My significant other is addicted to paying for sex. He has been sober for about 2 years. Because we were friends first, I knew about the addiction before we began dating. The addiction stems from trauma and a shitty, shitty childhood.
This relationship has been hard. I knew so little about addiction, but I am learning. I am learning where to have empathy and where to set boundaries. What follows are steps I’ve taken that have helped keep me stable. I write this piece for readers who may one day make the discovery or make the choice to be in a relationship with an addict.
1. Learning about addiction
The short answer here is that addiction is a disease. It is a mentally pervasive and unhealthy coping strategy. My partner’s brain goes to addiction when the stressors of his life exceed his ability to cope in positive, life-affirming ways. Addiction runs in his family, and so his brain is wired to fall into negative patterns quicker than mine might. I do not blame my partner for his addiction and I try not to shame him for the things he has done.
2. Learning about co-addiction
Co-addicts are most often friends, family, and significant others. Co-addiction refers to behaviours on our part to try and control our loved one’s addiction. It’s called co-addiction because these behaviours can become as compulsive and obsessive as addiction itself.
By learning about co-addiction, I have been able to monitor my own behaviours. The reality is, I think about my partner’s addiction all the time. I fight the urge to check his text messages and review his call log. I want to know where he’s at when he goes out at night, and if he really is with the people he says he’s going to be with. I want to know if the people he’s out with are friends that can be trusted, or if they’ll take him back to his addiction.
If I had access to his bank account, I would be tempted to watch his spending. I refrain from acting on these thoughts, because I know they are unhealthy – both for myself and for my relationship. I cannot control my partner’s sobriety and any attempt to do so will drive me insane.
3. Attending support group
I attend a 12-step partner support group. At first, the 12 steps seemed preachy, and I didn’t resonate with anything we discussed. Monday after Monday, I forced myself to go back.
Last week, I realized how happy I am to be there. My support group is a space where I don’t have to explain myself or my circumstance. It feels easy to be understood. Some days we find ourselves giggling for no particular reason. Those days, I celebrate getting to feel normal. That experience is both rare and special in the context of this addiction – getting to feel normal.
4. Setting boundaries
My own individual therapist is an amazing woman, and she helped me establish guidelines that support my relationship. I shared these with my partner as boundaries that helped me feel safe. They weren’t demands. He had (and continues to have) the right to agree, disagree, or change his mind – at which point, I can similarly decide what my next step will be.
5. Telling my story
I wish I could attach my name to this story. My partner is not public with his story, and it isn’t my place to out him. I have opened up to loved ones on an individual basis about what’s happening in my life. Too often, I have learned that close family members and friends have had equally intimate experiences with addiction – without ever telling a soul. The more I share, the more I realize how common this experience is. It’s a good feeling – to know you’re not crazy and to know you’re not alone.
6. Deepening my self-care and self-awareness
I enjoyed introspection a great deal before this relationship. It’s become necessary within my current context. Ultimately, I am responsible for my own mental health and well being. I’ve got to know myself to know what my boundaries are, what I can handle, and what I cannot.
Resource: A Gentle Path through the Twelve Steps: The Classic Guide for All People in the Process of Recovery by Patrick Carnes, https://www.amazon.com/Gentle-Path-through-Twelve-Steps/dp/1592858430
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