The other day, someone spoke about me as an expert in the field of sexual addiction and betrayal trauma. What that really means is that I’m an expert in suffering. I work with people who are struggling through the challenges and crises of an addiction or some other similar issue, whether they’re the struggling individual or the loved one of that person (most often the spouse or partner).
Both addicts and loved ones of addicts are in crisis, and that crisis can last for many years. Many relationships affected by addiction involve emotional abuse, psychological manipulation, and physical exhaustion. This is incredibly difficult for the loved ones of addicts. They are worn down and have no idea when life will get better, or even if it will get better. They desperately want to help, but they don’t know what chances there are of the addict ever healing or recovering to any degree at all. So they seek counseling from professionals like me.
Perhaps I feel comfortable with this type of work because of my background. I grew up attending small church gatherings. The congregations prided themselves on their sense of support and community. If someone fell terminally ill, the family would be showered with casseroles, cards, and offers to help with the children. Kind words, prayers, and positive thoughts were sent with the expressed intention of assuring the hurting members that they were not alone and things were going to be OK. There was always a sense that everything works out in the end. And when someone died, the loss was shared. There was grieving in the presence of other caring people, a natural process of healing and remembering and accepting the loss.
Because of the region in which I work, most of my clients come from similar backgrounds. But when they hit the crisis of addiction (their own or a loved one’s), they usually do not receive the support and assistance that is routinely offered to those dealing with other forms of suffering. Cultural and religious stigma, as well as a lack of education about the causes of addiction and its impact on loved ones, leads even some therapy professionals to dismiss the pain and turmoil experienced by loved ones and to blame them for ‘being codependent’ and ‘lacking differentiation’. Family members of addicts are generally made to feel as if their desire to love and care for their troubled loved one is what caused and perpetuates the addiction.
This misinformation is a perfect storm, leading these loved ones to isolation, self-neglect, and shame.
Even with these challenges, many families affected by addiction begin the hard work of recovery, healing, and rebuilding trust through emotionally corrective experiences. The addict decides he/she wants a different life and begins pursuing recovery through treatment, therapy, and 12-step groups, engaging a sponsor regularly and having a plan for when addiction triggers hit. The spouse/partner/parent sees progress and appreciates the changes, like a return to routine, predictable behaviors, and transparency from the addict. If all goes well, over the next year or two the family can ease back into their relationship with the addict with a sense that things just might be OK and that life together just might be possible again. A good and happy life.
Then it happens. A relapse. Maybe the addict comes clean right away, maybe the loved one finds out in an unexpected discovery. Either way, the individuals are thrown into crisis with that familiar sense of shock, confusion, and fear. What now? How could this happen? Will we ever recover from this?
The loved one wonders: After all the hard work, all the crying, all the pain and suffering between us, how could he/she allow this to happen? Was the last year (or however long) a reality or was the addict just pretending and hiding his/her true intentions? What can I be sure of? How is this going to impact the kids? Is walking away an option for me at this time? Can I ever heal from this?
Often, the loved ones’ sense of loss is worse than the first time around. They feel like they should know by now how to navigate this loss, yet it feels so much more tragic and holds all kinds of new meanings. This time, the addict knew that his/her behavior would cause pain and loss, but he/she still made the choice to act out in the addiction. The addict did not protect, did not value, did not honor his/her commitment to the relationship.
If you are the addict, get your butt back in a meeting. Ninety meetings in ninety days. With access to online meetings around the clock, there is no excuse for not doing this. Check out www.intherooms.com, nofap.com, and sexandrelationshiphealing.com for resources. And don’t let a day go by without checking in with your sponsor.
If you are the loved one of an addict who has relapsed, please stop and grieve. You sustained another massive loss. Schedule a session with a prodependence-oriented therapist to clear your head and receive useful advice. Join the free, weekly, online drop-in groups for spouses, partners, and other loved ones of addicts on SexAndRelationshipHealing.com. Read or re-read Out of the Doghouse by Dr. Robert Weiss to find the validation you need. Join free online educational communities like BloomForWomen.com, and listen to the Sex, Love, and Addiction podcasts offered by Dr. Weiss.
It’s not just the addict who needs a game plan for moving forward. You need guidance as well, often for things as simple as maintaining your daily life while navigating this painful process.
You are already fatigued. Now you are drawn into the addiction battle once again. So do what you can to be compassionate with yourself. Try not to make any big decisions. Journal your concerns and options, and always consult with your therapist and sponsor before taking any important actions. Decide what you need to feel safe in the moment and longer-term, then communicate and implement those boundaries with the addict.
Many loved ones ask me why addiction counselors and sponsors sometimes say relapse is a part of recovery. To a loved one, it feels as if the addict is being encouraged to act in his/her addiction as part of the recovery process. That is not the intent of such a phrase. Relapse is not a requirement for recovery. That said, the process of re-engaging with recovery after a slip or a relapse can be a critical educational and psychological experience for the addict. At the very least, it shows the addict (and the addict’s loved ones) where his/her weaknesses reside and what can be done to reduce the risk of further harm.
Please hear me, however, when I say that upon initial relapse, while you are reeling with the pain of betrayal and disappointment, your only job is to be hurt and angry and to grieve. Make whatever preparations you can to give yourself that opportunity. Then reach out to a prodependence-oriented therapist who can guide you through this difficult time.