Loving a Recovering Addict/Alcoholic. Tips for Navigating Your Newly Sober Relationship
Having a partner or spouse enter into recovery from addiction is one of the biggest changes a couple can go through. For the non-addicted it generally involves a mixture of relief, hope, a lot of conflicting emotions and a ton of fear.
We expect that they’ll come to see what we’ve seen all along – that their drug of choice was ruining not only their lives but ours as well. Many of us became so involved in their needs that we lost sight of our own. Regardless of where our loved ones are in their journey, it’s important that we take stock too.
How Are “Affected Others” Affected?
Clinicians refer to those impacted by another person’s addictions as “affected others.” This is a hopelessly generic and sterile bit of language that unwittingly minimizes the experience of we who bear witness to the spiral of addiction. Our experiences are diverse and deeply personal. Some of us felt responsible and others outraged.
We experienced the progressive loss of the person we loved. In the throes of addiction our partners became progressively unavailable to us.
- We may have shouldered additional responsibilities
- We may have been burdened with severe stress emotionally, financially, occupationally, and relationally
- Many of us lived in fear for what seemed an eternity
We worked to maintain some sense of order – some type of manageable status quo. Now everything is different and we find ourselves struggling to adjust.
We know how to stand in the middle of a storm and create order but aren’t sure what to do when everything is okay. We know to protect those we love…and then we learn that we may have done them a disservice in so doing.
Owning Our Part in Things
To start with, we need to accept that though we too made mistakes, we did the best we could at the time.
- We come to understand that protecting an adult from the natural consequences of their actions is to “enable.” Many of us unwittingly facilitated or assisted in the downward spiral of addiction by compensating for the insanity our loved ones created. We gave them a soft place to land. We nursed them back to health. We lied/covered for them. Enabling almost always feels like the right thing to do. In fact, it usually feels like the only choice.
Many of us felt a sense of betrayal in learning that our sacrifices hurt instead of helped. As a clinician I find that most things about addiction are counterintuitive and I urge folks to be proud of their positive intentions. Beating ourselves up is unhealthy and guilt creates obstacles to change.
“I did then what I knew to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” – Maya Angelou
Overcoming Self-Doubt and Embracing Uncertainty
Affected others tend to have many common traits/characteristics. Perhaps the most notable of these is that we struggle endlessly with self doubt.
This is not especially surprising, because many of us had our doubts preyed upon. We were told our concerns were unwarranted, our fears unfounded, or that it was we who had a problem for suggesting there was something wrong.
However, because we doubt, we tend to cope in unhealthy ways:
- We often stuff our feelings and thus develop resentments (repressed emotions, most notably pain and anger)
- Now that our loved ones are entering recovery, many of us resent that what they would not hear from us; they gladly receive from complete strangers. We feel unheard.
For both the addicts and we who love them, one of the most important and difficult lessons to accept is powerlessness.
- Those in recovery move (often slowly) toward acceptance that their lives cannot be manageable if they continue to drink or drug.
- Those affected by addiction must also learn to accept this lack of control.
Getting into the Solution
Moving forward, there are a plethora of unknowns:
- Will our loved one stay clean/sober? Will we stay or go? ...There’s rarely a clear course of action.
But if we can learn to overcome self doubt, reduce unhealthy coping strategies and accept our powerlessness over addiction, we get to be on the same page with ourselves, and this makes life vastly more manageable.
Some strategies to adopt as you strive to cope with the relational challenges of the early recovery period are:
- Accepting Powerlessness
Mindfulness is the key to all changes in self. Mindfulness simply means paying attention to our thoughts and feelings and ensuring that our actions are consciously chosen.
- What we do automatically is often self limiting. What we do deliberately can be liberating.
When we notice self doubt we have the opportunity to ask ourselves, “Do I truly doubt this or am I simply uncomfortable with how I feel about it?” We sometimes go searching for answers that do not exist because we want a course of action that won’t hurt anyone and/or makes everyone happy. If we are painstakingly honest with ourselves we know the truth regardless of what it feels like and are free to act upon it.
Journaling, depersonalizing, and processing with close friends are excellent strategies to identify and cope with our feelings in healthy ways. Journaling literally helps us get “on the same page” with ourselves, which makes it far easier to share our needs and share them with others.
To depersonalize is simply to imagine someone we care about in a similar situation. Because we have great empathy for others, we tend to understand what they feel and we generally have a sense of what would be helpful to them in dealing with it. We’re free to do this for ourselves and we are free to overcome our fears of vulnerability and allow close friends to actively support us.
Powerlessness is the lesson that must be at the forefront of our consciousness moving forward. For as much as we rail against it, there are an infinite number of people, places, and things that we simply cannot be in charge of. For the affected other, much of our stress comes from attempting to control a person who is out of control. In the short term, we use simple tools like the Serenity Prayer to separate what we can do from what we cannot in order to maintain a healthy perspective.
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