Dear Neil: I need some advice. My wife recently ended a four month affair when I accidentally discovered that she had been stepping out on me. She has acknowledged wrong doing (she was caught, so she had no choice). She has said she loves and cares about me a great deal, says she will spend the rest of her life making this up to me, has profusely apologized and has begged me for forgiveness.So why am I so angry at her? I am normally a mild-mannered type of guy (they call me Clark Kent at work). But not anymore. Since learning of her affair, I am absurdly angry at her. Out of my mind angry. As angry as someone can get and still be at large and not be locked away. No matter what my wife does, or says, or offers, I have an angry, sarcastic retort in order to reject her, put her down or make her feel bad. This has been going on for several months now.
But I want to forgive her and let this go. I don’t want to be the person I have recently turned into: a raging, angry, hurtful, spiteful, vindictive, mean, unforgiving guy who is trying to hurt the woman I also love. Why am I doing this? How can I stop? I’m afraid I’ll push her over the edge, and then she will walk out on me and not come back. I vacillate between wanting to dump her and wanting to keep her and renew our vows. Does this sound as confusing to you as it feels to me? Can you help me?
Crazy Angry in Colorado
Dear Colorado: Your anger is not only about your wife’s affair: it’s a tactic you’re using as well. In the context of betrayal, anger enables you to answer the overarching question: Do you really care about me? If so, how much do you care? These questions get to the heart of whether the two of you can heal the hurt, the sense of betrayal and the mistrust.
Almost everyone feels that betrayal is a sign that the other person doesn’t care. If your wife really cared about you, she wouldn’t have stepped out on you, right? Well actually, her stepping out on you does not mean that she doesn’t care about you. It means she screwed up, but she might care very much about you. So your anger has a purpose. Someone as angry as you describe yourself to be isn’t fun to be around. No doubt this is you at your absolute worst. If your wife can hang in there while you’re furious, she is passing the “do-you-care-test,” says Mira Kirshenbaum in her new book I Love You But I Don’t Trust You (Berkley Books, 2012).
You’ve been incredibly difficult for months, yet she hasn’t left you. And that is what you’ve been looking for—a sign that she is committed to you and to your marriage. If she can hang in there and take as much verbal and emotional punishment as you’ve dished out, you know there’s a foundation of caring that will be able to allow you to trust her again. You’ve gotten the answer to your question: she really does care about you.
Kirshenbaum reminds us that angry people are scary people. You don’t want to mess with an angry person, you want to stay out of their way. For this very reason, the tactic you’re using to gain reassurance about how much she cares will also prohibit the two of you from rebuilding trust. For anger also creates distance and resentment, and it can be taken too far. Receiving a great deal of your anger is a test about your wife’s ability to withstand discouragement—because your anger, and its intensity, and the fact that it seems to go on and on, is indeed very discouraging. If you push her past the point of no-return, she could get so discouraged that she simply gives up on you and on your marriage.
With your anger, you’re also trying to deliver a message to your wife: “This is a very big deal to me. Don’t ever do this again.” But your wife is likely to receive your anger as control and abuse, and eventually she’ll get angry back at you, because anger breeds anger. And when she gets angry at you, you are likely to meet her anger with even more anger. So you see that this can turn into a very destructive pattern that can easily destroy your relationship if you’re not careful.
Perhaps it’s time to explore what led to her betrayal in the first place, and for you and your wife to look at what each of you need in order to make peace with what has happened, and what agreements you want to make about the future. But too much anger will destroy your marriage.