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How Much Guilt Is Normal?

Question:

Dear Anne, I was in a relationship with a girl for 14 years. She, madam X, was very controlling and a perfectionist. At the time that we met, I was needy and didn’t realize either of our issues. I grew dependent on her, and allowed her to take over many things in my life that I shouldn’t have. There were many fights where she would say degrading words, threats of ending the relationship and making me think I was always wrong. It took me a long time to become independent and realize that this wasn’t a healthy relationship and she wasn’t going to change as I had. So after 14 years we ended it.

In the mean time, I had a friend, Madam Y, who was also in a very long term relationship of 16 years. It appeared that they were a happy couple, traveled a lot, got along well – it seemed anyway. Madam Y is a similar type of person that I am: giving, a peace maker, positive, forgiving and a musician. I had known her for 3 years at the time of my breakup and knew I liked her as a friend, found her attractive both physically and mentally, funny and I just knew that I liked to be around her, but that’s as far as it went. I never pursued anything because I was with someone and so was she.

About a month after my relationship ended, she started making comments that made me think that she felt something for me, mind you though these comments were made when she had drank a little too much. After another month of this we were out and again she had drank too much and told me she loved me. So the next day, when we were both sober, we talked on the phone about this. We both agreed that it didn’t matter what we were feeling due to her being in a relationship, but at the same time agreed to meet after work to talk about it some more. She was having big issues with how this could have happened to her, how she could have fallen in love with someone else when she was in a relationship. So we went on this way for about another month, her trying to figure things out, not wanting to destroy a 16 year relationship, but not wanting to let me go either. During this time, the only physical contact we had was a few kisses and hugs, it was mostly all emotional. Before she found the courage to talk to her partner, who turns out to be a lot like my ex, we were found out. Her partner then wanted her to stop seeing me, but Madam Y refused. So she left her house and has been waiting for her soon to be ex to move out of her house. In the mean time she has been seeing me and we have taken our relationship to another level.

She is slowly realizing that her relationship had some big issues like communication and would have never been fixed due to her partner’s personality. However, she feels horrible, lots of sadness, blames herself and lots of guilt about hurting her partner. She talks about it all the time. It seems like when we are together she forgets for a while and we have a good time together but the next day she feels so much guilt that she make excuses not to see me for days, even though we talk on the phone daily, but I hear it in her voice.

I know we are trying to take it slow, but I feel like this guilt and bad feelings of what has happened will get in the way of us if it doesn’t stop. It is beginning to hurt me when she talks about this, about how sad she is that her relationship has ended, how bad she feels that she hurt her partner. I feel like I am being put on a back burner because she doesn’t want us to be seen in public in case her soon to be ex partner might run into us, She says this is only until their financial matters have been taken care of and she gets her house back, but it’s starting to bother me. I feel like she is thinking more of her soon to be ex partner’s feelings than she is mine. Is this normal? Am I over reacting? I do realize she should feel some guilt and bad feelings, but for how long and how much?

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Answer:

You spend the first part of your letter talking about how difficult it was for you, in the first place, to recognize that there were compatibility issues in your relationship with Madam X, and then how difficult it was for you to break off with her even after you knew that things between you were unacceptable and would never change. You spend the last part of your letter talking about your frustration with Madam Y, your new girlfriend, because she is not breaking off with her ex-partner (Mister Z?) fast enough. To my mind, what you need to realize is that people process highly emotional decisions at different rates of speed. When it comes to breaking off long term relationships, most people remain highly ambivalent even when they know the prospects for happiness within those relationships are fairly hopeless. This isn’t because people cannot figure out the math. It is because there is pain and fear involved in letting go of the old.

You managed to finally reach a point where you were able to break off with Madam X, but Madam Y has not yet figured out how to break off with Mister Z. In fact, though you and she have made the beginnings of a relationship with each other, it is not a certain thing that Madam Z will leave her old relationship to be with you. I think you need to realize this, and to allow for the possibility that she will not choose you ultimately. Then again, she may choose you, after some more agony and ambivalence. It is impossible to tell at this point.

The key thing here I want to impress upon you is that just as you had to make your own decision to leave Madam X, Madam Y needs to make her own decision to leave Mister Z. It is her decision to make, and she needs to make it on her own. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t impress upon her your love and your perception that you two will be far more compatible together than she and Mister Z, but it does mean that you ought to lay off from pressuring her and let her make her decision at her own pace. Because you, already having made your own break, will want some end in sight with regards to what your status is with Madam Y, it is appropriate for you to set a date in the future, perhaps several months from now, after which you will share with her that she needs to make a decision to be with you or you will move on and date other women. Providing this ultimatum is not a way of forcing her to come to a decision so much as it would be a release valve for your own frustration, so that you can have a path to walk away if this doesn’t work out. It is indeed a possibility that Madam Y becomes paralyzed and unable to make a decision, and if that point is arrived at, you will need to either exit with her or be at her ambivalent mercy.

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Comments
  • Dr. T

    The problem I see here is that she may one day blame you for the eruption of her relationship. Even though she knows deep down that she and Mr. Z were/are not compatible, she still might feel that her decision was rushed because of an emotional connection/desire with you. It's sad to think that she would ultimately blame you, but there is certainly a chance that she could.

    When someone has had a pretty long relationship with another, there might be some issues with breaking apart that might include regret, pain, saddness, remorse, and perhaps even a desire to be back with that same person again.

    Please allow me to offer some advise. Please don't let this take over your life so much so that if she decides you two aren't going to make it, that it hurts you. Right now...I would recommend you protect yourself, your heart at this point. She might be confused about who she'd like to be with right now. Strong infatuation or a temporary need to have something new in her life could be leading her to you, but that doesn't mean it's love. Love is not impulsive or spontaneous, it is unconditional and slow.

    Essentially, you could be hurting because you just left a relationship not too long ago, and you feel the need to be close to this new person. But this need of yours could be leading you to someone who doesn't understand her own heart right now.

    I wish you the best.

  • Anonymous-1

    She could be talking with you as a way of processing her feelings about the conclusion of her previous relationship. That many years with another person... well, it's a long time. It's hard to let go of that. It sounds as if she has, on a physical level. It might just take a while for her to get out of the mental habit of thinking about it.

    But that doesn't necessarily mean she wouldn't rather be with you. It might just mean that she trusts you and feels close enough to you to share with you. And it's a good thing that her instinct seems to be to share how she is feeling with you. I'm sure she would listen to you talk about your feelings with regard to your own ex.

    I'm saying this as someone who has been where she is now. I basically did this to my current bf for a year- before I didn't feel the need anymore. He explained that he didn't want to hear it-- but it's hard, when you are working through something that is painful (the end of any relationship is painful-- even if there is something better to move on to)... it's hard to keep that from the person you feel closest to.

    just to consider.

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