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How Guilt, Shame and Regret Drive Divorce Decisions

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Guilt, shame and regret are common emotions that are experienced during the divorce process. Regardless of the circumstances of the divorce, both husbands and wives are likely to experience various amounts of these emotions. Anne Wietzker, Ann Buysse, Tom Loeys and Ruben Brondeel at Ghent University in Belgium have done some very interesting work in trying to understand how these negative emotions may influence the negotiation process between divorcing couples.

First, some definitions: "Guilt" is defined by the researchers as the feeling one has "when people think they have made a (moral) transgression and feel responsible for their actions." Guilt often includes the feeling that one has done harm to another person and a sense that one needs to do something to make amends. "Shame," on the other hand, is a self-focused emotion and is associated with "feeling small, worthless, and incompetent." Individuals experiencing shame do not feel in control of the situation. The feeling of "regret" occurs "when a person realizes that the outcome of decision is worse than it could have been, had the person decided differently."

The scientists asked 36 couples who had filed for divorce in Belgium to complete surveys that measured guilt, shame and regret as well as their negotiating style. Wietzker and colleagues measured the degree to which couples reported five different styles of negotiation including problem solving, forcing (using threats to compel the partner to choose an outcome), yielding (letting a partner get what they want), compromising and avoidance. The couples in the study were in the 40s, married for an average of 15 years, and 75 percent of them had children.

Their findings indicate that the guiltier a person felt, the more likely they were to be yielding and attempt to problem solve and the less likely they were to try and force a solution by threats. Partners who felt shame tended to avoid negotiation and made fewer efforts to problem solve differences. Regret did not seem to be strongly related to negotiation styles. The authors conclude, "Feeling guilty was related to overall cooperative behavior, shame was related to overall uncooperative behavior, and regret had no explanatory value..."

In considering the divorce process, it is worth remembering that couples are most likely to employ styles of negotiation based on emotion rather than though deliberate tactics. It is easy to imagine one member of the couple feeling guilty and another feeling shame or regret. Partners may engage in tactics to make the other person feel guilt, shame or regret, which might facilitate or harm the decision-making process. The scientists note that the person who feels guilty might be viewed by mediators, lawyers, and judges as the more reasonable member of the couple because they are more cooperative. This may result in a strategic advantage for the "guilty" party.

Finally, it is important to be cautious about these findings. All three emotions -- guilt, shame and regret -- are likely to be felt in some degree at different times during the divorce process. There are also other emotions at play including anger and sadness. It would be a mistake to assume that "guilt" drives the negotiation process completely. Nevertheless, professionals who work with divorcing couples need to be attuned to the ways in which these common emotions may influence the decision-making process. Professionals need to ensure that the best outcomes for the couples and their children are reached regardless of the emotions at play.