When I walked nervously into my first counseling session about a year ago, I had no idea what to expect, and no idea how the process worked. A kindly woman about my mother’s age opened the conversation with, “So, what are your objectives for counseling?” I was both confused and daunted; no one had warned me that there would be a quiz on the first day!
“Um… to get better?” I stammered. I had sought counseling mostly at my husband’s insistence, because he saw that the anger, grief, and bitterness I felt because of his addiction weren’t loosening their grip without help. He was right, but at the time I knew only that I had signed up for counseling because it was supposed to help; I had no idea how it was supposed to help, what was expected of me, or what to expect of my counselor.
A year later, I have formed a better understand of what I need, how counseling works, and what its role is in recovering from the emotional damage done by a partner’s addiction and infidelity. Although this post is written from a spouse’s perspective, much of this advice is useful for recovering addicts as well as spouses.
It is actually okay not to have clearly defined objectives, especially at first. In the immediate aftermath of the discovery and the initial stages of recovery you may simply need someone to talk to, and a counselor or therapist is a good choice. You may be hesitant to share details of the situation with friends or family, because you may want to protect your spouse’s reputation or because you may be embarrassed or afraid of judgmental reactions. A professional counselor or therapist will not judge you or your partner, and will understand how addiction works; he or she will also not give you black-and-white advice like “Leave the jerk!” or “Just get over it!” This can make a counselor safer and easier to talk to than a personal acquaintance, especially at first.
As your therapy or counseling progresses, however, you will get more out of your sessions (and the time in between) if you have clear goals, even if they are not necessarily very specific. It may help to first understand what counseling is not designed to accomplish:
- It is not a magic cure for your negative feelings, relationship challenges, or other issues.
- Your counselor is not there to simply hand you a set of instructions for resolving a specific situation or to tell you what to decide about a specific dilemma.
- Therapy and counseling will not teach you how to “fix” your spouse.
In general, your therapist or counselor is there to be a sounding board and to equip you with tools for communication, conflict resolution, and coping, rather than to give you specific advice or solutions (although there may be exceptions). Good objectives for your counseling include:
- Having a safe, nonjudgmental outlet for experiences, feelings, and concerns that you may not feel comfortable discussing with friends or family.
- Learning how to cope with negative feelings (about yourself, your partner, your marriage, or anything else) in healthy, productive ways instead of destructive, damaging, or hurtful ones.
- Learning to express your feelings, fears, and needs to your partner in a constructive way.
- Understanding how addiction works and how it affects your spouse and his or her actions.
- Reinforcing the knowledge that your partner’s infidelity and addiction are not about you, caused by you, or your fault.
- Learning the limits of what you can do to support your partner’s recovery.
- Learning ways to rebuild your self-image into something positive and healthy.
- Learning how to resolve conflict and make wise, healthy decisions.
As a general rule, you will get out of this treatment what you put into it. Beginning the process with clear, realistic expectations will help tremendously.