Why the Abuse?)

Yesterday I examined the situation of an addict and his spouse when she is abusing him for his wrongs. To be clear, I am not saying that all forms of anger are inherently abusive, at times anger is the right and proper reaction to a situation. But it absolutely possible for the wife to go off the deep end as well. This is never okay, and an addict in this situation should look to remove himself from such a situation. He shouldn’t fight back in kind, he should just get away to a place where he can be safe.

But it is worth considering, why is the wife behaving like this? From name calling to throwing plates, why does she feel like she has to explode in rage? She might have been a gentle, peaceful person up until this moment, so clearly she isn’t fundamentally hateful. What has possessed her, then, to be like this now?

We’ll spend the rest of today exploring those questions, but the short answer is this: the wife is showing outbursts of rage because she is terrified of showing her husband her inner suffering. Behind all that rage is a terrible, terrible sadness.

Secondary Emotions)

Psychology is the study of mental behavior and processes. It takes all of the outer attitudes that we exhibit and seeks to understand what happened inside of us to prompt those reactions. Many of us live our entire lives not even considering our emotional reactions, assuming that they are self-explanatory, but the reality is far more complex.

One concept that is discussed in psychology is that of “secondary emotions.” The idea here is that sometimes an inner, core emotion gets wrapped with a secondary, outer one. A common example of this is anger as a secondary emotion to fear. It is quite common for us to react with hostility to something that has scared us, and this behavior makes sense when it comes to dangers in nature. If we were to cross paths with a wild animal we would feel terrified, but rather than show that fear we might scream and throw rocks at it to chase it off.

But this same instinct applies to non-life-threatening social interactions as well. I’m sure we have all seen a person that has an angry outburst at a seemingly innocuous statement or question. Asking a friend what test score he got might get in a sharp response if he is insecure about his intelligence. Expressing a personal opinion on “rape culture” might elicit a tirade from your partner if your words have triggered a painful memory. Asking your boss to clarify his instructions might call down a strong reprimand if he is afraid of being seen as a poor leader. On the outside we’re seeing the anger, but inside is all manner of pain and fear.

These angry outbursts are therefore a self-defense mechanism, a warning that people should back off from a tender area. It’s very similar to the rattling of a snake’s tail or the baring of a lion’s teeth. Unfortunately, most of us employ this angry warning technique to our own detriment, using them as a way to avoid our problems rather than dealing with them. At some point in our lives we do need to have these defenses challenged, but probably not by someone who is ignorant and insensitive about what is happening inside.

The Hurt Behind the Anger)

And this is the important thing to understand when your wife comes at you with an angry tirade. Most likely, all her cutting, insulting remarks are a mask over the real issue. Her primary emotion is one of intense hurt and grief, but she doesn’t feel safe showing that to you. She doesn’t feel safe because that is a very intimate, very vulnerable part of her, and your actions have communicated to her that you are not a safe person to expose that side to. So when she feels the sadness overflowing and starting to spill over she instead surges out in anger, trying to shield you from seeing the brokenness that almost got out.

I’m not going to say that it’s okay for her to abuse you just to hide her hurt, but we must appreciate the fact that she probably doesn’t even know what else to do. She is trapped in a no-win situation. You, as the addict, have proven that you cannot be trusted with the most intimate parts of her soul, but those parts are bleeding out of open wounds. What exactly is she supposed to do with that?

Well, we’ll talk about what she is supposed to do with that in the following posts, but just for today I wanted to give proper appreciation for the reality of what the spouse is going through. It is in our nature to view those who are overly angry in a disdainful way, but in many cases they are the people most deserving of our pity.

NOTE: Throughout this series I refer to the addict as “he” and the injured partner as his “wife.” This is merely a convenience for maintaining consistency. It is entirely possible for the addict to be a woman and the injured partner to be her husband. It is also entirely possible for the strained relationship to be between non-romantic partners, such as with a parent and a child.

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