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For the spouse of someone struggling with addiction (or a number of other problems), it’s important to understand how to best help them. Remember that these things are only effective if you choose to do them. You do not HAVE to! You have options and choices and being a part of their recovery process is completely up to you. If you choose to help them, the following steps will support this process. Please understand, their addiction is not your fault. It’s about them, not you!
First, understand that the problem is their shame or feeling not good enough. Shame manifests through hurtful or harmful behavior out of fear of not being good enough. Unfortunately for them, they won’t even recognize this is what’s happening. Their fear that they aren’t enough is making them avoid any situation (including negative feelings) that reaffirm they aren’t enough. In other words, most of their negative behavior is to avoid the pain of being worthless and unlovable. They are making most of their decisions based on subconscious fears (learn more from Choosing Clarity). This can lead to hurtful and harmful behaviors that seem far removed from their shame but really aren’t. To help them we need to focus on increasing their sense of self-worth to combat the shame (and not just attempt to limit the behaviors that demonstrate their shame). The good news is that we can! The bad news is that we can’t give them something we don’t have.
1. Understand and accept that we are all human beings, not human doings, and our worth and value does not depend on what we do (or how well we do it) or what’s happened to us. This counts for you too! This means that we are all worthy of love, no matter what we’ve done or what we’ve been through. Their hurtful or harmful actions are a reflection of their own perceived value, not actual value.
2. Understand and address your own shame issues and how you feel about yourself. Are you feeling too much pain around their offensive thoughts, attitudes and behaviors? What do you believe their behaviors say about you? Are your beliefs accurate? Are you safe in knowing who you are?
3. Understand that love and trust are two separate things and loving someone does not mean trusting them. It means you will do certain things for them because you love them but you will also keep yourself safe if you don’t trust them, up to and including stepping out of their life.
4. Do your best to increase your own sense of self-worth. This includes journaling, mindfulness, strengthening your relationship to your Higher Power, having values and principles you know and live by, developing and demonstrating loving kindness for yourself, understanding your whole story, working through childhood trauma (EMDR), therapy (self, group), self-help books, etc.
5. Love them! Even if they are hurting you! Identify when they are acting from a place of shame with hurtful thoughts, attitudes, and behavior and invite them to love themselves because you love them. Loving them means you do not criticize, show contempt, or intentionally hurt them because you’re hurting. However, there’s an important disclaimer here: THIS DOES NOT MEAN you allow behavior that puts you at physical risk and it does not mean you trust them when they’re not trustworthy or have sex just because they want to when you don’t feel emotionally close to them. You need to maintain your boundaries and take time and space when they are hurting you. However, you maintain a love for WHO they are, not for what they’re doing, and this is the best way for you to invite them to change. Give them hope that they are more than what they think they are. However, you may still need to step out of their life if their behavior is harmful enough, and that’s okay.
6. Show this love consistently! Talk with them daily about these things (trust discussions, time together) and maintain your love throughout the process knowing you are yourself lovable and can walk away from the relationship at any time. Don’t wait for them to act lovable first. This maintains your integrity and increases your own sense of self-worth.
7. Differentiate hurtful from harmful behavior. Hurtful behavior is behavior that hurts your feelings, while harmful behavior causes more serious harm and requires more immediate attention. Accept that in the process of recovery there will be significant hurtful behavior while you choose to love them and they come to better understand their own worth. However, harmful behavior requires boundaries that may include limits, restrictions, time and space, separation, and divorce.