In this next round of Ask the Experts, Dr. Barbara Steffens (president of APSATS and co-author of Your Sexually Addicted Spouse) answers a community member's question on addictive thinking.
Q: Can you please give a simple (if possible) definition of addictive thinking? My husband will get into "poor me" phases, become sullen & withdrawn & denies that anything is wrong when I inquire. I also notice a level of dishonesty about meaningless things. Addictive thinking always comes to mind when this happens.
Barbara: Thanks for asking this question. While I’m not an addiction specialist myself, I certainly see and hear the partner’s distress when this thinking pattern continues in the one they love, even after acting out behaviors have ceased. Maybe visualize this pattern of thinking as the fuel that starts the engine of addictive acting out. It includes the things the addict believes and feels, which support the acting out. The thinking patterns in “addictive thinking” are those that contribute to, excuse, and justify addictive acting out. Behaviors are pretty easy to stop UNLESS they are fueled by chronic thought patterns that say to the addict “I deserve this”, “I’m not as bad as…”, “They are out to get me”, “I’ll never make her happy, so what’s the use in trying…”, “I am entitled to…”etc. These patterns of thinking and viewing the world have existed a long time and will take a long time to alter.
Most partners I have met find this very frustrating! They may see glimpses of progress in recovery, only to experience their loved one slip back into these patterns. Partners feel confused ("What just happened?"), afraid ("Does this mean he’s acting out again?"), or angry ("It's all about him again! When will he get it??").
Look for changes in this type of thinking and reactions to stress over time. Your loved one may not be fully aware of these patterns yet and hopefully he’s working on it in his recovery program.
How can a partner take care of herself when this happens? My best suggestions are to disengage from a confusing/crazy making conversation when possible. You might say something like “It looks like/sounds like you’re not in a great space right now for this conversation. Let's talk again when we can do it more calmly (or openly).” If he’s in a “poor me” stage, say something like “It seems like you’re feeling bad about yourself or situation right now. Is this something you’d like to talk about?” and if he doesn’t, you can move on. It is not your responsibility to draw him out or think more clearly. At these points, it is usually best to take good care of you. You can’t “make him” think/see more clearly when he’s in that space.
If this is a chronic problem in the relationship, I suggest you work with a partner’s coach or counselor who can help you decide what you want to do in the situation— to figure out what you need. Crazy-making “addictive thinking” conversations generally do not feel safe, and the partner can end up feeling hurt. Take care of yourself.
Our friends at Covenant Eyes (internet filtering and accountability software company) interviewed Barbara yesterday. You can see that interview here. This is an absolutely brilliant video, where Barbara discusses how the "partner trauma model" (which APSATS teaches and advocates for) can prevent some forms of addictive thinking by helping the one with the addictive behavior take responsibility for his own actions.
Community members who live down under should note that Barbara will be back in New Zealand in early July, to run a four-day APSATS training (for therapists). Be sure to let your counsellor/therapist know about this event. She will also run a one-day retreat for partners on Sunday, July 9 (accommodation available) — and we'd love to have you all there. Email Lisa for more information or to sign up.
Standing up to "addictive (aka "stinkin'") thinkin'" can be difficult and painful. We know we're not perfect ourselves, and so it's so easy to take on the blame that others may be trying to shift to us. This is a song that reminds me that I don't have to be perfect because "my worth is found in Your name." Moreover, I don't have to take responsibility for others' poor choices.