It can be super difficult navigating through any relationship that is affected by serious addiction issues. There is a strong belief out there in the world that helping our loved ones and treating them too kindly can end in creating a codependency and worsen their addiction — instead, the best thing to do is show them some tough love! That you have to be “cruel to be kind”. (Thank you Nick Lowe).
Without a doubt, it can be hard to be with a person who is addicted. They may even act in some really negative ways; they may ask for or steal money for drugs or alcohol; they may continually cross our boundaries and cause us pain or heartache, they make be continually rationalizing and making all kinds of excuses for their negative and even destructive behaviours.
Lots of research has found that family, friends and even the community can play important roles in recovery. While loved ones can’t actually change their addicted friend or family member, they can make the effort to try to act in ways that will help create a loving and caring environment where their loved one feels supported and cared about.
Much new research in addictions is showing that many of those who are addicted actually quit without professional help and that one of the primary factors that helps someone end an addiction is when the addicted person has a strong connection to their loved ones and to the greater community. It also helps significantly when their relationship with their loved ones is based in respect and acceptance (Heyman 2013).
Why are Empathy and Compassion So Powerful?
When we offer a loved one our genuine empathy and compassion, we intentionally join them in their suffering and then, and only then, can we give them the authentic support and love that are truly the synergists that may spark their healing and recovery.
Being empathic and compassionate means that we are an active witness to the suffering they are dealing with in their addiction. Making a concerted effort to have compassion allows us to really see our loved one and the suffering they are going through.
In their excellent book, When Your Partner Has an Addiction: How Compassion Can Transform Your Relationship (and Heal You Both in the Process), co-authors Christopher Kennedy Lawford and Beverly Engel explore how spouses/partners can help the recovery of the people they love. From their book:
“Compassion is the most powerful tool you can have when it comes to healing addictions of any kind. Put simply, what your partner needs most from you is compassion.”
“Human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections. If we can’t connect with each other, we will connect with whatever we can find … It is disconnection that drives addiction.”
Lawford and Engels’s book is an excellent resource on how to connect with a loved one who is struggling with addiction.
So now that we understand why empathy and compassion are so important, how do we do that?
Here are some good strategies to help you help your loved one:
Validate Them and Their Experience
To feel validated, the addicted loved one needs to feel seen, heard and understood. To feel understood our loved ones must know they have the space to express their anger, frustration, fears, suffering, sadness, or any other strong emotion they are feeling. Negative emotions are often one of the biggest causal factors at the centre of an addiction. Negative emotions are the fuel that keeps the addiction churning along. Friends and family members who disregard or minimize their loved one’s suffering may actually be helping the addiction and harming their loved one! Empathy helps us stop judging and validate the person. Compassion allows us to judge less and listen more.
Whether it’s physical or emotional pain, sufferers from addiction often have a great need to be comforted. Simple things like a loving touch, a warm glance, or just a few kind words can make a huge difference in how our addicted loved one feels supported and loved.
It is also incredibly important to be compassionate toward yourself during your loved one’s addiction and recovery. Self-compassion asks that we treat ourselves kindly; that we validate our experience and show ourselves the same comfort we show our loved one. Here’s a link to some good emotional self-care tips: https://roberthammel.com/7-steps-to-emotional-self-care/
Many people who have an addicted loved one try to use shame as a tool to help their loved one “see the light” or as a tool to motivate them “to do better”.
Unfortunately, it can actually backfire in some unexpected ways! One of the most insidious parts of an addiction is the sense of often overwhelming shame that it creates.
The addict cannot pass his own survey. He is appalled by the failures from which he suffers, and shame is the appropriate, respectful, humane, first-person response to these failures. Shame begets using and more using begets more shame, and the vicious cycle is produced and maintains itself. Overcoming shame is part of overcoming addiction. Shame is also normally a crucial factor motivating the addict’s attempt to reclaim, reconstruct, and improve himself. (Flanagan, 2012)
Shaming someone makes them feel isolated and alienated from their support system. Shaming them may actually feed their emotional cycle of addiction.
Addiction, Love and Boundaries
One last thing. I am not suggesting we should totally do away with setting boundaries with our addicted loved one. Not at all, we need to set appropriate boundaries with everyone in our lives and particularly those that are acting out in negative ways that may harm us… Perhaps, though, along with setting good boundaries for our loved one, we should also try to make a place for them in our hearts… realizing that love, empathy and compassion may be more important than tough love in helping them to recovery.
Here is a great blog from my colleague Sharon Martin on setting boundaries with a loved one dealing with addiction:
If you or a loved one is suffering with addiction and you’re interested in exploring therapy for you or for them, please contact me today. I would be happy to speak with you about how I may be able to help.
Heyman, G. M. (2013). Addiction and Choice: Theory and New Data. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 4, 31. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2013.00031
Christopher Kennedy Lawford and Beverly Engel When Your Partner Has an Addiction: How Compassion Can Transform Your Relationship (and Heal You Both in the Process) 2016 https://www.amazon.com/When-Your-Partner-Has-Addiction/dp/194163186X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1475599896&sr=8-1&keywords=when+your+partner+has+an+addiction
Flanagan, O. (2013). The Shame of Addiction. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 4, 120. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2013.00120