An impossible role for partners of sex addicts
- If you’re a partner of a sex addict, do you feel that you take on more responsibilities in your relationship than you want to, which causes you to feel more like a mom than a partner?
- If you are a recovering addict, do you find yourself consistently deferring to your partner even for choices you could make yourself? Then later do you find yourself resenting your partner for how controlling she feels to you?
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.
So, what can you DO if you’re stuck in this relational pattern?
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.
As for you, you can help your own frustration level by not taking the no-win bait of getting pulled into this pattern. Don’t do for your spouse what he can do for himself. Some examples of this pattern and some responses you can take may include:
- Your addicted partner has trouble managing his calendar, social events, business matters, etc., and you do have that skill. What happens if/when you make a mistake in planning those events or managing his life? Does he then get angry and belittle you? Punish you somehow? Allow him to manage his life (or at least help him learn how to do it), so that you don’t end up being needed to fill that role, but belittled when you’re not perfect at it.
- You plan social or business events for your spouse and then he complains at the event. Let him take ownership of planning and implementing that plan.
- Your addicted partner defers to your opinion about decisions around the house but then criticizes you or undermines those decisions later. Your partner can’t have it both ways: If they DO have an opinion, invite them to share. If not, they HAVE made a choice to defer. They don’t get the right to then undermine what you have then chosen to do.
- Your partner relies on you to be his emotional cheerleader for recovery or for work, but then when you share your own victories at work he puts you down. Your role in the relationship should be on equal standing, as a partner, not as scaffolding for your partner. You deserve to be treated with love, respect, and full focus as well.
- You manage the budget or finances around the house, but then your partner gets on your case because he doesn’t know how much money is in the bank account. Make sure he has access to all the finances – If he asks about the finances, he is more than capable of looking himself.
- You become your partner’s administrative assistant: Supporting him at work and pushing for new heights at the job, but then he resists implementing the good things you’re suggesting because you’re being too “controlling.” You may still be an inspiration and use your skill-set to help, but your partner needs to take ownership of their own life and their own career.
- Let’s take an even simpler one: Your addicted spouse lets you choose the restaurant for dinner but then complains the whole time and puts you down for your choice, saying, “We always go where you want to eat.” Take turns choosing where to go for dinner, or have your spouse come up with a couple of options that sound good to both of you, and then you can choose from those options.
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 partner of a sex addict who takes on this pattern of relating, here are a couple of questions for you to consider:
- What types of responsibilities do you accept begrudgingly?
- What do you imagine it would feel like to say, “No, my plate is full” or “I know you can do it can you please be responsible for that?”
- What might it look like if the roles were more balanced in your relationship?
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.
If you are the person with the addiction, here are a couple of questions for you to consider:
- Do you take advantage of your wife and get her to do things for you that you know is your responsibility? What are some examples? How does it make you feel?
- How do you imagine you would feel to tell your partner that you want to relieve her of some of the burdensome responsibilities in your relationship by________________. How do you imagine that would feel?
- Are you open to experimenting? Tell your partner that as part of your recovery you want to step it up and relieve her of some of her responsibilities. Notice her response. Notice how you feel.
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.