"What's wrong?" Bob asked, truly curious.
It wasn't right, I said, how he had treated that woman.
"But she couldn't hear me."
"But I could." I held my hand to my heart. "And it hurt."
Over the next year, Bob's outbursts became more frequent, until one morning, in the middle of an argument whose subject neither of us remembers, he picked up the wooden table at which we were eating breakfast and brought it down so hard it shattered. I backed to the wall. Mouth twisted, Bob grabbed my arms. "Why are you making me do this?" he said through clenched teeth. I shook my head, unable to make sense of the question, afraid to attempt an answer.
Trying to talk it out only made things worse. Bob insisted that I was the one being unreasonable. I'd never seen anyone so enraged, but now I wondered: Were my expectations unfair? I'd been raised in a family of stoics, after all, and my upbringing was defined by suppressed emotion. But surely I had enough objectivity, enough perspective, to know that busting out a window with your bare knuckles—or kicking a hole in a wall, or denting the car hood with your fist—wasn't standard behavior. And I was beginning to fear that he might turn his rage on me.
I wanted to tell someone about Bob's anger, so someone could tell me what I should do. But who could I tell, and how would I? My friends and family loved Bob for the same reasons I did: his wit, his honesty, his compassion, his loyalty. And those same people had an equally firm sense of me: that I was a strong-minded woman who would never allow herself to be intimidated. Safer to remain silent than to risk their judgment and doubt. "It will get better," I assured myself. What I really meant, though, was "I will get better." If Bob's paying the bills incited a loud invective against the obscenity of money, then I would pay the bills. If raising my voice brought out the bully in him, then I would keep my mouth shut.
A few months after our fourth anniversary, our daughter was born; her brother, two years later. Raising children raised the stakes. Waiting in line at a McDonald's drive-through made Bob furious. His rage was like a sudden squall—I spent my energy keeping his anger from swamping us all. Our children sometimes laughed at his tirades, sometimes cowered, and as they grew into adolescents, they often rolled their eyes—even as I worked to hide my increasing fear that I was staying in a marriage I was simply too proud to leave. Torn between self-doubt and shame, I kept on keeping my secret, though I still longed for someone to tell me: How would I know when it had gone too far?
The answer came one day as Bob and I were driving down the highway to the hardware store. I was fretting, imagining the minor mishap that would turn our little jaunt into hell on wheels (a flat tire, someone's badly parked car, an inept clerk), and wondering aloud if I should have just stayed home. I had become that little old woman at the light, unsure of which way to turn.
Suddenly Bob hit the brakes, cranked a U-turn, and brought us to a sliding stop, cursing my indecision so cruelly that I sat paralyzed, afraid he might gun the car back onto the highway.
Back home, I gave him an ultimatum: See a counselor, or our marriage was over.
And maybe this is the difference between a flaw and a fatal flaw. Even though it meant exposing his failures, Bob chose to keep our marriage alive. We made appointments separately and together. Talking to the therapist filled me with dread: dread that the problem was not Bob's temper but my own prideful expectations; dread that I was betraying him; dread that I had allowed myself to be victimized; dread that we were broken and couldn't be fixed.
We Hear You!