To Live Freely: Part One

Axiomatic Truth)

There is a concept that has come up a few times in my previous series, including the last one. I have spoken to the matter in brief here and there, but now I want to consider it more fully. The concept is that living in the truth is the foundation for a full and happy life. Said another way, facing the facts as they really are is the only way to be truly free. Said a third way, only those who are willing to face the truth unflinchingly are ever truly alive.

This is a principle that is basic and fundamental to life. It is so foundational that sometimes it is difficult to really get a grasp on it. Axiomatic truths are, by definition, self-evident in their truthfulness, requiring no argument to prove them. That’s all well and good, but it means that if you then try to explain why an axiom is true you’re going to have a very hard time of it! Explanations tend to lead to circular logic, such as “living in truth is the foundation for a full life because…it just is!”

One way to come to full appreciation of these fundamental truths is to look at them in reverse. Fundamental truths are prerequisites for many other things in life, and by examining those things that are built upon foundational truth we obtain evidence that the underlying axiom really is true, for if it were not the things that we have observed could not be. We find that the fundamental truth is necessarily true, because it is necessary for it to be true for other observable things to be so.

Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.... Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them. -Matthew 7:17-18, 20

Jesus describes the same idea in these verses where he teaches that we may recognize that which was good by whether it brought about good or not. So if we want to know whether “a life founded upon the truth is joyful and free” is a true statement or not, then we merely have to look at those who live in harmony with this belief and see what sort of life they possess. I will begin my series today by doing exactly this. I will look at an example of people who are built upon this axiom, living their lives with the assumption that it is absolutely true. We may observe the reality of their lives, and infer whether they built upon a solid foundation or not.

The Happiest of People)

I have mentioned before how the addiction-recovery groups I have attended are singularly focused on living in harmony with truth. Any addict working a twelve-step program can tell you that one of its most fundamental tenets is that we take a fearless inventory of our lives, facing all of the unpleasant and difficult truths in our character. Where most people attempt to cherry-pick their best qualities and define themselves by those, addicts in recovery open the door to all of their qualities. We do not care if the description of us is pleasant, only that it is true.

And what comes about by this strict adherence to seeing things as they really are? For an answer, let me offer an anecdote that occurred to me personally. I was speaking with an ecclesiastical leader about my efforts to overcome my addictions, and my time spent in my recovery group. As soon as he heard that I was part of a twelve-step program he said to me, “you know, I’ve never been a part of such a program, but I have been a witness to its meetings and its members, and those are the most humble, most sincere people I have ever met.”

The reason why the twelve-step program has grown at such incredible rates since its inception is entirely due to the quality of the men and women one meets when they walk through the door. People see men and women who have not only gained freedom from the most terrible of vices, but who also live with a clearness and a joyfulness that simply isn’t to be found anywhere else. Furthermore, the fact that that light has remained consistent throughout the decades and continues to burn brightly in every new generation of members is a testament to the fact that the happy way of life was not due to some pre-existing condition in the first AA members, but is cultured in its members from the principles that they live by. If people had not seen throughout the years that these people had uncovered a superior way of life by their principles, then no one would have stayed and joined the crew, and it would have been a long-extinct experiment.

It was the evidence of this joyful peace that also drew me into the ranks of the twelve step program. It might seem a counter-intuitive thing to say, but I quickly recognized that I had never seen a happier, more satisfied, and more productive people, than these addicts who sincerely identified their miseries and their flaws. One would have thought that bringing out those heavy truths would have crushed them, but so far as I could see those weights, once surrendered, were being taken away, so that they could live free and unfettered. They attested that one had to truly see their shackles before they could receive the key to undo them. Though I was not then converted to the notion of living my life strictly in harmony with the truth, I was persuaded enough by what I saw to give it a try. My result has been much the same as theirs.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Even if you don’t consider yourself an addict, go and visit a few of the local meetings in your area. See for yourself what manner of men and women these are, and what sort of lives they lead. Granted, every group has its own culture and its own level of sincerity about the work, but attend a few different ones and you will quickly see that there is a clear correlation between those that genuinely face the hard truths and those that live joyful and free.

Do I Even Have an Addiction? -Part Five

I’ve spent this series having a pretend conversation with a person who is unsure about whether they have an addiction or not. I’ve approached the topic from different angles, providing an answer to to all of the responses I typically hear from such people. I believe that all these different angles can be grouped into two main categories, though, so let us review those.

In Denial)

At various times in these posts I have tried to hold a mirror up to all those that are in denial. I hope those that minimize or turn a blind eye to their weakness were able to face them more fully through this journey. I asked the person who thinks he can control his unhealthy indulgence to prove it by swearing it off entirely and seeing how it goes. I called out those who refuse to acknowledge the burdens they put on others. I invited all to take a full inventory of themselves, fearlessly tabulating their failures and flaws.

I personally believe that the majority of people have not stepped out of denial and honestly appraised their souls. And, in my experience, those that have not taken this critical step tend to put more evil into the world than good. By avoiding the hard questions, they are perpetuating burden and abuse upon everyone else, and they are the main driving force for the deterioration we see in society today.

Now I do realize that that is a very stern pronouncement to make, so let me follow it up by acknowledging the decades I spent being just such a person. I was in complete denial for years, and I certainly put substantial amounts of hurt and burden on other people as a result of it. I also admit that even after looking into the depths of my soul, I still have a tendency to flinch and turn away, to revert back to selfishness, to continue to cause harm to myself and others. What is more, this is the case with most, if not all, of those who have awakened to the reality of themselves. We have to repeatedly recognize our denial and return ourselves to a place of unflinching honesty in order to keep doing good.

Semantics and Society)

I have also considered those that do not necessarily deny the reality of their problems or the harm that they are causing, but who struggle to adopt the label of “addict” for various other reasons. They might feel that their behavior does not fit under the category of an addiction, even while admitting that it is compulsive, habitual, and destructive. To these people I suggested that it really doesn’t matter what they or anyone else calls that particular area of life. There is no need to debate whether it is to be referred to as a “problem area,” an “addiction,” or a “deadly sin.” There are members of my addiction group who introduce themselves as “I’m an addict,” others as “I struggle with unwanted behaviors,” and still others as “I’m a son of God.” It doesn’t matter that we use different terms and labels, just so long as we’re there to do the same work.

In this series I did push back on those who avoid admitting to their problems because of social pressures, though. Those who don’t want to be lumped with “addicts” tend to retain a sense that they are above the group. Anyone who is trying to admit that he is fundamentally flawed while still making distinctions between himself and the “other” fundamentally flawed people is in argument with himself. He is trying to hold onto his old us-vs-them worldview, while also realizing that “us” really aren’t any better than “them.”

In short, people in the “Semantics and Society” category need to break a few of their walls down. They need to accept the common humanity that encompasses us all, accept that all of us are broken, and talk about that brokenness without worrying about the labels attached to it.

On the Brink)

When I see someone teetering on the edge of joining our twelve-step group I feel a great excitement for them. They are lingering at the entrance, trying to let go of the old perspectives and agreements hold them back. They want to confess and surrender and throw themselves into an authentic way of life, but they need to cut ties with whatever lies still remain. There are only a few bonds left to sever, and if they manage it, then they are free to make the single most important choice of their entire life: the choice to live sincerely.

I do not think them petty because they struggle at the doorway. All of us who are in the room had to do that to some extent before we got through. Neither do I think that I can pull them in against their will. I can offer perspective and advice, but this is a choice that everyone has got to make on their own. Some of them choose to walk away, and there is nothing any of us can do to prevent that.

Here at my conclusion, I want to acknowledge that I have been blunt in these posts, but it is not because of any animosity towards those teetering on the edge. I merely wish to shine a bright light into whatever dark corners still remain for them. Clarity and honesty, even bluntness, are the best tools to combat any lingering self-deception.

If you have found yourself pacing at the doorway of recovery, but unable to pass through because you weren’t sure if you really had an addiction, then I hope this series has helped you to see the reality of the matter. I would love to welcome you into the community of the awakened as soon as you are ready to join us!

Do I Even Have an Addiction? -Part Four

Putting Evil in the World)

I’ve spent the last few posts speaking to those who recognize that part of their life is amiss, but who are reluctant to call their behavior an addiction. I’ve made the case that all of us need to strive for shameless authenticity, own our failings and admit where we need help.

I have also made the case that everyone is fundamentally flawed in one way or another. That is a claim that we immediately agree to when we hear it, but rarely do we consider the real weight of what those words mean. They mean we are going to hurt ourselves and also those around us. They mean that we are going to deny our better nature and live beneath our potential. They mean that we are going to actively put some evil out into the world.

Most of us are naturally flippant towards any serious accusation levied against us. Even if we agree that the complaint is valid, we’ll shrug our shoulders, say “no one’s perfect,” and quickly move past the issue. We don’t face the very real damage that is being done. We’re all genuinely screwing the world up around us, hurting each other in real and terrible ways, and virtually none of us own this fact. We just smile, shrug, say “no one’s perfect,” and keep our hearts sealed off.

Are you willing to start taking ownership for the evil you put into the world? Are you willing to face it with eyes wide open? Are you willing to hear the complaint of those that have been hurt without trying to justify or minimize your actions?

If your answer to the above is either “yes,” or even just “I want to be able to do that,” then you are ready to belong to the community of the awakened and striving.

A Community of Striving)

That community of the awakened and striving exists all throughout the world, intermingled with every culture and society. Its members live in broader organization, but often identify one another and coalesce together. Inside the churches is the subgroup of those who are truly faithful. Inside the non-profit charities is the coalition of those who are sincerely serving. Inside the government institution is the cabal of those who are genuinely trying to improve the world.

One place I have found where these awakened souls congregate is in the twelve-step programs scattered across the world. These communities are full of men and women who are willing to face the reality of the evil they are putting into the world and are seeking the help of a Higher Power to stop doing so. They come into this way of thinking because of their addictions, but then expand it to address all other forms of evil in their lives as well.

I have seen people drag their feet at the door to a twelve-step program because they weren’t sure whether their problems qualified as a full-on addiction or not. But we in the group aren’t going to be checking your “addiction credentials” at the door. There is no “group police” who are going to kick you out because you aren’t messed enough to be here. All that we ask is that you are sincere about facing your flaws and obtaining a life that is sober from your negative impulses. If you’re willing to do that work, then you are ready to join the crew.

Do I Even Have an Addiction? -Part Three

A Social Shame)

I’ve already talked about our tendency to minimize our addictions, and I have encouraged all to bring their full resolve to addressing these “minimal” issues, so that they may quickly ascertain how “minimal” they really are. At the end of my last post, I suggested that even if one discovers that their vices are not a matter of choice, but of compulsion, they might still be reluctant to call their situation an addiction.

There are a few reasons why this might be, let us first consider that the person might have an aversion to that label due to social pressure. Most of us are blind to just how much we are molded by the society around us, so our addict-in-denial probably doesn’t even recognize this factor in his life at first. Through introspection, he may realize that he has always heard of addicts in association with murderers, liars, the homeless, and thieves. He has considered anyone with that title to be hopeless, broken, and perverse. In short, he views the label “addict” prejudicially.

He might express a fear of how others will view him if he labels himself as an addict. He knows that the label is stigmatized, for he has held that same stigma, and he is terrified that others will assume all manner of perversions about him that are inaccurate. He, himself, remains suspicious of addicts as a whole. He views them as an unpredictable group, and he only meets with them while inwardly pinching his nose. Frankly he believes that he is better than them. Thus, he would rather find a term that tells gives people a more favorable view of his problems.

And while that may sound terrible and judgmental, it is a completely understandable place for one to begin their journey. So many of the very people in the twelve steps started in just the same way. We have all had many years to reinforce the stereotypes of what an “addict” is, and it is going to take some time for us to broaden our perspective. We have to learn to let go of our bias and see things with more honesty and nuance.

Not That Bad)

But ignorance and bias are not the only possible reasons why one might be averse to calling himself an addict. Another reason might be that our one genuinely doesn’t think his problem qualifies under the category of addiction. Most of us feel that only certain sorts of actions can belong to an addiction. And maybe this is accurate, and maybe it isn’t, really this is merely a matter of semantics.

Some, for example, feel that an addiction must involve some sort of foreign chemicals. Thus, they would say that one could not be addicted to overeating. Others say that it doesn’t have to be a chemical, but the taking in of some substance must be involved, which would rule out being addicted to pornography or gambling.

There are also many different opinions as to how afflicted one must be before their situation can be considered an addiction. There is a sense that there is a quota of suffering and senseless behavior that must be met before the addiction is official.

But frankly, in this case arguing semantics isn’t very meaningful. So long as one realizes when and where they are powerless over their behavior, and acknowledges that they need drastic changes and external help, then who cares what they call it?

I have my own issues that fall into this gray area. One of them is my seeming refusal to get to bed on time. Every day I tell myself that I’m going to, I know that I am going to suffer if I don’t, yet night after night I find myself making the same unhealthy choice to stay up too late. Does that really qualify as an addiction? Even by the most broad and inclusive definition of the term, it seems a bit of a stretch. But I don’t care. If someone decided to call this problem of mine an addiction, I would feel absolutely no need to correct them. My addictions and my compulsive negative behaviors still live under the same umbrella, and I still need to work on each of them in the same way. In all cases I need to identify my triggers, discover my underlying mental and emotional states, seek support from understanding friends, and surrender my failings to my Higher Power.

“Addiction” or “compulsive negative behavior?” It just doesn’t matter. That which we call a thorn, by any other name, would pierce just as painfully. So long as we are no longer in denial about our affliction and our powerlessness, we may call it whatever we will. If you feel reluctant about labeling yourself an addict, I would simply encourage you to consider what the reason for that is. Is it due to some social bias, or have you become hung up on semantics? In either case, can you set aside the periphery and deal with the problem honestly and wholeheartedly? Are you humble enough to get the help you need?

Do I Even Have an Addiction? -Part Two

Try Breaking the Shackles)

In my last post I said that if are unsure whether your negative behavior qualifies as an “addiction,” simply make a sincere commitment to stop doing it. I’ll further add that when you do, be sure to consider the usual excuses people give for giving up their resolutions and promise yourself that you won’t give in to any of those pitfalls. Promise yourself that you won’t ever say “well this next time will be the last time.” Commit to never say “I’ll make the change when I hit this next milestone in my life.” Assure yourself that you won’t be dissuaded by situations or friends. Acknowledge that the desire to do this behavior will rise again and resolve that you won’t give in to it even so.

And if you feel like you don’t agree with one of these commitments, then have an honest conversation with yourself about why not. Perhaps you want to stop overdrinking but not drinking altogether. Perhaps you want to commit to eating healthy when on your own but also want to leave the door open to getting a burger with friends. Perhaps you don’t want to keep viewing pornography after you’re married, but you figure in the meantime it isn’t hurting anyone.

If you find yourself making such concessions, then I would advise still making the commitment to cut the behavior out entirely, but you can make it temporary if you’d like. Say that you won’t do the behavior, not even for any of your usual exceptions, for three months. After that, after you’ve proven whether you can have your indulgence or leave it entirely at your own whim, then you’ll know whether you’re in control of the situation or not.

Many people attempt to do exactly this and are shocked to find that the future version of themselves goes entirely off rails from what they had previously decided. They come to realize that there are two persons living inside of them, one who is calm, in control, and rational, and another who throws all that out the window in a moment of impulse. We often make the mistake that addicts are always addicts. Sometimes that is the case, but more often I would say that addicts are only addicts some of the time. Because of this fact, the majority of addicts actually don’t know that they are ones until they try the sort of test that I described above. Nothing proves whether you are a prisoner than when you see if you can open the door to get out. It is sincerely trying to stop, and utterly failing to do so, that one becomes convinced that they really have an addiction.

Or, at least, this is the point where some become convinced that they have an addiction. Even after all this, some will try to write off their failure as a fluke, as a result of improper commitment or methodology. They remain convinced that they really are their own master, they just need to have the right approach in swearing off their troublesome behavior.

Very well, let them try again and again, by all manner of different methodologies. Let them read and employ every self-help book that promises to give them full control of self. Let them have as many failures as is required to finally surrender and say that they are a lost cause.

If at any point they do manage to break free, and permanently, then well enough. They have proven something to themself and they have managed to right their ship. But in my experience, it is very much the minority of people that will ever achieve this. Most often, by the time one even begins to wonder whether they have an addiction or not, the shackles are already thick and heavy.

Your Common humanity)

It might seem a shameful and discouraging thing to learn that you are a slave to your behavior. You might feel that that classifies you as the very worst of humanity, but nothing could be further from the truth. If you felt so sure that your vices were only minor indiscretions, and then discovered that they were addictions run amuck, you can be sure that there are untold billions for whom this pattern holds as well. In fact, you are in a more elevated minority simply by having come to accept the truth of yourself. Most people choose to remain completely self-deluded.

The fact is none of us get a free pass in this life. Either some tremendous hardship, or addiction, or both will take us all. We each will be broken by something that we cannot control. The fact that you don’t have the power over your own behaviors only means that you are human. Along with learning that you are no better than the rest of us, also be sure that you are no worse.

Or, perhaps, even after testing your resolve and finding it lacking you still feel anxious about the label of “addict.” Perhaps you acknowledge that you have a problem, that is it out of your control, but you still have some bias that prevents you from describing that problem as an addiction. Tomorrow we will begin examining the semantics of it, and the social influences that cause us to shun these labels.

Do I Even Have an Addiction? -Part One

Is it a Problem?)

For the last year I’ve been attending a 12-step group for lust and pornography addiction. Every couple weeks we will have a new attendee who feels embarrassed about being present. Quite frequently they’ll introduce themselves with something like “Hey, so…I don’t really know if I have an ‘addiction,’ per se, but I just figured I ought to come here and see if it feels like it might be beneficial for me…”

Let’s take a closer look at one of these individuals. We’ll make up one called Pete. Now Pete knows that his behavior isn’t what he wants it to be, but he’s uncomfortable with the notion that he is chronically or perpetually enslaved to that behavior. Pete’s willing to admit that he has a “problem,” but it seems a stretch to classify it as an addiction.

When Pete thinks of the word “addict” he imagines a grizzled man sleeping on a park bench, or a nervous kid hawking his mother’s jewelry in a back alley, or a young woman selling her body for drugs. He imagines people who are ruining themselves mind, body, and soul, who are completely out-of-control, who have severed all ties to anyone that used to love them. Those are all clearly addicts, but surely Peter, who goes to church, has a family, and pays his bills couldn’t be an addict…could he?

Choice vs Compulsion)

Another key element that keeps Pete from identifying as an addict is the matter of choice. An addict is defined by his inability to choose, he his compelled to act, even to his own destruction. But while Pete doesn’t like all of the things that he does, he still feels that it is a choice when he does them. His behavior is problematic, but he doesn’t believe it is out-of-control. He does these things because he wants to do them. Granted, he doesn’t always want to do them, sometimes he very much wishes that he didn’t do them at all, but sometimes he does want to do them and that’s when he “makes the choice” to do so. He’s not saying that that’s a good thing, but he does say that he isn’t being forced against his will.

One might ask Pete that if he still retains free choice in this area, then why doesn’t he make a firm and final decision that he isn’t going back to that behavior anymore? If at all possible, try to catch Pete when he is feeling a strong desire to act out and ask him then if he is still in control.

“Yes,” Pete answers us. “I really am in control. I can choose to do this, and I can choose not to. In fact, I think I’ll make both choices here and now. I’ll choose to go ahead and do this just one more time, and then I’ll choose that I’m done for good!”

“Could you choose to be done before this last time instead of after?”

“Of course…but I don’t want to. I want to choose to do it this one time for the last time, and then be done forever.”

“You say that you do not want to choose to stop just yet. In general, are you able to choose to do things that you do not want to?”

“Yes, of course. I choose to do unpleasant things when I have to all the time. I go to work when I don’t feel like it, I help my neighbor shovel his driveway, I skip the dessert line if I’ve had too much to eat. I can choose to do things that I don’t want.”

“Then choose to do this thing that you don’t want. Choose that the last time you acted out was the last time. Choose that you won’t act out again now even though you want to.”

“I…don’t want to.”

“But you have just said that you can, even if you don’t want to. You’ve already claimed that you are in control, but what does that even mean unless you can choose in spite of what you want? That’s what control means. So choose to stop now, even though you do not want to, and that is the only way to prove that you really are in control here.”

How Pete squirms! For as unsure and out-of-place as he felt at his first twelve-step meeting, he soon starts to realize that he’s just as crazy as all the “real” addicts there. Usually by a newcomer’s third or fourth meeting he’s willing to throw in the towel and admit that his “little problem” is actually his slave driver!

A Needed Perspective)

And frankly, that’s why we need to go to a twelve-step group. It provides just this sort of well-meaning confrontation which shows us our own inconsistency. The sooner we go to group, the sooner we feel pushed to give up our pet vice. The sooner we try to give up our vice, the sooner our illusion of self-control is dismantled. It is only when we try to resist against our vices that we feel the hooks they already have in us. We only ever felt we were in control because we had never tried to make a choice that went against the script.

A New Foundation: Part Two

Weighing Down)

Yesterday I shared about the broken and divided foundation that is exposed in a marriage when a secret addiction is brought to light. Every positive experience from the past was at least somewhat predicated upon a lie. Every good and decent thing that the addict ever did is tarnished.

And not only is the past thrown into disarray, but also the present and the future. I pointed out how even the most sincere and genuine acts of kindness from the now-truthful addict can be a trigger to his wife, reminding her of all the false and manipulative overtures he made in the past. Yes, today his actions might be blameless, but they are linked in her memory to the actions that were not.

Thus, the husband trying to repair the marriage with acts of goodness is like trying to fix a crumbling building by stacking new floors on top of it. Those new floors might be sound and whole, the very finest of design, but their added weight is only going to hasten the collapse and soon the whole thing will come down, good and bad parts alike.

The addict and his wife are stuck in a situation where anything they do to try and prop up the falling structure only sets off more problem areas. Finally, they might realize that they have to stop trying to save a fundamentally ruined structure. And, counter-intuitively, that might just be the thing they need to save their marriage.

Letting Go)

I have known many couples in recovery that just admitted that their marriage had failed, stepped back from the problem, and watched it collapse at their feet. And then they started talking about how to build a new one. They realized that they could start the relationship over from scratch. They could pour a new foundation there at ground zero.

The old marriage vows were now a sham, they had been broken to the point of losing all meaning. So rather than trying to revitalize them, why not renounce them for the empty promises that they were and make all-new commitments instead? The couple’s memories are marred by the Jekyll-and-Hyde performance of the addict weaved through them all. So why not accept that those memories’ former luster has been lost and start making new ones instead?

It can be such a relief to realize that you don’t have to solve this architectural problem at all. You don’t have to marry two opposite realities together. You can instead assign all that was flawed and broken to the past and all that is hopeful and good to the future.

Some of the couples I have known that made this discovery bought new rings, had a new vow ceremony, and started counting their anniversary from the day they recommitted themselves to one another. It might sound like a strange thing to do, it certainly goes out of the normal convention, but really why not? It is an irregularity that is more congruent with life as they were experiencing it. Perhaps they didn’t realize it at the time, but so much of their confusion was because they were trying to fit stereotypes of love and marriage that didn’t fit their situation. There’s nothing to say that you can’t and shouldn’t alter the signs and symbols of love and marriage to match the one that you actually have before you.

In Due Time

Before I close off this topic, I must point that none of the couples in our recovery group took this step on day one. It would have been hugely premature to say, “let go of the past and hold on to now,” when “now” was still totally enmeshed with the “past.” Most of us addicts were still learning how to even live soberly from day-to-day, and it wouldn’t do to make new marriage vows that wre then broken a second and a third time.

It is prudent to wait until you are actually ready to live the new life before you make a solemn symbol of it. Better to not start pouring the new foundation until you have learned the fundamentals of architecture. Better to not say it is for real this time until you really mean it. And not only that you mean it right now in this moment, but you know that you will still mean it tomorrow.

Put another way, it is good to commit to the better future, but neither of you can do that until you are first ready to totally let go of the past.

A New Foundation: Part One

The Trauma in Disclosure)

I’ve spent several weeks discussing different aspects of addiction and its effects on a relationship. I’ve talked about the journeys of both the perpetrator and victim of abuse, and the anger in the spouse after she learns how the addict has been secretly acting out behind her back. Today I will continue with these themes and analyze one other aspect of addiction and relationship, that of rebuilding a marriage after the initial trauma of disclosure.

It is essential for every addict to make a full and complete disclosure to his wife. Given that he may have decades of shameful behavior hidden away, it may not be possible or prudent to list every offensive action he has done, but he should be willing to go into as thorough detail as his wife asks of him. She has the right to know all the things that he should have been telling her over all the years. At the same time, the addict must understand that this disclosure is going to cause significant trauma. She deserves to hear the truth, but it’s likely to rock her to her very core.

After such a disclosure, it is entirely possible for the wife to question whether the marriage can continue at all. Even if the husband is sincere about his desire to recover, she may feel that irreparable damage has been done. One of the most common feelings a wife will describe is that all of their marriage had been built upon a lie. Every tender and sacred moment she thought she had with her husband is now marred by the fact that he was lying through his teeth all along. It is as if the man she thought she loved in all of these memories has suddenly been replaced with a monster she never knew. Where once thinking of these times gave her joy, now they only bring sadness.

Different Views)

As for the husband, his view is totally different. Yes, he knows he lied, and probably some of the memories with his wife are also marred by the shame of living a double life, but also he knows that some of those moments were truly genuine. He didn’t fake everything. His love for his wife was real, and many of his acts of kindness to her really came from an authentic place. Indeed, it might be that genuine love for his wife is a key reason for why he is fighting this addiction now. Recovery work takes one to some very scary and painful places, but he’s willing to go there in order to save the best part of his life, including his relationship to his wife.

And the fact is, neither the husband nor the wife is wrong in their perspective. Neither one of them should feel that their view of reality is invalid because it isn’t shared by the other. The wife really has had her whole life thrown into disarray. Even if her husband says certain moments of their past were real to him, that doesn’t mean they have to be real to her still. Similarly, the husband should not be required to deny the real moments of poignancy from his past. Just because the whole marriage has been painted black in his wife’s eyes doesn’t mean that he cannot have a more nuanced view of it.

Often the result of these disparate perspectives is that the husband and the wife struggle to know how to continue building their marriage. The foundation of their love is divided and eroded, and it feels like every good thing they try to add just breaks it apart even more. For example, a kind gesture from the husband might actually be hurtful because it causes his wife to remember how kind gestures in the past were part of his manipulation. Similarly, anniversaries and milestones might feel like phony celebrations of a sham relationship, undermining the sense of accomplishment rather than building it up.

Thus, it can become very hard to sort out the real from the fake and come to a shared vision of the past. Indeed, in many cases, the couple will find that it is impossible to resolve their different perspectives. Ironically, it is by coming to accept that the marriage is broken and cannot be repaired that a couple can finally save it. I realize that might sound paradoxical, but come back tomorrow as I will explain what I mean.

Addiction and the Angry Spouse: Part Nine

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.

Addiction and the Angry Spouse: Part Eight

Different Commitments)

I have made the case that both the addict and his spouse have their individual work of recovery and that each of them needs to be active in it for their own sake. I have stated that this is the only way for them to become whole individually, which is already a worthwhile endeavor, but that this is also a prerequisite if they are ever again to be whole in their union together.

This brings up the question of what happens if both members of the relationship aren’t doing their work? Or what if only the addict is, or only the spouse? I thought it would be worth-while to consider all of the possible configurations and all of the different choices that they lead to. Like the branches of a tree, each individual decision splits into multiple possible futures. Today I will cover the most common and general options, which may manifest themselves in numerous ways.

No One is Doing Their Work)

The first option is that the addict isn’t really working on addiction recovery and the wife isn’t really working on trauma recovery. Perhaps they make an effort at first and burn out, or only ever go through the motions, or don’t even make any overtures towards getting better at all. Whether consciously or not, they decide that the effort of recovery isn’t worth it, and they would rather continue with things as they are.

There are two main ways that this situation might play out. The first is that the addict publicly continues to do behavior that is damaging and hurtful and the spouse continues to be incensed at his choices. Argument and self-justification will be constants in their household, thoughtless actions and harsh words will damage one another, creating great emotional scarring in them both. Either they will have a totally loveless union, or they will decide to part ways bitterly.

The other option is that each of them tries to deny the reality of what’s going on. The addict tries to hide his offensive behavior and the wife knows it is happening but turns a blind eye. For the sake of comfort or appearances they try to live as if there isn’t anything wrong at all, silently agreeing to just not bring the matter up anymore. Of course, no matter of pretend will take away the damage. They are living a lie, and the mutual disrespect will stretch a great hole in their hearts.

One is Working)

The next option is that only one member of the relationship is doing their work. It might be the addict sincerely striving to overcome his behavior, but his wife insists on holding onto hurt and anger, or it might be that the wife is working to heal her wounds and forgive, but her husband has no intention of ever changing.

Pretty soon this disjointed approach will separate the two into very different circles. One is trying to live a healthy and productive life, the other is constantly stuck in place. One outcome of this would be divorce. It might be that the healing partner seeks to move on to a relationship that is on more equal footing, or it might be that the complacent partner wants to stop feeling guilty for not trying.

Another outcome might be that they stay together, but start living totally different lives. Perhaps due to pressures of family or community, they feel that they have to hold the relationship together. Perhaps the member of the partnership who is actually trying feels that he/she must sacrifice his/her own interests to provide greater stability to the children. I believe the risk for unhealthy self-denial is very high here, but only you can judge your own situation.

Both Are Doing Their Work)

The final and best option is that both the addict and the wife are doing their work. The addict is overcoming his nature, the wife unburdening herself from the problems that don’t belong to her. Each of them is looking ahead to a life that is abundant and centered on truth.

An obvious outcome of this is that the addict and the wife find that they can rebuild their relationship. Or perhaps more accurately, they find that they can build a new one together. They sweep out the old and start anew. They will enjoy a union that exceeds any that they had before, for the first time they are building it on a foundation of truth.

It must be noted, though, that even in the situation where both parties do their work, it is possible that they find they are no longer compatible with one another. Perhaps they came together due to unresolved insecurities and encouraged the worst in one another. In this case, it might be to the benefit of both to let each other go with a full heart, hoping that they will find a union that is better fit to their healthy self.

The Ends)

Here we have multiple paths, but really there are only three outcomes. They are a dysfunctional relationship, a painful separation, or mutual wholeness. Each decision comes with a heavy cost. Making real change is expensive up front, but avoiding real change takes its toll over the rest of your life. Perhaps you had intended to spend your time and energy elsewhere in life, but believe me when I say that this is the only work that really matters. This is the work of the soul, and you owe it to yourself to do what is right, no matter what follows.

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.