When the Time Comes to Walk Away

When the Time Comes to Walk Away

Recovering addicts know that the days, weeks and months following treatment can be rough on the family. In many cases, familial relationships have already been so fractured they are almost beyond repair. For others in recovery, the very occurrence of a setback, however small, is enough to send the family into turmoil and threaten the sobriety of the newly-clean addict. So it is that recovery, which should be a joyous time, a time of hope and renewal, can just as quickly turn into a phase of desperation, failure and relapse. For the recovering addict and his or her spouse/significant other or family, sometimes the only option that makes sense is to walk away.

Walking Away Isn’t Quitting

When you walk away from your family, it should never be as a result of the desire to quit. Whether you are the recovering addict or the spouse of the newly-sober individual, your reasons for leaving must be based on the best interests of all concerned. The decision should come after all other options have been thoroughly explored, and/or you’ve come to the realization that by staying, you’re doing more harm than good – harm to you, your spouse and your family.

Let’s take an example. Jennifer, mid-30s, is the live-in partner of Woody, 40. They have no children but prior to Woody’s stay in rehab for cocaine and alcohol addiction, they’d talked about getting married and starting a family. Jennifer is an artist who works from home, an only child whose parents are deceased. Woody’s mother is an alcoholic and his father a compulsive gambler. His two younger brothers, Alex and Tim, early 30s, are heavily into street drugs. Money has always been an issue in Woody’s family and he witnessed many explosive arguments at home growing up. Jennifer worships Woody, but doesn’t know how to relate to him now that he’s home from addiction treatment. He’s often silent, not the talkative person she so enjoyed, and he doesn’t want to socialize anymore. Her own work is suffering, since she feels compelled to watch over Woody all the time, afraid that he might slip. They haven’t had sex since before he went into rehab and Woody says he no longer wants children. In fact, Woody’s so different now that Jennifer feels trapped in a relationship she doesn’t want.

Clearly these two individuals are experiencing a great deal of difficulty adjusting to Woody’s new sobriety. The couple isn’t married, so there would not be any legal issues to untangle should they decide to split. Woody and Jennifer may benefit from continued counseling, if they’d go. It appears, however, that their finances are constrained, so professional couple’s therapy probably isn’t in the cards. Woody needs to resume attendance at his 12-step meetings (Alcoholics Anonymous and Cocaine Anonymous) – even though he says he doesn’t like the people there and it’s not helping him. Jennifer could find help through Al-Anon or Nar-Anon, but she seems unlikely to go.

Perhaps in this instance, Jennifer and Woody should part ways – at least until Woody is more firmly rooted in his sobriety and has a solid game-plan for his future. Staying together now could mean the relationship continues to disintegrate to the point of irreconcilable differences. For his part, Woody should attempt to see things from Jennifer’s perspective. If she truly means anything to him, he will put aside his own concerns and resolve to set her free. He needs to heal himself before he can open up to Jennifer or any other woman. Jennifer, on the other hand, needs to let go of her guilt and have the courage to stand up to Woody. She needs to be free of Woody’s needfulness.

Display Respect and Love

It’s not as easy as that, however. Walking away involves striving to achieve a delicate balance of resolve and independence, and needs to be accomplished with a display of respect and love.

In other words, you don’t need to have a shouting match to get your point across. Two people should be able to sit down together, or with a counselor present, and discuss their wants and needs in a civil manner. No matter how rough things have been, or how many hopes and dreams have been shattered, the decision to split can be amicable. Sometimes, however, the hurt has been so profound that one partner is unable to see anything good in the other. In such instances, the split should occur as quickly and with as much dignity as possible.

Let’s take another example. Bradley, 58, is married to Lynnette, 43. The couple have three young children, two girls, ages 11 and 15, and one boy, 17. Bradley has been doing his best to take care of the children while his wife was in treatment for compulsive sexual behavior, alcoholism and prescription drug addiction. This was Lynnette’s third time at rehab. Bradley has a good job, is a loving father, but has been repeatedly hurt by Lynnette’s affairs and blatant refusal to be a mother. In fact, she’s often been verbally and physically abusive to the children while she’s drunk and high – most often when she returns from one of her sexual liaisons. Bradley’s at the end of his patience. Lynnette refuses to change, and has stated on more than one occasion that she wants out.

Bradley’s most important consideration is the welfare of his children. While he believes in marriage for life, in this case, he has come to realize that Lynnette is not the partner for him. He and Lynnette should work out the details for her departure, making sure that the children are not negatively affected by the discussions and arrangements. Bradley’s best bet is to remain as respectful of Lynnette as possible, and show her cordiality, if not love, as she leaves the family.

When Staying is too Painful

Many times it’s the recovering addict who makes the decision to walk away. Seeing his or her spouse or partner again after treatment and knowing the bitter history of failed promises, financial ruin, loss of reputation, dignity, perhaps even physical violence – all as a result of addiction – the recovering addict assesses the situation and recognizes there’s only one compassionate solution.

Sometimes to stay becomes too painful for the partner of the recovering addict. This goes beyond the issue of a broken heart, lack of trust, even loss of love. When the debris of the past has intruded into the present, no amount of wishing can make it go away. Perhaps walking away is the best choice in the situation. It may be only temporary, while the recovering addict and the spouse or partner continues counseling, 12-step group attendance or other therapy. It may also turn out to be a permanent solution. There is no one right answer, no single way to walk away that works for everyone.

How to Leave the Recovering Addict

For many women stuck in a relationship with a domineering alcoholic or drug addict, whether or not the individual has completed treatment for their addiction, it’s not a question of wanting to leave, but how to leave. These women face difficult choices, since many times they are completely dependent on their husbands. They have limited options, but that doesn’t mean they have no options.

If you are one of these women who wants to leave, but fears you can’t, don’t just suffer in silence. You need to set healthy boundaries with your husband. This will allow you time to get your plan together so that you can safely leave. Healthy boundaries are those that any reasonable person would agree with. You need to set these boundaries during a time when your husband is not drunk or high. Do not threaten him. That will backfire and may lead to arguments or worse. For example, you could tell your husband that you will go to your mother’s house if he comes home in a drunken stupor again – and stay there until he has sobered up. You need to mean what you say and be ready to follow through on it. If you set a boundary and don’t follow through on it, you have just created other problems for yourself.

Next, you need to take small steps to work toward your own independence. If you don’t have a job, you should try to get one, even if it’s part-time employment. This will get you out of the house and allow you to earn some money. To leave, you will need money and resources. Talk with your relatives, friends or a counselor about being able to make a life for yourself.
You may also wish to consider joining Al-Anon. This 12-step organization for those whose lives have been affected by another’s alcoholism is a fellowship whose members are dedicated to helping others in similar situations. You may be able to find help there in obtaining employment as well.

How the Addict can Leave

When you are the addict, in recovery or not, if you’ve made the decision to leave you still have some planning to do in order to do so with dignity and compassion for all concerned. Take stock of the situation you will be walking away from. This doesn’t mean that you shirk your responsibilities to your spouse or partner and any children. It does mean that you have to shoulder your burden and provide as much in the way of support as is necessary to allow them to continue without you.

This, of course, entails a lot of sacrifice on your part. Not only will you need to provide for the spouse/family you are leaving – for their own good – but you will also need to be able to provide for your own living accommodations. You will need to make a new life, albeit one without being in the same household as your family. How can you go about this?

First, talk with your counselor, if you still have one. If you don’t have one, join a 12-step group and work with your sponsor and other group members to find a compassionate way for you to disengage from your spouse/family. It may take some time for you to figure out the arrangements, or you may need to leave immediately (if your spouse demands it, for example, or things deteriorate to such an extent that you need to leave in order to stabilize the situation). It’s better if you have some time to get your plans together, but if you don’t, do the best that you can.

While you are working out your plans, it’s important to communicate with your spouse about your intentions. Try to do so in as respectful and dignified a manner as possible. It doesn’t do either party any good to resort to name-calling or hashing through all the detritus of the past. Blame and bitterness similarly should have no part in your conversations. If discussions turn ugly, the best thing to do is to leave the room, saying that you will resume the conversation at another time after things cool down. This gives both parties breathing room and an opportunity for reason to return.

Be sure to stress that you’re not quitting the family. You are leaving in order that they may move on. You need to reassure your spouse that you will continue to provide support and be in the lives of any children to the extent that is permissible and reasonable, but that you will not jeopardize them any longer as a result of your addiction and/or recovery. Be prepared for your spouse/partner to be angry, fearful, confused or relieved, disbelieving or eager for you to leave. Until you finally walk away, you may witness any number of intense emotions – and have them yourself. The key point to remember is that walking away is a process that takes time. You will physically leave, but you are also going to need to leave emotionally as well.

Again, it’s important that you don’t try to tackle this on your own. You need the support of others who have been in your position and can at least listen to what’s going on with you now and offer encouragement on your decision to move on. After all, you want to do what is in the best interests of your spouse/family and you. This takes courage. Sometimes courage requires reinforcement from others.

Will Everyone be Better Off?

The logical question that many people who leave have is whether or not they’re making the right decision. Will everyone be better off if you leave? Think of it this way: If, by leaving, you are setting the other party free, removing danger or a barrier to growth, doing so out of an act of love and compassion, then leaving is most likely the right thing to do. It may not seem so at the time, but the realization may dawn on you later. Your leaving also may be a temporary measure while you sort out your life, get your act together, become firmly grounded in your recovery and achieve significant goals (that you’ve set for yourself).

When the time comes to walk away, do so with a clear head, a firm plan, and a conscious decision to make life better – for all concerned.

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