Should I apologize to my ex-wife?

I got divorced 10 years ago and remarried 8 years ago. I find myself still grieving about my first marriage and it interferes with my current marriage emotionally.

Should I write a letter of apology to my ex-wife? I find myself living with a lot of regret to the point that I want to leave my current marriage, not to remarry my ex but I feel remorseful about my lack of love for her when we were married.

Steve K.

Dear Steve,

We are not prophets, but that doesn’t mean that in certain scenarios we don’t see the future very clearly. Here is our prediction about exactly what will happen if you continue living by doing what your heart is tugging you towards (which we sincerely hope you do not do). Our prediction is that you will end up writing a similar letter to your second wife and being filled with similar recriminations about ruining your second marriage after it, too, ends in divorce.

Since you took the trouble to write to us, we’re assuming you want the terrible truth rather than a warm butter massage. We will pay you the respect of telling you this truth. 

What can you do to change the disastrous direction of your life? There is no alternative.You must perform a major reset. We’re sorry to speak harshly, but you are not behaving like a man. You have been allowing your emotions to run your life. Your heart has been in charge instead of your head. You have been treating your feelings as if they are the captain of the ship of your life. With considerable confidence, we’d guess that your feelings-driven life path contributed to the demise of your first marriage.

It’s reset time. From now onwards, your head is in charge and if your thoughtful purposeful constructive decisions clash with your feelings (as they will for the first few months of the new you) just banish your feelings. That’s right. Get rid of them. We’re not interested in your feelings. It is true that for in the normal course of things, feelings should play a role. However, you have been so far over to the feeling end of the spectrum that you need a few months of head-only training to resume normality.

Start doing whatever is necessary to invest fully in your current marriage. The feelings driving you to write a letter to your ex-wife is only about making you feel better. You’re not even asking yourself what might be the insalubrious effect of such a letter on her. Again, this is all about your feelings. Please stop it!

You need to focus less on what you feel and more on how you speak and act. You must consistently and constantly show your current wife that you treasure her and love her – even if your emotions are not yet fully on board. Make opportunities to express to your wife your unwavering commitment to her. It is important that your ears hear your mouth making these declarations.

Emotions will follow actions; life turns calamitous when we allow our actions to follow our emotions.

What do you think happens in the military when a recruit decides he doesn’t feel like getting up in the morning or making his bed or going for a run? Too bad. He has to do it anyway. You signed up for a marriage and you had better start fulfilling the terms of the covenant to which you agreed.

There is a bonus to behaving properly. As we have explained, your feelings will begin to conform to your actions. At the same time, make yourself shut down all thoughts of your past marriage. We can’t always control what pops into our heads, but we don’t have to let those thoughts remain in residence. Exerting control over yourself is the best way for dealing with destructive instincts. Some pessimistically always expect the worst, others gravitate to pornography, while yet others have a short fuse and regularly lose their tempers. No matter. We are not animals who must follow instinct. We are human beings who can exert control. And must do so.

Steve, this is not an instant process nor an easy one but you must start on this immediately if not sooner! From our careful reading of your letter, we have faith that you can master this.

Good times in your marriage forever.

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

44 thoughts on “Should I apologize to my ex-wife?”

  1. Thank you, Susan. I suppose that is what makes this type of communication more difficult and I should be more careful to include a “smile” in my wording. Most of my friends (and they are really good friends) are liberal/progressive products of our public school system here in the Seattle area. I value their willingness to share their perspective and thoughts on issues. I don’t confront them. They force me to try and think clearly and to keep in mind well thought out counters to their declarations, even when I have no intention of using them. If we never hear from these people we might become complacent and just as fuzzy in our own “logic” as we perceive them to be in theirs. Jana’s response was well worth seeing as it seems to represent the types of attitudes most of those I associate with espouse. I don’t agree with it but I appreciate its thoughtfulness and respect.

    1. I’m grateful that you wrote in and elaborated on your words. I agree, that our thinking does get fuzzy when we only bounce ideas around in an echo chamber. Because technology has made that possible, we end up doing that more and more and we have to actively seek out polite and intelligent counter-views.

  2. It’s good that people like Jana took the time to respond and disagree. It takes us out of our bubble and lets us know what we are facing.

    1. I hesitated to approve this because to my ears it sounds a little cutting. I know how tone can easily be misunderstood in writing. I’m going ahead on the assumption that it is meant in good faith but will take the opportunity to encourage us all to picture others we care about in front of us as we write.

  3. This response was some of the best advice I have read regarding moving on from regret and moving forward in the right direction through facing reality. Living by feelings and impulses ruin so many lives. Thank You Rabbi and Susan.

    1. As with many of the Ask the Rabbi questions, we are talking to ourselves as well as to the person who wrote the question, Mary.

  4. This response is right on . Thank you Rabbi for your honesty and straight forward answer. I took this response in myself and will use it in my parenting. For far to long as Americans (especially) we have been coddled and pushed into this belief of feelings should lead you. Verses using your head and intelligence , now we have a nation of bleeding hearts and unfortunately selfishness all at the same time. I want to raise strong and morally sound children and this just set me on the right path . Thank you again!

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      One of the problems with giving primacy to feelings, Jos,
      Is that it eventually corrodes relationships. If your feelings are paramount, then even if I do no objective wrong to you, you can tarnish me as evil because I hurt your feelings, or because you felt offended. The real key to a society based on human relationships such as family, friends, and business associates, is establishing what is acceptable behavior. This then gets institutionalized into law, custom, and manners. Now, with that in place, nobody can indict anyone else purely on the basis of how they felt. Sorry but your feelings, as important as they are to you, are irrelevant to everyone else. Facts build relationships, feelings break them

  5. Wow! Just listened to Madam, I’m Adam. Then I read this. Over the years, i have read, participated in christian wife/marriage studies/teachings. I KNEW they were off to say the least. This man has an accountability issue along with a self centered perspective. We are erroneously taught that this is the purpose of grace. We need a Savior. Wrong! We need a Deliverer and Savior, but not for this thing. We are capable of obedience, but with the greek worldview it is hard to go against the tide. We have so many social “norms” that are ungodly and we dont even realize. The one woman commented about “closure”. The divorce was the failure, death, closure. And I would bet she has done the same stupid “excellent wife, helpmate” type studies I have. MOST women would be good wives if they were married to a man!!! Everyone reading this listen to Madam, I’m Adam! Men will feel normal, women will quit feeling guilty or incapable. God made us. We have obstacles to conquer, but due to faulty teaching we are crippled in our relationships at the onset. Truth is a person who is capable of setting us free. This rabbi and wife team have taught me so much about my Savior Yashua by explaining the Torah. We need this info. Again, please listen to Madam I’m Adam Steve, and Jana. And anyone else who thinks the reply was harsh or wonders why so many marriages end up in the can. May God bless all that read this.

    1. We’re so glad you listened to Madam, I’m Adam, Tricia. We put a tremendous amount of prayer, work and love into our teachings and love to hear that they are well received and helpful.

    1. Laurie, we’re sure that you, like us, see so many people who have trouble moving forward because they can’t leave the past behind.

  6. I was surprised and pleased to see my letter. Thank you Rabbi. I carefully read the variety of responses and in response to you Sir, you’re right, I have spent far too much of my life looking back and following feelings. As a friend once told me, we see the past through rose colored glasses.
    Thank you and thanks to everyone who took the time to share.

    1. We always appreciate it when we hear that our words were helpful. And don’t we have the greatest readers? Best wishes to you and your wife, Steve.

    2. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Fantastic to hear back from you, Steve,
      Particularly with your kind words. Only a man can accept rebuke and you are surely on your way to a brightly lit future of love and tranquility.

  7. Hi Steve,

    Forgive yourself rather than rehearse your errors. Give yourself permission to be human and speak to God for his forgiveness and the grace to forgive yourself (that’s the hardest). Make an agreement with yourself to plant your “should of ‘s could of’s” in your new marriage and that God give you an opportunity to do so with full heart. Remember with God there is a new day and opportunity. You will have greater regrets if you waste your time on the past. Show yourself and God that you will do better. I say all this, as I too went through a similar situation and missed several new opportunities. I would have driven myself mad if I didn’t behold God’s mercy for me. All the best!

    1. Excellent words, Vero. Forgiving ourselves is often one of the hardest things we need to do and it ends up leading us to make more and more mistakes.

  8. I know from personal experience that the Rabbi is absolutely correct. I would like to ask, however, about the need to make amends or to atone to the first wife for any actual harm done to her. Physical, financial, sexual, emotional. Amends or atonement should relieve the guilt. I certainly agree that a simple letter of apology is with the selfish intent to make the husb feel better about himself but atonement will actually free us from guilt. Just my personal opinion but this gentleman sounds like some I’ve known, myself included, who enjoy wallowing in self pity.

    1. David, please read our response to Jane. You are right that sometimes amends do need to be made. We didn’t see that as the priority here and certainly didn’t get the impression that there were wrongs of the type you mention.

    2. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      That’s what a divorce is, David,
      It contains all aspects of closing the door. It usually has a financial element; it is emotionally wrenching but it is closing the door. There is seldom any real reason for going back after the other party has moved on. In my experience, it is the person who has not successfully moved on who wants to reopen communications under guise of apology. When a marriage fails it is tragic and painful. Usually best to leave it in the past. Atonement doesn’t require the participation of the other party. Atonement is not forgiveness. One is from God and the other from the other party.

  9. I respectfully disagree with the answer given to this man. “ you are not behaving like a man” was inconsiderate and harsh. Men also have feelings and to just ignore them is not be truthful to yourself.
    I believe that the grieving man needs to write an apology and closure letter to his ex wife. It would definitely help him resolve his emotions and kind of have a closure.
    I am also,divorced and and remarried and of my ex wrote me an apology / closure letter it would heal me as well since he did hurt me during our marriage. It would make a world of diferrence for me and prove to me that my ex is a changed man and I would wish for him the best.
    I do agree only with one aspect of the rabbis advice – focus on your marriage you have now and fully invents in it all of yourself and nurture it. Learn from previous experience. However, if your inner heart nudges you to write apology letter to your ex, definitely do it. God speaks to everyone not just rabbis, in fact , you don’t need rabbi to tell you what God s will is for you. Just listen to your Father, He talks to you.

    1. Dear Jane, we always appreciate respectful disagreement. We actually discussed that very statement (not behaving like a man) and deliberated on whether it was too harsh. We decided that it was needed. We agree that everyone has feelings, but, as we said, right now we feel that Steve needs to lean hard in the direction of overcoming his feelings until he gets equilibrium on how much they should be taken into account.
      Another thing we discussed but didn’t write because it is for many years down the road, is that the possibility of writing a letter – if it is for the benefit of the recipient, not the writer – may be a good thing. If five years from now, Steve’s marriage is fantastic and he and his wife agree that he should apologize, and a third party who knows his ex-wife thinks it would be helpful to her, then it might be time to write a letter. But not now under the conditions that were presented to us.
      We never claim to know what God’s will is. We do pray for guidance and then we try to incorporate the ancient Jewish wisdom we have been privileged to receive.
      Thanks for your input.

    2. I totally agree with Jana! Saying you’re sorry can release both parties involved. I divorced my husband and hurt him deeply. He remarried, and a few years later, I face to face apologized to him for hurting him. I did not apologize for the divorce. I did not want him back. I just wanted to say I was sorry I hurt him so much. I am happy that he has found someone else and has been happily married for many years now. Apologizing has brought me peace of heart and mind. I think he felt better also, knowing that I didn’t hate him… and I took full responsibility for the divorce. Decades later.. I do not have regret for the apology.. or the divorce.

      1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

        As we explained, maybe some time down the road, such a letter might be an idea. But it would have to be with the approval of his current wife. I am sure your husband gave his consent for you to apologize to your first husband. You validate our observation that these kinds of apologies are usually to ameliorate your own feelings. Apologizing brought you peace of heart. It is always necessary to make absolutely sure that such peace of heart is not purchased at the expense of tearing open old wounds in someone else, like a first spouse.

    3. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Jana–
      The man himself has written in and you’ll see his letter nearby. He confirms the accuracy of our analysis and appreciated our directness including the exhortation to become more of a man. Sometimes pandering to a man’s feelings rather than responding to the facts is to insult him. Whether or not your ex is a changed man, is not really your business after a divorce. That’s what divorce means. You each go your own way, tragically but that is how it is. A wife can decide if her husband is changing and becoming a changed man. She can and inevitably does help him change and grow. But an ex wife has no business regarding whether the man she used to be married to is growing or not. Her focus should be exclusively on her current marriage and present husband. You may have missed our entire point when you urge him to follow his inner heart. Doing so was precisely what damaged his first marriage and threatens his current one. Listening to our Father in Heaven is important but He would hardly advise anyone to violate His words in Scripture Do not go astray after your heart and eyes–the emotional centers–Numbers 15:39 so we respectfully think you’re mistaken in your advice to follow your ‘inner heart’.
      Thank you for your thoughtful response,

    4. Poor Steve K/ He began to realize with the kind of woman he felt in love. Nobody could blame this man that he recognized he married a wrong one. It is better late than never and he does not have to blame himself for the wrong actions of others. This man is married (2nd time) 8 years. It seemed he is a good man with a lot of patience. Probably he doesn’t know the whole story of this woman’s the way she treats good people. Steve: Whatever religious you hold: leave it all the consequences to the Lord . God is our refuge and strength; ,a very presence help in trouble , therefore we will not fear though the earth should changed (Psalm 46:1-2. Petrona

  10. The reply given to this man is filled with wisdom and will lead to great happiness if this man who is hurting, follows it. I hope he gains strength from this clear and concise direction knowing that it is the one answer to his pain.

    1. William, we feel so many stories lurking behind the responses this Ask the Rabbi has prompted. You may or may not have one yourself, but thanks for chiming in.

    2. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      As you’ve possibly seen, William,
      the person who asked the question has written in thanking us which we greatly appreciated. He confirmed that our diagnosis was correct.

    3. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thanks William–
      He has already gotten back to us with a heartwarming message that indicates that indeed he is gaining strength and growing.

  11. Sound and needed advice from a godly man, that will help shape and form all who will listen. Best wishes Steve K., may God help you as you heed to Rabbi Lapin’s fathering words that will help to mature you and set you on a path towards more righteousness, peace, and success in your commitments.

    1. Celesta, we know from letters we receive how much appreciated is the support that comes from the group here. I know Steve will feel the warmth and caring of your answer and those of others.

  12. I believe Rabbi’s and Susan’s response is right on. What I would like to know is why is this head leading heart discipline, and not the reverse, not common knowledge or not a standard part of our culture? It seems like it should be a commonplace belief in our society. Is this one of those 1960 changes in society?

    I am in my 50s. Looking back, I recall my K-12 classes pushing feelings with “I’m ok, you’re ok” and learning to recognize and give “warm fuzzies”, as they were called then. (I don’t recall what the opposite of “warm fuzzies” are called.) I even had a class in junior high school called “Values Clarification”, which was all about one becoming aware of one’s feelings and other’s feelings. Rabbi and Susan are leading me to become aware more and more of the indoctrination to which I had been subjected. I hate to imagine what the public school indoctrination was like for those younger than I am – farther away from my time in K-12 when the vast majority of Americans believed in the Constitution, unalienable natural rights, the rule of law, and in God. In my college years, there was a dramatic change where few seem to believe these things. At the time, I thought it was just my school, rather than US society as a whole.

    1. Yes, I believe the sixties with the talk shows dedicated to feelings and other factors including liberalism and socialism and attacks on bible believers have almost destroyed the idea of following our heads instead of our hearts

        1. I read David’s comments as social rather than political, Thomas. Our society has focused endlessly on feelings to the point that we are losing the ability to speak freely out of fear that if someone takes offense at what we said, what we said is actually irrelevant.

        2. If we are guided by our feelings, and if we are consistent, those feelings will both guide and impact every aspect of our lives, politics included.

    2. David, we are so far down the road on the “feelings are all that matters” path that the inmates are running the asylum in the United States and many other countries. I am writing this week’s Musing on one example of exactly that.

    3. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear David-
      the approach we recommend indeed used to be standard in our culture. It was how we raised children and educated them. Starting in the 1960s, this began to change with tragic results. All of today’s disastrous political correctness insanity flows from the primacy of feelings. If my feelings are the main thing, than whether or not you did anything wrong, if you hurt my feelings you’re an evil brute so be silenced.
      It is going to be quite a challenge to turn the culture around and it is quite a burden to be sane in a demented age.

  13. self went through a divorce.many years ago.And alot my . Friends. I one chose not to remarry because.l wanted to make sure.I wanted to be ready for who and when .The Lord chose for me. This man has done some thing alot of people do. It sounds like rebond marriage. This gentleman sounds like he needs deep healing from the Lord and the scripture s.

    1. Lisa, you are making an important point about being sure that you are ready to remarry before doing so. One can never erase the past, but it is so important to come to terms with it before moving on.

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