How Compassion Can Help You Support an Addicted Loved One
Transform your relationship with an addicted partner or family member.
Posted October 3, 2016 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
“Compassion will cure more sins than condemnation.” —Henry Ward Beecher
Many people have someone in their life who suffers from an addiction problem, whether it be dependence on drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, shopping or some other form of addiction. Many have a partner who suffers from one of these addictions or a family member who continually struggles with an activity or substance dependence. Relationships between substance dependent individuals and their partners and family members are typically considered not only painful but unsupportive and destructive. But this doesn’t have to be the case.
We’ve been told that staying with a partner who struggles with addiction means that we’re enabling their destructive behavior, that wanting to help a family member means we’re codependent, and the best thing for both of us is to walk away from the relationship entirely. But is this true?
In this article, I challenge these beliefs and focus on another way to relate to a partner or family member who is addicted to a substance or activity—one that allows you to tap into your feelings of love as well as helping you bypass the obstacles that get in the way of your love feelings. This article will outline the most effective ways to support your partner or family member.
Loved ones have often been told that the best way to help their substance dependent partner or family member is not to help. Those with codependent behavior have often been told to “detach with love” or to practice “tough love.” Partners and family members worry about doing anything nice for their loved one for fear of “enabling” their destructive behavior. But contrary to these admonishments research has shown that partners of those who are substance dependent can actually play an important role in helping their partner to change.
Today many experts are recommending that partners and families become involved with the recovery process. And contrary to the popular myth that “you can’t help an alcoholic until he wants help,” families and partners are now being encouraged to do what they can to help their partner reach out for help. For example, Debra Jay, interventionist, lecturer, and co-author with her husband, Jeff Jay, of the book, Love First: A Family’s Guide to Intervention, stated, “I call that an ‘action stopping’ myth. It says you can’t help an alcoholic until he wants help. So that’s it for families: Step back and let the addiction run through your family like a freight train. There’s nothing you can do. Well, it’s a completely different story when you say, “If you can’t help an alcoholic until he wants help, what will get him to want help? You see, now I’m thinking differently. Now that opens up the door to possibility. Now I can start looking for solutions and answers.”
While loved ones can’t change their addicted partner, there are things they can change about themselves that will benefit their loved one, their relationship, and greatly improve his or her chances of recovery.
The most significant and beneficial strategies involve becoming more compassionate toward your loved one. Far from enabling your partner, compassion is the key to helping someone with an addiction problem. More important, you can learn how to take care of your loved one without condoning or supporting the behavior you don’t want.
Finally, you can work on the core issues that have led you to behave in codependent ways. While you are not the cause of your loved one’s substance dependence, you can make life a lot easier for him or her partner by giving up certain behaviors—behaviors that cause your loved one to become more defensive about her substance dependence and more stubborn about getting help. You can also cause her to feel even worse about herself than she already does and thus, discourage her from getting the help she needs.
Reasons to Feel Hopeful
If you still feel love toward your partner or family member, and you still have hope that he can change, there are good reasons for you to feel hopeful about your partner’s recovery. There has been a great deal of new research making recovery from substance abuse much more viable than ever before. We now know more about what causes addiction, why it is so difficult to manage and how best to treat it. We now understand that it doesn’t require a person to “hit rock bottom” before he can begin to change and we know that there are many treatment options in addition to 12-step programs and residential treatment programs.
In the area of neuroscience alone there have been major breakthroughs offering those with substance abuse problems a great deal of hope. We now understand more about how the brain works and its role in substance problems. Specifically, we now know that our brains are constantly evolving, even as adults. Instead of the concept of “permanent brain damage” or that our brains only grow in our formative years, we have learned that our brains create new pathways long into adulthood. What this means is that we can develop new patterns of behavior if we practice new activities and if we get the proper help. In the area of substance abuse, especially drug dependence, this means that given help and time and sometimes medication, plus concerted effort and measures to safeguard against returning to substance use, brains can heal from the effects of drugs.
If your partner is already in recovery in some form you have even more reason to feel hopeful. Even if she has relapsed many times, the fact that she has admitted she has a problem and has reached out for help is half the battle. Most experts in recovery now understand that relapse is actually a natural part of recovery so you can play an important role in her ongoing recovery by not giving up on her.
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And thanks to new research, we now know that family members and others important to a substance abuser can all have a positive impact on his motivation. CRAFT—Community Reinforcement and Family Training—is a scientifically supported, evidence-based approach to helping families of substance abusers.
A group of researchers in Illinois, led by behavioral psychologist Nathan Azrin, developed what is considered the most effective behavioral treatment for substance users—the Community Reinforcement Approach (CRA). In the process, they discovered that family involvement was a crucial factor in successful change. Meyers expanded the CRA approach to work with families when their loved one refused help, and called it CRAFT. After moving to the Center on Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Addictions (CASAA) at the University of New Mexico, Dr. Meyers conducted further research and clinical trials (teaming with Jane Ellen Smith, Ph.D.). Their work has now given us ample evidence that given the right tools, family can affect change.
CRAFT is designed specifically to empower family members. It teaches them how to take control of their lives, and to change their interactions with the substance abuser in ways that promote positive behavioral change. Clinical trials on CRAFT have shown that when family members use these positive, supportive, non-confrontational techniques, not only do they find ways to get their loved one into treatment, but the family members themselves feel better—specifically showing decreases in depression, anger, anxiety, and medical problems. Clinical trials also have shown that family members benefit emotionally even if their loved one does not enter treatment.
Compassion as a Key to Healing
Compassion is the most powerful tool you can have when it comes to healing addictions of any kind. In other words, what your loved one needs the most from you is compassion.
The word compassion comes from the Latin roots com (with) and pati (suffer), so it denotes “suffering with” another person. When we offer someone genuine compassion, we join them in their suffering.
When we join someone in their suffering, we provide them with not one, but five healing gifts:
- We let them know we really see them and we recognize their suffering. One of the most powerful needs for humans is to be seen. This is especially true for those with a substance abuse problem who were often victims of childhood neglect and abuse and who often felt invisible within their families. When we offer someone compassion, we give them the gift of seeing them and recognizing their pain.
- We let the person know that we hear them. Being heard is another primal need for humans. Again, it is a need that often went unmet for those with substance abuse issues who often felt that their needs, wants, and feelings went unheard.
- We confirm to the person that we recognize their suffering and that he has a right to express his pain, sadness, fear, anger, or any other emotion due to his suffering. In other words, we validate or confirm the other person’s experience of suffering. We don’t deny, minimize, ignore, or otherwise invalidate it, which is what he may have grown accustomed to when he was a child and what he may continue to expect.
- We let him know we care about him as a human being; we care about the fact that he suffered and is still suffering. Respect and care for his humanity may have been in short supply when he was a child and it is a gift to have this birthright restored.
- We offer comfort and soothing in some way, whether it’s a healing glance, a loving touch, a supportive hug, or kind words. The gift of comforting and soothing stimulates the soothing/contentment system in the body and provides a sense of security that helps tone down negative emotions.
The Benefits of Compassion
Compassion for others has been found to be deeply rooted in human nature; it has a biological basis in the brain and body. It seems that we are wired to respond to others in need. In fact, helping others brings the same pleasure we get from the gratification of personal desire. In addition, it has been found that when young children and adults feel compassion for others, this emotion is reflected in very real physiological changes. Their heart rate goes down from baseline levels, which prepares them not to fight or flee but to approach and soothe. In other words, science is now telling us that having compassion for others is actually good for us.
In the last 30 years, we have seen the science of psychology and studies of the human brain begin to put compassion, caring, and prosocial behavior center stage in the development of well-being, mental health, and our capacity to foster harmonious relationships with each other and the world we live in.
In recent years, in particular, the work of many researchers has revealed, among other insights, that kindness, support, encouragement, and compassion from others have a huge impact on how our brains, bodies, and general sense of well-being develop. Love and kindness, especially in early life, even affect how some of our genes are expressed (Gilbert 2009, Cozolino 2007).
Compassion is especially effective when it comes to healing substance abuse problems, especially the issue of shame. Addiction and shame are closely connected. In fact, most, if not all who have substance abuse problems have been shamed, by their childhood experiences and by their behavior surrounding their addiction. Like a poison, toxic shame needs to be neutralized by another substance—an antidote—if the patient is to be saved. And as it turns out, compassion is the only thing that can counteract the isolating, stigmatizing, debilitating poison of shame.
Creating a Compassionate Environment
It can be difficult to join your loved one in his suffering if he does not share it with you. Those who are substance- or activity-dependent often act as if they are fine and deny they have a problem. They even tell you that the problem is yours—not theirs. So how can you provide compassion if your loved one does not share his suffering with you?
First of all, assume your loved one is suffering whether she admits it or not. While those who are substance dependent are notorious for being in denial about their addiction and the problems it creates, no one has a substance dependency without suffering from pain and shame—the pain that comes when the substance or activity “wears off” and they come crashing down, the pain they feel when they look in the eyes of the people they disappoint, hurt, and anger, the shame that comes from being so out of control, the shame that comes when they embarrass themselves in front of others.
Second, create a compassionate environment around your loved one—one that supports her emotionally and encourages her to come out of denial. You can do this in several ways:
- Soothe your partner’s hurts and comfort her pain with compassion. Even if your partner does not share her suffering with you, or denies she is even suffering, you can still provide it for her. Even an understanding look, a sigh, or a comforting touch can communicate that you are with her in her pain. Contrast this with the dirty looks, eye-rolling, or looks of contempt you often give your loved one.
- Work on being more empathetic toward your partner. In other words, put yourself in his place and imagine how he must feel. As impatient, disappointed and angry at your partner as you can feel, imagine how he must feel about himself. Yes, he may act like he doesn’t care, he may become defensive and deny he has a problem, but you need to know that under that hard shell, beneath that defensive wall he has built up, he is feeling deeply impatient, disappointed and angry with himself. And he is feeling deeply ashamed of himself. (This is why it is important for you to not continue shaming him—we’ll discuss this later.)
- Provide the space for your partner to share his suffering with you. Don’t continue to constantly complain to him about how much you suffer because of him and his substance abuse. He can’t very well feel open to admitting to you how much he suffers if he has to constantly ward off your attacks.
- Work on understanding your partner’s substance dependence. This includes what causes it and why it is so difficult to break. Often we cannot have compassion for someone if we don’t understand why they behave as they do. In a follow-up article, I will provide important information to help you better understand your partner and his addiction.
- Provide compassion for yourself. The more compassionate you are with yourself about how you are suffering, the more compassionate you will be able to be with your partner. I’ll offer you suggestions for how to go about this at the end of this article.
By following these guidelines you can begin to provide for your loved one (and yourself) the kind of compassionate environment that will act as a safe and secure place for her or him to be in. This safety and security will, in turn, help her or him to take the steps and the risks he or she will need to take in order to recover.
Common Obstacles of Creating a Compassionate Environment
You probably feel relieved to learn that there is actually something you can do to help your loved one in his recovery. You like the idea of creating a compassionate environment and you are eager to begin doing so. But it is very likely that there will be some obstacles in your way. These obstacles can include:
- Your anger toward your loved one
- Your tendency to shame your loved one
- Your tendency to feel sorry for yourself
Your anger toward your loved one
The first and probably most powerful obstacle is your anger and resentment toward your partner. After all, it is highly likely that you have been deeply hurt by your loved one's behavior. There are probably things he has done (or left undone) that have significantly affected your life and if you have children, your children’s lives. And you may feel deeply disappointed and betrayed. After all, this is not what you signed up for. If the addicted person in your life is your partner, it is likely that you got involved with a man you admired and looked up to and this man let you down in very painful ways.
So while you may be willing and even eager to create a compassionate environment (and to become your loved one’s collaborator) these feelings of resentment, anger, hurt and betrayal may get in your way of doing so. You may recognize that in spite of your love for your partner or family member, in spite of your desire to help him, these feelings may get in your way of experiencing compassion for him. For this reason it is important for you to take responsibility for finding a way to release your anger over your loved one’s using so that you can focus on being his supporter or collaborator.
Your habit of shaming your partner
One of the most powerful things you can do to support your loved one in his recovery is to stop shaming him. There is scientific evidence that shaming doesn’t work when it comes to changing someone’s behavior. In fact, shaming causes more harm than good. Your work on ridding yourself of your anger toward your partner will help you to begin to break what may have become a habit to shame him.
Few people are actually changed through shame. Instead, what is created is an angry person who feels terrible about himself and has little motivation to change his behavior. In addition, when we shame someone we alienate and isolate him, which tends to make him feel disconnected from others. This angry person who now hates himself and consequently has little motivation to change and who also feels disconnected from others is far more likely to continue his addictive behavior.
For more than half a century, those in the addiction field used what was considered high-confrontation treatment aimed at “breaking through” an addict’s supposed “denial” or resistance to treatment. But many in the field now understand, and studies have proven—that this kind of confrontation increases resistance.
It’s also important that you realize that your partner is likely to be overwhelmed with shame already. Whether your partner admits it or not, he is carrying around a heavy load of shame because of his behavior. Substance abusers usually have a great deal of shame about the things they have done as a result of their addiction (getting sloppy drunk at an office party and telling off his boss, causing his family to lose the house because of his compulsive gambling). Humiliating him further will only cause him to remain defensive.
There are many reasons why shame is at the core of most addictions and dependencies (including codependency):
Shame and addiction are deeply intertwined. For example, alcoholics may be prone to shame by disposition and they may drink, in part, to cope with chronic shame and low self-worth. In addition, drinking can, in turn, cause shame, creating a vicious cycle.
Jessica Tracy and Daniel Randles at the University of British Columbia conducted a study to discover whether alcoholics’ feelings of shame about their addictions might actually interfere with their attempts to get sober. They recruited about 100 women and men from the rooms of AA—all with less than six months of sobriety. They measured their levels of shame and other emotions, along with personality traits, and then four months later they checked on how they were doing in recovery.
One reason shame has gone unstudied is that it is a very difficult emotion to capture. People who are experiencing shame tend to hide it and escape it, not talk about it openly. Tracy and Randles decided to measure the level of shame and access its effect on behavior by noting their body language. They asked the volunteers to describe the last time they drank and "felt badly about it." They then videotaped their responses.
Later, they analyzed and coded their body movements and postures as a measure of their shameful feelings. People who were ashamed act very much like submissive animals, slumping their shoulders and narrowing their chest, the opposite of proud chest-beating. This physical display of shame may be universal: It has been observed in a range of species and in both adults and children in many cultures.
The scientists wanted to see if shameful body language correlated with mental and physical health and especially with successful sobriety four months later. This is the window of time when most newly recovered alcoholics will relapse, and indeed more than half of the volunteers never made it back to the lab. But with those who did, there was an unmistakable connection between shame and relapse. The alcoholics who were most ashamed about their last drink—typically a humiliating experience—were more likely to relapse. Their relapses were also more severe, involving much more drinking, and they were more likely to suffer other declines in health. In short, feelings of shame do not appear to promote sobriety or protect against future problematic drinking—indeed the opposite.
This is the first study to bolster what alcoholism counselors and recovering alcoholics have long known: Shame is a core emotion underlying chronic heavy drinking. Shame is what gets people into the rooms of AA—it defines the alcoholic “bottom”—but it’s not a good motivator for staying in recovery. The power of AA is that it offers something that replaces the negative emotion that most alcoholics know all too intimately, as Wrey Herbert writes in The Shame of the Alcoholic.
Those who work in substance abuse recovery have found that almost everyone with an addiction has some level of trauma. In addition to feeling shame about his behavior due to his substance use or activity compulsion, your partner is likely to have shame related to previous trauma, namely childhood abuse or neglect. Trauma, especially child abuse, causes a victim to feel shame.
As a counselor, my specialty for 35 years has been working with adults who were abused as children. I have found that most of my clients suffer from debilitating shame: shame so all-consuming that it negatively affects every aspect of a person’s life—his perception of himself, his relationships with others, his ability to be intimate with a romantic partner, his ability to risk and achieve success in his career, and his overall physical and emotional health. While everyone experiences shame from time to time, and many have issues related to shame, adult victims of childhood abuse suffer from shame more often and have far more issues related to shame than any other group of people.
Victims of childhood abuse tend to feel shame because, as human beings, we want to believe that we have control over what happens to us. When that is challenged by a victimization of any kind, we feel humiliated. We believe we should have been able to defend ourselves. And because we weren’t able to do so, we feel helpless and powerless. This powerlessness leads to humiliation and shame.
Stop adding to the stockpile of shame
Because substance abusers are already filled with shame, it is very important that you do not add to that stockpile of shame if you can help it. Shaming your partner only serves to make him feel worse about himself. Since your goal is to support him, you want to do everything you can to help him feel better about himself, not the opposite.
Letting go of shaming behavior can be difficult because it probably has become a habit. It has also likely become a way for you to release your frustration and anger at his behavior. Once you take responsibility for releasing your anger in constructive ways (it is an ongoing process, not a one-time thing) you will find that you are less likely to want to shame your partner.
In order to break your habit of shaming your partner, begin to notice how often you shame him with statements such as:
“I can’t believe you did it again. You promised me you wouldn’t. You have absolutely no will power do you?”
“When are you going to grow up and start acting like a man?
“You’re such a loser.”
“You’re just a hopeless case. I feel sorry for you.”
“I don’t know why I stay with you. God knows no other woman would put up with this kind of crap!”
“What’s wrong with you? You’re so pathetic! Can’t you control yourself for even one day?”
Your tendency to feel sorry for yourself
One reason for your anger with your partner and your tendency to shame your partner is that you desire validation and appreciation for all you have suffered because of his substance abuse. Unfortunately, you are not likely to get this kind of validation from your partner. First of all, he probably feels too defensive or too ashamed to give it to you. Secondly, it is likely that your partner did not receive compassion or validation as a child and therefore, doesn’t know how to give these things to others. So it comes down to this: You need to begin to provide for yourself the self-compassion and validation you so desperately need.
As well as being the most powerful way you can support your partner, compassion is also the most powerful tool you have for helping yourself as you take the role of supporter or collaborator. Self-compassion will help you to remain strong even in the most difficult of times. It will help you to be resilient as your partner’s inappropriate, embarrassing, hurtful or abusive behavior takes its toll. Most important, self-compassion will help motivate you to take care of yourself.
If compassion is the ability to feel and connect with the suffering of another human being, self-compassion is the ability to feel and connect with one’s own suffering. Kristin Neff, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, is the leading researcher in the growing field of self-compassion. In her book Self-Compassion, she defines self-compassion as “being open to and moved by one’s own suffering, experiencing feelings of caring and kindness toward oneself, taking an understanding, nonjudgmental attitude toward one’s inadequacies and failures, and recognizing that one’s experience is part of the common human experience.”
If we are to be self-compassionate, we need to give ourselves the same gifts we offer to another person toward whom we are feeling compassionate. In other words, we need to offer ourselves the recognition, validation, and support we would offer a loved one who is suffering.
There’s no denying that you’ve been hurt and embarrassed and angered by your partner’s behavior. You may have lost friends and money, your career may have suffered or you may have even lost a job because you have been so devastated by his actions. Certainly your health has been affected since you have likely suffered both emotionally and physically. But anger and self-pity don’t really help you and it won’t get you anywhere. And it can also prevent you from being a compassionate collaborator for your partner.
While self-pity doesn’t help, self-compassion does. If you are a partner of someone who has a substance abuse problem you have suffered. And you deserve compassion for your suffering. Unfortunately, other people may not be very forthcoming when it comes to offering you this compassion. Instead they may have advised you to leave your partner and since you haven’t done so, they might have grown impatient with you, much like friends and family do with battered women who do not leave their abusive partner. On the other hand, friends and family may have chosen to stay in denial about just how serious your partner’s problems are and may expect you to stay with him no matter how bad it gets, offering no compassion for how much you have suffered. And so the only compassion you may receive is the compassion you give yourself.
Thinking and acting with self-compassion has been shown to have advantageous psychological benefits, including reduced distress, pathology, and negative affect, and increased well-being, optimism, and happiness (MacBeth & Gumley, 2012; Neff, 2003a, 2003b; Neff, 2004; Neff, Kirkpatrick, & Rude, 2007; Van Dam, Sheppard, Forsyth, & Earleywine, 2011).
A recent meta-analysis showed self-compassion to have a positive effect on depression, anxiety, and stress across 20 studies (MacBeth and Gumley 2012). Self-compassion also appears to facilitate resilience by moderating people’s reactions to negative events—trauma in particular. Gilbert and Procter (2001) suggest that self-compassion provides emotional resilience because it deactivates the threat system.
Stopping to acknowledge your suffering with self-compassion is not the same as whining, experiencing self-pity, or feeling sorry for yourself. When we are experiencing self-pity we tend to complain to ourselves (and others) about how bad a situation is and see ourselves as helpless to change it. There is often a bitter tone to our thoughts and feelings. While being angry about our situation or about what someone did to hurt us is fine, and even healing; it is when we start to dwell, in bitterness and helplessness, on how we’ve been victimized that we get stuck in self-pity. Self-compassion comes from a more nurturing place inside us and can be comforting and validating.
Self-compassion can lead to proactive behavior. Once you’ve validated your feelings and your experience, you may feel more motivated to improve your situation. I often find this to be the case with people who are currently being either emotionally or physically abused. Once they acknowledge their suffering and allow themselves to feel and express their emotions because of it, they often feel more impetus to leave the relationship.
Most of us were raised to just keep going in spite of difficulties. That is all well and good—it’s important to persevere—but instead of ignoring our feelings about how difficult something is, it’s important to acknowledge the difficulty and have compassion for the fact we’re having it.
Self-compassion encourages us to begin to treat ourselves and talk to ourselves with the same kindness, caring, and compassion we would show a good friend or a beloved child. Just as connecting with the suffering of others has been shown to comfort and heal, connecting with our own suffering will do the same. If you are able to feel compassion toward others, you can learn to feel it for yourself; the following exercise will show you how.
Exercise: Becoming Compassionate Toward Yourself
- Think about the most compassionate person you have known—someone kind, understanding, and supportive of you. It may have been a teacher, a friend, a friend’s parent, or a relative. Think about how this person conveyed his or her compassion toward you and how you felt in this person’s presence. Notice the feelings and sensations that come up with this memory. If you can’t think of someone in your life who has been compassionate toward you, think of a compassionate public figure, or even a fictional character from a book, film, or television.
- Now imagine that you have the ability to become as compassionate toward yourself as this person has been toward you (or you imagine this person would be toward you). How would you treat yourself if you were feeling overwhelmed with sadness or shame? What kinds of words would you use to talk to yourself?
This is the goal of self-compassion: to treat yourself the same way the most compassionate person you know would treat you—to talk to yourself in the same loving, kind, supportive ways this compassionate person would talk to you.
The more you work on releasing your stockpile of anger and the more you provide for yourself the compassion you so desperately need, the less you will need to bring things up from the past. And hopefully, the more you come to understand how damaging shaming a person can be, you will be less inclined to do so. The less inclined you will be to continually remind him of how much he has disappointed you, embarrassed you and hurt you and how he has ruined his life. The chances are you have already told him these things so he doesn’t need to hear it again and you don’t need to say it again.
Research has shown that the more you criticize someone, even in an attempt to “get through” to him, the more defensive he will become. On the other hand, the more you treat your partner with compassion, the less defensive he will become. Respect and optimism have proven to lower defenses and get you on the same side, working together against the problem. He will then feel this more compassionate attitude and whether he understands it or not—he will feel more accepted and loved. He’ll have less of a need to defend himself or to make excuses for his behavior. He’ll have less of a need to lie to you or push you away with criticisms of his own.