“I don’t want to stop being angry!” Elaine says, looking at me as if expecting a challenge. “What would it mean if you weren’t so angry?” I asked. “
“It would be like saying that what happened didn’t matter.” She replied, her voice softening. Elaine’s husband, Bill, had had an affair that Elaine discovered three months ago, when she was six months pregnant with their third child. Bill has expressed deep remorse and the desire to salvage and improve their marriage and voluntarily entered individual therapy right away. Elaine also wants the marriage to work but is struggling with moving past being so angry.
Anger has its legitimate place in the healing process. When we are angry, we feel less vulnerable. It gives us a feeling of power and protection against some of the deep sadness and fear that accompany loss. We define anger as the emotional perception that I have been violated, and in Elaine’s case, this is an accurate perception. Yet, if we aren’t able to move through the anger into feeling the deep sadness of our loss, we stay stuck in our grieving and mired in bitterness and resentment.
I told Elaine that in working with people who were grieving the loss of a spouse or child, I had encountered their struggle with allowing themselves to feel better and even be happy. They’ve said that to be happy, to let themselves be “okay,” would feel like they were betraying the importance of the loss—that moving on with their lives would be implying that the person who died wasn’t all that important.
“That’s exactly what it’s like!” Elaine exclaimed. With that realization, she began opening to the possibility of letting go of her anger. We discussed how she was grieving the loss of her marriage seeming inviolable. Because of Bill’s affair, it would never feel the same. The dream of perfect commitment and fidelity forever had been lost. Yet, as I explained, their marriage can be better than it had been for years because they are both willing to working on the dynamics that had undermined their relationship. That doesn’t mean the affair was a “good thing,” but it was a wake-up call.
If Elaine were to stay angry, her husband’s guilt and atonement behaviors would eventually burn out. In being willing to move through grieving the marital dream she had, they can both start stepping into a more emotionally honest and heartfelt level of commitment and trust.