Addictions in Relationships

heart-176879_640Sometimes in couples counselling things can get to a stuck place where progress isn’t being made, despite what seems like everyone’s best efforts.  A very common explanation for this can be that there is a hidden addiction issue present in the relationship.

Addictions take a huge toll on relationships.  Partners sometimes describe the presence of addiction in a relationship being like there is an affair going on.  Addiction can harm trust and a partner can turn to a substance (or a behaviour) for comfort in a similar way that they might to an affair partner.

The language of “codependency” has come into our speech to try to help people understand what goes on when their partner is an addict.  Here’s one definition:

codependency |ˌkōdəˈpendənsē|  “excessive emotional or psychological reliance on a partner, typically a partner who requires support due to an illness or addiction.”

The problem with this definition is that it’s not the reliance that’s the problem.  In healthy relationships, we rely utterly on one another so that language of “excessive reliance” isn’t always helpful.  The problem comes when we can’t get to our partner through the addiction.  The problem comes when partners can’t talk to one another about the role the addiction plays in the relationship and how it stops them from really being able to get close and meet each other’s needs.

When that happens, partners get stuck in a cycle where one of them self-medicates or numbs in order to deal with the lack of healthy connection and the other accommodates their behaviour to compensate for the addiction and/or burns up all their energy trying to draw attention to the addiction.  When that happens, it is profoundly difficult to get the relationship to a healthy place without some kind of help.

Terry Noble is a therapist in Peterborough, ON. You can find information about his counselling practice at www.terrynoble.ca.

Forgiveness

forgive-208824_640One of the most difficult things for a human being to do can be to forgive.  In upcoming posts, I will delve into what makes it possible to move towards forgiveness, but today I would like to start with a simple question.  What ought to be the object of our forgiveness?

I think this is an important question, because sometimes forgiveness seems impossible.  We can feel so much pain that forgiveness can seem not just impossible, but unthinkable.

If our focus stays solely on what the person has done, forgiveness may actually be impossible.  Perhaps that is because there are actions that are unforgivable.  Some things human beings do are simply wrong – no matter what moral code you might follow.

Does that give us an out?  Does that mean that if someone has done something that’s just too hurtful that we don’t need to think about forgiving?

I don’t think there is an easy out here, because an important idea to start with on the road to forgiveness is that we don’t forgive actions we forgive fellow human beings.

Whatever else makes forgiving someone possible, I think we have to start with the basic idea that we need to focus on the person, not just on what that person has done.  What the person has done – the act that has hurt you – becomes a bundle of thoughts and emotions whose power can grow like a never-ending tornado, if we allow it to.

Forgiving calls us to focus on the person.  You don’t forgive actions, you forgive persons.  Without that focus, all of your best efforts may be in vain.  That would be sad, because forgiveness benefits you, not just the one whom you’re forgiving.

Terry Noble is a therapist in Peterborough, ON. You can find information about his counselling practice at www.terrynoble.ca.

What’s Happened to Marriage?

photo by mrhayata on Flickr
photo by mrhayata on Flickr

A friend and I were sitting in the park yesterday, enjoying some delicious take-out shawarma and sharing stories of weddings we had been at recently.  Soon this turned to talk about marriage itself.

Knowing I work with couples, my friend asked, “What is it that’s changed?  Is it just that we see men and women’s roles so differently now?”  I certainly had to agree with him that our ideas about gender roles have changed.

I am in the midst of reading The Astronaut Wives Club, a book about the wives of the first American astronauts.  (A television series based on the book will air next month.)  Consider how the author describes the effect of the first Life magazine article about these women:

“Across the land, housewives opened their glossy Life magazines and saw seven glorious women they could look up to and emulate.  If only they could whip up an apple pie or a perfect batch of chocolate chip cookies like Annie Glenn, maybe their husbands would be more productive, better fit their gray flannel suits, and get ahead in business.”

These words describe gender roles articulated by a major media source just fifty-some years ago.  Can you imagine?  In terms of the whole of human history, that’s just the blink of an eye.  Is it any wonder that the institution of marriage, and couples relationships more generally, are struggling to catch up?

Gender roles are part of it, but the changes go beyond that.  We simply expect more out of our intimate relationships.  We expect our partner to be our best friend, our confidante, our lover, our financial partner, the one with whom we can share our must vulnerable feelings … the list goes on.

Is this a bad thing?

Jeff Belmonte from Cuiabá, Brazil - Flickr
Jeff Belmonte from Cuiabá, Brazil – Flickr

Surely it is not.  But how well equipped are we to deliver to one another on these expectations?  Were we fortunate enough to have these things modeled for us by our parents or by other couples we knew when we were younger?  How badly have we gotten hurt in previous relationships?  Do we know how to be close to and vulnerable with a partner while still feeling safe?  Sometimes it can feel like we’re being called on to walk a tightrope across Niagara Falls without any training or experience.

I’m drawn to doing couples therapy because I think it is so important and because I think we can realize these high expectations we have come to have.  The work of John Gottman has helped us understand what works in a couples relationship and what doesn’t.  Sue Johnson’s Emotionally Focused Therapy gives us a way to get to the other side when it seems like we’re in danger of falling into the gorge.

It’s easy to get a little down on the institution of marriage, knowing as we all do  the statistics of divorce.  However, perhaps we need to give credit for how well marriage has weathered the storm, given all the change we have put it through.  Instead of focusing on the challenges associated with marriage, perhaps we ought to be amazed at the enduring power and potential of the emotional connection that can exist between two human beings.

Terry Noble is a therapist in Peterborough, ON. You can find information about his counselling practice at www.terrynoble.ca.

Trust, Part II

Huffington Post recently published a common-sense article about factors to consider when setting out to make a second relationship work.  Reading it on the heels of writing about trust I was surprised to see that issue not mentioned.

In my experience, many people come out of marriages or other relationships feeling like trust is a major issue.  The very idea of trusting someone again – of being vulnerable with someone again – is simply scary.

I like to offer the perspective that trust is not a switch that we can turn on or off.  Trust is something that can sometimes be destroyed quickly, but often needs to be rebuilt slowly.  I encourage people to see working with trust as a useful tool, both as something that can lead to healing for themselves and as a way to discern whether a future relationship is a good and right one.

heart-195147_640I encourage people to trust just a little and see how their new partner responds.  If a dating partner laughs hurtfully at you when you share your favourite movie, perhaps there won’t be much chance of you ever being able to share your deepest hurts, hopes and fears.  If you feel good about how your new partner responds to you trusting them with a little, it’s probably safe to trust a little bit more.

It’s also important to ask yourself whether trust is growing in the other direction, also.  Is your new partner showing increasing trust in you?  A good relationship is balanced and reciprocal.

Terry Noble is a therapist in Peterborough, ON. You can find information about his counselling practice at www.terrynoble.ca.

Time Heals?

Photo by Alan Cleaver - flickr
Photo by Alan Cleaver – flickr

There’s an old saying – “time heals all wounds”.  I hear this from clients every now and again, sometimes in the abbreviated form, “time heals”.

Is this true?

One thing I have become convinced of is that time on its own does not heal.  Physical wounds may heal with time, but emotional wounds can linger.

What I often say, particularly to couples, is that time can heal provided that you have new experiences over time.  That is particularly true when there has been an injury to a relationship, such as an affair.

When trust is broken in a relationship, it is particularly true that time alone will not heal.  In these cases, partners need to have a different experience of one another for healing to happen.  Trust is regained when one partner can feel safe enough to risk just a little bit, and the other partner can respond in a different way and show that trusting is now safe.

A lot of this is about baby steps, but somewhere along the way there have to be some larger steps.  An injured partner has to feel safe at some point to share how they’ve been hurt.  That safety comes when the injuring partner is ready to look their partner in the eyes and hear them and acknowledge their pain.

This kind of healing can seem impossible.  However, it can happen.  With help, this kind of healing is possible.  It takes time, but it also requires that you experience your partner in new and safer ways – something a trained couples therapist can help you with.  Emotionally Focused Therapy provides a road map for this kind of work.

Terry Noble is a therapist in Peterborough, ON. You can find information about his counselling practice at www.terrynoble.ca.