Discovering evidence of a spouse’s infidelity- whether it comes in the form of physical relations, sexting, or pornography- evokes powerful emotions. You are probably- in varying orders- betrayed, confused, devastated, disappointed, disgusted, hurt, sad, scared, shocked, surprised, worried… and angry.
Allowing Yourself to Be Angry:
You have a right to your anger; you have a right to feel it and a right to express it. Do not accept being told otherwise. Remember that no emotion is actually wrong; there is never a right way to feel or a wrong way to feel. You simply feel what you feel, and if what you feel includes anger, then it is okay to be angry.
Your partner and/or others in the addiction recovery community may try to discourage you from being angry about his or her behavior, or from expressing that anger to your spouse. It is true that addiction is a disease which alters the brain’s chemical pathways in a manner that often limits the addict’s control over his or her own behavior and choices, but accountability is a key component of recovery from addiction- and of rebuilding a damaged relationship. You should never judge or punish your partner, but you should hold him or her accountable for his or her behavior.
Needing to Express Your Anger:
It is important not only to recognize that your anger is valid, but to express it.
- Your partner needs to understand how you feel, and why. It will be an important part of his or her recovery process. Understanding your feelings and needs will also be important to your spouse’s efforts at rebuilding the relationship.
- Unexpressed feelings do not just go away. They fester, they find ways to express themselves in unrelated aspects of your marriage and the rest of your life; and sometimes they explode in even worse arguments. Expressing emotions as soon as possible avoids letting negative feelings grow until they can no longer be controlled.
- Expressing anger can be your first step toward healing. Acknowledging and expressing your anger is your first step toward letting go of it and moving past it. Repressing or denying your anger is only another way of clinging to it.
Expressing Your Anger to Your Partner:
How you express your anger and other negative emotions is very important to your relationship and to your partner’s progress and recovery. Repressing your feelings and reactions entirely can do long-term harm to your own emotional well-being and your future interactions with your spouse. On the other hand, screaming at your partner, insulting your partner, cursing at your partner, or other hostile, overwrought responses will escalate the conflict, block productive reactions, and discourage honesty from your spouse.
Raising your voice and/or emphasizing your feelings with curses, insults, or thrown objects will not get your point across, get through to your partner, or make your position clear. Instead, these aggressive tactics will make your spouse defensive- and thus more likely to yell back, deflect blame, counter-accuse, or deny everything. Attacking your partner and expressing your feelings in vehement, emotionally-charged ways will also undermine your position of morality and rationality.
A calm, clear statement of your feelings is more likely to be heard, understood and absorbed by your spouse. It will also put him or her in a position from which it is easier to respond to your feelings productively. Your partner may still react in unproductive ways, and the admission or apology you hope for may not be forthcoming, but a calm, reasonable approach from you will improve the chances and at least avoid making the situation worse.
Try to avoid speaking out in the initial stages of shock, hurt, and anger. Give yourself some time to regain your composure and ability to speak clearly. Remember the old adage that advises counting to ten before speaking if you are angry, but expect to give yourself more time than that. Leave the room if you need to- quietly, calmly, and without slamming any doors. Do something that calms and soothes you but does not distract you completely; in my case this is usually knitting, cross-stitch, or wandering through a bookstore. Give yourself time to think over the situation and plan your words and actions while you decompress.
When you do approach your partner, speak calmly and quietly, and be as specific and matter-of-fact as possible. For instance, “Jim, when I found that porn video on your computer, I was shocked because you’ve been doing so well. You know how much it hurts me when you do those things. I love you, but I’m very angry at you.” Explain exactly what you are reacting to (the porn on Jim’s computer) and how you feel about it (disappointed, hurt, and angry) but be sure to express love and support along with those negative feelings so it seems less like an attack.
Venting Your Anger:
Before or after your calm, hopefully productive conversation with your spouse about his or her behavior and your feelings about it, you may still need to shout, scream, cry, curse, throw things, or call your partner every bad name ever invented. It is actually okay to do that, as long as you avoid doing it to your partner. Find a friend or family member (ideally one of the same gender as yourself) you can confide in about your spouse’s addiction, or contact a professional counselor. This will give you an outlet to “vent” your anger and other negative emotions rather than bottling them up or attacking your partner with them in unhealthy ways.
It may also help you to keep a notebook- real or virtual- in which you write down everything you want to say to your spouse when you are angry. This gives you another venting outlet, but it may also give you a useful tool for planning important conversations. For instance, write down your initial response when you discover evidence of a relapse, and use that as a starting point to plan the calmer, more constructive words you will actually say when you confront your partner about it. A notebook can also help you track your progress in dealing with your own anger, changes in your feelings, and patterns in your spouse’s behavior.
If you choose to keep a notebook, be sure that you do not hide it or keep it a secret. There is no room for secrets in a healthy marriage. Tell your partner what the notebook is and what it is for; let your spouse know that he or she is allowed to read it, but that nothing in there is directed to or intended for him or her.
Physical activity is also a widely recommended means of blowing off steam. Running, lifting weights, or other activities are a good way to channel your anger into a more positive, less destructive direction. Sometimes an activity that keeps your body and part of your brain occupied but requires little higher concentration, such as running, can also give you a chance to process the event and organize your thoughts and feelings. Before you head out the door to the gym or the track, though, be sure to tell your partner that you need a little time to yourself but you will be back for a productive conversation; simply storming out without explanation is likely to worsen the situation.
Understanding Your Anger:
Anger is often a cover for more vulnerable or more complex emotions. For example, if your partner is an addict and you have been through this pain before, you may afraid to show sadness or fear, because subconsciously you may suspect that revealing these softer emotions will give your spouse another way to hurt you. These emotions manifest themselves on the surface as anger because your brain decides that anger seems safer. Examine your emotions more deeply to see if anything underlies your anger; express those feelings, too, because they will be very important.
Sometimes, of course, you may simply be angry. At those times, remember that loving someone does not mean that you must never be angry with them. Also remember that being angry with someone does not mean that you no longer love them.