Couple's Recovery Workshop

(SA) Understanding Addiction Through Your Partner's Eyes

How much simpler things would be if we only had ourselves to answer to in our recovery. If the only obstacles we had to overcome were those we could already see. Think of the confidence that could be derived from knowing with certainty that, “If you do this, this, this and this…you will achieve this.” For instance, if you develop a practical understanding of how you have used addiction to manage your life, develop the tools you need for managing your life in a healthy way, develop enough experience in managing that healthy life so that it becomes ingrained, and finally, monitor that life using the tools you have developed…addiction will never again play a destructive role in your life. Quite a hopeful vision, isn't it?

Well, such a path from addiction to health is not a vision - it is a certainty. At least, it is very close to being certain. The transition from addiction to recovery and from recovery to health is as it is described above - you need only to walk the path to reach the destination. That is, unless you are involved in a life partnership.

When you have committed yourself to sharing your life with another, an additional dynamic emerges that you must address if you are to make a full transition to health: you must come to understand your addiction/recovery through your partner's eyes and integrate this understanding into the way that you manage your partnership.

As you prepare to accomplish this, there are a few caveats to be aware of:

1) Much too often, the goal of someone in recovery is to focus on understanding themselves - on understanding their addiction - and merely acknowledge the people they have affected. This is especially true when they are asked to explore behavior that they are ashamed of or have already resolved in their own mind. You owe it to yourself, your partner and your relationship to master what you are about to learn. Do not rush through this lesson - it could be the most important lesson that you learn throughout your entire recovery.

2) Do not mistake 'understanding what your partner is going through' as simply acknowledging their anger, confusion, shock, fear, disgust, etc. Anyone can acknowledge such things - to do so is both easy and obvious. Instead, realize that in some respects, the painful emotions that have been directed at you serve the same purpose as the compulsive behaviors you have engaged in - they are manifestations of the internal chaos that exists within your partner. They are symptoms of the pain that your partner is in. Learn to look beyond the intensity of your partner's emotions and you will cross into a place where you can come to understand and address what they are really experiencing.

3) As you engage in this learning process, do not look at your partner's experience through 'shame-filled goggles'. When you see their pain through your own shame, your natural reaction is to shelter them from the full truth. This is the worst thing that you can do. Approach your partner's pain from a position of wanting to understand and relate to that experience. To do so will require courage and vulnerability - so prepare yourself for this.

4) Do not try to 'fix' what is wrong with your partner. Don't try to 'fix' the pain. Don't try 'fix' the damage that you have done. Just accept that there is both. Come to understand that their ability to work through their own pain is a healthy part of THEIR healing path. Yes, there are many things that you can do to facilitate that healing - much of which will be discussed later in this lesson. But just as the responsibility of recovery lies with you, the responsibility for healing lay with them. Your responsibility as their partner is to give them the tools they need for this healing to occur - not the least of which is honesty.

The Partner's Experience

For the time being, forget about your recovery. Forget about your goals, your progress...forget even about your health. Put yourself in the position of your partner at this very moment. Or, immediately following the discovery. Angry? Distrustful? Obsessive? Withdrawn? If you are lucky, your partner will have already progressed to a point where he/she has come to separate your behaviors from your addiction - and if you are extremely lucky, has already separated your addiction from you. But this isn't common. Much more common is the reality that your partner will not make these separations until long after you have.

Think about that for a moment.

Your partner will not be able to trust you (and would be a fool to do so) until you learn to trust yourself. She will not be able to love you, until you have rebuilt a love for yourself. She will not be able to forgive you, until you have forgiven yourself. She will not be able to understand your behaviors, until you understand them (not to confuse this with understanding addiction in general - as many partners have an excellent grasp of addiction long before the person with the addiction does; here, we are talking about understanding YOUR addiction). She will not be able to isolate your addiction from your identity and come to relate to you on healthy terms again; until you have learned to relate to yourself on healthy terms. These are critical things to understand as they will form the foundation for rebuilding your partnership.

To help put you in the right frame of mind, consider the following…

What if it happened to you?

Imagine that a friend asked you to go into business with him. He assured you that it was the 'chance of a lifetime' and that there were no limitations to what could be accomplished together. Yes, you would have to give up other career pursuits; and yes, you would have to cut short the development of other areas in your life, but you were assured that this business would help define that life. It would be this business that supplied you with the majority of your stability, fulfillment, and meaning. And so you take the plunge.

Early on, your decision proved to be the right one. You poured your heart and soul into your work and believed that your friend was doing the same. There were many successes along the way - reinforcing both your confidence and your devotion to this partnership. You actually found yourself taking pride in what you were building together and the impact that that business was starting to have on others. Employees loved working for you two as the passion and commitment was contagious. Your products were fresh and inventive. Strangely though, several hiccups occurred that made the path to success more difficult than it needed to be. Times when your friend would seem 'detached' from the business. Times when your friend would make questionable business deals with companies that you knew very little about. “Trust me”, he would say - and you did. You had no reason not to. Times when, according to the books, you should have had plenty of money for things like advertising and upgrades but for some reason, the money wasn't there. And so you didn't advertise and you didn't upgrade. And your business suffered. Your friend would casually blame the errors on 'simple accounting mistakes' and again, you had no reason to doubt him, so you didn't.

A few years roll by and the business has begun to stall. The equipment you had originally put into place was now beginning to break down and you find yourself spending more time fixing the infrastructure of your company than developing and manufacturing your product. You don't like the direction that your business is headed and bring this up with your friend often. He seems irritated by your concerns and brushes them aside again and again. As you look at the budget, you notice that bigger and bigger chunks of profit are disappearing and you know that something is wrong - you just don't know what. You bring this information to your friend, along with your worries that someone in the company might be embezzling money. You rationally point out that companies with record sales should not be losing money and that you are committed to getting to the bottom of what is going on. For the first time, your friend seems genuinely concerned and suggests that an investigation be launched. He even volunteers to lead this investigation. After he pours money and resources into the investigation (resources that could have been better spent investing in the infrastructure of the company), the results are shared: no embezzlement - in fact, nothing dramatically wrong; just a whole laundry list full of minor errors that were uncovered - some going back as far as five years - all serving to explain the missing money. There it was…every penny accounted for, every mistake documented. And for a moment, you find yourself a bit ashamed for thinking some of the things that you were thinking and a bit embarrassed that some of those mistakes were yours. Clearly they were - as it was your signature on the transaction sheets - even though you don't remember signing them.

Later that year, you get a letter from the IRS: you are being audited. The news comes as little more than a nuisance to you, but it inexplicably terrifies your partner. He begins to act very strange - withdrawn, secretive. He begins talking about conspiracy theories about other employees who may want to sabotage the business. No proof, mind you…just suspicions. At one point, he even tries to convince you to terminate/liquidate the business so that you both can take the profits and retire. You have no idea where any of this is coming from, but you stay true to your commitment to the company. And then, two weeks before the audit, your business burns down. Electrical fire - total loss. The computers, the machinery, the records…all gone. Everything you've worked for, everything that you have built…gone. All that is left are the memories.

In the investigation that followed, it was proven that the fire was arson and that it was your partner who started it. Your partner, your friend - the person that you invested so much of your life into - was the same person that intentionally destroyed that life. But why? For many months, and in the face of irrefutable evidence, he continued to deny that he had done anything wrong. It didn't matter what evidence was presented, he had answers for it all. And convincing answers at that. Elaborate scenarios that preyed on even the smallest sliver of possibility. At one point, you even found yourself wanting to believe that he was telling the truth, but when further evidence was shared about his gambling addiction - your wall of ignorance came crashing down.

How could you have been so blind? How could you have misread or ignored so many signs? The missing money. The questionable business arrangements. The emotional disengagement. All of it so obvious to you now. Now, after losing more than five years of your life to his addiction. And what's worse, you know that people will forever attach you to him. To his secrets and lies. They will forever wonder about the role that you played in destroying your business. They will forever question your competency for allowing all of this to happen right under your nose. They will forever question what your choosing to be his friend and partner says about you. All this, and you did NOTHING WRONG from the beginning. In fact, you did what healthy people do. You trusted. Your risked. You made yourself vulnerable in a partnership. And this is the legacy that you will have to show for it.

Ok, sounds more like a Law and Order episode so far, but this is very much like the experience of many partners out there. Not only did they do nothing wrong, they did many things right - and were hurt because of it. This is important for you to know because it plays such an integral part of the healing process.

Ok, we have examined the situation, now let's look at the aftermath.

Six months later, that same friend calls you from prison and, from the depths of his soul, apologizes for what he has done. He talks of all the changes that he has made, how he has accepted his addiction and has learned to manage it. He tells you how much you mean to him and how he will spend the rest of his life trying to make up for what he has done to you. He asks only that you give him that chance. He has another business that he wants to work with you on. He reminds you that, except for the gambling addiction, he is a wonderful person…and you agree. He reminds you that, except for the consequences of that gambling addiction, your business was quite successful…and again, you agree. Just one more chance…that is all he wants. One more chance to rebuild the friendship, to prove his sincerity and to make up for all that was lost. He will do ANYTHING to make this happen.

How would you respond? Very likely, there is not a snowball's chance in Hell that you would give him a second chance. At least, not until you were certain that he has changed. But how would you know? How would you know if the changes he was making were real? How would you know whether or not he would relapse? Knowing that it would take a full commitment from you to make the new business venture successful, how could you ever bring yourself to lay it all out on the line for this person again? How could you ever develop trust and respect for that person again? How could you ever look that person in the eye and not relive all the pain and devastation that he has caused you?

If you are trying to rebuild a partnership in the wake of your addiction, this is exactly the situation that you have put your partner in. And your understanding of what it would take you to give your friend a 'second chance' will likely be the same as to what your partner now needs from you.

Exercise Nine

I. Ask your partner to read the above lesson and share their thoughts openly. Encourage them to talk about the similarities and differences between what they have read and what they have experienced. Your job is the most difficult: listen. Just listen. Listen with compassion and with empathy. Don't defend. Don't answer. Don't correct. Don't clarify. Don't pity. Don't self-loathe. Just listen. Listen to how your partner has perceived your addiction to this point.

Important: Make sure your partner knows (and agrees) to doing this. Make sure that you are both clear about the boundaries that, for the next 24 hours, you cannot respond to anything they share during this discussion. That you cannot respond to anything they ask you to share about. That your only job is to listen to them share their thoughts and perceptions. This is a ground rule that cannot be broken. Possibly, though rare, your partner may use this as an opportunity to lash out at you once more. Let it happen. Again, without pitying yourself or defending yourself. What is most likely though, will be that you both will start the process of real, nurturing communication (in a non-threatening environment). This will be one of the first important steps in beginning to work together — rather than against — one another in recovery/healing. Do NOT violate the boundaries that have been established for this exercise.

II. After this conversation, each of you take a few minutes to share your individual thoughts in your couple's thread. Share only constructive observations of how you felt, what you thought, feelings you experienced, etc. — even if painful.

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