It turned out to be one of their ugliest fights ever. She was really upset about something that he’d done and was telling him calmly but clearly how hurt and angry she was. He seemed to be listening. He even looked ashamed of what he’d done. She was floored when what she thought was going to be an apology turned into the most blistering attack she’d ever heard from his lips. Somehow, instead of saying that he was sorry, now he was screaming at her about how the whole thing was her fault. He told her how she had caused him to behave the way that he had.
She fled the room. Not only did it feel hopeless to talk to him, it was downright scary. He was achieving a depth of meanness that she’d never seen before, and it made it impossible for her to feel safe in a conversation with him.
After she left the room, he had a surge of triumph. He felt big and powerful. But it was rapidly replaced with a feeling of shame and loneliness. This was a woman, after all, whom he’d protect without hesitation from anyone who dared to harm or frighten her. This was the woman he loved. How could he be the one to hurt her so badly? The look in her eyes when she’d run from the room cut him to the heart.
He stood up and moved toward the bedroom, a sincere apology on his lips. But then he remembered the feeling of shame when she’d confronted him with what he’d done. His stomach sank and he stopped moving toward her. He couldn’t bear to feel that shame again. It made him feel so small and weak. He couldn’t, he wouldn’t, willingly feel that again. He turned away from the bedroom and walked instead into his den and sat down at his desk. He buried himself in paperwork; and he pushed away the image of her face in tears. When it intruded, he reminded himself that it was her fault this had happened in the first place.
For several weeks after that, she left him pretty much alone. They behaved civilly in front of the kids and other people; but they never discussed anything of consequence. He occasionally caught her crying when she thought she was alone in the house. He wanted so much to comfort her, but he couldn’t bring himself to talk about what had happened.
Needing to talk to someone, he finally confided in a woman friend at work whom he’d known for years. He presented it with laughter, as if it were funny to him and should be to her too. He was disappointed but not surprised when she told him that he’d been a jerk. Hoping that he could change her assessment with more explanation, he tried to clarify how this was really his wife’s fault. His colleague wasn’t buying it. Worse, she pointed out that every time he started to accept his proper responsibility in the whole event, he would rapidly digress into blaming his wife. When that was a non-starter, she called him on switching over to blaming his father for modeling behavior just like this.
But she also gave him a life ring to grab onto. She pointed out that the fact that he was talking to her about this demonstrated that he was troubled by the whole thing. Much as he couldn’t seem to stay with his own culpability, he did in fact recognize, however fleetingly, that he needed to accept responsibility for his own poor behavior. He really did recognize that he was hurting someone that he was sworn to protect and he did not like the feeling that he was failing her.
He was now feeling more uncomfortable from the shame of failing her than from the shame of being wrong. He was an inherently honest man, so he admitted to himself that his friend was right—he had been a jerk. He wondered if he had the guts to admit it to his wife. He had no particular confidence right now that she’d accept even an apology from him. And he wasn’t sure that he could stay an honorable course if she started attacking him, no matter how much it might be deserved.
He was pretty sure that he was ready and able to walk into the lion’s den; but he wasn’t sure that once there he’d remain able to put aside his aggression-as-protection. He figured he’d need courage and commitment to his marriage to carry this off. He told himself that he’d done other things in his life that scared him – he’d been in combat, for heaven’s sake. He’d done that because he believed in the cause for which he was fighting. Well, he believed in his marriage and in his love for his wife. He could do this too.