Partner's Workshop: Stage One; Lesson Seven
Your Role in Recovery/Healing
When discussing your role in your partner's recovery, it is necessary to take into consideration where that relationship stands. We will discuss the three most likely situations here.
Situation #1 Those Who Have Decided to End the Relationship
If you have already made the decision to end the relationship with your partner, your role should be extremely limited in terms of your involvement in his/her recovery. The healthiest thing that you can do for yourself is to accept that you made the best decisions you were capable of making at any given time — given the reality of the situations you found yourself in — and to move on. Which, incidentally, is what you have done in making the decision to end the relationship. You came to a decision — based on the information that you had available to you — and made the choice to move on. Was it the best choice? Who knows. Certainly not you. Certainly not your partner. Just like your choice to get involved in the relationship to begin with, you can only do what you think is in your best interest. Whether it was in your best interest or not is what life is all about. There will be no absolute right or wrong here.
For instance, you can make the decision to end the relationship which may trigger a reality check for your partner, who then motivates himself/herself through a permanent recovery by the loss of the relationship. Or, it might trigger a major relapse that ends in his/her death. It is impossible for you to know. And with each decision you make comes many additional unknown consequences — like how it will affect your children, your living arrangements, future relationships. It would be easy to believe that ending your relationship (well, not really ending...because if there are kids involved, it would be altering the relationship) would have a negative impact on your children, but this is not necessarily the case. There are many potentially positive outcomes from such a decision — especially as they relate to not only your own role-modeling, but your partner's as well. The point: all you can control is the decisions that you make now. And if you have made the decision to end the relationship...don't look back. Stop wasting your time analyzing all of the signs that you may have missed. Stop looking for the mistakes that you might have made. Stop trying to make sense of it all. At least for now. There may come a time, after you have moved on with your life, where it will be appropriate and healthy for you to look back and learn...but not now. Now, your role is to regain stability and begin moving forward again. One of the greatest consequences of such a decision is that you have freed yourself from having to deal with your partner's addiction. You are free to move on.
"Even though I've decided to end the relationship, I still care about him and want to see him get through this."
That is understandable and admirable...but for all but the rarest of couples, unrealistic. If you have made the decision to end the relationship...end it. You go your way, he/she goes theirs. And again, except when children are involved...limit the interactions that you have with this person. As strange as this may sound, that actually provides you both with the best way of pursuing a future reconciliation, as it allows your partner the time to change for the right reasons...and it allows you time to rebuild confidence in living your own life. Should there come a time when reconciliation is pursued, much of the baggage that those who choose to work through this recovery process with their partners will face, will have already been eliminated. And the reconciliation proceeds with a much stronger, healthier foundation. This has played out in couple after couple after couple. Learn from the pain and experiences of others.
A possible alternative? Ending the romantic aspects of the relationship, but continuing on as their support partner. You remain the person they lean on for social and emotional support...but secretly (and sometimes not so secretly), they have only one goal in mind: reconciliation. Everything they do during their "recovery", is focused on getting you to believe in them again and to give the relationship "one more chance". This, too, has been played out over and over...with the same devastating consequences. Such a recovery scenario places way too much pressure on you to offer support that you should be receiving, not giving; places you in an unfair position of "having" to reconcile should changes occur; and it takes away your partner's need to rediscover himself/herself. Any person struggling with an addiction would jump at the chance for an "If I do this, I get this in return" scenario. As in, "If I stop acting out, you must give us another chance." And whether you verbally agree to that or not, it will be how it is perceived by your partner.
If you have made the decision to end the relationship: take the focus off of your partner's addiction and focus only on yourself. You have earned that right. Especially if you have experienced what most partner's experience in such a relationship.
Situation #2 Those Who Have Decided to Remain Committed to the Relationship
First, if this decision was made in the context of what you believe to be in your best interest over the course of your life (socially, economically, personally)...if it was made after considering all that you have already invested in this relationship...if it was made after considering all of the wonderful qualities that your partner possesses — apart from the addiction...if it was made out of the sincerest love for your partner and the desire to see him/her through this "illness"...then you have made it for the right reasons. You deserve the utmost admiration and respect for your ability to see the forest through the trees, and — as long as your partner maintains their desire and effort to make a healthy transition in their life — you stand an excellent chance of being rewarded many times over for your decision to stay. And most often, you will end up gaining so much more from your existing relationship than you would have by starting over with someone new. But again, this almost exclusively pertains to couples that have invested much in each other over the years.
If, however, you have made the decision to stay in the relationship because you feel as if you are partly responsible for your partner's behavior...you believe that it is in your children's best interest to remain in the relationship...you feel that your partner would be devastated without you...you feel that your partner couldn't recover without you...or that your self-esteem is so low that you believe that you deserve to be in such a relationship...or if you feel that because you will never experience the love that you want, "something is better than nothing"...then you have made the decision to stay for unhealthy reasons. You still deserve compassion, guidance and support to help you through this difficult time, but where you are headed will remain a mystery. And of special concern, is the common scenario where such a relationship survives the recovery/healing process...but then dissolves soon afterwards.
Why after? Because when the relationship is built (or rebuilt) on a faulty foundation, the very essence of a healthy relationship — mutual respect, equality, admiration — is never experienced. Even in a best case scenario, where the personal growth achieved by the individual in recovery is extensive...it will be this very growth that triggers their glaring awareness in the faults that exist within your relationship. The differences that your partner sees between him/her and you will be amplified considerably; your personal weaknesses magnified intensely. And, they will expect something to be done about it. Just as they have overcome their weaknesses, the expectations will be there for you to do the same. Doesn't seem fair, does it? But it will happen. At least to those couples that remain together for unhealthy reasons. Just remember, it has nothing to do with fairness...and everything to do with human nature. And also remember, it can be avoided...but only by you playing a healthy role in your partner's recovery. A role that begins with you making the decision to work through this for the right reasons. This same phenomenon involving the perception of the person in recovery occurs in the first group as well — those choosing to remain in the relationship for the right reasons. But because that relationship is being rebuilt on a sound foundation, the partner in recovery has a much different reaction. Rather than to focus on "how much they've grown, but their partner has not"...they look upon their partner's strengths and suffering with respect and admiration. They look upon their partner's weaknesses with compassion and forgiveness. They understand and appreciate the role that their partners have played in their recovery, and feel genuine remorse for what they have put their partner's through during the addiction — a remorse that often triggers the feelings of unconditional and admirational love.
Which will you experience? You need look no further than the following two areas for the answer:
1) The role you take in your partner's addiction
2) The role you partner takes in his/her addiction
And since you can only control the first, that is what we will expand upon.
No matter what your reasons for continuing the relationship, the following is an overview of the roles that you should play in assisting your partner through his/her recovery to give the relationship the best chance for long-term success and personal fulfillment:
The roles you should/shouldn't play:
- Attempt to engage in open, non-threatening communication — many in recovery find that a supportive, caring, compassionate person to talk openly to is invaluable in their recovery process. Quite often, their lives have become so emotionally isolated, that you — the person that represents their moral selves — are the only one they can even comprehend talking to on such an honest level (Yes, honest. Only those who desire to protect their addiction remain secretive and dishonest; those who are sincere about changing will experience a catharsis when having the opportunity to share openly and honestly in a safe environment with someone that loves them). Such a catharsis will assist greatly in reversing the "separate lives" that exist within most addicts. If you are capable of such safe communication, you will most likely find a very sincere, open person who is willing to tell you anything. If, on the other hand, you are unable to, and such a conversation turns to anger, demands and accusations — you will find your partner to be aloof, secretive, angry and will go to any lengths to hide the truth from you. Not to punish you, but rather, they will shut down emotionally for the same reasons the destructive behavior was pursued originally: emotional immaturity.
- Encourage your partner to seek emotional support for their addiction-related issues elsewhere (counselor, support group, pastor) — if you do not feel capable of offering unconditional support at this time (or any given time). This is in your best interest, as well as your partner's. If you are not prepared to hear your partner's clumsy stabs at trying to explain/understand/rationalize their behavior (a common mistake in early recovery, but one that helps them to achieve eventual enlightenment)...if hearing what you perceive as excuses for their behavior will only serve to frustrate and anger you...then you should give yourself (and your partner) time to develop a more matured perspective on the addiction.
- Set up mutual ground rules for intensely emotional conversations. Rules like, "if either one of us starts to feel uncomfortable, the conversation temporarily ends and is picked back up in ten minutes." Or, "only "I" statements (taking responsibility for oneself) will be made — as opposed to "You" statements (more accusatory)." There are literally hundreds of healthy communication boundaries that may or may not work for your particular relationship. Spend thirty minutes in the library or online together checking out how to improve your communication skills in times of crises. Then work together to come up with your own ground rules for effective, non-threatening, safe communication. It will not only pay huge dividends now, but for the remainder of your lives together.
- Understand that your partner will not be capable of providing you with all of the emotional support that you will need for your own healing to occur. And sometimes, not even a little at first. They may want to provide it, they may do whatever they can to provide it, but what you are looking for will need to come from sources outside of your relationship. Your partner lacks the skills and self-awareness required to understand their own behavior, and so they are impotent to help you understand their behavior. The best they will be able to do is to communicate their own guesses and/or regurgitate theories/hypotheses gathered from other sources — this workshop included. Neither of which will create the confidence that you are seeking — that will only come months into their recovery, as they begin to apply such theories with success.
- Limit the amount of focus that is placed on addiction and addiction recovery. Ruminating over your partner's past behavior/ obsessing over their current behavior/worrying over their future behavior can be just as destructive to the relationship as the behavior itself. It can keep you trapped in your own mind for months and even years — neglecting the very things that need the most attention for recovery/healing to take place. For your partner, one of the major goals in recovery is to learn new skills and integrate them into their lives. One of your goals in helping your partner, is to role-model those skills in everyday life. This cannot be done when the focus is continuously focused on negative things. A good rule to follow is that for every fifteen minutes of negative communication that takes place throughout the day, thirty minutes should be dedicated to positive aspects of the relationship — discussing developing values, future plans, etc. It will be your focus on positive growth and change that will be one of the biggest triggers in helping your partner do the same.
- Do not repeatedly voice accusations, suspicions and/or doubts about their behavior. It does neither of you any good. Most likely, your suspicions are accurate, but that is not the point. The harder you push for the truth, the more trapped they feel...and to protect themselves, the further they retreat into their protective world. A world where their reality is whatever they allow themselves to think at the time. Yes, they know they acted in a certain way. Yes, they know they were caught. Yes, they know that they are lying. But for some strange, irrational reason, without irrefutable proof of these lies — and sometimes even that is not enough — they will "fantasize their way out". That is, they will come up with the most remote, complex lies and half-truths that, in their mind, could be true. And because it "could be true", and you can't prove that it isn't true...they have somehow won the argument. Bizarre, sure...but no less accurate as to how they often experience such a confrontation. Another common reaction is for them to reverse the confrontation — placing you at the center of the attack. The only good that ever comes out of ongoing accusations and suspicions is a temporary release of anger...but there are much healthier and significantly more productive ways to accomplish that.
- Offer positive, productive feedback as to their growth. Openly share with them the things that you admire about them, the changes that you see. This reinforces such positive change, and helps build confidence in what I promise you is an extremely damaged self-esteem.
- Communicate your needs to your partner, without expecting them to be met right away. Begin actively listening to your partner's needs; without feeling the pressure of you being responsible for meeting them.
Managing Their Recovery
The roles you should/shouldn't play:
- In a nutshell, you shouldn't play even the slightest role in managing their recovery. The only exception to this, would be if they seem to be in danger, or in danger of harming someone else...at which case you might need to take the responsibility for getting the proper resources to your partner. But that is it. Everything else should be managed through them or their main source of support (e.g. counselor, pastor, etc.). Why? For one, even the simplest of behaviors....like setting up therapy appointments, are skills that he/she will need to develop anyway. And if they are unwilling to make their recovery enough of a priority to take the responsibility to pick up a phone, or to read a requested book...well, they certainly will not have the motivation to take the steps that need to be taken in order to change these patterns for good. Your inclusion in such behavior, while certainly done with the best of intentions, often perpetuates the very dependence and emotional immaturity where addiction flourishes.
- There is one other reason for not taking even the smallest role in managing your partner's recovery, and that is because once you have...you are then invested in taking responsibility for the success of that recovery. And for every bit of responsibility you take, it is less responsibility that your partner has to take. Addicts have the uncanny ability of manipulating/taking advantage of others to avoid responsibility.
- Recovery, just like addiction, is their responsibility. Your responsibility is to never forget that.
Assessing Progress in Recovery
What you should/shouldn't do:
- Educate yourself to what a healthy recovery process looks/feels like
- Ensure that both you and your partner have a clear expectation for your partner's recovery path — that way, when you see/feel him/her straying from that path, you can offer productive, objective support — rather than emotional, panicked reactions. Not that you should be inflexible in assessing this progress, only that you are armed with enough information to help you see through the bullshit. There is no recovery process that will be exactly like another...but there are patterns of behavior that are quite common — with quite common results.
- With two exceptions, do not resort to monitoring their progress via lie-detector testing, computer/internet monitoring, private detectives, etc. Such tools are behavior-focused and often sacrifice long-term health for short-term control. That is not a sacrifice you should be willing to make. Not if your intentions are to live the rest of your life with this person. Focus instead on those internal changes that are being made...and the only monitoring that you will need will be communication and instinct.
- The two exceptions: 1) That such monitoring is taking place with your partner's support and 2) That such monitoring is not being used as a punitive measuring tool, or the sole measuring tool in assessing progress.
What you should/shouldn't do:
- Above all else, when it comes to sexual intimacy you should be true to your own heart, mind and body. If you desire to be with your partner, allow yourself to be with him/her fully. Even if you begin to feel repulsed when they touch you, or angry when thoughts of what they have done with others appear in your head — know that you have the right to safely stop at any time. While you are with them, focus on experiencing them. Share your full self with them. Why? Because in the end, even if they make the decision to continue with their addiction and jeopardize the relationship — you will have been true to your own values, and that is something that will provide you with strength down the road.
- Be aware of setting yourself (or your partner) up for failure. If you know that you are vulnerable, or emotionally unstable...do not continue to engage in sexual situations that end in emotional disaster. It adds one more dimension to this crisis that is not necessary. If that means that you both refrain from pursuing sexual activity for a particular period of time, so be it. That frustration is much easier to deal with than to have to completely rebuild sexual intimacy from within a damaged relationship. Rebuilding your relationship's sexuality to the point where it does not trigger vulnerabilities will be very, very hard. Forcing such a rebuilding process when either of you are not ready can be disastrous.
- Understand that they may experience some extremely screwed-up sexual values, and that they may feel repulsed at the thought of engaging in sexual behavior with you. This is not uncommon, and has nothing to do with their desire for you, or their attraction to you. In a healthy recovery, many changes are taking place that will leave your partner vulnerable and exposed. While such a state is conducive to core changes taking place in their life, it is also conducive to a wide variety of extreme reactions — especially when childhood abuse and/or neglect is involved.
- Be aware of your partner trying to use you to replace their sexual addiction.
- Be aware of your own tendency to want to "experience their addiction" through role-playing, fantasy or actual behavior with other people. You must stay true to yourself, and the things that you value.
- Never allow yourself to be used as a masturbation tool — unless it is mutually agreed upon/fulfilling. If your instincts are saying that your partner is not "there"...through fantasy, habit, or whatever...chances are they are not.
- If you are uncomfortable with particular behaviors that your partner exhibits, set firm boundaries that take into consideration what you are willing to accept. For instance, if your partner insists on viewing pornography before coming to bed, and expects you to then have sex with him — leaving you feeling used and disgusted...stand up for yourself. Set such boundaries long before you are forced into such a situation.
- A common behavior for many sexual addicts is to constantly sexualize their environment. This is a habit that has been developed over time, and it is a hard one to break. Quite often, many of these sexual thoughts/behaviors existed secretly within their minds. But during recovery, this secret world gets dissolved...but the thoughts do not instantly stop. Instead, they find their way into all other aspects of the person's life (if they weren't there already). For you specifically, this would be seen in a constant pattern of "sexual harassment" that exists within your relationship. Through constant playful sexual behavior (e.g. breast touching, butt patting, crotch rubbing) and sexual conversation (sexually-oriented jokes, comments about attractive people)...an unhealthy environment is created within the relationship that destroys intimacy. Be aware that you have the right to confront your partner about this behavior...and to have an expectation that it will stop. But know that it will not be easy.
There is an entire lesson on this later in the workshop and so we will only discuss here the reality that you will never forget what you have experienced as a result of their behavior. And, you should never be expected to forgive. Forgiveness is not something you intellectually offer someone, it is something that you intuitively feel. And such feelings cannot be controlled...merely experienced.
What you should do:
- Regain a sense of who you are and what your life is all about
- Regain confidence in your ability to exist as a person with and without your partner
- You have already committed yourself to working through this crisis, so give yourself the best chance at success. Fully commit to rebuilding the relationship. Now, this does not mean that you blindly accept whatever is offered in hopes of saving/maintaining the relationship, but rather, you work to develop and promote the type of relationship (and skills needed to achieve such a relationship) that you desire with 100% commitment.
- Role-model appropriate life skills. Role-model the very skills and emotions that you would like for your partner to develop and display — offering feedback as to their progress.
- Of course, there are many more issues relating to taking care of yourself in recovery, and they will continue to be expanded upon throughout the workshop
Situation #3 Those Who Have Decided "Not to Decide"
This is actually a temporary category — as eventually, there are only two healthy choices that you can make: you can stay or you can go. Those who do not feel comfortable with making such a decision just yet — and there is no reason to rush such an important choice — will remain in emotional limbo until that decision is made..unable to commit to their future. As always, there are healthy, and unhealthy reasons for remaining in this category:
Unhealthy Reasons for Indecisiveness:
- Holding on until 'someone better' comes along
- Being afraid to face life 'alone'
- Feeling embarrassment/shame at the thought of disclosing the failed relationship to others
- Hoping that things will resolve on their own
- Waiting for some irrefutable sign that your partner is unable to be rehabilitated
- Waiting for some irrefutable sign that your partner has been rehabilitated
- Your partner has refused to change his/her behavior, but you are hoping that he/she will come to their senses when faced with your threats to leave/pressure
Healthy Reasons for Indecisiveness:
- Your partner has openly and actively committed to changing their life, and you want to give them the opportunity to do just that before making the decision to stay or go. With clear boundaries in place, this can be a very healthy approach to take.
- Though you doubt their ability/sincerity to permanently change their life, you have invested so much of yourself in the relationship that you feel it is worth the risk to find out.
- You have come to the conclusion that your partner's current behavior is not worth sacrificing the entire relationship, but you know that if it expands, you will have no choice. Again, this can be healthy only when there are clear boundaries in place to define that expansion.
- You do not know what all of your options are. Leaving spontaneously might place you in a precarious situation legally, financially, parentally, socially, etc., and so you want time to prepare to make such a decision in a responsible manner.
A. Consider the role that you have played in your partner's recovery to date. In the field below, describe these roles as they relate to:
I. Effective communication
II. Managing your partner's recovery
III. Empowering/disempowering a pursuit of health
B. Consider the focus and attention that has been offered to your partner in recovery; are you gaining equal resource to heal your own wounds? If not, what can you do to ensure that your healing is considered every bit as important as your partner's recovery?
C. (optional) For those who have made the decision to either stay in the relationship or "wait and see", considering the roles discussed in this lesson (or additional roles that you have thought of), what changes might you consider making to your relationship that would increase its chances for success?