There are circular patterns that affected others find themselves in when their partner or spouse remains active in addiction. Ultimately that pattern becomes either a progressive move toward acceptance or a downward spiral of destruction. When we focus our energies on saving those we love, we most often lose ourselves.

For the actively addicted, we hope that they receive the ‘gift of desperation.’ This counter intuitive concept dictates that when one has suffered sufficiently, they change and new possibilities are created. For the affected other, desperation comes more readily and quickly. It’s not seen as a gift. It’s more likely a point at which we stop investing and come to terms with the reality that they can’t just stop, we can’t make them stop, and we need to determine what we are and are not willing to do.

Living In A Fishbowl

The fishbowl effect dictates that when you’re surrounded by something, it’s impossible to step outside of it to gain a different perspective. It’s all you can see. The non-addicted partner often feels responsible – not only for outcomes but for how the family is perceived by others.

We often feel that our partner’s behavior is a reflection on ourselves and our family as a whole. We feel judged by others. Shame prevents us from sharing our struggles with others and too often, reaching out to loved ones, Al-Anon, Nar-Anon and/or professionals becomes a last resort.

Why Can’t They Just Stop?

It’s always striking when I meet people who don’t know they’re angry. She’s a smart woman, good mother, and she doesn’t understand the first thing about addiction. The first thing she asks me is, “Are you sure he has a disease and that he’s not just being selfish?”

In our first couples session she asked him, “Why can’t you just stop?” His shame was palpable as he explained, “I …can. Stopping is hard but I can do it for a while. The real problem is staying away from it. That seems to be impossible for me.” She stared at him with disbelief and asked me, “What do I need to do?”

Over the coming year I gave her a lot of information and suggestions. She didn’t care for any of it, which was understandable as her husband’s prognosis was poor. What annoyed her the most was my ongoing suggestion that she take care of herself. She assured me repeatedly, “I’ll take care of me when all of this (her husband’s active use ending and recovery beginning) is done.”

When we go through hell alone, it’s lonely.

How Do I Make Them Stop?

When we’re unwilling to accept powerlessness, we live on an emotional roller coaster. Our hopes climb, only to be dashed. Our anger ebbs and flows. All the while, too many of us are stuck seeking ways to control what we cannot control.

She took him to church. She believed the preacher when he told her that all her husband had to do was confess and leave his addiction at the altar. He went faithfully. He went high. Nothing changed.

She sent him to their family doctor. With all good intentions, the doctor prescribed pills that were addictive and easily abused. She sent him to the methadone clinic. He received progressively larger doses until all he did was sleep and eat.

She sent him to NA and hoped he’s meet some good folks. He did. Then he bought pills on the ride home. For all that she tried, he continued to see being clean as an impossibility.

She despaired, “Nothing I’m doing is working! What am I supposed to do?”

Stop. As long as you’re working harder than he is, nothing changes!

The distance between what she knew and could accept was a chasm. She faced what seemed like a paradox – how to accept what she found to be unacceptable?

The answer: by accepting that you’re powerless to change it and turning the focus toward what you can do.

“I’ll Leave If You Don’t Stop”

Ultimatums are easier than acceptance. She told him to get clean and get help or get out. He got out. To set this boundary was healthy. Unfortunately she had used it as a form of manipulation, believing that he would feel compelled to change.

She overlooked a painful truth: Manipulating an addict is very hard to do because they are master manipulators.

Note: Unfortunately, addicts are master manipulators!

The active addict/alcoholic will often use shame and self deprecation as a means to avoid accountability. Evoking pity or even disdain is both an attempt to absolve themselves and to seek absolution. She crumbled. She took him back time and again. Always there was the promise of change, never did it last.

The relationship became progressively toxic.

The First Word In Recovery

Accountability is the most important word for those entering recovery. If we don’t have it then we don’t get better. This is also true for the affected other. While we don’t have control over the choices of an active addict; we do have control over how we choose to respond to their behavior. Her anger was so righteous and so focused on his continued use that she overlooked the impact of her own choices on herself and her children.

Trying to Be Above Reproach

I would love to have a dollar for every time I’ve heard an affected other say, “I just need to know that I’ve done everything I possibly can.”

The illusion is that some measure of peace can be obtained by accumulating a long list of sacrifices and attempts to support, encourage, and tolerate the behavior of a partner or spouse who remains active in addiction. We seek to be above the scrutiny of friends and family before we make the choice to separate and/or end a relationship. We seek to be free of guilt and self-doubt. Too often we seek these things alone and with a very self-limiting perspective.

Our efforts are exhaustive attempts to mitigate a horribly disappointing outcome. The person we fell in love with has gradually been taken from us as their disease progressively takes over. There is no worse form of powerlessness than to bear witness to the suffering of a loved one and be unable to prevent it.

For many of us there comes a moment of clarity in which we see that incurring further suffering will serve no purpose!

In this moment our focus turns 180 degrees. We stop focusing on what we cannot do and orient ourselves toward what we must do. There are myriad pragmatic concerns – real world issues that any person faces when leaving a relationship and these deserve both careful planning and support from loved ones.

Detaching with Love

Things happen by default or by design. Choosing to separate or end a relationship overshadowed by addiction is best done by conscious choice coupled with planning for life without the active addict. In the absence of design we tend to procrastinate, only to achieve unplanned resolution in a moment of heightened emotion.

It’s not like there’s a right or wrong way to separate. It’s that we owe it to ourselves to set boundaries. It’s not about wording or picking the right time and place. It’s about having clarity for ourselves moving forward.
Regardless of what we say and what they hear, we need to be on the same page with ourselves.

Practical Considerations

Above all, please consider safety concerns:

  • How will you communicate your choices (in person, in writing, by phone, through an attorney)?
  • Do you need to be in a public place when you deliver them?
  • Do you need to have others present?

Issues to resolve with self:

  • Is the separation absolute with no expectation or need for future contact?
  • Are there pragmatic concerns (finances, resources) that will need to be addressed and if so how will that occur?
  • Do we wish to leave the door open for any other form of continued communication?
  • Do we remain hopeful that our loved one will in time meaningfully engage in recovery and if so, are we willing to have contact at that time?
  • Where children are involved – what type of contact if any will be allowed (especially when pending court decisions remain).

No Explanations Owed

One of the concerns I hear most from affected others is, “What am I supposed to tell people about why we’re not together anymore?”
I suggest that we have a right to privacy and that we’re not obligated to explain anything. It’s completely appropriate to say that we don’t care to discuss the reasons for the relationship ending. It’s appropriate to speak your truth simply and directly if you care to. It’s more a matter of what feels most comfortable for you. At the point at which the relationship has ended, the only person you’re responsible for is you.

What to Tell the Children?

The concern of what to tell children and those we wish to share with is a difficult proposition. I favor the truth as directly and simply as possible. It’s usually surprising to us to be faced with how much they already knew. This is especially true of children. Tailoring our truth to the developmental level of children is important. Helping them to understand that their loved one is very ‘sick’ is sufficient when coupled with a willingness to answer their questions. Our efforts are best designed to help them to arrive at the same truth we’ve attained:

We didn’t cause it. We couldn’t prevent it. We can’t control it. Powerlessness is one of life’s hardest lessons. There are painful realities in life that we can do little about. And yet…

Life Goes On (adjusting to life without the addict)

Relief is spiritual but fleeting. It’s almost always short lived. The weight has been lifted and now we’re not quite sure what to do with ourselves. Instinctively we ask ourselves, “Now what?” I urge you to be mindful at this juncture. The way we’re wired, we’re most likely to go looking for the next problem to solve, the next person who needs us, or the next shiny distraction to occupy ourselves with.

There are lessons to learn and losses to grieve. Whatever we do not accept we are likely to repeat. Take time to invest in yourself. Take time for you.

How Recovery Affects Relationships. Guidelines for Rebuilding

Out of Balance

Ecology gave us the concept of homeostasis, the idea that ecosystems small and large seek to maintain balance and perpetuate themselves. Substance abuse and mental health disciplines have applied this concept to family units. People tend to derive a sense of security out of predictability and they often subconsciously act to maintain status quo. This is especially true of families impacted by addiction.

The involvement of affected others in treatment is highly recommended if the family seeks to improve relations through the course of their loved one’s recovery. In addition to past and present areas of dysfunction, there is a great deal of change that will occur through the course of sobriety and major life changes.

Partners and spouses of those in recovery often describe to me a point in their relationship that they, “want to get back to.” They’re chagrined when I explain the simple truth: there is no going back.

There are always things from the past that need to be addressed, but the focus must first be on stability in the here and now.

Everything Changes

Sobriety is the ultimate game changer. Everything shifts and our expectations must align with the new life ahead. It’s disappointing to many that achieving sobriety does not resolve every problem. This is an uncomfortable reality:

Sobriety doesn’t make everything better; it keeps it from getting worse.

Sobriety does improve physical health, cognitive processing, and emotional stability. This is not what the affected other is accustomed to. The ways in which we interact change accordingly.

The role of the affected other shifts:

  • The monitoring, the acute awareness of the state their loved one is in (“That’s his fifth scotch”) and the compensating for his/her behavior is no longer necessary.
  • The responsibility that we took for our partner is no longer warranted. Many of us discovered that we had unwittingly been filling a role more closely resembling a parent or caregiver than partner.

We’re liberated from what we did not consciously choose.

So Now What?

Moving from enabler, caregiver, or from being estranged to being in a healthy relationship is a long journey. We’re working against history and all that it holds. Setting new expectations for ourselves and of our partners is a great start. The difficulty is that we’ve been so focused on their needs that we lost sight of our own.

Two of the hardest questions I ask people: “What do you need?” and “What do you want?” For the first time in a long time we find ourselves with partners who have a new found willingness to meet our needs. We also find ourselves free to attend to our own pursuits and goals.

I encourage couples to set goals for every part of their lives – for recovery, for their partnership and for all of their mutual interests and endeavors. This makes expectations overt and it brings the couple to a place of cooperation and shared investment.

Working together builds mutuality and respect.

Too often the person in recovery goes to the extremes of trying to make up for the past in short order or maintaining a selfish focus on their individual interests.

The Fear Remains

Early recovery is a roller coaster ride for both parties. It’s easy to stay with old habits like walking on eggshells. The affected other is afraid to ask if sobriety is intact and if what’s necessary to maintain it is being done. I urge them to ask. If your partner is offended by the question, remind them that you both have the same fear but only one of you has any control over it. Powerlessness can unite us or create distance in our partnership.

Balancing Life & Recovery

Maintenance is not exciting and it is an easy investment to devalue. Many affected others feel that they and their families come second to the fellowship, time spent with sponsors, and meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.

It’s an uncomfortable adjustment that our partners now have a host of people we don’t know in their lives. I urge affected others to attend meetings (choose ‘open’ meetings from AA and NA). Seeing firsthand what our partners are experiencing demystifies the process and helps us to understand why this is indeed a worthwhile investment.

Rebuilding Intimacy

The partner in recovery is often impatient and will incredulously ask, “Why do you still not trust me?” I’ll ask how long they’ve been sober and contrast it to how long they were active. At this point it’s usually apparent why trust is slow to come.

There’s an adage in recovery that defines intimacy as “In to me, see.” As we share feelings, needs, and shared experiences, intimacy grows. In my clinical experience, the two topics that couples of every background tend to struggle with the most are sex and spirituality.

If ever there were challenges worth overcoming, these are they. Successful recovery is very often associated with spiritual growth. Sex, at its best is both an expression and experience of intimacy. Growing together supports both partners in becoming, “Happy, Joyous and Free.”


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