Partners of Addicts and the Prodependent Process of Healing

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By Debbie Allen

I have had the pleasure of running Prodependence support groups for women across the US and into Singapore, Hong Kong, and Australia. One of the women I was working with (I will call her Alice) described being ‘frozen’ by the shame and embarrassment of her husband’s sex addiction.

Alice had been labeled codependent by a previous therapist because so much of the energy that should have been spent on her process of healing was going toward protecting her husband’s secret. Basically, she was hoping that if nobody knew about the addiction, then she would not be blamed or shamed for it. But she still felt like she was somehow at fault, and that if anyone knew about her husband’s problems, they would point the finger at her. Because that is what the codependence label does to people.

Dr. Rob Weiss says this about codependence, “We feel that codependence is blaming and shaming toward loved ones of addicts, that it holds them responsible for what happened when their only sin is loving a person who made some mistakes or is suffering from an addiction. Codependency would tell partners of addicts to detach with love, to leave, to let the addict sink or swim on his own. Codependency would tell partners of addicts that they love too much, and it’s hurting both them and their partner.”

With Alice, these beliefs were taken a step further, as she was keeping her husband’s addiction secret from her whole family and had very little support other than therapy sessions. She was keeping this secret out of fear of being blamed. Her mother, father, and siblings were known to blame her and make her the family scapegoat over the years. They were a stoic family that showed very little emotion and lived by the motto, “get over it and move on.”

Since discovery, Alice was barely keeping it together, and she was shamed for this by her spouse and her family. They told her she was being too sensitive, that she was poorly focused, that she was not parenting properly, that she was disheveled looking, etc. So there was certainly good reason for her to protect herself emotionally.

Alice and I spent a number of sessions talking about sharing information about her husband’s sex addiction with her family in a proper therapeutic setting – with a therapist who was educated about and supported the prodependence model. Alice then wrote a letter to read to her family, edited many times, and then decided she was ready.

Alice and her family members gathered in the office together. Alice was shaking and tears flowed down her cheeks before any words left her mouth because the fear of being blamed and shamed was so ingrained in the fabric of who she was. The family was instructed to sit quietly while she read her letter to them, which she eventually did. She described the secret life of her husband and how she found out two years prior. She explained that every day she was internally combusting while holding onto this secret. She explained why she decided to stay and support her husband and to love him through this. She asked for her family’s support. She asked them not to judge her or her husband, and to have compassion for them instead. She used words from the prodependence model to help her bridge the gap between her husband’s secret life and sharing the truth with her family.

What happened next was nothing short of a miracle. Instead of blaming Alice and shaming her and telling her to stop crying, each family member stood up and wrapped their arms around her, held her, cried with her, and told her they would be there for her in whatever way she needs them.

We are taught as therapists to hold space for our clients and to be aware of countertransference. Well, this experience was none of that for me. It was just a powerful, deeply human moment. With a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes, I could see Alice thawing out right in front of me – all thanks to the implementation of prodependence rather than codependence.

This moment was an enormous shift in healing for Alice, and her future therapy sessions were so much deeper and more effective because she was no longer frozen. I continue to work with Alice, and I’m pleased to report that her family is continuing to support both her and her husband in a loving, profoundly prodependent way.