It takes a village to raise a child, as the saying goes, but a partnership of two committed parents can go a long way toward smoothing out the inevitable bumps in the road. But when one parent has struggled with addiction, those bumps can seem pretty difficult to navigate and can create a legacy of strong emotions—hurt, anger, sadness, resentment and even grief. Things do get better in recovery, but dealing with the aftermath of addiction can be tough. How can you help support your partner as he recreates his role as a father in recovery?
Addiction: It’s a Family Affair
The first thing to realize as you try to recreate your family and your role as parents in recovery is that addiction impacts everyone in a family. Picture a mobile, like the one you probably hung over your toddler’s bed. If the breeze made one piece spin, the others ended up moving as well. Similarly, drinking or using drugs may have started with just your partner doing the spinning, but his movement inevitably spread to the entire family. Recovery is not just for the addict; all of you will be called upon to change and grow past this. The ways in which you responded to your partner when he was using are familiar, if not comfortable. You’ve probably read about and talked about “enabling”—the ways a person who is not drinking or using drugs supports the addiction as a way to try to protect the family. Enabling is a well-intentioned effort to be a great parent and partner … and a real problem in recovery. If you can redefine enabling as supporting the addiction and not the person, that might help you to create new ways to be a supportive partner. Here are some tips to get started:
- Worry about yourself. Worrying about someone who has been dealing with addiction can be a full-time job. Worrying about every angle—finances, physical health, parenting, moods, even the potential for violence—is normal, if not exhausting and draining. Without a real effort to change this, recovery can be another opportunity to worry about your partner. Will he relapse? Will he lose his job? In some cases, “will he go to jail?” is a very real concern. Part of recovery for him will include taking on this worry and transforming it into positive actions that make worry unnecessary. And part of recovery for you will mean focusing on yourself. There is a wonderful viral video making the rounds that shows a very young toddler working on buckling her seat belt. Her father is videotaping her efforts and asks her if she needs him to do anything. Her answer? “Worry about yourself.” Think of that sweet little kid every time you’re tempted to fret over your partner’s actions and refocus. Take care of yourself. Doing so may just be the inspiration he needs to worry about himself.
- Boundaries, boundaries and more boundaries. Having clear boundaries is a healthy way to support recovery and sober living. There are many ways in which boundaries can get fuzzy, and lots of possible examples of how healthy, clear boundaries can make recovery both easier and more enjoyable. Everything from bedtime for the kids to communication with relatives can be opportunities for creating and holding to good boundaries.
- Get help if you need it. If you find that shifting gears from being the partner of someone actively using to someone in recovery is more difficult than you expected, reach out and ask for support. Consider therapy to work through your own feelings. Partners often feel that while their spouse was drinking or using drugs, it was all about them. Managing the addiction made them totally self-absorbed. Now, in recovery, you may have hoped and expected that it would be your turn … only to feel like once again all of the focus is on your partner. If you’re feeling frustrated or angry (which is normal and understandable), you need help dealing with it so your whole family can move forward, out of addiction and into new ways of relating.
- Enjoy the good times. Some partners fall into the trap of being so worried that the partner in recovery is about to relapse that they miss out on enjoying the fun to be had in the moment. Yes, relapses can and do happen, but refusing to enjoy a moment today because of what might happen tomorrow is counterproductive. Yes, it is an emotional risk to trust and be open with someone who has hurt you. And yes, I am suggesting that you take this risk because the alternative is to stay hurt. Don’t miss out on the good times out of fear they won’t last.
Thriving in recovery and enjoying your new life with your partner and family involves balancing trust, hard work and faith. People do recover and go on to live well, even after relapses. You can’t forget or change the past, but you can move forward, stronger and healthier from having dealt with it.