This article is by Kathy Lang and published by Smart Recovery
In the online Family & Friends meetings that I facilitate, one of the more difficult issues that sometimes arises is the decision whether to end a relationship with a family member struggling with addictive behavior. Faced with the frustration, exhaustion, and negative emotions that have developed, many people reach a place of hopelessness before coming to a meeting.
New participants are encouraged to learn that our approach, which uses evidence-based methods, is very different than what they are familiar with. Generally they have heard the wider cultural norm of “kick them to the curb” and “let them hit rock bottom.” When participants hear the experiences of others practicing the SMART tools, they typically feel some relief that they may be able to do something to help themselves and resuscitate the relationship with their loved one.
What I often say in this situation is that the “When to Quit?” worksheet in our handbook is placed very near the end of the book for a reason. Newcomers are usually responsive to the idea of postponing any decision and giving the SMART approach a try.
So what do they learn from attending our SMART meetings and using our handbook? They learn to give up the role of fixer, coming to the realization that they cannot force their loved one to choose recovery. In our meeting we often use a quote from the book Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change:
“Everything we know about motivation and change suggests that power and powerlessness come with the territory of caring about someone with a substance problem.You have the power to help someone change, and the power to make changes yourself that will improve your situation, yet you are powerless to make another person change or do the changing for him.”
Participants learn to better understand boundaries and the importance of developing and maintaining them. They develop better communication skills through using the P-I-U-S approach. They gain skill in managing their emotions more effectively through the use of cognitive tools like the ABC, Anti-Awfulizing, the FEAR Exercise, and knowledge about the stages of change and facts about addiction. Critically important, they learn to practice self-care with two goals: understanding that they can survive and thrive regardless of the choices of their loved one and understanding that they cannot effectively support their loved one with depleted physical and emotional resources (we use the analogy of the oxygen mask on an airplane that instructs us to put our mask on before assisting others).
However, despite a family or friend’s best efforts, they sometimes reach a point of questioning whether they can continue in a relationship when their loved one has shown no motivation to give up the addiction. Often dealing with serious consequences to themselves and other family members (especially when there are children in the home), they struggle with balancing self-protection needs and their desire to maintain a supportive relationship with their loved one.
That’s when the exercise “When to Quit?” in our handbook is useful. If the family or friend has successfully practiced newly learned skills for a period of time, without movement of their loved one toward recovery, then they may decide to choose end the relationship.
Sometimes this decision brings feelings of guilt. SMART tools can help with the process of ending the relationship. Having reached a place of better understanding of addiction and greater empathy for their loved one, a participant can face this ending with more compassion and less anger. Although they can no longer see a future in the current relationship, they can part with a recognition that blame will not help the situation – not blaming their loved one or themselves. They can leave the relationship knowing they have done their best, with kindness towards their loved one, recognizing the worth of their loved one and the past value of their relationship. In doing so they demonstrate the importance of what they have been working to accomplish – not allowing what they cannot do stop them from doing what they can. In addition they take the tools they’ve learned to enhance an emotionally healthy life for themselves as their future unfolds.