sex and love addiction

How to Respond When Setting Boundaries Doesn't Work (Boundaries Series Part 2 of 2)

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You’ve recognized your need for change.  You’ve established a boundary and communicated it to the other person.  You may have included a “cause-and-effect” style consequence.  But nothing’s changing.  What’s wrong?

Unfortunately, boundaries aren’t always as straightforward as they seem.  You can run in to several different roadblocks that interfere with effectively setting boundaries.  Here are a few thoughts to consider as you explore why your boundary-setting may not have worked as well as you expected.

Use the broken record method when communicating boundaries.

When you first communicate your boundary, you might receive a defensive response questioning your decision.  This can lead to self-doubt and hedging that makes your boundary less clear.

Instead, reaffirm your boundary by communicating it again.  For example, you might say, “I can understand your perspective and need for help, but I will not be able to take on that volunteer responsibility.” 

You may continue to receive defensive responses from the other person, but your job is to keep communicating that same boundary over and over again, like a broken record.  Hold fast to that boundary in order to protect your needs. 

Remind yourself of your authentic personal power and seek to meet your needs on your own.

Vicki Tidwell Palmer, in her book Moving Beyond Betrayal, uses the phrase authentic personal power to describe the difference between areas in which you have power or control and areas in which you do not.  You can control your own thoughts, actions, behaviors, emotions, and attitudes, but you can’t control the actions or emotions of others.  They may choose not to respect your requests or your boundaries.

Recognize the areas where you are powerless to change others and find ways that you can meet your own needs using your own power.  For example, you can leave the room when an argument with your spouse becomes too heated, or suggest outings other than shopping to your friend with whom you tend to overspend.  Recognizing where you have power allows you to avoid feeling like a victim.

If the outcome is outside of your control because it depends on the actions of someone else, seek creative ways to set boundaries and follow through on consequences to meet your own need.  For example, you could say, “If you choose to come home later than you communicated you would, I will not have dinner prepared and ready for you.”

Follow through on consequences communicated.

A boundary isn’t truly functional unless there is follow-through on the consequences for breaking it.  Often, in a life without boundaries, you’re absorbing the effects of another’s actions instead of allowing them to experience those consequences themselves.

In some cases, consequences are minor and may only have a small impact on the other person.  In choosing outings other than shopping with your friend, you’ll still be able to spend time together: it will just look different.  When you say “no” to a volunteer opportunity, the consequence is that the person who asks will simply have to ask someone else.

But in some cases, the consequences are more significant.  For the addict who continues to act out, they may have to face the consequences of separation or divorce.  These significant consequences often can be difficult for you as well. Be willing to count the cost of these more significant consequences and imagine how they’ll play out, including what you’ll need to reinforce them.  Imagining the story all the way through until the end will help prepare you in case you need to follow through.

It is important to recognize how the consequences you communicate will also affect you and be willing to follow through anyway. If not, your boundaries will be ineffective at allowing you to get your needs met.  For the addict, the most important part of rebuilding trust is to line up words with actions.  In boundary setting, you need to operate with much the same principle.

Get comfortable with saying “no.”

As silly as it may sound, practice saying “no” on your own or with other people.  Stand in front of a mirror and rehearse what you’re going to say in communicating your boundary.  Talk with a friend or therapist and ask them to help you rehearse how your conversation will go.

An added benefit of practicing your “no” with a trusted friend is that you’ll receive support for the boundaries you’d like to set.  You’ll be able to process who the boundary setting goes and having someone to care for you if things don’t turn out as expected.

Be willing to re-evaluate and compromise if needed.

While I often find that the major issue with setting boundaries is maintaining them, the opposite extreme can also come into play: boundaries that become too rigid and unchangeable.  For example, if you decide that your spouse’s late arrival means you won’t make dinner for him or her, what happens when your spouse was involved in a car accident or was caught in an unexpected storm?  It may be worthwhile to reconsider the consequence of the boundary in this situation.

Be willing to have conversations with your loved ones and offer grace in situations that are outside of their control.  Look for places to compromise when your loved ones have a hard time agreeing with or carrying out your boundaries.  What might be a solution in the middle where you could get both of your needs met? Ask what the other individual is willing to agree to and see if that works for you.

Part of revisiting your boundaries might involve acknowledging that you don’t have control over the behaviors and choices of your spouse or of the person with whom you’re setting boundaries.  Since healthy consequences are meant for self-care and not for maintaining control over the other person, your consequences may not lead to change in them.  Boundaries are not meant to control, but are meant to help you receive what you need.

In this case, you’ll likely grieve the loss of an ideal or hoped-for outcome.  If the other person doesn’t respond in the way you’d hoped, you might need to re-evaluate how to get your needs met on your own.  In extreme cases, like in failure to respect boundaries about sexual acting out behaviors outside the marriage, this may mean pursuing separation or divorce.

 

These general principles are meant to help resolve simple boundary violations or conflicts, but real life can be complicated beyond what these simple solutions can provide.  If you’re facing these more complex boundary situations, consider sitting down with a therapist to discuss how to set boundaries specific to your situation.

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Have you run into issues like the ones described above in setting boundaries?  Are you losing hope that you’ll ever be able to have your needs met?  Are you fearful of facing the cost of the consequences you set?  At Restored Hope, I will offer you support and space to grieve as you seek to set boundaries for your health and well-being.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to set up your first appointment at my Ann Arbor counseling office.

How to Set Yourself Up for Success in Boundary Setting (Boundaries Series Part 1 of 2)

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Beginning to set boundaries in relationships can be a difficult process.  It often requires you to change a pattern of relating that’s been ingrained into your lifestyle.  It might feel like swimming upstream. 

When you’re first learning to set boundaries, you’ll come up against resistance, including resistance within yourself.  Others might not respect your boundaries.  You might notice yourself having a hard time maintaining your boundaries because it feels uncomfortable.  Perhaps you’ll even begin to question or doubt yourself.

What makes a boundary a true boundary is holding to it no matter what resistance you come up against.  If a fence topples the second someone leans against it, it doesn’t function as intended to keep the bad things out.  Similarly, if your boundary is communicated with words but isn’t followed by actions, it isn’t functioning the way it should.

In the case of sex and love addiction, often spouses of sex addicts will threaten divorce or separation if the behavior doesn’t stop.  This can come from an honest place of desiring protection or safety.  However, if the boundary is not followed through upon, it’s an empty threat and therefore cannot effectively lead to change or safety in your relationship.

How can you begin to set boundaries in your life?

Identify what needs you’d like to have met as a result of the boundary.

How does the lack of boundary affect you? For example, if your spouse consistently communicates that they will be home at a certain time but consistently arrives much later, you may have spent time or energy on meal prep or childcare that you weren’t expecting.  If they have a history of addiction, you might also be fearful and feel unsafe as a result of their lack of communication.

Another example could be when you are asked to pick up one more volunteer responsibility at your church.  You might feel overwhelmed by the lack of time you have available for your family and friends.

What needs do you have that a boundary could provide?  In her book Moving Beyond Betrayal, Vicki Tidwell Palmer lists several needs that might be present in response to a lack of boundaries.  These include examples such as:

  • Safety

  • Empathy

  • Understanding

  • Freedom

  • Peace

  • Authenticity

  • Honesty

  • Love

  • Rest

  • Time

  • Communication

  • Respect

  • Trust

  • Affection 

Once you’ve identified your needs, you will be able to brainstorm possible ways to set a boundary with yourself or others to fulfill that need.

Clarify your vision for an ideal response to your boundary.

Imagine this: what would your ideal solution be?  Even if that solution feels silly or unrealistic, allow your mind to go there in search of the “perfect” solution. 

When you’ve created this ideal situation in your mind, ask yourself where you have the power or control to make that happen.  If your ideal solution to your need of rest is taking Saturdays off, you may have the power to set a boundary to say “no” to activities on Saturday.

Then identify where you’d need support or buy-in from others.  If your ideal solution to your spouse’s late arrival at home is his or her on-time arrival, you may need to request that they arrive home when they communicate they will.

You will also need to identify the consequence or result of a broken boundary.  Palmer explains that consequences are not meant to be punishment or attempts to control the other.  Rather, consequences are to be thought of in terms of cause and effect: the broken boundary is the cause, and the effect involves meeting your need.  A consequence to your spouse not arriving home when they say they will might be that you will not make dinner for them.  This meets a need for freedom to complete the other tasks that need to be done that evening.

Pay attention to what resistance you feel when holding that boundary line.

As you start this process of brainstorming solutions, you might notice doubt or misgivings arising.  Be curious about those: what’s getting in the way of setting those boundaries?  Is it fear of the other’s response?  Do you worry that you don’t have value or you’ll be forgotten if you say “no” to requests for help?

See if there are any areas of insecurity that you need to work through.  Remind yourself of statements of truth, such as, “My value doesn’t come from what I do for others,” “I have control over my thoughts and actions,” or “I can walk away if things get too heated.”

Communicate your boundaries clearly and directly.

The biggest issue I often see is deciding on your own boundaries but neglecting to communicate them and/or their consequences clearly and effectively.  Sometimes that can be as simple as saying “no.”  Other times you need to clearly state your request and the consequence if that request is not followed through.  For example, you might say, “If you continue speaking to me in a sharp and harsh tone of voice, I will leave the room.”

In some cases, it may be more appropriate to know your own boundaries and make choices to care for yourself that don’t involve the other person’s buy-in.  For example, you  may realize that going shopping with one of your friends is hard on your budget, as you tend to overspend while you’re with her.  You may choose instead to suggest different outings together that don’t involve shopping in order to maintain the friendship, but it may not be necessary to communicate that directly.  If, however, your friend pressures you to go shopping with her more often, there may come a time where you choose to communicate your boundary more clearly to her.

Recommended Resources for Boundary Setting

  • Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend – This book is a great primer on the concept of boundaries.  You can also purchase the corresponding Boundaries Workbook to help you put into practice the concepts you learn from the book.

  • Moving Beyond Betrayal by Vicki Tidwell Palmer – While this book is written specifically for partners of sex and love addicts, she does an amazing job with her 5-Step Boundary Solution in explaining a concise, step-by-step process in setting boundaries.  I would recommend this for anyone interested in setting boundaries, whether or not you are a partner of a sex addict.

In Part 2, we’ll address what to do when you set a boundary and it doesn’t work out the way you expected.

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Are you learning how to set boundaries in your relationships?  Do you feel like a doormat, unable to stand up for yourself or ask for what you need?  Is your partner an addict and you’re wondering how setting boundaries can help to rebuild trust?  I’d love to help you understand how setting boundaries can revolutionize your relationships and help you grow in confidence.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me  to set up a counseling session today at Restored Hope in Ann Arbor.

Questioning Reality: Gaslighting and Emotional Manipulation in Relationships

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It’s happening again.

Your suspicions about your spouse’s behaviors are increasing.  The late nights at the office, not answering his phone when you call, strange text messages.  You could’ve sworn you smelled perfume on him when he came home last night. 

But when you bring it up, he immediately lashes out.  “Seriously?  I’ve told you a thousand times that I’m not having an affair!  You’re seeing things that aren’t really there.  Just because your dad cheated on your mom doesn’t mean that I’m doing the same thing!  Who knows, you bring this up so often it makes me wonder if you’re having an affair and feeling guilty about it.  You’re crazy.”

Once again, you walk away from the conversation wracked with guilt and self-doubt.  Maybe I was reading into something that wasn’t there.  It’s probably nothing.  He’s right, I’m just acting crazy.

As the weeks and months go by, the evidence keeps stacking up against him.  You catch him on his phone late at night talking to another woman.  There are charges on your credit card for dinners you didn’t attend.  Several nights he doesn’t come home at all.

And yet he keeps denying that anything’s wrong and dismissing your concerns.  What at one time would’ve been convincing evidence that he’s doing something suspicious now becomes more fodder for you to doubt yourself and believe that you’re crazy.  His emotional manipulation tactics are working: he’s perfected the art of gaslighting.

What is gaslighting?

Gaslighting is a form of emotional manipulation in which the individual being questioned denies the truth and leads the questioner to doubt their own perception of reality.  The term comes from the story in the 1944 film Gaslight, in which the husband gradually and systematically convinces his wife that she is insane. He does so by changing small details in the home, including the dimness of the gas lights, and denying any difference.  The more he denies, the more she believes him and buys in to his assertion that she’s going crazy.

This process is slow and gradual, almost imperceptible.  The questioner eventually believes he or she is misperceiving reality, learning that they can’t trust their instincts.  Gaslighting influences the balance of power in relationship in favor of the one who denies any wrongdoing.

Gaslighting is commonly present in addiction.  Typically the partner can intuit that there is a problem with the addict’s behavior, but when questioning him or her, receives a response of denial.  Eventually the partner believes their spouse’s lies and doubts their own self-worth.  However, when the partner discovers the addiction and begins to see the past in light of this new awareness, they realize they weren’t crazy after all.  Yet prolonged conditioning to doubt their own perceptions can lead to difficulty learning to trust their gut moving forward.

How do I know I’m experiencing gaslighting?

If you find yourself confronting an issue with your spouse consistently and getting nowhere, pay attention to how you feel in response.  If you leave those conversations feeling as though you were in the wrong for bringing it up, or questioning your perception of reality, you may be experiencing gaslighting. 

Gaslighting also has a strong effect on self-esteem and feelings of self-worth.  As your spouse or partner denies evidence that indicates deception or an issue with addiction, you might notice yourself using negative self-talk, beating yourself up, or doubting yourself more often.  Your confidence may suffer.  Pay attention to how your self-esteem has been affected since you entered the relationship with this individual: did you have self-doubt or issues with self-confidence beforehand?  Have they increased or worsened since being in this relationship?

“Crazymaking” is a synonym for gaslighting that gets at another symptom: feeling like you are crazy or losing your mind.  This is often a defensive denial strategy of the gaslighter.

Notice if your partner turns your accusations against you: for example, if you bring up concern about his alcohol use, notice if he or she flips it around and begins accusing you of having an addiction.  Often the gaslighter will project whatever issues they’re dealing with on their partner in their defensiveness.

How do I stop the gaslighting?

The first step toward change when you’re facing gaslighting is owning your own reality.  Slow down and acknowledge the information or data you’re seeing.  Be open to possible alternate explanations for the data, but realize that if enough evidence points in a concerning direction, there’s likely some validity to it.  Don’t allow your partner to twist your reality and lead you to believe you’re seeing something that isn’t really there.

Learn to recognize the signs of defensiveness in your partner.  If you bring up a concern to your partner, see if they turn back to criticize you or lash out.  Often defensiveness is a sign of insecurity or weakness, and it can indicate denial or deception.

Explore and build up your self-esteem apart from your partner.  If you accept their negative words and assumptions about you as truth, then your confidence will likely suffer.  Instead, empower yourself by owning that you have value and worth.  Learn that your perspective matters and your intuition is valid.  Pursue your own self-care and support to build up your confidence and boundaries.

Remember the old adage that actions speak louder than words.  Addicts are great at making promises, but not always skilled at follow-through.  Instead of basing your trust on your spouse’s words, look at their actions and behaviors as representative of the truth.  Gaslighters can easily persuade you with their words, but their actions often tell a different story. 

If you know you’ve experienced gaslighting before, as when you’ve recently discovered a spouse’s addiction, use your feelings of self-doubt or crazymaking as red flags to ask yourself if the gaslighting is happening again.  Go back to reviewing the data to see if there is evidence of deception or denial.  If so, detach from the gaslighter, build up your own self-esteem, and set or enforce appropriate boundaries for your own safety.

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Are you wondering if you’ve been subject to gaslighting in your own relationship?  Do you feel like you’re going crazy in your relationship?  Have you found out about your partner’s addiction and are wondering how to learn to trust your intuition again?  At Restored Hope, I offer specialized counseling for partners of sex addicts who are reeling from the discovery of their spouse’s behaviors.  Give me a call today at 734.656.8191 or email me to schedule your first appointment and hear how I can help.

Targeting Sobriety in Addiction Recovery: How to Make a Three Circle Plan

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When a sex and love addict comes to the realization that they need help to stay sober, it can be a mystery of what to do next.  By the time you’ve humbled yourself enough to admit you’re powerless, usually you’ve already tried to stop your behavior several times.  This can take the form of forcing yourself not to act out, through white-knuckling, attempting aversion techniques, or even sometimes using self-harm as a deterrent.

But if you’ve been in this cycle of trying to stop on your own, you often find that you can’t help but go back to your addiction. The foundation of addiction is isolation, secrecy, and shame.  You likely deal with feelings of shame by acting out, which cycles back in on itself to create more shame as you wonder why you can’t just stop.

What needs to change?

The first step in true healing for any addict is to get support from other people, such as in a 12 Step or support group.  These groups encourage creating a sobriety plan as part of your recovery. 

I often recommend the three-circle plan as a helpful sobriety tool to identify the behaviors you want to avoid and healthy self-care behaviors to increase.  Not only does this plan provide that, but it also allows you to identify risk factors or warning signs of acting out.

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The Three-Circle Plan

The image of a three-circle plan is three concentric circles.  The inner circle is the list of behaviors from which you’re trying to maintain sobriety.  The middle circle is your boundaries list, or a list of the risk factors, warning signs, or triggers that might send you into your inner circle.  The outer circle involves healthy self-care behaviors that you can increase to help you avoid addictive behaviors. 

Inner Circle Behaviors

Your inner circle behaviors, or abstinence list, is the list of activities from which you want to achieve sobriety in your recovery.  These are the behavior checks you’d share at your 12 Step meetings or with your sponsor as a regular way to hold yourself accountable.  For example, if you primarily act out using pornography, you will put “pornography” in this circle.  If you have had several affairs, prohibiting “contact with acting out partners” may be more appropriate. 

If you’re aware of your cycle of addiction, you know that there are some behaviors that inevitably lead to acting out for you.  While these might eventually end up in the middle circle, it may be wise to put them in your inner circle in early recovery and revisit them once you’ve achieved some more solid sobriety. 

There will be some behaviors you are hesitant to put into this inner circle because it means you will have to give them up.  Notice the discomfort you have around those as a form of denial.  Use your support system to help keep you in check on what needs to go in this circle.

Outer Circle Behaviors

I believe it is important to make your list of healthy self-care behaviors early in recovery, so we will turn to the outer circle now.  Outer circle behaviors, or healthy self-care, are required to help you establish and maintain sobriety.  Self-care helps you cope with withdrawal from the addiction and replace acting out with activities that are more healthy and nourishing.  You can become much more sensitive to triggers when you aren’t practicing healthy self-care.

Make a list of activities you can to do take care of yourself.  This can include such activities as therapy, going to your support groups, meeting with your sponsor, and doing 12 Step work.  Focus on a few specific categories: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, relational, and professional self-care.  Recall hobbies or activities that you enjoyed or always wanted to try, but you haven’t been able to because of time spent on acting out.  Think about things you used to love doing as a child and incorporate some of these into your present-day life. 

Choosing to practice healthy self-care will literally help to re-wire your brain to reduce cravings and replace desire to act out with other enjoyable activities.

Middle Circle Behaviors

I save this section for last because the middle circle can be the most complex. Determining what belongs in your middle circle requires observing behaviors to see how your unique cycle of addiction works.  Middle circle behaviors, or your “boundaries list,” are behaviors that are warning signs that you’re slipping back into your addiction.  These can be triggers that happen unexpectedly or behaviors you’re walking into that are risky for you.  Behaviors in your preoccupation/fantasy and ritual areas of cycle of addiction are often middle circle behaviors. 

Ask yourself the question: what sets me up to act out sexually?  Make a list of emotions you experience that can make you more susceptible to cravings.  In AA traditions, the acronym “HALT” is used as a reminder to check for triggers if you’re feeling Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired.  I often add “bored” to this list as well.  Identify risky behaviors you might need to put some boundaries around, such as using your computer late at night or driving past the strip club you used to frequent.

What triggers do you experience in your daily life?  Common triggers include fights with a spouse, feelings of loneliness, or shame getting stirred up at work. When you find yourself experiencing triggers or engaging in the risky behaviors, it doesn’t carry the same severity of abstinence as the inner circle behaviors.  However, it does require you to take a look at what you’re doing and run in the other direction toward your outer circle behaviors, seeking greater support along the way.

Implementing and Adding to the Three Circles

In general, your goal to maintain sobriety involves moving outward: avoiding the inner circle and directing your attention and focus on the outer circle behaviors.  Notice that the outer circle is so much larger than the other two: this space allows you to put plenty of options in that circle to encourage you to live there as much as possible.

The natural slope of the addiction is to move inward instead of outward.  As you notice yourself engaging in more middle circle behaviors or experiencing more triggers, the natural tendency is to move toward inner circle behaviors as a form of coping or escaping.  However, recognition of this tendency means you now have the opportunity to lean in the other direction, focusing more on the outer circle behaviors as a healthier way to cope.

Continually add to and update this list. As you learn and grow through your recovery, keep adding self-care behaviors or coping strategies that are helpful for you.  You can never have too many outer circle behaviors.  Also, use your slips and relapse as an opportunity to learn more about your risk factors and needed boundaries.  Identify what inner circle behaviors you might need to add and new middle circle behaviors or triggers. 

Additional Resources

For more information about how the three-circle plan is used in Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA), check out their pamphlet online.

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Are you struggling to maintain your sobriety from sex and love addiction? Have you tried to white-knuckle it and force yourself to stop on your own with little to no success? Are you realizing your powerlessness over your addiction? At Restored Hope, I offer specialized counseling services to help you achieve freedom from sex and love addiction. Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to learn more and schedule your first appointment.

Finding Your People: Social Support in Addiction and Trauma Recovery

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In an early season of the television show Grey’s Anatomy, Christina, one of the main characters, has to undergo a medical procedure.  To do so, she needs to designate an emergency contact who can help her out if needed.  (If you’re a fan of the show, you know which scene I’m referring to.)  She writes down the name of Meredith, leading to an iconic phrase the show repeats through the seasons: “You’re my person.” 

We all need our “person.”  Or, in all honesty, our “people.”  We need those who can support us and help when we’re facing crisis.  But what if the biggest crisis you are facing is your own or your spouse’s struggle with sex and love addiction?

Maybe your spouse has just found you out and the behaviors you thought you could keep hidden from everyone are now coming to light.  Maybe you’re on the other side, discovering your spouse’s addiction, and you feel isolated and alone because of the shame tied to revealing his or her secret to others.  Having people to turn to and rely on when battling against sex and love addiction and trauma can be incredibly difficult, but it is essential for effective recovery.

Why is it so important?

For the Addict

We know that addiction thrives in secrecy, and accountability to others is a necessary component of maintaining sobriety.  Fear of feeling ashamed or rejected can keep you quiet.  But when you have people who know, they are more likely to hold you accountable for your actions because you’ll have to talk with them about it.  Honesty with your therapist is a great place to start, but you’ll also need to talk to people you can access more easily when you’re experiencing craving or wanting to act out. 

Speaking up about your addiction releases you from shame, paradoxically enough.  When you hear others’ stories and find similarities with their experience, you know experientially that you’re not alone.  Addiction is isolating because you can feel as though you’re the only one who struggles, and yet knowing others’ stories helps you rely on them for reassurance and validation when shame threatens to take over.

Talking to other individuals who have struggled in this area can be a helpful way to get feedback on what’s worked for them in their recovery.  When you’re on your own, it’s difficult to know how to stop.  But you can learn so much from people in recovery and notice your experience change as you integrate that new information.

For the Partner

Partners of sex and love addicts need to break through the feelings of isolation that come with discovery of a spouse’s addiction.  The pain and agony of finding out can lead to feelings of sadness, anger, grief, fear, and hurt.  These can be overwhelming when experienced on your own.  You might feel guilt or fear about sharing about your spouse’s addiction with others because of how it reflects on you or your self-esteem.  And yet you need to find a place where people can support you and help you not to feel so alone on this side of the trauma.

This support also allows you to have accountability for self-care and boundary setting.  Sometimes hearing from others about their experiences setting boundaries with their addicted spouse can help you have a better picture of what boundaries feel right for you.  These people can also connect with you if you’re having a hard day, listening to your difficult emotions or even offering practical help like taking care of your children.  Talking to others can remind you of your right to stand up for yourself, give yourself a voice, and practice self-care.

Another reason for connection is to find a safe place for yourself.  Lack of safety and stability in the home is a symptom that crops up often for partners in the wake of addiction.  Triggers can send your mood swinging back and forth as you relive the past years of your life in light of the addiction.  Finding a place where you can be with a friend or group on a regular basis can ease that burden by providing a consistent safe space in your life.

For Both

Sex and love addiction is an intimacy disorder often related to attachment wounds from earlier on in life.  Partners in trauma may also experience triggers related to their attachment style.

Attachment is a word that describes your experiences with caregivers at a young age.  These early attachments influence how you see others and the world around you, and they affect later relationships in life.  If your parents or caregivers were comforting, nurturing, and responded to your needs such that you felt loved, you’re set up to have a secure attachment.  But if your caregivers were unable to comfort and nurture you effectively, either by offering too much attention or not enough, you may have grown up with an insecure attachment style.  This is common if your caregivers dealt with their own experiences of addiction, depression, anxiety, or other mental health struggles. 

The good news is that these attachment styles aren’t permanent.  You can “earn” secure attachment through involvement with safe individuals in your life who offer nurture and comfort to you through their relationship with you.  Creating secure attachments in your adult life is a major reason why social support is so essential in the recovery journey for both the addict and their partner.

How to Find Support

12 Step Groups

12 Step groups are an effective starting place to find community with other people who understand what you’re experiencing.  Find a group that’s a good fit for you by attending at least six times and seeing if you feel connected and supported.  The best groups for sex and love addicts are Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA), Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA), and Sexaholics Anonymous (SA).  If you’re local to Michigan, these fellowships are particularly active and have several meetings in the Ann Arbor area.

There are also 12 Step groups for partners of addicts to address their own trauma.  COSA and S-Anon are great options for finding a safe place to talk about your experience and receive support.  If you aren’t comfortable attending a group specific to sex and love addiction, or there aren’t options in your area, Al-Anon is another great resource as a recovery program for friends and family of alcoholics.

Church-Based Support Groups

Finding a support group at your local church is also a helpful option.  If you’re a Christian, a church-based support group can be a helpful way to integrate faith into your recovery journey, as well as find support systems and accountability. Celebrate Recovery is a Christian 12-Step based program in churches around the country.  In the Ann Arbor area, churches such as NorthRidge and Oak Pointe offer groups for addicts and partners of addicts.

Therapy Groups

Many therapists offer group therapy as an additional option for extra support in your recovery.  There is often an extra layer of safety in these groups because they are run by therapists who maintain confidentiality and manage group dynamics.   

Existing Relationships

As an addict, you may struggle with telling anyone you are close to due to the shame of how their opinion of you might change.  But part of recovery involves coming clean in all areas of your life, including with people who are important to you.  While early in recovery, identify the people who are safest for you: those who are least likely to judge you and who you would trust to hold you accountable or support you.

As a partner, safety is incredibly important, as you are likely experiencing intense emotions and may be deciding whether to stay or go in the relationship.  Telling someone who’s going to bash your spouse or, alternatively, try to convince you to stay isn’t always helpful.  Instead, look for people who would be supportive of you no matter what you decide and share with them.  Consider your motivation to tell and the long-term ramifications of telling others. 

In Intimate Treason, Claudia Black and Cara Tripodi recommend using the image of a stoplight to decide who might be safe to tell.  Make a list of people you’d like to tell and rank them in terms of the three lights: red, yellow, and green.  Green individuals are supportive, safe people who you can trust with just about anything.  People in the yellow category may not feel safe to turn to for emotional support, but need to know for logistical reasons.  Those in the red are people who are unlikely to be supportive, will toss around blame, or may minimize the behaviors.  You might find, in this process, that family aren’t always safe to rely on emotionally at first, but may need to know for logistical reasons, such as when you are separating.

Have a conversation with your spouse and decide together who you will tell about the addiction and the corresponding trauma.  For the addict, you might feel challenged and uncomfortable by being asked to share your story, but openness is key to recovery.  For the partner, having a conversation allows you to feel free to talk to people without feeling guilt about telling your spouse’s story.  For individuals who are in the “yellow” group listed above, write out a short script as a letter informing them of the necessary information without going into too much detail and agree upon this together before sending it or talking to them.

While recovering from addiction is one of the most painful experiences you will likely go through in your life, the gift of lasting and supportive friendships that can come from that experience is one that can’t be matched.  Lean into this chance to build connection and community.

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Are you feeling isolated and alone after finding out about your spouse’s addiction? Are you an addict who is struggling with feelings of shame and having a hard time opening up? Have you felt disconnected from others as a result of your struggle with trauma? At Restored Hope, I offer counseling services to help you work through the roadblocks that are in the way of recovering from addiction or trauma, including the experience of isolation and loneliness. Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment.

Fairy Tale Farce: A Review of The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists by Eleanor Payson

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What comes to mind when you hear the word “narcissist”?  The word gets thrown around a lot today as a synonym for selfishness.  The millennial generation gets stereotyped as narcissistic because of increased focus on the self or use of social media to present an image.  But narcissism in its truest form is more insidious and damaging than the stereotype we assume.

In her book The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists, Eleanor Payson outlines how to recognize both the overt and covert narcissist, different relationships you might find yourself in with a narcissist, and how to set boundaries to keep your sense of self intact.

According to the DSM-5, someone with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is characterized by:

  • Grandiosity and self-importance

  • Need for excessive admiration

  • A lack of empathy

  • Preoccupation with fantasies of success, power, love, beauty, or brilliance

  • Belief in personal uniqueness or specialness

  • Sense of entitlement

  • Envy of others

  • Belief that others are envious of him/her

  • Arrogant or haughty behaviors or attitudes

  • Manipulative behavior with others 

For a narcissist, his excessive self-absorption is a protection against unconscious but powerful feelings of inadequacy.
— Eleanor Payson

While a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder requires at least five of these criteria, someone with narcissistic traits can have milder symptoms.  You might notice that he or she is sensitive to criticism, has rigidity and criticism toward others but leniency toward the self, and projects his or her own issues on others. 

NPD individuals can never admit wrong and are expert manipulators to convince you that they are right.  They can often be dismissing of your needs, leading to a non-reciprocal relationship.  If you don’t serve a purpose to the narcissist, they don’t give you the time of day.

Addiction, by its very nature, is narcissistic.  While sex and love addiction doesn’t necessarily correlate to NPD, many narcissistic traits are present in addiction, such as lack of empathy, manipulative behavior and gaslighting, entitlement, fantasy, and a sense of uniqueness.

What I Learned from This Book

Overt and covert narcissists are different, with the covert narcissist more difficult to detect.

Overt narcissists are what we would typically imagine: someone who is charismatic, engaging, and loves the spotlight.  You often feel special at first when this individual pays attention to you, but they become less interested in you when the spotlight is off of them.  They have many friends, usually at a superficial level.  They crave admiration and support, which their charm allows them to receive.

Covert narcissists are less showy, drawing you in by being attentive and listening, but eventually becoming controlling and detached when you disagree.  They express anger in passive-aggressive ways, and you struggle to determine where you stand with them because they are aloof and indifferent. This type of narcissist blends in well with helping or service professions, such as church involvement or counseling.  They gain a sense of power or value from association with their “cause.”

Relationship with a narcissist involves loss of the authentic self.

The inadequacy the NPD individual feels is mitigated by seeing others as an extension of the self.  Thus, when you are in relationship with the narcissist, it becomes easy to lose awareness of your true self.  You might not be aware of your own emotions and have intense negative beliefs about yourself, stemming from the criticisms of the NPD.  You can end up developing codependency and caretaking for the NPD.  You might focus more on the expectations of others instead of your own desires. 

The confidence we so desperately need comes only from our authentic self.
— Eleanor Payson

Understanding your own strengths and value is the path to getting to know your authentic self.  Learning who you truly are can help you see the flaws in the NPD’s thinking about you more clearly.  This will then lead to more resilience to negative messages about yourself.

Notice early and get out if you can.

The major takeaway this book offers is education on how to recognize a narcissistic person.  If you aren’t already in relationship with an NPD individual, or if you’re in the early stages where you still have the freedom to leave, this book offers you the opportunity to learn about warning signs and take action.  Payson emphasizes multiple times that believing you can change a narcissist is risky behavior: the best way to deal with narcissists is to set boundaries or leave while you still have the chance. 

Boundaries and self-care are essential.

Yet once you’re entrenched in a relationship with a narcissist, assertiveness becomes indispensable.  When I work with partners of sex addicts, boundaries and self-care are the first areas I target as necessary for empowerment.  Therapy can help you as you explore how to set effective boundaries with the goal of giving yourself a voice and speaking up for yourself.  Know that this will likely require practice with safe people first, as the narcissist is a master manipulator that can twist the conversation.  You’ll also need to learn new strategies for setting boundaries.

Your primary work involves developing the ability to validate your thoughts, feelings, and needs along with an ability to stand up for yourself in the relationship.
— Eleanor Payson

Your reactions are a clue to discerning the narcissist.

When you are always trying to please someone else or gain their approval with a corresponding loss of self-esteem, you might be dealing with a narcissist.  You may notice yourself becoming the primary giver, ending any reciprocity in the relationship.  You might find yourself caught in lose-lose situations regularly.  The pain associated with these reactions is like a light turning on in the dashboard of your car: it’s an indicator of the need to change.

There are a variety of situations where you might have contact with a narcissist.

In particular, the parent-child relationship is explored at length in the book, likely because it can lead to repetition of patterns from childhood in adult years, or addictive tendencies that arise as coping strategies from a traumatic childhood.  If you are a child of a narcissist, you must to understand that the parents’ behaviors aren’t your fault.

Beyond the parent-child relationship, you might see a NPD individual in a romantic relationship, friendship, work relationship, or even service professional.  In the workplace, Payson recommends communicating everything in writing, getting emotional support outside of work, and involving a third party in discussions.  If you’re in the process of looking for a therapist, she recommends interviewing your mental health professional and checking out a few options before making a final decision.

Ultimately, this book offers both warning and empowerment.  Payson gives you the skills to recognize the narcissist in your midst before you become established in relationship with him or her.  Yet she also offers empowerment to learn about your authentic self, practice assertiveness, set boundaries, and stand up for yourself.

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Are you dealing with the ripple effects of having a narcissistic parent?  Are you currently in a relationship with an addict who is showing narcissistic tendencies?  Do you see some NPD qualities in yourself?  If so, there is hope.  At Restored Hope, I offer counseling services to help you lean into more of your authentic self, learn how to set effective boundaries, and release the your insecurities.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment.

Understanding Ambivalence: How Recognizing the Push-and-Pull of Your Desires Can Set You Free

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Think of the last difficult decision you had to make.  Maybe it was as simple as where you’d like to go out to eat or as significant as a change in career path.  What makes the decision difficult is the tension between the options: you might desire some more than others, or fear the downside if you make the wrong decision.  Eventually, the choice is made when one benefit outweighs the other and you feel confident enough moving forward.

But what happens when you get stuck between two desires?  Or worse yet, when you feel two opposing emotions about something at the same time?  Have you experienced loving someone and hating them in the same instant?  What about wanting closeness and intimacy, but pushing others away by your actions or words?

In these examples, what you’re experiencing is a phenomenon called ambivalence. 

What is ambivalence?

Ambivalence is often thought of as apathy or indifference, meaning you don’t care much about something or that it doesn’t matter to you.  On the contrary, ambivalence involves strong desires or emotions in opposition to one another.  You may feel pulled in two different directions at the same time, or you might flip-flop back and forth between two feelings.  This can take place in both simple decisions (where should we go for dinner?) as well as major desires (is this the person I want to marry?).

As time passes and you struggle to resolve these opposing emotions, you might find that you do experience a form of apathy.  The indifference is a numbing response to exhaustion from the tension of trying to balance both sides at once.

What in my story might cause ambivalence?

Ambivalence is common for survivors of sexual abuse or assault as they deal with the aftermath of their abuse.  In many cases, the abuser is someone with whom the survivor has a close relationship.  Positive memories and experiences with that person get mixed up with the abuse, and the confusion of feeling drastically different emotions toward the abuser can be overwhelming. The survivor may also struggle with aspects of sexual abuse that felt good when they confront the damage it has done in their lives.

Similarly, many partners of sex addicts experience the addict’s behaviors as a sexual violation against the partner.  Confusion around staying in the relationship to work things out or leaving is common as they try to reconcile the person they love with the addiction that has destroyed their relationship.

For addicts, shame is a major factor in ambivalence.  Addicts live a double life, attempting to balance the addictive thoughts and behaviors with the normal, everyday self.  Breaking off into these two versions of the self helps to ignore or deny the tension of ambivalence around the double life.

Ambivalence can appear in depression and anxiety as well.  If you’re anxious, you may hate being alone but feel terrified of breaking into a group or connecting with others.  In depression, ambivalence can appear when you lack the motivation and energy for self-care and yet know that the way to feel better is through exercising, spending time with loved ones, or other activities to take care of yourself.

How can I recognize my ambivalence?

One common characteristic of ambivalence is all-or-nothing or black-and-white thinking patterns.  The rigidity of thought patterns requiring a choice between two extremes is what makes the tension between them feel so difficult.  Sitting in the gray area of wanting two things equally and being unsure of what the right next step is can be stressful.  Often, that leads to a desire to escape.

That desire to escape is where apathy and numbness come in.  When alternating back and forth between the two desires or emotions becomes too much, you feel defeated by the struggle.  Rather than staying with the tension, you might just throw in the towel and numb out with addiction or distraction. 

How can I deal with my ambivalence? 

Acknowledge that there are gray areas.  Instead of the rigidity of black-and-white or all-or-nothing thinking, allow yourself to recognize that you can (and are!) feeling or desiring two seemingly opposite things at the same time. 

Press into that knowledge and explore your ambivalence with God and others.  Talk about it with a therapist or trusted friend and explore what might be coming up with each of the desires.   

As a Christian, ambivalence leads to greater intimacy with God.  So many Psalms contain ambivalence: lament, pain, and crying out to God; followed by reminders of the goodness of God and his character.  Often the Christian life involves suffering while also seeking to place hope in God.

Name your desires, even if it hurts to put words to them.  The naming of desires is painful because it involves grief, in understanding that your desires aren’t met yet and you may never see those desires realized.  But recognizing and working through that grief leads to life rather than numbing or escapism.  Addicts in particular struggle to know their true desires, as addiction has offered immediate relief or numbing from desires in the past.  In owning and acknowledging desires, addicts receive freedom to seek out other ways to meet that need instead of through addictive behaviors. 

Learn to practice acceptance. Acceptance isn’t settling for the status quo or pretending that things are okay when they really aren’t.  Instead, acceptance involves recognizing the reality of where you are right now in this present moment, and reminding yourself that you’re okay.  If you aren’t satisfied with what you’re experiencing in the present, acceptance invites you to explore what you might like to change in the future.  Accepting your ambivalence helps you to begin to be curious about it and seek out the story behind your ambivalence.  Understanding your story opens you up to change.

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Do you struggle with ambivalence often in your life?  Have you gotten to the point of numbing and indifference after a long struggle with ambivalence?  Or do you notice rigid and inflexible thinking patterns that make it difficult to make decisions or practice kindness toward yourself?  At Restored Hope, I offer counseling services to help you understand your personal story of ambivalence and how you can move forward into greater acceptance and awareness of your desires.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment.

How Do I Stop Myself? Seven Ways to Cope with Triggers of Addiction

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Andrea is walking through the mall when she hears a familiar sound playing through the speakers.  She can’t quite make it out at first, but she notices a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach.  She stops in her tracks and listens, finally making out the melody.  It hits her – this was the song she and one of her previous affair partners had called “their song.”  Flooded with emotions of fear, anxiety, longing, and dread, she turns on her heel and exits the mall at close to a sprint.

What Andrea experienced in that moment is what therapists who specialize in addiction treatment call a “trigger.”  Often sensory memories, such as the taste of a delicious meal, the smell of perfume, or seeing a beautiful view can remind you of fond memories.  However, for addicts, triggers like these can bring back thoughts, memories, or feelings that have to do with the addiction.  These triggers often cause an immediate, visceral response in the addict.  This response can be accompanied by reminders of the drug of choice.  Triggers become particularly impactful when the addict is facing stress.

If you often find yourself in a spot where you’re feeling triggered, what can you do about it?

While the ultimate goal of recovery from addiction involves identifying triggers and planning for them ahead of time, as well as reducing the effects they have, you may come across a time where you are triggered unexpectedly and wondering how to handle the ensuing emotions and memories.  Here are some ideas of what to do:

Stop and ask yourself the question: “Do I want to get well?” 

Marnie Ferree, in her book No Stones, references the story in the Bible recorded in John 5 of a crippled man who had been waiting at the healing pool of Bethesda to wash himself in the waters.  When Jesus approaches him to heal him, He first asks him this question: Do you want to get well? 

Marnie names this as the most important question for recovering addicts, adding, “Your recovery will depend on how you answer this question on a daily basis.  Your yes will simplify many of the choices you’ll have to make.  Let your vision of sobriety and healing motivate and encourage you."

Questioning yourself in this way is a technique that comes from the theory of motivational interviewing, which has been shown in some studies to change a nicotine addict’s response to the trigger of tobacco.  It helps you to connect with the delayed consequences of your actions, rather than just being caught up in the immediate gratification that addictive behavior gives.

Practice quality self-care.

In our driven and self-motivated culture, self-care strategies are very often pushed to the side or forgotten about completely.  In fact, lack of self-care can a contributor to addictive behavior, as cravings are often worsened by stress or a desire to escape from the realities of life.

While self-care can include such activities as exercise and journaling, a self-care strategy that is particularly potent for fighting back against addiction is gratitude.  Practicing gratitude helps to slow the deprivation mentality that accompanies addiction, instead replacing it with joy in response to the good things present in your life.

Practice acceptance.

If you have struggled with addictive behaviors, your brain has been trained to respond to triggers by turning to the addictive behaviors.  Part of the reason this connection is so strong is because often, addictive behaviors met what they promised, even if it was only for a moment. Rather than shaming yourself for that tendency, offer yourself grace and remind yourself that these thoughts are normal for people in recovery.  Remind yourself that you’re re-learning new patterns, and take time to engage in those new patterns right then and there.  Accepting the past and making a choice to live differently puts you in a position one step above the addiction, as you reclaim your power and strength over the behaviors.

Engage with your desires.

Often, the underlying cause of addictive behaviors is a desire to fulfill a legitimate need, but the fulfillment is carried out in a way that is destructive.  The acronym HALT is often used with addiction: that triggers are more likely to affect you if you are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired.  Instead of choosing to run to addiction, take some time to slow down, name the desire (even if it’s just for a delicious meal!), and find ways to meet that desire in a healthy way.  For sex and love addicts, the underlying desire behind addictive behaviors is often intimacy and connection, which is why relationships with others in 12-Step groups or therapy groups can often provide a healthy way to meet that desire.  For Christians, engaging with desire can look like connecting with God in prayer, naming the desires you have, and seeking to trust him with the desires not yet met.

Reach out to your social support.

If you are in recovery, it is important to link yourself up with people who can support you and who know the whole story.  While this support network may begin with just your therapist, your therapist will likely encourage you to join a 12-Step group (like Sex Addicts Anonymous) or support group in order to find others with whom you can empathize and receive help.  If you notice a trigger, call your sponsor or a trusted friend from your support network to be able to talk you through it or be with you in it.  The most effective way to interrupt your addictive cycle is to talk through it with someone.

Take a mindful moment.

Mindfulness helps you to re-center yourself on the present moment, rather than getting caught up in memories of the past or desires for the future.  Practicing mindfulness forces you to slow down, pay attention to your emotions, and acknowledge what you’re experiencing.  It also helps you to identify how your thoughts and actions are being influenced by those emotions.  Take some time to practice this grounding exercise that engages your senses: notice five things you see, four things you hear, three things you can touch, two things you smell, and one thing you taste in the environment around you.

Use affirmations to remind yourself of truth.

As you begin to walk through recovery, you’ll realize how your self-image and negative core beliefs about yourself have influenced your behavior as well as your response to triggering events.  Find words that you can repeat to yourself in the moments where you feel weakest that are in direct contrast to the negative self-talk you use in moments where you are triggered.  These statements can be something along the lines of “I am strong enough to overcome this” or “I am loved.”  Scripture can be used as affirmations as well, with verses such as Philippians 4:13 (“I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.” NLT) or Psalm 23:1 (“The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need.” NLT)

 

Ultimately, you will not be able to avoid or eliminate triggers altogether in your recovery from addiction.  You cannot control the sights, sounds, and smells that are around you on a daily basis.  What you can do instead is learn to cope with those triggers and put supports in place so that when you are facing a trigger, you know how to best handle it.

This article was originally posted on April 20, 2017.

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If you’ve been fighting back against triggers toward sex and love addiction for a long time, or if you are realizing you don’t have the support system in place to handle those triggers that come up, we are here to help.  Restored Hope is an Ann Arbor based counseling office that specializes in treating sex and love addiction.  We’d love to help you on your journey of recovery to find freedom and healing from addictive behaviors.  To hear more about how we can support you, give us a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here to contact us.

*These are Amazon affiliate links.  Click here to read more about Restored Hope’s Amazon local associates policy.

Breaking Free of the Drama: How Stepping Off the Karpman Triangle Improves Your Relationship (Part 2 of 2)

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Part 1 introduced the dynamics of the Karpman Drama triangle in relationships.  It explored how the power struggles and dynamics of victim, perpetrator, and rescuer can keep you caught in a toxic dance with your partner.   

Now, we’ll turn to focus on creating change in your relationship through jumping off the Karpman triangle into a healthier way of relating.  Each of the three roles of the triangle has an alternative counterpart that allows you to experience freedom from the dysfunctional dance of power in the drama triangle.  These three parts must be experienced in the order that follows. 

Taking Responsibility

The counterpart to the victim role is taking responsibility for the adult self and approaching yourself with kindness, empathy, and courage.  This is the most important step: the following two steps cannot be achieved without completing this step first.

Taking responsibility requires getting in touch with the part of you that feels like a victim.  Typically this part of you feels young, like a child version of yourself.  Often this is because the victim role reacts to your unmet needs or desires from childhood.  Working through these unmet needs in therapy can help you understand why you react so strongly to situations in your present-day life.  Therapy will help you learn to establish self-care routines and healthy communication in relationships to soften these strong reactions.

Our reactions to distressing situations relate to coping mechanisms or survival instincts picked up in childhood that we now repeat as a way of protecting ourselves.  Those old patterns often don’t work in the way that they used to, yet we go back to them because they are familiar.

As an adult, you no longer have to be beholden to these patterns of coping.  You can choose a new way of living instead of just surviving, which is what taking responsibility is all about.  It involves reminding yourself that, as an adult, you can make different choices.  Oftentimes as children we felt powerless.  This step is a way to reclaim a sense of power and self-assurance to work for what you want instead of feeling powerless.

Come up with a mantra or statement that embodies a different way of viewing yourself.  For example, in the victim role, you might see yourself as unlovable or worthless.  Instead, in taking responsibility, you’ll acknowledge and own the reality that you are lovable and of great worth.  As you acknowledge these realities, you’ll notice the fog of shame lifts and you’ll be able to see your path out of the drama triangle more clearly.

Examining Options

Once you’ve taken responsibility by acknowledging the impact of past wounds and your capabilities and power as an adult, you can then move into examining the options in front of you.  This counterpart to the perpetrator role is a healthier way of coping with feeling trapped in the victim role.

After acknowledging your adult capabilities, make yourself a list of all the different options in front of you.  Remember in this list that you are only in control of yourself: your actions, thoughts, attitudes, and responses to emotions.  You cannot control other people. When your choice hinges on the actions of someone else, this is a setup to get caught up in the drama triangle again.  Instead, look at what you have control over and what changes you can make. 

Brainstorm in this step: write down everything you can possibly think of for different options, even if they seem “out there” or impossible.  If you’re doing this with someone else, such as your spouse, know that you don’t have to agree 100% on these: you’re just getting ideas on the table.  Once you’ve brainstormed several ideas, you might notice a cohesive theme starting to form that will lead you toward the next step. 

One important note: if you find yourself feeling like a victim again or re-entering the drama triangle, notice this and know that it is normal to slip back into old patterns.  Pause and go back to the core of the victim role you identified earlier and repeat the process of taking responsibility for yourself.

Negotiate to Make a Choice

Once all your options are laid out, you’re prepared to make a choice with the knowledge in front of you.  Rather than attempting to take on the world through the rescuer role, negotiating requires inviting relationship and enlisting the help of others.  Identify which of your options is the best possible outcome with all the information you’ve gathered.  Make a plan on how to implement this choice.  Take an action step as soon as possible to get this choice moving so that you don’t forget and slip into old patterns. 

This choice will likely involve some difficulty or change in your life, and you may be tempted to jump back onto the drama triangle to return to something that feels familiar.  Remind yourself of your vision for ending the drama of feeling trapped and the experience of the victim role.  You may have to learn to set boundaries or ask for what you need more readily, but the hard work will be worth it.

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Do you feel stuck in the drama of the Karpman triangle?  Are there pieces of your past that seem to resurface in arguments with your spouse?  Are you tired of constantly feeling like a victim and want to regain a sense of power and control over your life?  At Restored Hope, I offer counseling services to help empower you and move you into more healthy ways of relating to others.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to set up your first appointment.

Power Dynamics in Love: How Understanding the Karpman Drama Triangle Can Save Your Relationship (Part 1 of 2)

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Here we go again.

The familiar scene plays out as you hear your spouse’s voice rise in anger.  They’re targeting you and criticizing you again for something you’ve done wrong.  Why is it always my fault?  I never see other couples fighting like this.  You feel beaten down, exhausted, and maybe even a little ashamed.

But as your spouse’s criticism digs deeper, your tone subtly starts to shift.  You raise your voice in response: “You think I’m the problem?   It’s not like you’re helping!”  You then launch into your own volley of criticisms, anger causing you to yell and berate your spouse, saying things you know you’ll later regret.  In your rage, you might even break things or throw an object across the room.

As you unleash your anger, you notice a look of fear cross your spouse’s eyes.  Suddenly you get hit with a wave of guilt.  What am I doing?  I shouldn’t be yelling.  Why did I let my temper get out of hand?  You start to backpedal, looking for ways to make your spouse feel better.  You make promises to change, to be more loving and kind, to help out around the house more often, whatever it is to appease the situation.

And perhaps you succeed at this for a day or two, but eventually you feel taken advantage of once again.  You see yourself trying to change, but your spouse hasn’t changed at all.  As your annoyance rises, you decide to bring it up again, and your spouse reacts in anger.

And so the cycle begins again.

The Karpman Drama Triangle

Does this sound familiar to you?  The scene above describes the power dynamics at play in the Karpman drama triangle.  Stephen Karpman (https://www.karpmandramatriangle.com/) a psychiatrist specializing in transactional analysis, developed this model to describe the constantly shifting power dynamics in relationships.  These dynamics are common in addictive relationships.   

Image Source: https://www.lynneforrest.com/articles/2008/06/the-faces-of-victim/

We all play each of these three roles in our relationships, but you may tend to start your spiral around the triangle in one of the three types: victim, persecutor, or rescuer.  Where you join the triangle stems from your experiences in your family-of-origin.  You might even find yourself experiencing all three roles internally, as you use internal criticism to try to motivate yourself (persecutor), only to become exhausted and overwhelmed (victim) and attempt rescuing yourself from your pain through addiction or numbing behaviors (rescuer).

Taking on any one of these three roles provides a distraction from your own issues that need to be addressed or the true problem.  While these patterns are learned in childhood from watching others interact and communicate, they may no longer be serving you. Eventually, all roles lead back to the victim, which adds to feelings of powerlessness to change.

Let’s learn about how these three interact.

The Victim

The victim is the “one down” position in the triangle.  In the victim role, you feel like a child or overly needy.  You might feel targeted or blamed with accompanying feelings of shame.  This shame often originates in past trauma.  The victim has unrealistic expectations of others and therefore is often disappointed when others don’t come through.

Often these expectations have to do with nurture or care, which victims feel incapable of providing for themselves.  In fact, the victim tends to feel unable to handle any stress or negative circumstances, as their shame-based low self-esteem and negative beliefs about themselves limit them from any agency to change.  Their lives happen to them rather than due to any power of their own.  However, they still feel resentful from always being “one-down” and incapable of helping themselves. 

An important note: the victim role is NOT equated with being a true victim of harm or abuse.  Many victims (or as I prefer to say, survivors) or trauma or abuse in childhood or adult years are empowered, responsible, and strong individuals who are taking ownership of their lives in mature and assertive ways.  If you are a survivor of trauma, abuse, or a spouse’s addiction, you ought to be treated with compassion for your experience of trauma.  You did not ask for the harm done to you, nor did you deserve it in any way.  The word “victim” here is meant to represent a role that is played in a relational dynamic that serves a protective purpose but ultimately doesn’t allow you to live into your true, authentic self. 

The Perpetrator

The perpetrator role, in contrast with the victim, feels and acts like a teenager.  They act out to deal with their discomfort or pain and protect themselves from the world, which they have learned is harmful and dangerous.  Experiencing abuse in family-of-origin can often lead to learning to bottle up anger in a way that comes out int he perpetrator role later.  Their behaviors are tied to feelings of shame, worthlessness, and fear.

This role is constantly defensive and has to be right, living in survival mode and lashing out at others.  Their defensiveness is a way of regaining power when they’ve been victimized or harmed, as they fear being powerless in situations like they experienced in childhood. Viewing themselves as the true victim, the perpetrator’s behaviors are motivated by a desire to have the other person feel their pain.  They often view the individual in the victim role with contempt and believe that their retaliation toward the victim Is simply giving the other person what they deserve.  Perpetrators may think, “I have to hurt them before they hurt me.”

In a relationship with addiction present, this is often the addict.  They are caught up in denial of their behaviors and have a difficult time admitting to their own experience of harming others.  This can be understood in light of the shame they feel: to admit that they are the perpetrator would be devastating to their need to be strong in the face of feelings of powerlessness.

The Rescuer

The rescuer is the “one up” position, typically characterized by feeling like a parent and superior to the two other roles.  Another way of categorizing this role is as a caretaker, which is often where many rescuers find their identity.  In addictive dynamics, this person is the enabler of the addict.  They often don’t like conflict or confrontation, and would rather smooth things over.

The rescuer’s “help” is meant not to truly benefit the other person, but instead to assuage their own anxiety and allow them to feel valued.  They believe that if they don’t help, everything will fall apart.  The rescuer can related to the victim in a codependent manner as they try to fix or save others.  In fact, they need to have someone to save, and can assume others can’t handle something and then take over. 

Rescuers don’t have needs – or at least, they deny that they do.  Since they are the one who helps everyone else and their value comes from this identity, they either don’t admit to their own needs or don’t see them as important.  Similar to the other roles, this tendency begins in childhood.  Eventually, however, the endless helping turns into feelings of resentment and bitterness, as they expect affirmation and appreciation for all they’ve done for others.  Yet they believe that if they are needed, they are loved, and are fearful of being abandoned if they stop helping.

In the next part, we’ll go into more depth about how to escape from the drama triangle through taking responsibility for yourself and your choices and setting boundaries.  For now, notice these patterns in your interactions with others.  How did your family interact with one another while you were growing up?  Where have you seen examples of these dynamics play out in your life or in the lives of others?

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Are you exhausted from helping others all the time, but find yourself unable to ask for what you need?  Are you always feeling like the victim of your circumstances or of others’ actions?  Or maybe you’re recognizing the addictive patterns in your life that cause you to harm other people.  Wherever you find yourself on this drama triangle, I can help you learn to break free from the trap of these power dynamics.  I offer counseling services to overcome these patterns at Restored Hope in Ann Arbor.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me to set up your first appointment today.