Divorce is never easy. Even when it’s amicable, even when you don’t blame each other for anything – when you both just admit you’ve both changed, or have different goals, or have simply grown apart – it’s hard to deal with.

But what do you do when you know – 100%, without any doubt – that it’s your fault?

My marriage ended because I cheated on my wife. It’s as simple as that. I can tell you all the reasons it happened, how I found myself in that situation when I’d never imagined I’d be that guy, why it didn’t really mean anything. But none of those things matter. What matters is that I broke my vows and hurt someone I loved very much in the process.

After it had all settled down – after she’d packed up her stuff and left and I was alone in my house, just me and the cats – the hardest part to deal with was the guilt I felt for the hurt I’d caused. I missed her, of course; I often think the thing we miss most when the relationship ends is not what we had, but what we would have had, the life we expected to share with someone else. To have that life blown away, for her and for me, was excruciating. But so was the knowledge that it was on me.

There were other problems, of course – show me a relationship that doesn’t have problems and I’ll show you the last five minutes of a sappy romantic comedy – but this problem was one that I created, through my own selfishness and stupidity. It left me literally tossing and turning every night; in my dreams, I played Monday morning quarterback, endlessly replaying the last angry, tearful conversation, trying to figure out if I could have done something, said something, to mitigate the pain I’d caused, to find a way that we could work through it.

But worse than those dreams, of course, were the ones where it had never happened; where I dreamed of my wife and I going out, or going on vacation, or simply sitting around watching TV, the way we used to. Those were the dreams that hurt to wake up from.

The easiest way to deal with the guilt, of course, is to fool yourself. Yes, you screwed up, but maybe if she’d been a little more this or done a little more of that, you wouldn’t have been driven to cheat or lie or whatever you did to make the relationship end. Maybe if she’d been a little more understanding.

This is all bullshit and it’s beneath you. You need to accept responsibility for your actions and their consequences. You screwed up. Yes, maybe there were other problems, but if so you should have faced them and worked on them rather than allowing them to drive you to do something you couldn’t take back. Part of being a grown-up is admitting to yourself that you did wrong. That’s the first step.

Unfortunately, that can lead you to a very dark place. I had to accept the fact that, despite a lifetime of believing in true love and finding that special someone and being faithful to them until the end, I was a man who had cheated on his wife. I was, in my own eyes, a faithless son of a bitch. I was not the misunderstood hero of the piece. I was, in fact, the villain. That’s a hard row for anybody to hoe.

It’s a terrible thing to realize that you’re not perfect, that you are, in fact, human and that you sometimes do stupid or thoughtless or mean things. It’s terrible to realize what you’re capable of. But in that realization is self-awareness. You have discovered something true about yourself – something unpleasant, certainly, but that awareness is important. It helps you understand who you are, how you got there and – most importantly – what you need to change, in yourself and in your life. To err is human…but so is learning from one’s errors. You need to take a long look at yourself in the mirror and really see the face there, looking back at you. And you need to understand what’s required to once again make that face one you can be proud to look at.

It’s different for everybody. Some people need to realize they have a problem with the booze or the pills. Some people need to realize they have an anger management problem. And some people just need to, frankly, grow the fuck up and realize they’re not the only person on the planet, that other people have feelings that are just as important as their own. Sometimes you need to be reminded that you need to tread lightly in this world because if you don’t you can trample people who don’t deserve it, people you don’t ever want to hurt.

Then you need to take a deep breath and you need to just get moving, keep living your life, one day at a time, as the folks in Alcoholics Anonymous say. You can’t take back what you did, and maybe you can’t rebuild the bridges you burned, but you can do your best not to burn any more of them as you go. You can come out the other side of your pain and self-recrimination and find a more thoughtful, mindful, conscientious person there, waiting for you.

You will always carry the scars, though; don’t fool yourself about that. I sometimes wonder if it’s worse to be the hurter than the hurt; after all, the hurter has to live with what they’ve done. You may learn to forgive yourself, but you will never forget. She’s been gone over a year and I still ache when I think of her, think of the sorrow on her face, that I caused. Those scars will never vanish.

But that’s okay. Scars are snapshots of our lives; they remind us of what made us who we are. We learn from scars. We move on. We survive.

There’s a line from an old Tom Petty song I often think of when I think of my ex-wife:

I still think of her when the sun goes down
It never goes away, but it all works out

That’s the plain truth, right there. You will get through this. You will feel better. You will be better. That’s part of being human, too. You will survive.

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