The Addict’s Apologies aren’t Enough: How Addicts can take responsibility.

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In my work with addicts be it drugs, alcohol, or behavioral addictions like gambling or compulsive pornography usage, one trait in early recovery often sticks out-the inability to take true responsibility for their actions.  Instead, these addicts often go to what they know best, a collection of cognitive distortions or “thinking errors” that do little more than keep them trapped in their cycle of addiction.

For example, I had a female client who came in initially because her husband threatened divorce after expressing concern for her drinking habits as she was cited for a DUI after hitting a telephone pole.  Besides the crash, the wife drank an average of a bottle of wine daily, sometimes starting mid-day and drinking until it was time for bed.  

Obviously, this was impacting their marital relationship but instead of owning up to her drinking she was defensive and only expressed concern regarding the DUI crash. In other words, she said, “That was a stupid mistake, it shouldn’t have happened, and I’m sorry”.  While this might sound apologetic what the addict doesn’t do is acknowledge her drinking as problematic, so in essence, she remains in denial which is one of the biggest distortions in mental health.

Never did she express concern regarding the daily usage of alcohol which her husband found toxic but instead she focused on the DUI incident as the problematic issue.  Her diversion of the conversation from the general to the specific is another cognitive distortion addicts use.

The use of the words, “should” or “shouldn’t” is another cognitive distortion that needs to be challenged.  Therapists often respond by telling clients to stop “should-ing” on themselves as a means to gently redirect them to take more responsibility.  When an addict says they “should” have done this (i.e. avoiding a certain behavior or situation) or “shouldn’t” have done that (i.e. their addictive behaviors), they are hoping to this tactic will stop the conversation.  Unfortunately, many spouses fall for this and don’t see how the “should/shouldn’t” is an oftentimes unconscious, manipulative mirage to take attention off the addict.  I encourage partners of addicts to see this for what it is and challenge their spouses to go further.  In this clinical example, the wife said, “I shouldn’t have drunk so much that night as I put myself and others in danger while driving”.  I would teach the husband to challenge the wife by responding, “Ok, let’s move past what you should/shouldn’t have done and focus the fact that you drink too much and the other night you crashed the car while under the influence…help me understand what led you to do so?”

Keep in mind, I’m asking the husband to probe further to get to the emotional, physical, environmental, and relational triggers that may have set off her wife to drink.  In this example, she expressed feeling isolated at work and unappreciated at home by her husband which led her to the DUI crash.  While this doesn’t excuse her behavior, what it does do is help the wife gain more clarity as to the precipitating events that are impacting her drinking.  This type of questioning allows for more dialogue, discussion, and emotional intimacy than the open and shut case of the addictive cognitive distortion of, “I shouldn’t have done that”.  

Defensive anger is another distortion that rears its head in the addictive mentality.  When her husband would calmly and gently bring up his concerns, she would get angry and defend herself by justifying the use of alcohol as a means to “calm herself down” because she was under a lot of stress.  When I confronted her that this was a form of self-medication and coping she would bristle and insist it wasn’t a form of coping but instead as a means to help her “relax”.  In the redefinition of her behavior as one of “relaxation”, the addict gets to keep a distance from the true heart issue of dependency, compulsivity, addiction, and the work needed to grow and heal from those issues.

The addict also uses blaming as a means to keep responsibility from oneself.  The spouse in my case often would blame her drinking on the pressures of work and her perception that her husband didn’t love her.  Blaming is another cognitive distortion that fuels the addiction because it gives the addict a sense of entitlement to continue using their drug of choice.  

By now, you can probably see how difficult it is for a single spouse to address a partner’s addictions.   In couples therapy though, having a therapist challenge an addict can be one means in which the addict can see how their behaviors have truly impacted their partner.  The therapist acting as a neutral observer can see through the smokescreen of cognitive distortions and with enough trust garnered between the addict and therapist, the addict then stands a much greater chance of finally acknowledging their need to change.  

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