For some couples healing from the impact of sexual betrayal, I see a pattern play out. In this pattern, the individual with the addiction turns to his partner to help manage him, the family, his responsibilities, etc. He takes a passive role in the relationship, and indirectly (or directly) asks his partner to step up and take care of him and the family. This pattern may work for a while. Yet all too often, over time the person with the addiction begins to bristle at this dynamic, pushing back at his partner. He may call her “controlling” or say, “You’re not my mom” when his partner fulfills the role of managing his life. Essentially, he’s created a pattern in their relationship where he asks his partner to take on a “mother” role, and then resents her when she does “become mom.”
The problem, of course, in this relational dynamic is that no addict truly wants to marry their mother, and no partner wants to have another child around the house. Staying stuck in these roles long term can lead to resentment, hurt, and anger from both parties. Nobody wins in relationships that are stuck with this pattern. this dynamic leaves both members of the couple unsatisfied: The addicted partner avoids his own responsibility in the relationship, and the partner is forced to take on more than her/his fair share, overfunctioning as a result.
There are a number of reasons why couples can end up with this relational pattern. The person with the addiction may have grown up in a neglectful family, and he may enter a relationship with his life partner where he swings to the other extreme of enmeshment. On the other hand, he may come from a family where he was enmeshed with his mom or primary caretaker, and was never fully able to be his own self. Either way, he remains emotionally stuck as a teenager. In never learning to grow up out of this adolescent state, he continues pulling on his partner to be more than a partner.
First, if you’re a partner of someone who puts you in the role of the overfunctioner and then resents you for taking on those responsibilities, I can only imagine how confusing, painful and hopeless this relational dance must be for you. There IS hope, and that’s part of addiction recovery work. Your addicted partner’s support team (therapist, coach, sponsor, feedback group, etc.) should be encouraging him to move out of a victim role and into taking responsibility for himself and his actions. Someone in active addiction stays stuck in feeling like a victim, and someone in active recovery takes responsibility for their choices. So that’s his work to do.
Please note that it’s fine to be in a partnership where you have unique giftings that your partner may not (socially, organizationally, financially, emotionally, etc.). Absolutely be a partner to your spouse and help him out – that’s a big part of what relationships are for! Yet if your partner is passively asking you to run the show and then resents you later for it, this will put you in an impossible situation filled with pain, anger and grief for you both long term. Advocate for your partner to state his own needs and make choices. If he isn’t willing or able to state his needs, make sure to remind him that by choosing NOT to act is still making a choice.
I also realize that this overfunctioning / underfunctioning dynamic may bring up a lot of pain for you, so you may need some time to grieve. You’ve had to take on a lot of responsibilities in this relationship, which isn’t fair. But do know that by taking on these responsibilities, you are ultimately put in an exhausting place where your partner still holds the cards. The process of having him learn to take more responsibilities and emotionally maturing in this relationship may take some time, but that’s his work to do.
If you are the person with the addiction reading this, please know that this pattern is one that we see all the time. Yet it can be incredibly destructive to you and to your relationship. You may have learned to cope in life by passively having others help you, but you also need to learn that you give away a lot of your own healthy power when you do so. Take responsibility for your own life. After all, you want a partner, not a mom, right? If you avoid responsibility, you can’t then resent your partner for a role you have given her. Remember, you have choices, and if you choose to give over your agency to your partner, that is still a choice. A better choice is to learn how to take care of your own needs. By taking care of your own needs in a healthy way, and then being there for your partner in a loving, present, and empathetic way you will ultimately empower yourself and your partner. This cycle may have served you in the past, but you don’t need to continue it – It ultimately doesn’t work out for either of you. Lean on your therapist, sponsor, or support group to help you do the work to move out of this pattern. This support group serves an important function of helping you emotionally mature. You and your partner will have a more satisfying relationship as your relationship balances back out.
I have the utmost respect for any couple willing to do the hard work to change ingrained patterns of relating like this one. If you are on the journey of healing from this relational pattern, I honor all the hard work you’re doing to change and grow. I firmly believe that in creating a healthier partnership rather than a one-up, one-down dynamic you and your partner will be much more fulfilled in this relationship, and you’ll get more of what you REALLY want and need: Intimate connection with your partner. All the best to you both on this journey.