In my last post I explained that the addict needs to find empathy for the pain that his behavior caused his wife, though this is easier said than done. Speaking for myself, even after years of practice I still have many emotional safeguards that tried to dissuade me from really leaning into the pain. There is always that tendency to become defensive and search for any other path. I have even tried to fake empathy at times while keeping my heart securely locked off, but nothing but sincerity works. As my mentor in my first addiction recovery program often repeated “you can’t go under it, you can’t go around it, you can’t go over it. You have to go through it.”
Part of the challenge facing the addict is that he will likely face all manner of challenges that trigger his defense mechanisms. Typically the addict’s wife is not only hurt, she is angry, and that anger can come through in a multitude of ways. Insults or shouting or misrepresenting events will tempt the addict to dismiss everything his wife is saying. She’s being irrational, unfair, or intentionally derogatory, so he feels excused from taking anything that she says to heart. After all, this is already delicate, shameful ground for the addict, and anything abrasive is likely to drive him into his shell.
Certainly, the wife of the addict has a right to be angry. She has been profoundly hurt, and no one would reasonably expect her language to be unaffected by that. But at the same time, there must be a point where the expressing of one’s hurt can go too far, starting to become a form of abuse itself. Where is that point? Where is the line where one’s invective just isn’t okay any more? Even if someone has justified anger, they can express it in an unjustified way. And when they do, how are you supposed to respond to that?
Well, we will get into all of that, but before anything else I wanted to spend the rest of the day discussing a fact that every addict needs to appreciate.
If your spouse is expressing her anger in a way that is unfair, isn’t that basically the same as exactly what you did to her? Wasn’t the revelation of your betrayal something that caught your wife totally off guard? Didn’t it hurt her without justification? Didn’t it come on her totally out of the blue? You might be totally right that this pain your spouse is putting on you is unfair, but paradoxically, undeserved pain is exactly what you do deserve!
Now I’m not here to say that two wrongs make a right, but I am going to maintain that you can use this as an opportunity to better appreciate the reality of what you inflicted upon your spouse. You can feel all the stinging, out-of-line, crushing pain and say “I get it, that’s what I did to you.” In most cases, what you are feeling is nothing more than a part of the damage that you put out into the world ricocheting back in your face.
Which, once again, is not to say that we should live an eye-for-an-eye, but we do need to appreciate what it was for like for the other person when we took their eye away. We need to be able to have a taste for that experience, even if we don’t have to experience all of it.
When the addict’s spouse sees that he is deflecting her pain, that is only going to aggravate her further! The fastest way for the addict to de-escalate his wife’s anger is for him to develop a genuine and profound understanding of her pain. Cheap, phony efforts are only going to prolong things and make it worse for everyone. The addict must learn to lean face-first into the pelting hail. He needs to allow some of the shrapnel bouncing back from his own actions to land in the flesh.
I’ve said it twice now, and I’ll say it one more time. None of this is to say that verbal or physical abuse from a wounded spouse just has to be put up with. There is a line between holding empathy for another’s pain and just being their punching bag. And maybe that makes sense conceptually, but how do you actually walk that line in practice? Come back tomorrow as we explore the answer.
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.