The Role of Family in Your Recovery Process

In a separate lesson, we looked at the important roles that families of origin can play in the development of the patterns leading to addiction. Here, we will explore the role of your current family in supporting you through recovery. This includes your parents, spouse, children, etc.

Now, true recovery is a very personal, isolated event. It may include external sources like therapists, groups, family and friends...but the foundation for permanent change will occur in an isolated, private manner. It will occur during the times when you have no one to answer to but yourself. When the only motivation to "do the right thing" is found within your own thoughts and values. The best roles that such external sources can play in your recovery is to help you develop these thoughts and values; to provide you with objective feedback in developing new boundaries; and to offer forgiveness, acceptance, nurturing, etc. And, for some, to provide you with the motivation to pursue/maintain recovery. But don't be fooled. No external source is capable of providing you with the motivation to end your addictive patterns. The best that they can do is to help you identify the values that are most precious to you, and to trigger the emotional stimulation that you have associated with these values to help motivate you.

Just as your underlying emotions trigger the decision to act out, they also trigger the desire to not act out--to pursue health/recovery. Often, the emotions that are attached to these other sources--like God, your wife, your husband, your children--are capable of producing extremely powerful stimulation. The type of stimulation (positive Vs negative) produced will have a direct correlation to how these relationships are perceived by you. For instance, a person who believes wholly in God and has established an active, healthy relationship with Him, will often achieve much positive stimulation from this relationship. At times, such stimulation--even from a single source (especially when God is that source) can trigger an end to the destructive behavior. In such a pattern, a pattern develops where, rather than producing emotional stimulation through acting out, stimulation is produced through prayer, reading the Bible, etc. The down side to this is, unless the stimulation from this source is constantly being altered (through a perception of continuing growth), habituation sets in and the overall stimulation decreases to the point where it no longer serves its purpose: achieving emotional fulfillment. Enter: relapse. Where the "perceptions" come in, is in considering the same person, but instead of having a healthy attachment to God, they secretly are doubtful and lack true faith in God's power. In such a scenario, this person would actually receive negative stimulation (through guilt and shame, confusion, value conflict) from this source, which actually serves to perpetuate the addiction. This same "dual-perception" applies to other secondary sources as well. The wife of a sexual/love addict can trigger enough positive emotional stimulation in their spouse (through forgiveness, acceptance, love, security, etc.) to provide them with the motivation to overcome their urges. Likewise, a wife can trigger enough negative stimulation (through blame, anger, hatred, etc.) to actually trigger further acting out. But in all cases, it is never the source of the stimulation that is critical, but how it is perceived...and, when it is perceived as positive, it must be used to trigger growth, rather than mere abstinence.

The Role of the Family of Origin in Your Recovery

There are no easy answers to this. No set role that your family of origin should, or should not play in your recovery. Not the answer that you were hoping for, I'm sure...but that is life. In almost all cases, your family of origin has played some part in the development of your addiction. Either directly through their actions (e.g. neglect, abuse, domination), or indirectly through improper parenting skills that did not allow you to develop certain life skills/values properly (e.g. love, nurturing, intimacy, life management skills, etc.) Because of this, one of the goals of recovery will be to identify where these shortcomings have taken place (you should have done this in the previous lesson--though continuing this awareness over the next few months will be helpful).

If your family of origin would be a good resource to explore these issues with, then by all means, explore them. Few things can be more beneficial to promote self-awareness and permanent healing then to safely return to your family of origin in the role of the "child". Of course, this would require a family that is open to such exploration, and who, in the case of dysfunctional families, would have made much growth both as individuals and as a family unit. Who should not pursue this option, is those people whose families remain dysfunctional.

It is important to remember that your goal in recovery is to transition your life from stress and compulsions to that of health and fulfillment. One of the easiest ways to lose sight of this goal is to begin taking on the role of trying to "fix" the problems that led to your addiction. Most commonly, this means trying to fix the problems associated with your family of origin. Don't fall into this trap. If your family is relatively healthy, the rewards of exploring your upbringing are great. If your family remains unhealthy, the consequences of pursuing this road can be not only distracting, but devastating. Wait until you have made the transition to health before considering a pursuit of such things. Because of a human being's natural need for acceptance from their family of origin, it is one of the few areas of your life that can actually bring your entire recovery crashing down. The emotions produced within a dysfunctional family can be overwhelming to an underdeveloped value system...and until yours is developed to the point where you have learned to rely on it in a functional way, limit the role that your dysfunctional family plays in your recovery.

The Role of Your Spouse/Partner in Recovery

This is another tough one. But for a completely different reason than that of above. The reason that it is difficult is because the role of the spouse changes in different stages of the recovery process. Your goal will be to understand these changing roles and show compassion and understanding in helping your partner transition from one role to the next. Your role will be to give them the same understanding and compassion that you seek from them, while at the same time remaining committed to your right to pursue recovery.

The first role that your partner must play in your recovery is to avoid it altogether. To leave you to your own thoughts...so that you may make the choices that are in your best interest. Sound selfish? It's not. Such a role is in the best interests of both of you to ensure that the reasons that you pursue recovery are based on changing the core of who you are. Because anything less will leave your partner with pending doubts about who you really are. Such a core change cannot happen when you are being bombarded with reminders of how much you have hurt your partner, with the pressure that comes from trying to make sense out of something that you've never been able to make sense of yourself, and with the demands for answers to questions that you can only guess at the answers to. When faced with the initial crisis of beginning recovery, you need time to thoroughly evaluate your life and make decisions as to how you want to proceed. You also need the freedom to pursue these changes. Your partner's role is to allow you the space and time to do just that.

Of course, this does not mean that he/she does nothing while you try to figure things out...absolutely not. Their role is to accomplish the same exact thing that you are trying to accomplish. They need to take the time to come to terms with what has been discovered, get their feet back under them, and define what options are available to them in terms of dealing with this crisis. That may sound scary to you, and, well, it should. But the fact remains, it was your behavior that has emotionally devastated your partner and it is your behavior that unfairly jeopardized the relationship. That your partner may choose to live the rest of their life without you is a reality that you forced by your actions. It may be hard to accept, but facing the possibility of losing a particular relationship is a rather minor consideration when comparing it to the consequences of what the choice to pursue (or not pursue) a healthy lifestyle will mean to the rest of your life. Your partner must feel the opportunity of knowing that they have the right to walk away from the relationship...because it is only when this option is understood, that their decision to remain will mean something to them. It is only when they gain back some resemblance of control and choice in the relationship where they will be able to allow themselves to experience the necessary understanding and forgiveness that comes in healing. Otherwise, there will be an underlying resentment, hatred, disgust, etc. that will invariably come out in other destructive ways that will sabotage both your recovery and your relationship.

The second role that a healthy partner will play in your recovery, is to begin the process of understanding and forgiving you for the pain that you have caused. Most often, this role begins after you have replaced your attempts to convince him/her of your sincerity to change...and have actually begun to implement these changes into your life. When you have begun to change the core of who you are. Why? Because for many years, you have lived a secret life that has completely shocked your partner...and before he/she can begin thinking of you as a partner again, you will need to make changes to your life. This is a must and as this happens, the risk of more secrets and lies developing begins to diminish. That is when their recommitment to the relationship begins. This is also the time when, should they never have explored the option of realistically ending the relationship (due possibly to finances, religious beliefs, children, etc.), that they begin to sabotage your recovery by forcing you into an endless pattern of sorrow, guilt and shame. Their role during this period, should they decide to commit themselves to the relationship, should be to continue developing their own values and rebuilding their own identity. Also, to begin learning about the patterns that are associated with such destructive behavior, but not in a persecutory or disbelieving way. Their role is to understand these patterns for what they are--patterns that effect many, many people; rather than to pick them apart for personal understanding.

The third role that they should play in a healthy recovery process, is to assist you in developing your personal boundaries, developing the relationship's boundaries, exploring your shared values, exploring your future together, etc. Until this time, communication should be rather limited in terms of discussing specific behaviors that were displayed. At this point, both of you will have had the time to explore the consequences of the destructive behaviors, will have assessed future risks, sincerity and will have made decisions regarding prioritizing your values. It is now time to explore the behaviors with more specificity in hopes of gaining an absolute understanding (for the partner) and acceptance/forgiveness (for the one who engaged in the behavior).

The partner's fourth role takes place after forgiveness and acceptance have been achieved. The partner should continue to pursue individual growth as well as the growth of the couple. Just like the individual in recovery must transition from recovery to health, a relationship that has been damaged must transition from a focus on that damage to a pursuit of healthy values and goals. This should not be rushed into, but must be attained before mutual sustained fulfillment in the relationship can ever be reached.

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