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Shattering Stigma: Talking to Spouses in Recovery

I've found myself offering support to spouses, especially women, who have been hurt by their partner's substance misuse.

In the last two years or so, I’ve found my recovery taking an unexpected turn. Up to this point, a vast majority of my time and support was spent with other folks just like me, folks who struggle with Substance Misuse Disorder. Lately, I have found myself on the other side of the conversation, offering support to spouses, especially women, who have been hurt by their partner’s substance misuse. I’m learning how to translate the brand of inclusive, unconditional support that we offer at Sober Mommies to women (and men) outside the recovery community and it’s changing my perspective and shattering stigma in a powerful way.

Here are some things to remember when offering support to a struggling and hurting spouse:

Listen intently, and take a step back

After a few years in recovery, I have a lot of experience sharing and listening to the folks in recovery with me. I’ve found myself offering the same kind of support to spouses. I’ve realized that in a lot of cases in the past, I was expecting a (rightfully) hurt and angry wife to minimize her pain and was see mostly from the perspective I understood as a recovering person. I was not giving her space to feel her feelings, something I was urging my recovering folks to do. I now know that listening is as important (if not more) than providing advice.

Drop the labels

I have been watching folks (myself included) struggle with naming themselves as alcoholics and addicts. While it’s true that many people apply those labels to themselves with ease and comfort, some of us just don’t feel like it fits. If those of us who have lived through substance abuse feel unease with the labels, imagine how a stranger to Substance Misuse Disorder feels. To her, that is her spouse that she loves deeply. That spouse is her Someone. Use that label instead.

Put their healing first

I learned years into my recovery journey that putting the recovery of others before my own boundaries, values, and recovery was a TERRIBLE idea. “You cannot pour from an empty cup,” became my mantra to myself and my recovering peers. Remember that she needs to have support for herself. Instead of offering resources for her spouse, find resources for her. Help her to find her village of women who understand her experience. Do not treat her as a messaging service for recovery resources unless she asks.

Leave “tough love” at the door

I’ve met plenty of folks on this recovery journey that swear tough love is the only thing that “gets through” to us. Tough love has zero place in conversations with spouses who are hurt and struggling. Almost without exception, spouses take some sort of responsibility for the substance abuse of their partner. Whether she saw the substance abuse in action or she was lied to and manipulated, chances are she’s blaming herself already. Dropping words like “enabling” and “codependency” into a conversation about support do nothing but increase the blame and shame.

Offer gratitude and action

Seeing another person’s pain and walking with them is essential to recovery. I’ve left conversations with spouses so moved by the courage shown by women who are hurting and terrified. I always try to thank these women (and men) for reminding me why I do the work of recovery, and that they are responsible for sparking my passion for what we do here.

In conversations with spouses, I have learned so much about my own recovery. I’ve seen and heard about the damage Substance Misuse Disorder leaves in its wake from the experts—the women who have been through it. The empathy I learned to have for my suffering peers has been extended to their families. The NEED to help has been extended to their families. Resource gathering for me now looks different, I’m discovering a whole new community that needs support. I’ve been doing what I can to shatter the stigma folks like me carry, and I’m being given to the opportunity to shatter that stigma in a whole new way.

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