What More Can I Say?)
Sometimes “sorry” isn’t enough. I discovered this fact when I started to face the wrongs that I had done in my addiction. I found that I could acknowledge how I had messed up, I could genuinely say that I was sorry, and I could offer to make amends however possible…but that still was not enough to fix things.
Don’t get me wrong, being able to do these things showed that I had made great progress in my journey. They were good things to be able to do, and I was proud to have finally made it that far, but my work was not yet done.
This fact particularly manifested itself in my interactions with my wife. Both of us had acknowledged how far I had come, but it was clear to us that there something was still missing. My wife was still hurting, and no amount of me being a new and improved version of myself changed that fact.
Admittedly at this point I felt helpless. What more could I say? I wished that she could just stop feeling the hurt, but that wasn’t a switch that she could flip on and off. And even if she could have done that, there was still this sense that I hadn’t really done all my part yet. There was still something I was holding back.
The conversations that highlighted my reluctance were the ones where she tried to get me to understand just how much I had hurt her. From these discussions I came to understand that her entire world had been fractured, that she had trusted me unquestioning for years, only to find out that I had been lying the whole time. I came to understand that these experiences had shaken her entire paradigm. If she had been so convinced of what was true about me, and had been so wrong, then how much else in her life was a lie? Nothing could be trusted anymore. She was alone without anything or anyone.
And I had absolutely no idea what to say to all of that. How was I supposed to respond? She was right, of course, but what could I do about it? I was sorry, if I could take all it back I would, but I couldn’t. What was done was done, and now I was doing all in my power to be a different person moving forward. What else was there?
Honestly, I don’t know that I would have ever found out the answer to that question without the help of my recovery group counselor. It was he who helped us to understand the essential quality of empathy in healing. He made it clear that it wasn’t enough for me to merely understand what my wife was being put through, I had to start empathizing with it. I had to find a way to step into that pain, to get a sense of what it was really like for her. I had made great strides towards understanding her on a mental level, but now it had to get emotional.
And that was a lot easier said than done. At first it seemed impossible to feel the feelings of another person to that degree. I was hearing her say that she was sad and angry, and I was trying to make myself feel sad and angry, too, but that never came out as sincere. Eventually I realized that I needed to move a little further upstream. I needed to not replicate the emotions she was describing, but replicate the experience that had caused the emotions in the first place. I had to envision someone putting on me the same sorts of things I had put on my wife, and then the negative emotions would come naturally. I genuinely and authentically started to have a real taste of what she was going through. I still cannot claim that I fully went through the experience, but I started to feel at least some of it.
Being able to lean into this sort of empathy was definitely a process. I got better at it over time, though there had always been some resistance to doing it. Part of me really didn’t want to imagine what it was like to be on the receiving end of the stunts I had pulled, because that put me in a place of shame. I had to be brave and really let down my guard and let the empathy take me. When I finally was able to do that there were many tears and many epiphanies. Best of all, my wife expressed that she was really starting to feel heard and understood. And that, it turned out, had been the missing piece.
Now, I’ve given the highly abbreviated version of this process. There were a lot of missteps along the way, both for me and my wife, but I wanted to fast-track to where we finally got it right so that you could know the target to aim for. In the rest of this series, I’m going to take a step back to call out some of the common mistakes that get made along the way. Come back tomorrow as we start digging into those.
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.