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Loving an Addicted Partner - Enforce Boundaries but Don't Manipulate

Part 1 of a 3 part-series on living with and loving an addicted significant other:

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 affect 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. Progressively the man she once loved was claimed by his disease. The decision was made for her when at last he overdosed.

Part 2 of this series looks at options for ending an addiction-compromised relationship. In part 3, find tips on rebuilding a healthy and happy relationship through early and mid recovery.

LCSW, CCS
Clinical Social Worker/Therapist
My story is I'm forever a work in progress and I love connecting with REAL people who are doing great things. I'm blessed to be making a living doing something I love. I'm a proud dad and the luckiest husband ever. I'm an aspiring author - check out my recovery blog at: recoveryrocks.bangordailynews.com Thanks! Jim

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