“Anger is a Secondary Emotion”

Anger is often called a secondary emotion because we tend to resort to anger in order to protect ourselves from or cover up other vulnerable feelings. A primary feeling is what is what is felt immediately before we feel anger. We almost always feel something else first before we get angry.

We might first feel afraid, attacked, offended, disrespected, forced, trapped, or pressured. If any of these feelings are intense enough, we think of the emotion as anger.

(so then, RW, what is a primary emotion?).  Glad you asked.  Primary emotions are those that we feel first, as a first response to a situation. Thus, if we are threatened, we may feel fear. When we hear of a death, we may feel sadness. They are unthinking, instinctive responses that we have. Typical primary emotions include fear, anger, sadness and happiness (although it is worth noting that these can also be felt as secondary emotions).

Anger in these post-affair situations.  Especially anger at a wayward spouse is really a secondary emotion.  Usually to cover up fear.  Insecurity. A huge blow to the ego (“How could he/she DO this to me! I’m loving! Sexy! Wonderful! How dare they do this when I didn’t!”).  Or because of taking offense.   Why some can’t get past the anger is because to have someone cheat on your brings all your vulnerabilities and insecurities to the surface.  Why was I not good enough? Loving enough? Sexy enough?  Interesting enough? etc etc etc…such that my spouse went and found someone else who made him/her happier than I did?  Betrayed spouses feel many things that can result in anger:

• They feel abandoned by their mate.
• They feel alone in their grief.
• They feel as if they could have done something to prevent this.
• They feel like a marked person. They don’t fit in with normal couples anymore.
• They have a lot of unfinished business with their spouse that is now off-limits or has been overshadowed by what has occurred.
• They feel terrified of the future.
• They feel they should be doing better than they are.

And yeah it’s not easy to deal with the anger of finding out your spouse cheated on you. And you have a right to your hurt feelings. After all, the person you love and trust most in the world has betrayed you terribly. When you are faced with such an extreme emotional situation, the natural tendency is to not only be angry but also to act out in anger toward your cheating spouse. But there is a world of difference between feeling angry and acting angry, the latter almost always serves to make the situation worse.


Acting out angry is not productive in repairing a marriage after an affair. All it usually does is make the chasm between you and your spouse wider and hinder the healing process. Dealing with your anger can be quite difficult in such an emotionally charged atmosphere, but there is always a better way to behave than acting out your anger.  In acting out your anger, you allow yourself to cross the line and act in a way that you probably know in your heart is inappropriate.

Recognize that your anger is a secondary emotion.  That’s it’s not about exactly what’s coming out of your mouth. It’s about how your spouse made you feel about you!

But it goes both ways.  What about for a wayward like me?  Why so much anger at my ex-OW?  Because she made me feel stupid. Duped. She lied to me.  She became someone I didn’t recognize or anticipate.  I trusted her with all my secrets, and she betrayed me with those very secrets in order to hurt me. I feel like an idiot because of it.  I already am slow to trust people and this made it worse.  She also threatened my family and livelihood.  My security.

Anger at her therefore is actually anger at ME because she made me feel vulnerable and dumb.  Or with my wife during recovery.  Especially early on. I took my lumps, yes, but after a while I began to get angry when she brought up the affair, the past.  Why?  Because it brought up the more basic emotions in me — guilt. Shame.  Embarrassment. And yes, irritation at her for bringing it up, over and over.   I began to resent her for bringing it up. I began to openly ask whether recovery was really going to happen or whether we should just call it quits.  Her need to express her feelings made me feel discouraged and bad about myself. Anger was how I expressed it.  And looking back, I see that now.

In reality, we’re not REALLY angry at the other person.  We’re more angry about how THEY make US feel about US!