"You can save this marriage," the therapist told us, "but you've got to understand what's causing the problem." She explained that when caught in conflict, the brain releases adrenaline and cortisol, inducing the fight-or-flight response. Never one to turn tail and run, Bob chose to bully the world into submission. But when I was the one who defied him, he felt the conflict as rejection. His terror then led him to rage at the very person he feared losing: me.
It wasn't easy for Bob to accept that the anger that puffed him with strength was a shield against vulnerability, or that each act of physical and verbal violence was an indirect threat against me.
Along with assigned readings and exercises, the therapist gave Bob a palm-sized thermometer. "When you rage," she said, "blood is diverted from your extremities to your vital organs, and your fingers turn cold. Count to ten. Focus on calming down, letting your hands warm up by degrees. Make it a habit. Practice."
It's been more than a decade since that initial appointment. At first, when his temper flared, Bob would grasp the thermometer, take a deep breath. "I'm getting better, aren't I?" he'd ask, and he was. He discovered other ways to engage his daily frustrations: taking long walks, imagining that the driver in front of him was someone he loved, remembering that he wanted nothing in the world to frighten me, least of all him.
My change, too, came by degrees, first by revealing Bob's rages to the therapist and then to a few close friends. "There's so much good in Bob," some of them told me. "He wants to do better. That's what makes the difference." Another friend said, "I'd have left him years ago." Later she would confess that she, too, was given to rages, a secret shame that made her sure she could never be wholly loved.
And so, as I sat in the wine bar, listening to Lacey mourn the impending loss of her second marriage, I posed my query, reminding her that she'd already eliminated lust. She twirled the glass in her fingers. "Not pride," she finally said. "My first husband hid his debt and drove us into bankruptcy. I didn't know until I got the call from the attorney. We lost everything. I couldn't live with the betrayal."
"You never told me that," I said.
"I never told anyone."
I've come to realize that you never know the secrets of someone else's marriage—but that when it comes to your own, it's better to break the silence before the silence breaks you. I couldn't hear the truth until I gave it voice, and neither could Bob. By reaching out for help, we chose to leave the isolated island of shame and blame and hitch ourselves to something truer than a perfect marriage: a union defined by our desire to grow beyond our flaws. Today Bob's rages are a thing of the past, the occasional tremors like the fading aftershocks of an earthquake (and my zero-tolerance policy proof of my own shored-up foundation). Still, when Lacey turned the tables on me—"What flaw would you choose?"—I didn't give it a second thought.
"Anything but wrath."
And then I told her why. What I saw in her face was disappointment and relief: My marriage wasn't so perfect after all, yet somehow it had survived. Could she, should she allow her soon-to-be ex a chance to redeem himself?
I didn't have an answer, only an ear.
We Hear You!