Building Empathy For Your Partner

by Julia Alperovich, MS, LMFT, CSAT-C


So…you’re in recovery. You have agreed to do “whatever it takes” to salvage your relationship. You started seeing a therapist regularly, disclosed or admitted to the behaviors your partner was afraid of finding out, and have been diligent about attending meetings, finding a sponsor, and working the steps. You have accepted that you have an addiction.  You have admitted that you are powerless over it. You are surrendering to the process of repairing, healing, and growing. So why does your partner still seem angry, vigilant, distant, hurt, or all of the above? You ask yourself if you will ever be able to get past this and be in a good place in your relationship again. Is all of your effort even noticed? What more can you do???

While working so hard to overcome your addiction and rebuild the trust in your relationship, you may have been focusing intensely on all the things you needed DO. You started checking boxes. You also need to FEEL what it is like for your partner. Empathy for your partner may have been overlooked. Or maybe you just weren’t able to understand your partner’s position and returned to focusing on what you were doing in hopes of having your partner notice and feel better. However, your partner may really benefit from your empathy. Yes, this sounds like one more thing that you are now being asked to do, but it is instrumental and can’t come early enough in the process. Your partner needs to know that you are not just going through the motions, but that you genuinely understand the effect your addiction has had on them.

Of course, every partner and every situation is different. But there are some emotions that are felt by almost every single partner who is in the process of trying to support the addict in their life during recovery. Remember, we are referring to empathy, not sympathy. Your partner wants to be understood and validated, not necessarily pitied. Here are some of the emotions your partner may be experiencing:

Betrayal is not something that people can get over quickly, it can sting.

Betrayal can take many different forms. Anything from keeping a secret to stepping outside of your marriage can feel like betrayal in a relationship. Betrayal is a painful thing to experience from the person with whom you are supposed to be most intimate. Even if your intention was never to hurt your partner, it may still be painful and it may take some time for your partner to heal from this. While they are being supportive, they may still be feeling the sting of this wound. The same way that your process of recovery and healing cannot be rushed, neither can theirs. Your partner may need your patience with this the same way you need theirs.

It may feel unfair that they have to be supportive while they are also the ones who are hurt.

Many times, partners feel like there is an expectation that they will put their own feelings aside in order to support the addict during his/her recovery process. This can be frustrating for some partners who feel like they are being asked to be giving when they were the victim and were not the cause of the instability in the relationship. Many partners say things like “I didn’t make this mess, why should I have to put in energy to clean it up?”, “He/she is the one with the problem, not me”, “What about me? Why is she/he getting all the attention?” Partners need reassurance that their feelings and needs are not invisible.  

They want the relationship to be good again as much as you do.

If they didn’t want it, they wouldn’t still be in it. Your partner is still in the relationship because he/she still has hope. They want to see you get better and, in turn, they want to see the relationship get better. Despite their anger or hurt, many partners maintain hope that in the process of supporting you through your recovery, it will bring the two of you closer. They may need you to acknowledge your awareness of this hope.

They are cautiously optimistic because relapse is a possibility.

This is a difficult one because it can feel discouraging to the recovering addict. Relapse is not necessarily expected, but it can happen. The process of facing addiction can be painful in itself, and many partners may think that a relapse will be equally painful all over again. For this reason, they are reluctant to get their hopes up. This is often misconstrued as doubt in the addict’s commitment to their process and their desire to recover. It is actually a partner’s way of protecting themselves from getting hurt or disappointed again. Partners may need to be reminded that relapse is not a sign of failure, it may just be a setback. Recovery is, after all, a journey with ups and downs. While you are doing your best to stay on track with your program, they are trying to remain optimistic.

They are questioning themselves and what they could have done differently.

Your addiction may have nothing to do with your love, attraction, commitment, or appreciation for your partner. But your partner may think that they somehow played a part in it. After discovery or disclosure, partners often begin to reflect back on the relationship to try to find all the ways in which they may have caused or exacerbated the problem. This can negatively affect a partner’s self esteem. It may be helpful for your partner to hear you take accountability for your addictive behaviors so that they do not overly blame themselves.

While your recovery process is important and difficult, your partner is having their own experience around it. Holding space for their experience and acknowledging that you are aware of how they feel can serve as a fundamental building block for your renewal of intimacy and trust. You may not be able to focus on your recovery and be completely supportive of your partner’s healing simultaneously – and that’s ok. It may be helpful for your partner to attend their own support group, therapy, or 12-step meeting. Having their own resources may help partners to develop a support network and community that can validate some of their struggles when you may not be able to. In general, recovery is a challenging journey for everyone involved. When successful, it can be a tremendous opportunity to grow and heal. Understanding, empathy, and communication are often the tools that allow couples to rebuild their relationships and come out on the other side of addiction with a fresh outlook.

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