My alcoholic husband does not feel deserving of love

We are now in a crisis of sorts, and his lack of self-regard is dragging both of us down.

Published August 14, 2008 10:08AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I have been married for a 20-plus years to a man who is a recovering alcoholic and non-recovering ACOA [adult children of alcoholics]. In other words, I have spent roughly half my life married to someone who believes to his core that he does not deserve love and happiness.

Miraculously, due to the part of him that is in recovery, most of the time my loved one is able to "act as if" he knows he deserves love and happiness. I have my own recovery that does this for me, too. So we've enjoyed a lot of both love and happiness in our marriage. We are miracles both individually and as a couple.

My husband's core belief, however, has not yet healed. In therapy together, he has often shared that he expects me to wake up any day now and realize I could "do better" than him. He understands the concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy, but he seems to be powerless to stop it.

Today, we are in one of those big-life-change times when this core belief surfaces frequently, randomly and suddenly in lava flows of pain. In those moments there is 180-degree projection (e.g., "You think I'm an idiot!" or "You think I'm crazy!" when the only person here who thinks he's anything negative is himself). Most days of our marriage I've practiced my own recovery well enough that I know who I am, which is (among other things) a person who loves her husband and is usually able to treat him according to that love rather than according to his low self-worth.

But lately there have been moments where the lava spilled over so quickly that I yell some version of "Ouch" in response to being burned before I recognize there's been an eruption. Maybe it's because we're going through a time of grief and change at the same time.

I daily ask God to be through me what I cannot be for myself. My sponsor reminds me frequently that yelling "Ouch" when someone hurts me is not synonymous with hurting him. She reminds me that saying "Ouch" can actually be very loving. And I get it: God is saying "Ouch" through me. I don't need to enable anyone not to deal with what he needs to deal with, and I don't need to put aside my grief to support him while he has his. We need to learn to support each other.

We've been in weekly therapy for several months (this time) and the last couple of times I've had to say "Ouch," it has come out more like, "Ouch, asshole!" This feels like I'm actually becoming a worse partner than a better one. For all I know, this may be what needs to happen if we are really ever to change as a couple. I'm not his ever-patient parent, and I shouldn't try to be. I'm his wife. But the problem with this behavior on my part is that it feeds the illusion that my husband's disease works hard to create.

It is as if my husband's disease is always trolling for evidence that he is unlovable. When I am not perfectly loving -- when I am human, in other words -- his disease is able to capitalize on that and say to him, "See? She can't love you, either." I am powerless over his disease -- being patient doesn't heal it, being mean and angry doesn't conquer it.

Cary, I realize I am attempting to borrow you as a surrogate husband for the moment. Is there a way to say "Ouch" to an alcoholic that conveys love? Or is there a way to quit responding to the disease that doesn't communicate as abandonment? Is there something in the way I communicate that invites his disease to toy with me? If so, I'm willing to hear about it.

Trying to Trust the Process

Dear Trying to Trust,

As somebody who has been down that road of addiction and recovery, I admire the way you avail yourself of the services of a therapist and a sponsor and the wisdom to be found in various texts from the recovery movement. And I know we recovering folks have to be vigilant. Our monkeys are hungry and cunning. They want their bananas.

But as I read your account, I think to myself, if only you could take some time off. You have a program and God and therapist and a sponsor and they are not going to let you down.

I sense something else, too. Do you ever find yourself wishing that if we just applied the program of recovery perfectly, more rigorously, more honestly ... what? We would ascend to the heavens? We would have no more deep sorrows and daily annoyances? We would find nirvana? We would be enlightened?

Recovery keeps people from being junkies and keeps people out of mental hospitals and keeps them from drinking and assaulting each other. But it does not explain all our pains and all our madness. In fact, I think it is the modesty of its purposes that keeps the recovery movement from slipping into cultish insanity. We resist the seductive assumption that any one system might solve everything.

Beyond therapy and recovery there is mystery. After you have done the steps and practiced the principles and been rigorously honest and prayed in the morning and prayed at night and taken inventories and turned it over and walked the walk and told your story and cleaned up your side of the street and talked to your sponsor about it and written about it and gone to more meetings and taken more commitments and reached out to others and meditated and asked for guidance and asked for thy will not mine to be done and all the rest there is the same blunt, implacable mystery before you that is before me and everyone else: The world in all its ancient splendor and strangeness. The world in all its perversity and pain. What's fucked up remains fucked up. Pain remains pain. Childhood remains childhood. Husbands remain husbands.

After recovery you return to the world and you are a different person but it is the same world. Your understanding and compassion are more vast and you are more at peace and less afraid but it is the same world it was when you left it. You left it for whatever reason. You could not handle it. You were in pain. You took drugs or drank or acted out for a few moments of relative tranquility. But now you are back.

So I suggest that after the adjustments are made and we are living in the world outwardly pretty much like all the rest and we have paid back the money we took and reestablished those relationships that can be salvaged and can house and feed and clothe ourselves and all the leaks in the roof are plugged and the utilities are turned back on, we are faced with the same problems everyone else is faced with, and that our expectations for rising above them ought be no higher than the norm. We are not saints or heroes. We are just plumb lucky souls.

So we detach. That is the thing you could never do before but now you can. You can detach. If there is a God in your life it is a loving God that will catch you if you fall. Its attention to detail may be lacking. You would perhaps prefer a God better at multitasking and more attentive to your instructions. But if you believe in a God then a God is there for you.

I am suggesting you give yourself a break. Remember what it was like? Remember how utterly baffling it all was? Now it's not baffling. It's just hard. It's not something to be cured or fixed. It is life in all its mystery and pain.

You married this man who has deep sorrows. It is very hard. Perhaps you will break down at times. Perhaps you will say, "Ouch, asshole!" a few more times. But don't worry. You don't have to fix this. You couldn't if you wanted to. Detach and find peace for yourself.

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