or creating new memories gets drained when the focus is on what could or should have been. When you look forward toward the future, there’s a strong pull to compare it to the past, and when the past gets pulled into the present, it serves as a weight or obstacle that may prevent you from creating the life you are capable of creating.

Here are four tips to release your regret:

1. Make a List

Start by making a list of all your regrets. Get them down on paper so you can clearly see what you’re wishing were different. Some of the items on your list may be valid and connected to a natural grief process, but many will simply represent a resistance to the things you cannot change. You might regret selling your house, not paying more attention to the marriage, or getting married in the first place.

Next, take each regret and write a few brief lines about what would have happened if you hadn’t made that choice or if a particular experience hadn’t happened. How would things be different now? What would be different in the future? Use what you learn to reshape your regret.

2. Find the Silver Lining

Your mind is powerful, and your thoughts will likely be the biggest obstacle to letting go of regret. Replaying old stories and thinking about how things could have been different may keep you rooted in a negative space. When you pay attention to your thoughts, you can catch them and reshape them into something more positive. There is always another scenario that can be played out, so finding the silver lining by taking a bigger perspective may be helpful.

Take the list you made of your regrets and reframe each one into three positive points. For example, if you regret giving up your career for your marriage, a bright side might be that you had time away from work to engage other interests and aspects of your life.

3. Focus on Your Strengths

Regret can lead to a feeling of weakness because it implies that what you need is no longer available to you. Focusing on your present strengths may empower and encourage you to let that go.

Make a list of your personal strengths. You may have to dig deep if you’re feeling like a failure in the current context of your life, but if you sit long enough, you’ll likely come up with a few. Your strengths might be kindness, intelligence, courage, or compassion. Pick one strength and think about how you might use it to help you move forward without regret.

4. Transform and Grow

Regret is a part of your recovery process; after all, there is no way to move forward without reflecting on the past. However, there’s a difference between fixating on what could have been and learning from your choices.

The greatest gift you can give yourself is the wisdom you pull from the choices and experiences you regret. It’s a great opportunity for personal growth and transformation to learn from your mistakes, so turn what didn’t work out into a chance for change.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Andra Brosh, PhD, BCHN, therapist in North Hollywood, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 16 comments
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  • eve

    eve

    February 22nd, 2016 at 10:25 AM

    We all stumble and fall at times but there is nothing that says you can’t dust yourself off and try all over again. Just keep that forward momentum.

  • Cooper

    Cooper

    February 22nd, 2016 at 3:29 PM

    In many ways I do still regret leaving my wife and my kids. I have never been husband material and yet I got married, and now I am shaping up to be an even worse father. I think that a big part of that is running away to avoid having to look at the pain have caused them.

  • Rebecca

    Rebecca

    February 23rd, 2016 at 7:06 AM

    Hey I don’t regret one second of my decision to leave. He was not a good father or husband and I decided that my girls and I both deserve much better than what he was willing to give. It was not an option for me anymore. We all tried and it didn’t work, and I am okay with that. I think that I gave my all, he gave what he could and still it wasn’t enough.

  • dolly

    dolly

    February 23rd, 2016 at 10:16 AM

    If you were strong enough to leave the first time there may not be a chance to do it all over again.
    Stay strong, you resolved to do it so no looking back.

  • Elena

    Elena

    February 24th, 2016 at 7:36 AM

    Well I am on the opposite end of the spectrum. I was devastated when my husband asked me for a divorce and I have not at all been able to get on with my life. I can’t even really figure out where things went wrong and so there was no way of even protecting myself from it. It has blown a hole in what I always thought that my life would long term be like and I guess I have some regrets but then I don’t even know where to direct those. To say that I am really floundering here would be an understatement.

  • Lawrence

    Lawrence

    December 28th, 2018 at 6:26 PM

    Hello can we talk about stuff I’m going through it and it’s hard

  • Robert

    Robert

    February 24th, 2016 at 8:03 PM

    Divorce leaves emotional fallout that can linger seemingly forever — if we don’t take proactive steps like those discussed here. Good stuff!

  • Mally

    Mally

    February 25th, 2016 at 10:07 AM

    I am looking to the present and the future because there is nothing about the past that I can ever change anyway.
    I might can apologize for some things that I have done to try to make amends but change?
    Not going to happen.

  • Robert

    Robert

    February 25th, 2016 at 3:06 PM

    Great article. Going forward is the important part! Even if it’s one step forward and two steps back at first, as it often is. I think one of the biggest surprises for many divorcing… is that they are hit so hard by it — even if they are the ones that “started it”.

  • Nathan

    Nathan

    February 26th, 2016 at 11:35 AM

    The problem with my marriage is that my ex never regretted anything that she did, right or wrong, she just thought that everything was okay and I should have to deal with it/
    You do agree that this is not the kind of behavior that is going to keep any marriage together?
    narcissism does not go a long way towards promoting a healthy relationship, in my experience at least.

  • Issac G.

    Issac G.

    February 27th, 2016 at 10:20 AM

    Divorce is a painful process and it is very easy to fall into the trap of regret. Moving on in life may seem impossible, but it is imperative that one gets a closure. You have listed great suggestions. Following strengths is helpful. The person can join a hobby, to keep the mind away from thinking of the past.

  • AmY

    AmY

    February 28th, 2016 at 7:38 AM

    All wonderful suggestions that I think that anyone going through a significant transition in their lives could very much relate to. I think that there will always be those times, whether it is with a divorce or anything else, that it seems like you will never get through this, but when you are strong and a fighter you will soon see that you can. The key for me has been learning to find something good in everything that I have gone through, and believe me I know that this is not always the easiest thing in the world to do. But if you can find one or two good things that came about as a result then I think that you will see that the experience really was about more than what you may have thought. It gave a chance for understanding something that you may not have been able to before.

  • martin

    martin

    February 28th, 2016 at 3:32 PM

    Eventually you have to release yourself from this, and learn ways that you can stop beating yourself up about it. So the marriage failed. Half of them today do. It is not like you are alone in this.

  • Ruthie

    Ruthie

    February 29th, 2016 at 7:32 AM

    sorry but there is not always a silver lining

  • Dr. Brosh

    Dr. Brosh

    February 29th, 2016 at 8:31 AM

    Thank you for all of these wonderful comments. Not everyone feels regret, but many do even if it’s just the regret that things didn’t go as planned. Learning to accept, let go and find closure are all part of the healing journey and it can take a really long time to feel whole again. The important thing to remember is that so much of this is perspective. Even when it seems like there is no silver lining there is. Not unlike the stars in the sky, the beauty is there even when it’s obscured by the something.

  • Tracey

    Tracey

    September 24th, 2016 at 6:10 PM

    After 26 yrs I had to ask for a divorce. Hardest thing I ever did. He was putting my families safety at risk and all though I still loved him my kids had to come first. I now work 2 jobs but it had to be done. He moved on even though he claims I broke his heart. He was supposed to be my forever. My children tell me I am the strongest woman they know and my daughter says she wants to be just like me. STRONG!!!

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