My husband’s brother is an alcoholic. Yesterday, my father-in-law commented, “I can love him, I can listen to him when he needs to talk, I can tell him he needs professional help, but that’s all I can do. I can’t fix him, and there’s not much more I can do to help him. The only one who can really help him now is him. Mostly all I can do is just love him.” Privately, I reflected on that statement in terms of my husband’s sex addiction and my role as his partner.
One of my biggest struggles this last couple of years has been properly defining, limiting, and sticking to a helpful but healthy role in my husband’s journey of addiction and recovery. I have written previously about the importance of remembering that only your spouse is responsible for his or her recovery, progress, or failure, and that it’s impractical and unhealthy to try to take on that responsibility for him or her. I know this, rationally, but internalizing it and applying it are still a challenge, and I often catch myself taking on more than I should and blurring the limits of what I can and should control with the limits of what is, and should be, out of my hands.
Hearing that comment about my brother-in-law, just as I was already giving this issue some serious thought spurred me to think more about exactly what constitutes a healthy role for a spouse in supporting a recovering addict. After I wrote the list, I realized that it could spell out the acronym HALO, so if acronyms are helpful for you, try that one.
- Honesty: Be open and honest with your spouse about how his or her pornography habit makes you feel, how it impacts your self-esteem, and how it damages the intimacy and closeness in your relationship. Screaming at or berating your partner will probably have the opposite of the desired effect, as men in particular tend to defensively shut down and then lash out in face of perceived attacks, but a calm, straightforward insight into what you are going through might actually get through and give your spouse something to consider.
- Accountability: As the people closest to our partners, we as spouses are often in a better position than anyone else to realize when something is wrong. This may mean confronting your partner about a slip or relapse (which requires knowing about it), or it may mean holding them accountable for following through on treatment plans. However, it is very important to remember that all you can really do is point out to your partner that he or she is off-track; it is your partner’s responsibility to hear that message and act on it. You are not responsible for your partner’s actions. You cannot and should not be responsible for your partner’s actions. Remember that old adage about leading horses to water but not making them drink? You can only show your partner where the light is. It’s up to your partner to follow it.
- Love: This is simultaneously the easiest and the hardest thing on the list. I can’t make myself stop loving my husband, but his behavior and its effect on me often make it very difficult for me to show that. I feel obligated to say that obviously, both love and the ability to stay in a relationship both have their limits, and if your spouse’s behavior has exceeded the limits of what you can live with, or if the situation is unhealthy, please get out. Never stay with anyone of out of sympathy or concern. However, if you do love your partner, and if the relationship isn’t past the point of no return, then loving support is the best thing you can provide as he or she works toward recovery. Sometimes that means comfort, other times it means encouragement, and still others it might mean firmness and accountability- but love is the key. It won’t cure your spouse by itself, but it can be a powerful supplement to therapy, 12-step programs, and other treatment.
- Opportunity: Try to create an environment in which your partner’s recovery has the best possible chance to succeed. Alex mentioned in a post here, which contains some great advice for spouses of addicts, that one of the most helpful things you can do for your partner in a concrete, practical way is to give him or her a home environment which is as free as possible of unhealthy sexual images or potential triggers. Work with your spouse to block unhealthy content on you family’s computers and TV, and be careful about the media you bring into the home; avoid movies with scantily clad characters or heavily sexual scenes, etc. You can also help head off the boredom and loneliness that sometimes trigger the addiction cycle by doing fun, healthy things with your partner and making sure that he or she has healthy activities readily available for time alone.
Your most important role in this situation, however, is to take care of yourself. I don’t have a catchy acronym for this one.
- Set limits. Understand that you cannot manage your spouse’s recovery for him or her. Don’t try. Set firm limits about the role you will take in this process, and discuss those limits with your partner.
- Get help. You probably know that your partner needs counseling or therapy, and you have hopefully agreed to seek couples’ counseling together as well, but you will probably benefit immensely from your own individual counseling to help you find healthy ways to cope with the situation and what you are going through.
- Stay connected. There are a number of great support groups out there for partners of addicts, including AlAnon- which is connected with AA but helps families affected by all sorts of addiction- and Co-Dependents Anonymous. On the web, at Daily Strength are a good place to share support and advice with others who are dealing with similar things, and