A Precarious Situation)
I attended an addiction recovery clinic when I decided I really wanted to be done with lust and pornography. One of the things that was so helpful about that clinic was that they did two treatments at the same time, one for the addict, and one for the spouse or partner of the addict. Given the demographics of pornography addiction, the addicts were predominantly men, and thus the partners were their girlfriends and wives.
The partners, of course, were deeply hurt by our addiction, and this is true for most other types of addiction as well. Being so closely involved to a person with any sort of compulsive, destructive behavior will always result in extensive wounding. Thus, every addict is going to have to deal with this most intimate relationship at some point of his or her recovery journey. They are going to have to take ownership of their mistakes, empathize with their spouse’s pain, make amends however they can, and accept the consequences that follow their behaviors.
The spouse also has her own issues to come to terms with. Given the secretive nature of an addiction, most likely she is only learning about this whole secret life that was going on behind her back for the first time. She has to process the betrayal, the lies, the manipulation, and has to decide between rebuilding the relationship or moving on. What’s more, the spouse has to negotiate all these matters while being flooded by intense, negative emotions. Very often this makes for periods of deep depression and angry outbursts, both of which are difficult for the recovering addict to know how to deal with.
A Strange Disconnect)
If the addict is sincere in his recovery, then these first months of sobriety probably give him a confusing, dual perspective of himself. On the one hand, this is the most honest he has ever been in his life. This is the first time ever that he can sincerely say that he is giving it his all. He is heroically facing his inner demons and doing something he is genuinely proud of. His recovery group members are recognizing his sincerity and acknowledging his bravery. They are encouraging him by pointing out that he is one of the very few in life who has found the “straight and narrow path” and committed to following it.
But then, on the other hand, the addict feels that he is an absolute dirtbag. For the first time he is really acknowledging the harm he has caused. He has shameful memories that he has avoided his whole life, but now he must face them head-on. He has natural responses of self-disgust and revulsion. The voices inside tell him that he has done too much wrong, he is irredeemable, and that he doesn’t deserve to be loved. And in many cases, that very message is being echoed by the person that used to love him best.
It is only natural that the wife whose whole conception of life has been shattered would have anger bursting out at every turn. Many addicts discover a side of their spouse that they never knew before, full of shouting, insulting, and profanity. Some spouses start throwing objects and breaking things. Some start looking for ways to hurt their husband back, physically or otherwise. The addict is trying to manage his emotions and choose sobriety over quick relief, all while enduring a constant and passionate reminder of what terrible damage he has done.
In fact, since the addict knows that he really is guilty of this terrible damage, he might feel that he has no right to question his spouse’s behavior. He has given his spouse the ultimate trump card in any argument. Any frustration or disagreement that he might express towards his spouse is immediately overcome with “well at least I didn’t do what you did!”
It is easy for a couple in this situation to subconsciously assume a new rule in life. Anything that goes wrong for the wife, no matter how unrelated it is to his past wrongs, is still the fault of the addict. Even if his acting out didn’t directly cause the new trouble, the new trouble is more painful because it has landed on a heart that was already beaten and tender. The addiction didn’t make the spouse’s uncle die, for example, but it has deprived her of the trusted shoulder to cry on now when she needs it.
So, which is it to be? Must the addict accept that he is a terrible monster and always will be? That no matter of future sobriety can make up for the wrongs already committed? That he will be an addict, and he must daily self-flagellate because of that? Or is the wife supposed to just shut up about her pain? Does her anguish just not matter because the addict is suddenly a “new man?” Does the past not even matter?
Which of these two extremes is the right way forward? Well, of course, neither.
If the right way were so simplistic it would hardly require a blog series to unpack it. The real way forward is far more nuanced and intricate, and it absolutely requires full respect to be afforded to both sides of the matter. Throughout the next several days we will examine this issue from multiple angles, hopefully coming to a conclusion that resonates with all.
NOTE: Throughout this series I refer to the addict as “he” and the injured partner as his “wife.” This is merely a convenience for maintaining consistency. It is entirely possible for the addict to be a woman and the injured partner to be her husband. It is also entirely possible for the strained relationship to be between non-romantic partners, such as with a parent and a child.