The Need for Boundaries)
I have spent quite some time talking about the situation of an addict trying to move away from the past and a wife who is still wounded by it. The addict is trying to define himself by new actions, but the wife still has things to say about the old ones, creating a friction between them. I have spoken with many addicts who felt that they were trying to let go of their old identity but their wife was still trying to cast them in it.
This disparity is especially pronounced when the addict’s behavior was kept a secret from his wife. The addict would have had years to grapple with his immoral behavior, fight through his sense of identity, and ultimately conclude that he was going to live a higher way. He would have done all of this at his own pace, according to his own leisure. The wife, of course, has had an entirely different situation. All at once she has had dumped on her years of history that she never knew about. She has to process all the same questions of her husband’s identity that he had literal decades to resolve. If she is casting her husband in the role of the liar addict, it is because she is still coming to terms with the fact that he played that role for years. Many times this inner conflict will outwardly manifest in an outburst of anger. This is entirely understandable, and even inevitable.
That isn’t to say that every angry outburst can be condoned, though. I pointed out at the start of this series that there are lines which it is never okay to cross. There are words designed to break another person and make them lose faith in themselves, and these are never appropriate. Of course, it’s hard to say exactly at what point this line is crossed, because it depends on the nature of the person being berated and it depends on the intent of the speaker.
The same goes for actions that ruin the reputation of the addict. In some cases it might be proper to enlighten others to the full nature of the man they thought they knew, while at other times it is purely an act of vengeance.
Of course there are also destructive, reactionary behaviors such as having an affair or punishing the addict through his children, which are never appropriate. There can even be instances of the wife trying to inflict physical harm on her husband, which is also always unacceptable.
I could go on, but the point is that there are lines that must not be crossed, and it is up to the addict to lay those out around himself and then get away from any situation where they are trespassed over. Of course, the wife should have these lines for herself as well. There are certain behaviors that she should not tolerate, such as being lied to, and she should remove herself from the situation if those behaviors are continuing. In short, each spouse needs to have their own boundaries.
Doing the Work)
In this series I have also talked about the need for each spouse to do their own work. The best thing that the addict can do for the relationship is to sincerely work his recovery and show his wife by example that he is genuinely becoming a new person. Also, I discussed the need for him to understand the pain that is behind his wife’s anger, and do the work of recognizing and empathizing with those overwhelming emotions. As for the wife, the best thing that she can do is work with a counselor to address the storm inside her heart. She must come to terms with who her husband is, what it does and doesn’t say about herself, and what she wants to do as a result. At some point she also needs to let of her anger and hate, in order to live a life free of corrosion.
The addiction and trauma recovery program that my wife and I went to strongly encouraged each spouse not to make any life decisions for a year. They told us we needed to get to a grounded place. We each needed to find out who our authentic self was and calmly make decisions that were consistent with it. At the end of it all we wanted to make choices that we could honestly say were done in good conscience.
But as I have discussed previously, that presupposed that each of us really would do our own work. Sometimes it was hard for us to take a hands-off approach to the other’s recovery. We each had wounds and egos, and when they got bumped and bruised we each wanted to explain why the other person was always at fault for it. It was easier to blame the other than to do the hard work on our own self.
Certainly I wouldn’t expect any couple to be perfect in this regard. There will be missteps, there will be lines that get crossed and apologies that need to be made, and that goes for both the husband and the wife. There does need to be some allowance for one another not being perfect.
Let me conclude by saying that I have seen for myself that even such deeply flawed and deeply wounded persons as an addict and his wife are still able to make their way through if they sincerely try. People that seemed doomed to collapse under their pain and weakness can reveal a surprising degree of resilience when they are living honestly. With a little help from professional counseling and a lot of help from God, they can make it if they try.
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.