To the Wives
According to most recent statistics, over 21 million Americans struggle with addiction. In all reality, this number is probably much higher. Most family systems have at least one family member struggling and in need of help to overcome one or more chemical dependency, sex and love addiction, eating disorder, gambling addiction, etc. Much work has been done to break through stigma surrounding mental health issues, though there is much more work to do. The truth is we all know someone who struggles with addiction in some way and it is destroying our homes, killing beautiful people, and creating trauma for innocent children, and it needs to be talked about as regularly as possible.
Addiction tears apart lives and leaves family members angry, desperate, and anxious…
As we move towards greater recognition of addiction and the impact on the family, more and more is being exposed regarding co-dependency and relational trauma that needs to be treated within the family system. Anyone who loves the addicted person could be well served by mental health intervention and support. Addiction tears apart lives and leaves family members angry, desperate, and anxious. Everyone scrambles to create plans, force solutions, try to keep themselves safe from the inevitable fallout, blame one another… all the while making it easier for the addict to continue on a path of self-destruction. Addiction comes in many forms and affects people of all walks of life.
For today, let’s focus in on the women who have husbands struggling with addiction.
The wives often have a small role in their partner’s recovery process, and are included in a family session here or there. In the best treatment facilities, they are brought in for a family workshop for a few days. They are suggested to go to therapy or Al Anon. They are regarded as controlling or angry and often not treated for what they really are – trauma survivors.
Imagine for a moment that your partner, the person you rely on to join forces with you in finances and parenting and LIFE has this ugly addiction that you get the pleasure of seeing up close and personal on a regular basis. Often addicts are smart and charming and well-liked out in the world. It helps them camouflage their addictions and keep their secrets hidden. In fact, this person usually does a great job of painting their wife as a villain, so as to gain empathy and remain in a victim role, further justifying their need to self-medicate. Often the wife is the only one who sees the ugly underbelly of the addiction. She alone is the recipient of the drunken rants, tries to shield her children from the wreckage, suffers the financial liability, is lied to and gas-lighted time and time again, and goes to bed alone, somehow believing that this is all her fault.
Making it worse, so much shame is tied up in loving someone who is addicted.
100% of wives who have sat in my office and shared the full extent of what happened in their marriage said that they did not tell someone sooner because they were afraid they would be told to leave the marriage. One hundred percent! While this woman knows that she is tolerating the intolerable, she also holds out hope that a miracle will occur and her husband will get well so that the family can remain intact. These women hold the weight of the world on their shoulders and often have very complex reasons for staying; they are scared to be alone, they can’t financially afford to leave, they can’t fathom having to share custody of their children, they have religious beliefs that don’t align with divorce, or they are afraid of how their husband will respond to them leaving finally. There is shame in staying through the abuse, shame about leaving someone who is actively harming himself, shame about whatever part they believe they played in the addiction, and shame about being the wife of an addict.
When this woman finally speaks her truth and an intervention finally happens, she is often met with a whole new set of obstacles.
If her spouse goes away to treatment, she is suddenly left in financial despair as a single parent, needing to do the job intended for two people by herself overnight. The spouse who gets treatment has round-the-clock care and support groups and therapy while the wife is often lucky to make it to a meeting or two only if someone is generous enough to help with childcare. Her husband is, after all, the primary patient, and much of the family work that she is included in while her husband is in treatment is around her making difficult decisions for her family moving forward and speaking about triggers for when he returns home. There is a little emphasis on treating HER as a person who has been through repeated and complex relationship trauma.
Complicating matters further, wife after wife has told me that she is blamed for the addiction by her husband’s extended family.
The addict’s family of origin often looks to make excuses for their loved one’s behaviors, so as not to have to look too closely at issues within the primary family system as part of the problem. Think about it; the addict likely learned unhealthy behaviors, dishonesty, and numbing very early in life. Even if the addiction manifested long before the wife entered the picture, she is an easy target to blame for the stressors the addict endures. This leaves the woman with very little support and even more shame. It also helps the addict to continue to avoid responsibility for his behaviors and makes recovery efforts extremely difficult moving forward.
The truth of the matter is that the wife IS angry and likely even controlling. People respond to fear and uncertainty with anger and control, across the board. Their hippocampus has been hijacked as they experience traumatic experience after traumatic experience. Their brains go into “fight or freeze” mode and they become “crazy.” Our brains are hard wired to respond this way to protect us from danger. These faulty defense mechanisms serve her to feel some semblance of power in the middle of the powerlessness. It is common behavior in all trauma survivors and this is where the real work begins for her.
If this woman does the brave work of entering into her own recovery, she will explore roots of her co-dependency and discover her own childhood traumas that she is attempting to heal by “helping” unavailable people.
We re-create what we know and if what we know is chaos and instability, a relationship with an addict will feel like love. She will need to learn to stand on her own, set boundaries for what she wants in her life, and grow in self-confidence like never before. Her future is uncertain and she is overwhelmed, but now more than ever, self-care through her own programs and consultation with an experienced therapist are critical. This not only aids in her husband getting sober, but it helps her to develop a new sense of freedom to make whatever decisions come next.
To the wives, the mental health community sees you!
There are therapists who will walk beside you and help you set boundaries to keep you safe. Find a therapist who will hold you accountable for your actions. More importantly, find a therapist who will dig in with you and do the deep family of origin and attachment work so that you can understand the roots of these behaviors and create lasting change. Addiction is a family disease. Both Al Anon and therapy are wonderful support systems in navigating the chaos. You are not alone.