This week marks the start of the "Dismantling Dysfunction, Embracing Intimacy" event. In my interview, I look at some of the tough patterns couples find themselves grappling with post-disclosure of his betrayal/addiction. One of these relational patterns is "feeling like I'm his mom" – a pattern which often has deep roots for the couple. Sex Addiction therapist, Dan Drake, did a blog post on this very a topic a few years a go which I'm reposting this week and next. May you find it helpful in working through this issue.
Dan Drake (LMFT, LPCC, CCPS-S, CSAT-S) writes:
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 spouse?
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 affairs, 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, with the partner managing friendships, household affairs, the family, etc. 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 their 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.
I want to clarify that in no way am I saying that the “mother” role is a bad one. I have the utmost respect for this role in a family, which could be played by the father or mother. This function in the family allows the family to operate in a healthy way, and is vital to every family raising children. Yet played out in a coupleship, this dynamic leaves both members of the coupleship unsatisfied: the addicted partner abdicates 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. And his partner, who may have learned to be very capable of caring for others from her own background, may naturally take on the role of relational support in the coupleship.
What to Do
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 respnsibilities, 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 spouse’s support team (therapist, coach, sponsor, feedback group, etc.) will 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 his 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.
Next week we'll continue with more "all too common" scenarios and what to do to avoid them. He'll also address the sex addict in that section with some thoughts about what he can be doing to end this cycle.
Many thanks to Dan (of Banyan Therapy) for sharing from his deep pool of wisdom!
As many of your will already have heard, my Masters of Counselling study on PSAs and domestic violence is now underway. Please consider participating whether or not you have been a victim of domestic violence. Visit the website for more information.