Guilt from Leaving Marriage for a Childhood Sweetheart

Reader’s Question

I was deeply in love with a girl when I was 16-18 years old. The family moved away and I was never able to finish the relationship. She got pregnant and was married and I went on with my life. After 32 years of marriage I had a dream of her. I was unhappy anyway but not fighting with my wife, etc. In the dream I said to her, “I loved you more than life itself and you abandoned me”. Before she could answer I awoke and was panicked.

To make a long story short, I called her and she said she had always been in love with me too. I divorced and now we are preparing for our future and all is well there.

I feel so guilty. My wife of 32 years, although a bit domineering, didn’t really deserve this. I wanted to be happy but it seems for me to be happy I had to make others so very unhappy. I am having guilt issues. Maybe I deserve them. To make matters worse I was an ordained minister, and I left that to pursue my heart.

I found an article that seems to explain it but what do I do about feeling so bad? I asked God to forgive me if I was wrong and I know I cannot turn back time.

Psychologist’s Reply

I suspect your life just got more interesting…and a lot more complicated. Your situation is a good example of how “Emotional Memory” works. When our brain makes memories of significant events, it memorizes not only the details of the event/experience but the emotions that occur at that time as well. This is why we smile when we remember a good event and make a nasty face when someone mentions someone or something that has a negative emotional memory to us. Emotional Memories are all unique to the person. Fifty people can hear the same song — some smile, some frown, and some have no reaction or no memory of the tune.

Some intense emotional memories last for years…or forever. When you thought about this long-lost love, you became warm and fuzzy — but the emotional part of that memory was 32 years old. She had the same reaction — a 32-year-old memory was activated and you both remember that you loved each other at one time…32 years ago. In reality — you don’t know each other in 2008!

Every summer I treat folks for “reunion romance” — people who see their “old flings” at the summer high school reunion and suddenly feel they have always loved them — although they really hadn’t thought of them much over the past 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, etc. years. We are very susceptible to these Emotional Memories if we are stressed, depressed, or going through “midlife crisis”.

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While you may have valid reasons for ending the relationship and pursuing a divorce, you’ve been shocked at the overwhelming power of your reaction, the intense emotions, and the speed at which it all happened. Guilt has a lot to do with “unfinished business” and the what-ifs in a situation. Your sudden departure has created a lot of unfinished business regarding your wife, your family, and your ministry in 2008…while it all makes sense in that 32-year old emotional memory. Normally we leave a relationship for a variety of reasons that have been present and discussed for several years prior to the end of the marriage. When Emotional Memory is involved, we often skip those steps, creating the guilt you now experience.

You’ll be dealing with the multiple changes in your life, family and career. You’ll also be dealing with your romantic fantasy of 32 years ago and how it will be experienced in the reality of 2008. From your wife and family standpoint, they may have difficulty understanding your behavior and reactions. I would seek counseling in your community. For both you and your new sweetheart, only time will tell if you can capture the romance of an 18-year-old…32 years later. You both may find that you are totally different people than you were 32 years ago. I’d recommend reading my article on “Emotional Memory” on this website for further information about this type of experience.

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