Case Study

Ending a Marriage That’s Already Over

Helping Women Move Beyond the Paralysis of Guilt

Magazine Issue
March/April 2024
Illustration by Sally Wern Comport

For more than a decade, I’ve worked with women navigating divorce in individual therapy and divorce support groups, and I’ve seen them struggle intensely with a mix of feelings: grief, confusion, fear, anger, betrayal, rejection. But one of the most common and difficult feelings for them to work through is guilt, especially when they’re the ones initiating the divorce. They feel guilty for giving up on their marriage, for leaving their spouse behind, and for the impact the divorce may have on their children. Guilt shows up even when they’ve been so wronged by their partner that the marriage is beyond what most people would consider worth saving.

In the United States, women are socialized to be responsible, empathic, and attuned to the needs of others—all factors that contribute to feelings of guilt. Many of my divorcing female clients struggle with even knowing what their own needs are, and much of our work focuses on learning about those needs and how to assert them.

Fortunately, in the wake of their divorces, I’ve seen these women experience profound growth and healing, along with significant shifts in their self-esteem and identity. Despite the guilt that may initially have hamstrung them, they end up locating a stronger, clearer, inner and outer voice that can confront feelings of failure and guilt. Eventually, even those who didn’t initiate their divorce often report a sense of relief and freedom.

Who Left First?

Making a clear distinction between who has emotionally, sexually, or physically left a committed marriage versus who may ultimately decide to call an end to that marriage can help allay overpowering feelings of guilt. After all, if your spouse breaks the spoken and unspoken rules of your marriage and family, you may be the one who ends the marriage, but you might not have done so if your spouse hadn’t already left it.

Claire came to me several years ago, after learning about her husband’s affair. She and Jack had been married for 26 years. They had two children in college and three beloved dogs at home. Jack was a psychology professor at a local university where Claire worked in the admissions department. One night, she’d been downloading pictures from their iPad when she found photos of him in Hawaii with his arms lovingly wrapped around one of his graduate students.

“We were supposed to go on that trip together,” Claire said. “He’d told me he’d be too busy at his conference to enjoy each other’s company and convinced me not to come. When I confronted him about the student in the picture, he lashed out at me. He told me I was paranoid and insecure, and nothing was going on. It made me feel crazy. So, then, like a crazy woman, I began reading his emails.”

That’s when Claire discovered a cache of communications with the graduate student, revealing he’d been engaged in the affair for more than three years. Although Jack finally owned up to it, he was dismissive of her feelings and annoyed that even weeks after he’d reassured her that the affair had ended, she still couldn’t “get over it.” While I reassured her that it’d take anyone a significant amount of time to trust again, Jack’s gaslighting and dismissiveness raised a serious red flag for me about his ability to repair their rupture. I kept this concern to myself with the goal of offering Claire my firm support as she felt this out for herself.

Over the next few sessions, although Claire looked increasingly exhausted, her determination to save her marriage became firmer. Her parents had had a rocky marriage but had stayed together for 60 years, and all four of her siblings were in long-term marriages. Being around Jack was painful, she conceded, but the thought of a divorce filled her with such dread that she could barely eat or sleep. So she and Jack started couples counseling with a colleague I recommended who specialized in infidelity.

“I can commit to counseling because I know that marriages take work,” she told me. “And besides, I can’t put our kids through a divorce.”

Like many mothers dealing with a relationship rupture, Claire’s guilt around damaging the kids was overpowering. She was determined to adjust to her pain if doing so would protect the children from the feelings of betrayal and heartbreak she was experiencing. Week after week, she told me how unhappy she was, and simultaneously how committed she was to remaining in her marriage.

“I can hear how hard you’re working to save your marriage, how important that is to you,” I’d reflect back to her. “I also hear how unhappy you are in your marriage. That’s such a hard place to be.”

In my 30 years as a therapist, I’ve seen a lot of marriages in trouble. Sometimes I’m confident that a couple can do the repair work to make their marriage stronger after an affair; sometimes I suspect the marriage can’t be sustained. But even then, I wait patiently until my client comes to their own decision. I might say, “I know that it’s vitally important for you to keep your family intact, and I want to point out what the cost is to you. You’ve been so unhappy for so long.” Or, “I understand that you’re worried about the impact of divorce on your kids, but you’ve been telling me for months about the vicious fights you and your husband get into nearly every night. That has an impact on your kids as well.”

Women suffering immensely in their marriages but hamstrung by guilt at the thought of what divorce will do to their children or other family members remind me that our culture continues to expect them to sacrifice in service of the family, even if a partner is causing that suffering. Men rarely face such intense pressure.

Working through the Trauma

Two months into our work, Claire started describing other intense worries that were tormenting her. “I try to stay in my office all day for fear of running into that girl he was with on campus. I don’t know what I’d do if I saw her. I also can’t bear to be at home. I’m questioning everything that was once comfortable and familiar. That photo of our family vacation on the mantel—was it all a lie? The couch in the living room—did she sit there with him while I was visiting my sister? My mind won’t slow down. I’m exhausted.”

“Your reactions are perfectly normal,” I told her. “You’ve been through a traumatic event that’s changed the way you thought the world worked. You were blindsided by this affair, so now you’re looking for danger everywhere.”

Claire thought for a minute. “This really does feel traumatic.”

“We’ll keep working together while the intensity of your feelings subside,” I reassured her.

Eventually, when she was able to sleep and eat better, our work shifted to figuring out how to voice what she wanted and needed now. She was adamant about staying committed to her marriage and family, since the thought of how a divorce might affect the family made her head swim.

“I’m afraid if we divorce, the kids will be devastated and never recover,” she said, tearfully. “What if I don’t get to see them on holidays? What if, as a single parent, I can’t afford the things they’re used to? And I worry about my husband, too, crazy as that seems. If I divorce him, will he lose his job? I need to stay for them.”

I’d seen this line of reasoning in many clients. When women begin to look at their own needs, a sense that they’re abandoning an ingrained commitment to caretaking can overwhelm them.

“Claire, you’ve spent a lifetime thinking about other people’s needs, and you’re good at it. Growing up, you took care of your younger siblings, and then your parents when they got sick. You’re a wonderful caretaker, but could we slow down and think about what it is that you need?”

“I’d like to do that,” she said. “I know I’m important, but it feels selfish to put my own happiness over other people’s happiness. I can’t be the cause of other people’s misery.”

Without giving her a lecture on the patriarchal cultural messages I heard behind her statement, I assured her that we’d move as slowly as she needed, taking the time to tune into her body and true sense of self in small ways. Sometimes, this simply meant putting her hand on her heart and sitting in silence for a few moments. Other times, we role-played what she wanted to say to Jack but couldn’t. As the months wore on, she increasingly voiced her anger and disappointment with Jack to me.

“He knows how panicky I get when he comes home late, but he stayed out past midnight at a work event last week,” she told me one day. “And when I confronted him about it, he accused me of being controlling. I don’t know if I can live like this. I don’t want to move out, but it’s so painful living together. I finally asked him to move into our guest room.”

“Wow,” I said. “That’s a big step. I’m proud of you. Of course it’s hard to trust Jack right now, and of course you need extra reassurance. Most people would feel that way. Have you brought this issue up in your couples sessions?”

“No,” she said, “but I’m going to. If he wants to stay with me, he has to stop treating me like that.” I noted a new look of determination and strength on her face.

A Marriage on the Mend?

A year into our treatment, Claire and Jack were doing better. With the help of their couples therapist, they talked about the ways in which Jack’s feeling of inadequacy had been driving a lot of his behavior. Claire learned how to voice her needs more clearly, and she felt Jack could hear them without being dismissive. He’d moved back into the bedroom and was more loving and attentive. In short, Claire was learning to trust Jack again.

Their children were thriving as well. Their oldest had graduated from college, and their youngest was taking a semester in Spain. To celebrate, they decided to go on a family beach vacation. “I’m so happy we’re in such a different place,” Claire told me. “Now this feels like the life I’ve wanted all along.”

A Leaving Versus an Ending

Although I’d felt cautiously optimistic for Claire as she’d prepared for the vacation, when she arrived in my office a day after their return, I knew instantly something was awry. She wore the same look of exhaustion I’d seen a year ago.

“It’s good to see you, Claire. Is everything okay?” I asked.

She lowered herself stiffly onto the couch and looked at me blankly. In a monotone, she told me that on their vacation, she’d discovered Jack was still having an affair with the graduate student. He’d left his phone beside the pool when he went for a swim and Claire had seen the text come in: “Counting the hours until you get back. Can’t wait for our weekend together.”

“I can’t,” Claire said, waving a hand in front of her face. “I just can’t.”

“Oh, Claire,” I said. “I’m so sorry to hear that. You must be reeling. You’ve put so much work into your marriage this past year.”

She shook her head and said, “I will never trust that man again.”

“You don’t have to make any major decisions right now,” I told her. “At this point, we just need to plan out your next few days. Let’s go back to how you’re going to eat and sleep. Your sister was helpful last year. Could she come for the weekend to give you some support? Who among your friends can you reach out to?”

Claire didn’t feel she could stay married to Jack, but she still couldn’t imagine getting divorced. She worried her family would be devastated. What would she say to them? How would they recover? She even felt guilty about what the dogs would endure in a split. Guilt, in other words, seemed to be at the center of her dilemma.

To help Claire wrestle with this sense of guilt, I introduced her to a concept that many women considering divorce have found useful: leaving a marriage versus ending one. The distinction of leaving versus ending assigns the weight of responsibility for a marriage’s dissolution where it belongs: on the partner’s behavior that has put them in this position. For women especially, who’ve historically been taught to ignore their own needs and are blamed when they don’t, the distinction can be clarifying and empowering.

“As you consider what to do,” I told Claire, “you may decide to end the marriage, but by having an ongoing affair and continuously lying to you, Jack is the one who has left it.”

Claire nodded slowly.

I decided to restate it: “Jack wants to stay married, so if this marriage ends, it will likely be because you decide to end it. But you’d be ending it because Jack left it.”

Claire was watching me closely. She’d been riddled with guilt at the thought of leaving. Now I sensed she was wrestling with the question of where Jack’s guilt was.

In the following sessions, Claire concluded she couldn’t stay married to Jack, but she wasn’t sure where to go from there. Each week, for several months, I offered a suggestion that would promote her independence and self-esteem, like making an appointment with a financial adviser, getting a consultation from a lawyer, joining a yoga class, and visiting a college friend.

One weekend, she went away with her kids to stay in an Airbnb cabin in the woods, and they gently confronted her about how unhappy and distracted she’d seemed in the last few years. It had surprised her. She’d been so worried about the impact of divorce on the kids that she hadn’t realized how deeply the conflict in the marriage had been affecting them. When she told them that she and Jack were struggling, her oldest replied, “I can see that. Dad has always been selfish, and frankly, he’s never appreciated you. You do so much for our family.”

She felt affirmed in her decision but refrained from telling them about the affair. They were young adults, and perhaps she’d tell them later, but for now, she wanted to help them maintain a good relationship with their father.

After that trip, Claire felt confident enough to contact a lawyer and file for divorce. She didn’t want the world to know about Jack’s affair, but she also didn’t want people to think she was leaving him for no reason. She decided to tell people close to her, “I left Jack because he left our marriage a long time ago. It wasn’t what I wanted, but I felt I had no other choice.”

After the divorce, she sometimes faced challenging moments, especially when she’d inadvertently run into Jack on campus, but she acknowledged that although her life hadn’t turned out the way she’d hoped, she didn’t have any regrets.

In our final session, she brought me flowers from the garden at her new home. She showed me a picture of her children and dogs at the beach. “This is your life now,” I smiled, motioning to the flowers and the picture of her family. I felt proud of how much she’d accomplished in our three years together.

“This is my life now,” she echoed calmly, “and it’s a pretty good one.”

Case Commentary

By Michelle Dodge

Oona Metz is clearly a skilled clinician whose ability to empower her client is admirable, and in this case, she vividly captures the struggle that many women experience when trying to decide whether to stay in or leave an unhappy marriage. As I read it, I marveled at her patience in supporting Claire through a long, difficult journey involving betrayal, loss, and grief. Although the outcome seemed inevitable, she allowed her client to set her own path of discovery and grieve the loss of a marriage on her own terms, all while slowly regaining control of the life her husband had hijacked with his infidelity.

Nonetheless, I was disturbed by her husband’s callous and manipulative actions. After 30 years in the field of violence against women, I’m always concerned when a client reports gaslighting behavior. Jack’s disregard for Claire’s feelings about the affair, along with his continued lies and scapegoating, suggests an insidious pattern of coercive control. I would have explored this conduct with Claire, using the opportunity to assess for other incidents of controlling behavior.

While gaslighting is often dismissed as a defensive mechanism to avoid shameful thoughts and feelings, it can be a sign of harmful emotional, financial, or physical abuse. At a minimum, gaslighting distorts a person’s reality, erodes confidence, and creates feelings of fear, doubt, and vulnerability. Educating clients about the consequences of coercive control prevents unintentional collusion and creates an opportunity to explore the effects of the manipulative behavior. I might have asked, “What did you think when Jack initially denied the affair, even after you showed him the information you found? How did you feel when he told you to get over it? Did he really expect that everything would be back to normal so soon?” I would’ve normalized her reaction as one shared by many other women: “I’m sure it would be difficult for most women to even speak with their husband after discovering he’d been having a secret affair for three years.”

Women are expected to “forgive and forget” when they’ve been wronged. If fact, they’re often told that they’re at fault when their partner has been unfaithful. If only they were smarter, prettier, and sexier, their partners would have no reason to cheat. These distorted stereotypes have become ingrained in our culture, contributing to feelings of shame and inadequacy among women who believe that their marriages “failed” because they’re not good enough.

Like Metz, I avoid discussion of patriarchy and sexism during therapy sessions so as not to project my own thoughts and opinions onto the client. However, I believe it’s important to discuss the impact of gender stereotyping with female clients. With that in mind, I might have encouraged Claire to explore how her parents’ marriage affected her own views about marital roles and responsibilities. Additionally, I might have explored her belief that the children would be harmed if they learned the details of their father’s relationship with another woman. After all, while this case clearly demonstrates the care and expertise needed to help women navigate the complexity of divorce, it also highlights the generational impact of stereotypical views and mores within our society.

 

Illustration by Sally Wern Comport

Oona Metz

Oona Metz, LICSW, CGP, is a psychotherapist and speaker near Boston, Massachusetts. She writes about divorce, group therapy, and parenting, and is currently working on a book about the emotional and interpersonal journey of divorce. Visit her website at oonametz.com.

Michelle Dodge

Michelle Dodge, JD, LICSW, RPT-S, is an individual and family therapist in private practice in Washington, D.C. She’s worked in the area of family violence for more than 30 years and specializes in therapeutic interventions for children and families affected by child maltreatment, intimate partner violence, and trauma.