If you’ve been the spouse, child, sibling, or in another connected relationship with an addict, you know the havoc it can wreak on your sense of self and peace. It can affect your self-esteem and make you feel like you’re crazy or out of control. You may begin to feel like your life is dictated by the addict’s using and your efforts to manage the aftermath of his or her addiction.
With sex and love addiction, particularly for spouses of the addicts, this takes its own unique toll. Partners can feel responsible for their spouse’s behaviors because the issue is sexual. Sometimes addicts will blame their spouses for “not getting it at home,” so they seek sex out elsewhere. Even if the addict isn’t blaming the spouse, he or she may still deal with insecurity about body image, sexuality, worth, and value. This can lead to behaviors that could be deemed codependent.
What is codependency?
Codependency, or co-addiction, is the name derived from early models of helping those married to addicts. Codependency is a word that describes dysfunctional relationships where there is an over-dependence on another individual to provide you with security, safety, sense of self, or value. It involves losing yourself in someone else.
Unfortunately, in recent years, codependency has gotten a bad reputation. Spouses felt blamed or held responsible for their spouse’s acting out, as this communicated they had to change for their spouse to stop using. This does not sufficiently address the reality of the trauma caused by a significant other’s addiction. While codependency may exist for some of these individuals, the pain of the trauma needs to be addressed and healed before looking at the possibility of codependency.
Codependency is still worth exploring, however, because it can shed light on how behaviors can change as a result of trauma. Understanding codependency can help men and women feel empowered to change their lives through understanding the dynamics of control in a relationship. In particular, if you find yourself in these types of relationships repeatedly, it is beneficial to take a look at some of these characteristics and see if you might benefit from a change.
Codependent No More
Melody Beattie, the author of the book Codependent No More*, began writing about codependency in 1986 when there were very few resources available to the public about codependency. Her pioneering work in the study and treatment of codependence has paved the way for healing for many spouses and significant others of addicts. This book and its corresponding workbook* have helped many men and women learn the skills they need to overcome codependency and learn the skills to take care of themselves.
What I’ve Learned
You don’t need to define yourself as “codependent” or find yourself in an addictive relationship to benefit from the lessons of this book. If you are in these types of relationships, however, or if you are a partner of a sex and love addict, then the following words will have particular resonance for you.
The only person you are in control of is yourself.
This is one of the hardest lessons to live by practically. You know what’s best for others and you want to help them see what you see, but often that leads to controlling behaviors and obsessive thoughts. Detach from the problems you aren’t in control over and allow yourself to focus only on those circumstances that are within your control.
Understanding your own emotions is key.
Often in codependency, you can become reactive and not always know what’s triggering your anger. Understanding the variety of emotional experiences you are having can help you learn more adaptive ways of coping. Know that your emotions are not bad in themselves: how you react to them can have negative consequences, but welcome your emotions as indicators that something is not right. Explore how your ability to name and feeling emotions has been impacted by past trauma, either from your family-of-origin or from your relationship with an addict or other dysfunctional individual.
Moving from victim to victorious empowers you to make the best choices for yourself.
Viewing oneself as a victim of circumstance or of the addict is often justified in some way, but it keeps you feeling trapped and hopeless rather than empowered to change. You might feel paralysis because you don’t think you have the power to make decisions to take care of yourself. In her book Moving Beyond Betrayal*, Vicki Tidwell Palmer identifies the importance of both communicating needs and setting boundaries to get your needs met.
Notice when you’re feeling like a victim and/or your needs aren’t being met and explore that further. What might be leading you to feel that way? What ways might you be acting in a way that reinforces the message that you are a victim (ie. through rescuing or enabling)? What are your needs? Can you meet them on your own or do you need help?
Break the value-based messages of shame, being “good enough,” or faulty Christian teaching.
Codependent thoughts and behaviors can be intensified by feelings of shame. Perhaps you learned lessons as a child that you were only valuable or given attention when you served others. It could be that denying your own needs and caregiving was how you demonstrated that you were a true Christian. The Biblical truth of serving others may have been twisted such that you think you ought to accept abuse and harm without complaint because that’s the “Christian” thing to do.
Identify what messages of shame are driving your tendency to care more for others than for yourself, whether coming from your faith background or from family relationships. Understand how those are influencing your present day and seek to affirm the reality of your value outside of what you can give to others.
Self-care is more than just a trend.
Beattie defines self-care as an attitude or perspective toward yourself and your life that reminds you that you are responsible for yourself and your own well-being. It is a reminder that you cannot depend on the object of your obsession to take care of you perfectly and without fault. Self-care involves kindness and grace toward yourself with corresponding loving actions.
Practice self-acceptance and remind yourself that you are okay in this present moment. Identify your needs and set goals for self-care to learn that you are capable of making decisions to care for yourself. Include fun and play in your self-care as you get to know the inner child within you that may have been harmed by past caregivers. Exercise and take care of your physical health for the added mental health benefits.
Acceptance doesn’t mean settling.
Practicing acceptance is a helpful add-on to releasing control of others. When you acknowledge that you are the only person you can control, it requires you to admit that you are powerless over others’ behaviors. But acceptance doesn’t mean you have to be okay with the way things are. Instead, use acceptance to acknowledge the truth of where you are right now and assess the reality of what it will take to change. Practicing acceptance is for you, not the other person, because it allows you to experience peace. It may require moving through stages of grief before you can adequately feel acceptance. Meet with a trusted friend or counselor to help you move through this grief to a place of acceptance.
Do you find yourself trying to control the behaviors of your loved one who is struggling with addiction? Are you feeling hopeless and trapped, without any sense of how you can change? Do you have a hard time living your own life because it seems like your spouse’s or significant other’s sex and love addiction rules your life? At Restored Hope, I offer specialized treatment for partners of sex and love addicts to help you heal from trauma and feel empowered to make choices that are the best for you. Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me to learn more and schedule your first appointment.
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