How can I be sure that my spouse is really repentant for the pain he has caused me? A year ago, I discovered he'd been involved in an emotional affair with another woman for nearly a decade. He also has a history of explosive anger which has often led to verbal abuse. On a number of occasions he has actually thrown things at me. Though he's ended the extramarital relationship, softened his demeanor somewhat, and even says that he's eager to go to counseling and work on our marriage, I can't help feeling confused. Once he said to me, "I know I've messed up in the past, but you have a pretty good thing going with me." Several times when I've mentioned his violent behavior, he has responded with, "Yes, I threw things at you, but I missed." He also maintains that he only concealed the affair from me for ten years because he "didn't want to hurt me." I don't feel we can move forward until this is resolved in my mind. What do you think?
We think your confusion is completely understandable. You're getting mixed messages from your husband. On the one hand, he says he's "eager to go to counseling and work on the marriage." On the other hand, he makes outrageous comments that appear to contradict this; comments like, "You have a pretty good thing going with me," and "I know I threw things at you, but I missed." His demeanor may have softened "somewhat," but it doesn't sound as if he's experiencing genuine "godly sorrow" (2 Corinthians 7:10) in connection with his past actions.
Why do we say this? Because the person who is experiencing real godly sorrow is humble and meek. He doesn't make demands, defend his behavior, or brag about being a "good catch" in spite of his rather obvious shortcomings. By way of contrast, your husband makes light of his violent outbursts and seems to attach very little importance to the fact that he concealed the truth from you for an entire decade. He doesn't appear to understand that there can be no thriving marriage and no such thing as genuine intimacy where spouses are keeping secrets from one another. No wonder you're having trouble "resolving this in your mind."
Bear in mind, too, that you're dealing with two separate but interrelated problems: infidelity and anger. It's crucial for you to understand how these two things are feeding off one another. In actuality, the anger exacerbates the fallout of the affair and the affair amplifies the impact of the anger. That's not to mention that any person who is capable of exhibiting this kind of explosive anger is probably also an expert manipulator. As the victim of your husband's outbursts, you may be vulnerable to a strong temptation to blame yourself for the troubles at the heart of your marriage. This in turn creates feelings of guilt and resentment and a gnawing sense that you haven't forgiven him for his betrayal of his marital vows.
What we're going to say next is related to the last point, but it should be taken on advisement. Don't go and hit your husband over the head with this, but it's our considered opinion that his attitude displays some distinct narcissistic tendencies. This is a serious problem, especially when viewed in conjunction with his anger issues. The narcissistic individual has little or no capacity to place himself in the shoes of other people. Instead of trying to grasp how he may have hurt someone else, he directs all his energy toward shoring up his own position and making himself look as good as possible. This is probably the root cause of the confusion you're feeling. Much as your husband might want to assume the appearance of an empathetic, loving, and repentant spouse, there's a basic flaw in his psychological make-up that makes it very difficult for him to understand what that really means.
How can you deal with the situation? That's easy to answer. If he's as willing to initiate counseling as you say he is, then you need to get that process started as soon as possible. The good news here is that your husband has taken a big step in the right direction by indicating his openness to this option. We suggest you follow up without delay. Only within the context of intensive counseling with a trained marriage therapist can you even begin to see whether he is truly repentant or not. As you delve into that process all the deeper issues will rise to the surface, and the proof will be in the pudding.
We should add that, in a case like yours, it would probably be a good idea to get into separate counseling prior to seeing a therapist together. That's because narcissistic people are notoriously skillful at taking control of group sessions and manipulating them to their own advantage. An individual counselor may be able to help your husband work through some of his personal issues before sending him off to join you in an attempt to address your marital concerns.
Focus on the Family's Counseling staff can provide you with referrals to marriage therapists who are practicing in your area. Our counselors would also be more than happy to discuss your situation with you over the phone. If you think this might be helpful, don't hesitate to call us for a free consultation.
Hope Restored® marriage intensives
Affairs and Adultery