“You have ruined my marriage!”
Not the opening comments you hope to hear with a new client.
“My wife sat me down last week and said that my medicating with alcohol was causing her distress and trauma. But the greatest trauma was watching the Champion in me trying to come out … and me drowning him in wine, beer, booze!”
I’d seen this kind of un-surrendered perplexity many times before. I nodded in approval as he continued.
“She told me in her ‘no BS’ voice she simply could not bear it any longer. And that if I didn’t start some kind of process to look at my layers that she wanted me to leave. Like yesterday!”
“That sounds pretty scary. Do I know your wife?” I inquired?
He shifted in his chair and thought for a minute then said, “Not as far as I know, but she watched that talk that you gave on zoom last month, and then she made me watch it.”
With a chuckle, I commented with a tinge of sarcasm: “I’m so sorry!”
“Well,” he paused. “It all made sense. But I don’t wanna move out. I don’t know about this Champion’s stuff. She’s always just tolerated my drinking, even though she has made it clear that she hates it. But I never thought it would come to this.”
Any sort of addiction whether chemical (alcohol, nicotine, drugs of any sort, sugar, food, etc.) or process (gambling, porn, work, sex, etc.) … wears on relationships until the fault line in the earth of the relationship creates an earthquake. And the love is sucked beneath the surface … down a dark hole.
Leaving two people broken, traumatized, and wondering what could’ve possibly gone so wrong for this to occur.
There’s so much misunderstanding about addiction, and what to do when it affects relationships.
My hope is to clear up the confusion with research and create hope that there is something you can do. It doesn’t have to be “the end.”
New research reveals many interesting findings after 20 to 30 years of studying couples where at least one was bound in addiction.
I assured him that my goal was never for a relationship to come unraveled, much less see their love slip away down a crevice in their created earth. I shared with him the research, and what we could do to help him and his wife … if they were both willing.
I am sharing it with you this week, because in my series of speaking about layers, I have had my Messenger account and email blow up with questions and concerns about what to do when there is addiction. Particularly as it relates to marriage and relationship issues.
I’ve been writing about what to do about the layers that bury your Champion heart and spirit (those very best parts of you) that we all know are still there. But also mentioning how one of the layers could be any “medicating” with substances and/or processes, obviously hit some nerves.
I’ll resume with what you do about the other four layers next week. But for this week, let me calm the nerves I struck when mentioning “medicating” and addiction … and its consequences to relationships.
My core belief, after years of owning and operating inpatient and outpatient treatment centers, is that at the root of addiction is the “medicating of painful realities.” It’s not about “bad people.” It’s not about “bad intentions.”
It’s about good people trying to find a way to cope and get by in life.
I call that survival. And by the way, “medicating” doesn’t work…thus requiring “more” of a substance or a process, with always disappointing results.
It’s time to put survival behind you and to step into thriving! That’s precisely why I’m helping you dig through the layers!
This past week, when I read reports of relationship after relationship falling apart due to the “medicating”, I determined that this was not only a good piece to insert in my series, but it is actually very crucial.
Here are the five things that research shows about “medicating” (addictions), and what can be done to heal your marriage or intimate relationship.
1. RESEARCH ABOUT SOBRIETY AND HEALING.
When most people think of addiction, they immediately think of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous).
The program, which began in 1935 by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith who put the group together, has become well known around the world. I’m sure they never dreamed that AA groups could be found meeting in churches, coffee shops, synagogues, schools, parks, aboard cruise ships, in almost any imaginable place around the globe.
Research studies reveal mixed results, as a result, of AA. To the New York Times, AA had claimed that 75% of its members remain abstinent. The Big Book touts about a 50% success rate, but also reported that 25% more remain sober after a number of relapses.
Other studies show a 10 to 25% success rate for those who use the AA program for recovery.
I absolutely support any of my clients with a substance use disorder (SUD), the new ‘lingo’ for addiction…To engage in and use the 12-step program as an adjunct for their recovery program.
However, I’ve never believed that AA alone brings ideal results. I’ve always believed that something ‘drives’ a person’s need to medicate in 90% of those with any addictive processes. Whether the driver be trauma, disempowering messages, painful realities, or any other need to escape.
That’s a special group of clients I love working with, and certainly the group that my client mentioned above fell into.
There’s one concept that most researchers, scientists, and practitioners agree upon when it comes to SUD or any addiction. Addressing sobriety in the absence of addressing underlying issues is very ineffective in terms of long-term sobriety.
This is why I put addiction or substance use disorders (SUD) into the category of a layer that buries our Champion.
Let’s just get real and be honest with one another here.
As long as you’re using ‘any’ process or substance to create what you call ‘normal ‘, you’re not highly likely to ever become the very best version of yourself, and live life in the spirit and with the heart of that champion within. That, my friend, is thriving. And you deserve that kind of life!
If you need to argue with that, you’re probably the person I’m speaking to. (I have no problem with those who can have a glass of wine with their meal and stop there. Or those who just love to give a toast at a wedding with a glass of champagne!)
You, like my client, may be curious to know the answer to this: “So describe that ‘line’ to me. That ‘line’ between enjoying a beer or two, or a couple of drinks, and I’ll prove to you, I can stay behind the ‘line’.” I hear that often and it tells me that there’s truly medicating going on in that person.
(It’s like someone near and dear to me who serves and attends in AA faithfully told me, “Normal drinkers don’t think, ‘How much am I going to drink today?’ OR, ‘How many am I going to have tonight’ … BUT alcoholics do. It’s not that I/me can’t quit and get up and walk away…it’s that I never EVER really want to.”)
I responded to the challenge: “I’ll be glad to share where the ‘line’ is. But you have nothing to prove to me. Whether or not you stay behind that ‘line’ does not rock my world one way or the other.”
He glared with a blank stare. I paused, I’d seen that look too many times and let him stare.
Then I continued when he realized it was not affecting me. “On the other hand, it sounds like the future of your marriage is dependent on which side of the ‘line’ you’re on.”
This time he had no retort.
After a pregnant pause, I continued: “I’ll give you a little questionnaire to determine which side of the ‘line’ you’re on. However, I think the more important question regarding which side of the ‘line’ are you on at this moment is…How important is your marriage to you, compared to, your daily ramp up to that first drink…Of which you also confessed is the first of always too many?”
I could gratefully tell, by his slightly slumping body language, he was beginning to realize that facing his present truth was the most important decision he’d ever choose.
The same may be true for you, my friend!
For me in my work, I don’t care what side of the line you’re on. I care about the Champion in you that’s being drowned in the alcohol or choked in the smoke, or trampled on by a work addiction. And your partner, your children, those who need you desperately, who are forced to adjust their own inner champion dreams and spirit, to be able do part or most of life without you … and/or your unwilling inability to be totally “present.”
I knew before every meeting his wife the depths of loneliness she must feel.
Hear it again from my AA friend.
(“There’re many things that hurt inside as I look back on my drug abuse, FYI alcohol IS a drug! But the one thing that hurts me most, looking back when I was drinking regularly, is the very same thing I heard the famous author Toni Morrison share once on Oprah, ‘That my eyes didn’t light up when my children entered a room looking for ME! When they needed me present…ALL of me…for ALL of them. But I was busy getting my daily buzz on.’)”
Yes, I’ve seen a grown man cry. I’ve seen husbands cry. I’ve seen wives cry. I’ve seen their children, toddlers to full-grown adults cry. All crying out of their aloneness and loneliness.
What’s most important to you?
I know deep down…
- It’s your partner.
- It’s your marriage.
- It’s your children.
- It’s your future.
- It’s the great difference that only you know, only you can make.
- It’s being all there, present in the now, which is the focus power of every champion’s heart!
l KNOW I can help you find it…and live it!
2. RESEARCH ABOUT MARRIAGES/COUPLES AND ADDICTION HEALING.
Another thing that researchers and practitioners agree on with substance use disorder (SUD), alcoholism, addiction, etc… Is that marriage and intimate relationships are at significantly higher risk of separation and/or divorce where there’s addiction.
What’s recently surprised many practitioners and researchers is new research on couples in recovery.
Traditionally, therapists, sponsors, treatment programs have advised people new to recovery to avoid any big decisions for two years, and to keep their recovery separate from their spouse or partner.
I’m in total agreement that people should take responsibility for their own recovery, but keeping it in separate and private has not proven to be what it was once thought to be.
Many practitioners, in years past, have taken it further than that by saying that someone needs a year of being clean or sober before entering into couples and/or family counseling. Although I’ve never been in that camp, I was pleased to find that the latest research indicates something very different than we’ve been hearing all of these years.
Researchers (Navarro, Gottman, O’Farrell, and McGrady) have revealed some very interesting longitudinal study results:
- Counseling couples is more effective when there’s one partner who’s an addict than the same counseling is when neither partner is an addict.
- Alcohol recovery is more effective when using structured couples counseling than it is with the 12-step program.
That’s not to nullify the AA program, but it’s certainly a wakeup call to us as coaches, counselors, therapists, and providers…That we must begin couples counseling in structured researched based methods sooner than later.
To do otherwise is withholding vital treatment for the couple, and for the addict’s recovery.
I asked my client if he thought his wife would be willing to become involved in a research-based couples’ program that would not only help with his addiction, but also immediately begin healing work on their marriage.
He laughed out loud and said, “I’m pretty sure she would lead with the Hallelujah chorus…and she can’t sing her way out of a bucket!?”
Because I had shared all the data with him, he looked at me a little bit perplexed and said: “Could you just leave all of that research stuff out of it and tell me directly what you think I should do?”
That was music to my ears!
I told him that I believed we needed to do three things simultaneously:
- He needed to engage in the online community of AA daily (although at this moment I wasn’t asking for sobriety, only that he show up to the AA meetings and to meetings with me with at least 12 hours of sobriety)
- He needed to begin to work on his layers, starting with the layer of his “medicating” with alcohol
- He needed to invite his wife to join him in a research-based couple’s method that had been shown highly effective in both healing marriages and helping with long-term sobriety
The expression on his face seemed to appear like he was thinking: “OMG…that’s so much stuff!”
I waited patiently until he finally took a deep breath and said: “Dr. Neecie, I don’t even know if I have it in me to do all of that.”
I nodded empathetically and told him that I was sure it sounded like a lot.
But before that took root, I said, “BUT … The truth is you do have it in you. Absolutely you have it in you. There’s no question about that. The question is, ‘Are you willing to step out of your comfort zone and do some new things that may be unfamiliar and uncomfortable for you in order to save yourself, save your marriage, and save your family?’”
I could tell he was trying to build some excuses or defenses, but it wasn’t working.
Finally, in surrender after a deep sigh, he said: “What kind of jack*ss would I have to be to walk away from that?”
I said something to him that my mother was famous for: “I didn’t say that to you, so I’m not sure how you figured it out?!”
We both erupted in laughter as he nodded and said, “Ok-I’m in!”
What about you? Are you willing to find a recovery program that serves both you and your partner and those you love? That’s where real healing happens and how you can breakthrough that layer of medicating. My AA friend said it best.
(“I never realized how much time was stolen from those I really love, just trying to keep my then ‘normal’ normal, by allowing my craving-need to medicate, just to maintain a sick bent ‘normal’. If that sounds insane-it is! That’s what addictions do! They make life unmanageable and turn those you love into chaotic eggshell walkers. I rest my case for Step One…We admit that we are powerless over________, that our lives have become unmanageable.”)
Fill in your blank…Is it…
- Medicine journeys
- Ad infinitum … they go on…
Step One works for anything that buries, dulls, or clouds our champion heart and spirit!
3. COUPLES HEALING ON YOUR OWN
This step is for those who truly are without financial resources to get to counseling or coaching in these research-based processes.
Being too busy is not a good excuse.
Not wanting anyone to know that you have a challenge in your marriage is not a good excuse.
Not wanting anyone to know that you struggle with addiction is not a good excuse.
Actually, not having financial resources is not a good excuse. At one point in my life when I found myself in a similar situation, the only thing that I had of real value was my wedding ring. And I was willing to hock it in order to pay for the counseling.
However, for those who truly are without financial resources, here are a few things that you can accomplish to begin the healing process that’ll bring better results to sobriety. Along with healing for your marriage.
A. Set aside 30 minutes weekly (no kids, no cell phones, no television, no distractions) to get to know one another. Ease up, stop trying fix, and make it relaxed … with no goals other than to know more about this person.
Everyone’s favorite subject is them!
Take turns choosing one of these questions to ask your partner, and then after your partner answers, see if you can ask a question to learn more.
Then you answer the same question, and the partner will try to ask you a question to learn more.
Next your partner chooses one of the questions.
No issues allowed in this conversation. Just learning about one another. After time, you can each bring interesting questions yourself to this weekly meeting. Here are some sample questions:
- What is one of your favorite early moments that you can remember in your life?
- Did you believe in Santa Claus? What did the Santa Claus symbolism teach you about life?
- Who most “got you” as a child? Why do you think they “got you?”
- Who was your greatest model of love when you were young? Why them?
- What excited you or moved you when you were a child?
- Were you anyone’s favorite as a child? If so, who’s? And if not, why do you think you weren’t?
- What special skills or gifts did you think you had as a child? Who noticed?
If you run out of questions, I’ll be glad to provide you resources.
When I asked my client and his wife to do this exercise, she chose the Santa Claus question. His response was priceless.
He made a few jokes, and then he said, “Santa preferred the girls at our house. He didn’t bring stuff for my dad or I.”
With great compassion she asked him, “What did you learn from Santa Claus?”
I think his answer caught even him by surprise. “Guys don’t really like guys, so when you get together, I guess you do what my dad did. Drink, tell stories, see whose stories are the biggest, and go home and stumble into the bed.”
She tenderly touched his knee and said, “I’m so sorry. And I understand a little bit more about why Friday nights go as they do.”
There was no judgment in her voice or on her face.
He looked up at her and said, “You wouldn’t want to go out to eat with me on Friday night, would you?”
With a big smile she said, “You bet I would!” Little did I know at that moment Friday was her bunco night with the girls. But she chose him! Now Friday nights are date nights!
Remember, everyone’s favorite subject is … them!
B. Gratitude exercise
Take one minute each before going to bed at night and tell your partner three things you’re grateful to them for from the past 24 hours.
This sets your reticular activating system (RAS) in your brain to searching for the good things that they do.
Although this only requires a short amount of time daily, it effects your brain all day long each day, doing some critical rewiring of what you’re looking for about your partner!
C. Move to an “appointment only” basis to share any complaints or deal with any issues.
When couples randomly share their criticisms, complaints, and address challenges/issues, the other feels like they’re dodging land mines. Never knowing when they might step on the next explosive.
If you make a decision to share those by appointment only, and follow the format below…The relationship will become a safer place.
Here is the format:
- Ask for some time to share some thoughts, and as a partner, do your best to grant the time ASAP, but definitely within the next 24 hours. When you grant an appointment, you need to show up with an open mind and an open heart and be willing to listen.
- Whatever you have to share needs to be prepared in the following format:
When ___________happened, I felt__________. Would you be willing to_______________?
When you fill in the first blank it must be without judgment. Just fact about what happened.
“I felt” is followed with a blank for feelings…but if you say “I felt like”… You’re going to share thoughts and judgments. No “I felt like” or “I felt that.” Just use “I felt” (and add feeling words ONLY)!
In the third blank, you must be very careful to avoid talking about what you don’t want. Talking about what you don’t want puts the focus on the wrong thing. Focus on what you do want.
- The partner grants the request when at all possible! And does it often!
I had asked my couple to bring in one thing they each needed an appointment for. In the session I had her to ask for her appointment, and asked if he could grant it while we were there together. He did.
She did a great job with following the format:
“When you weren’t willing to go to my brother’s birthday celebration with me when I had already made dozens of excuses for you for missing family dinners, I felt embarrassed and alone. Would you be willing to go to family events with me, and if it feels like they’ll last too long for you, take your own vehicle so that you can slip out early?”
This had been an ongoing argument because she would attend all of his family events but felt like he’d flaked out on hers the majority of the time.
They both agreed there had been argument after argument, tears, unpleasant words, and other things due to this ongoing issue.
But in the session, following the format got through to him. He fidgeted as she shared and when she was done, he fidgeted another moment or two.
Finally, he looked up at her and said, “I’ve been selfish and I’ve embarrassed you. Although I don’t care for some members of your family nor how they allow their kids to behave, there’s never a gathering that’s too long. I’ll go with you without taking a separate vehicle.”
Such a simple thing. Yet such a powerful healing moment.
If you’ll make a 30-day contract with one another to only share things that are issues or problems…by appointment ONLY…and then follow this format, you will have removed land mines from your marriage.
There’s more, but if you can accomplish this, you’ll see a major difference.
4. COUPLE’S THERAPY
This is not an advertisement for you to begin therapy with me.
But it’s one of those warnings you find on packages: Enter into couples therapy with someone who’s trained, versed, and hopefully certified in research-based methodology.
There are several available, and I like to use a mixture of Drs. Harville and Helen Hendrix’s Imago Relationship Therapy, and Drs. John and Julie Gottman‘s research-based work, building a “Sound Relationship House”.
You’ll do work very similar to what I’ve listed above. But in addition, you’ll learn:
- How to manage conflict
- How to work through the negativity to a positive perspective
- How to turn toward your partner physically, emotionally, and mentally instead of away from your partner
- How to dream together
- How to have healing conversations
- How to create a fulfilling life of making a difference together
All of this will be done between the two steel pillars of trust and commitment.
While working with conflict management, the couple I was working with were struggling with some issues that seemed to keep cycling through their relationship.
I explained to them that normally when that occurs there’s a breakdown in their ability to accept and own their negative influence on their partner and to allow their partner to positively influence them.
I’ve found that this is one of the great healing components of the marriage, but also one of the most helpful areas in sobriety when couples are working together. My couple was no exception.
I had asked her to share how his drinking had affected her. With no judgment. Simply information sharing…from her heart.
She did a really good job of describing special events: “When we go to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, and other things with friends, family, or other people…You’re the life of the party. You’re helpful with setting up tables and chairs, with cooking out, and other things. You’re thoughtful and kind. But last week on my birthday, I asked you if we could cook steaks out, and you grumbled and swore as you cleaned up the grill. You came in muttering about how hot it was outside, and you watched sports through the whole meal. I felt cheated, lonely, and heartbroken. Would you be willing to make one holiday a year special for me?”
At first, he was beginning to do what most addicts do. Making excuses. Explaining. Justifying.
“Well, it was hotter than usual that night…”
“The kids didn’t clean up the grill last time they used it, so I had to…”
“It was one of the playoff games that I really wanted to see… “
He said all of that in about 10 seconds as I was saying: “Can you please press pause!” I repeated firmly: “PRESS PAUSE!”
I asked him if he’d be willing to accept his influence on her that had been less than positive, and allow her to influence him to do better?
I think his response surprised her when he said, “Well I guess what you said about your birthday was right and your request was not unreasonable.”
I had him spend some time walking a mile in her shoes at parties and celebrations where he helped with grilling, made everyone laugh, and had a great time. Yet when it came time for her day, he was grouchy, out of sorts, and more invested in a sports event than her special day.
I could see he was following along. I asked him if he had any regret about that. He nodded revealing his healthy shame. I asked him if there were any real excuses or justifications for that? He shook his head to indicate a no. I asked if he could take responsibility for his “not so positive” influence and impact on her?
With a bit of a shameful expression, he nodded yes.
I asked if there was anything he’d like to say to her about that? With boyish eyes, he looked at her and said, “Would you believe me if I said I got it?” She nodded affirmatively. I told him he had done a great job at understanding how he’d influenced her.
But then I explained that the real step was allowing her to influence him positively. He looked a bit puzzled, which was understandable. Especially since he’d not allowed her to influence him all that much previously.
He said, “I’m almost afraid to ask… But how would I do that?”
I smiled gently and said, “By granting her request. A request that would actually call you forth to being the best version of you.”
I asked him if he remembered the request, and he repeated it accurately: “That I would make one holiday a year special for her.”
He looked at her with all the courage he could muster and said: “I can do better than that. I’ll make every holiday special for you.”
He pointed to that moment as one of the things that has had the greatest impact on his sobriety, along with being a turnaround moment for the marriage.
Those are the kinds of things you will do in couple’s therapy. The healing is powerful, and the results speak for themselves.
Find your person, your counselor, your coach, your pastor…Whoever it is that can direct you in this research-based model. It will be worth every moment and every cent that it costs!
5. DON’T GIVE UP. SET YOUR RAS (RETICULAR ACTIVATING SYSTEM) AND LOOK FOR GREAT RESULTS.
Never give up.
In a day where we often change partners as much as we change our wardrobe…don’t give up.
If you do, you’ll leave the partner and keep the problem and repeat it somewhere else. Or you’ll choose to live your life alone and lonely.
Don’t choose either of those.
Choose to never give up.
But never giving up is not enough.
Set your RAS (reticular activating system) searching for gratitude.
Gratitude for your partner.
Gratitude for your sobriety.
Gratitude for all the good things in your life daily.
They will multiply!
And as these things multiply, you will successfully dig through all of your layers.
Your champion is waiting. Waiting to be unearthed. To emerge with all of your dreams, with the best version of you to accomplish them, and a life of fulfillment!
A closing thought from my AA friend:
Wisdom to follow our shared desire, to let the spirit our champion guide our hearts.
(In recovery everyone has their own story of hitting bottom. That place where a desire to finally heal is born. As I began my journey ‘knowing it was time’, I was determined to not lose this fresh clear sense of this victimless desire, no matter how dim and faded into the background noise of life it went. My ‘never give up’ was to learn and find the truths, that would once and for all align my head with this desire in my heart. Until then, I’m good just doing or saying the next right thing.”)
Do the next right thing. Give up the fight against the next right thing. But don’t give up your fight for the Champion, or for your life of thriving!