How to best support my partner who wants help w/ shame & addiction?
August 14, 2014 3:23 PM   Subscribe

My partner has been wrestling with alcohol and sexual shame for a long time. This week, he confided in me that he wants to seek help based upon a boundary I set for myself, that he does not want to live like this anymore. I don't want to "over-help" or engage in any co-dependent behavior and I want to be a loving partner in this. But I also need to protect myself and our kids. What can I do or what should I avoid? Specifics inside.

My partner is a gentle, kind, successful and funny person who struggles with anxiety and who had a messed up childhood that included a lot of anxiety and shame over sexuality. Think of a culture that valued suppressing emotion; forbade against any sexual relations prior to marriage; valued "purity" as equal to celibacy; engaged in subtle public shaming and gossip; etc.

After we had married, I stumbled upon his use of rather benign, vanilla porn for masturbation and it horrified him that I found out. I didn't see the porn or the masturbation as a problem. My issue was with his hiding it from me or not having more conversations with me about our own sex life related to his needs. I explained this to him as gently as I could and he was relieved and, I think, a bit surprised by my lack of anger or any disgust that he perceived I might have. He felt better, I felt better, we went on.

I had noticed over the years that when he was going through intense time because of work and couldn't sleep, that he would get up and go downstairs to watch a movie or play a video game to relax. This turned into occasional drinking binges. I would only discover this when I would wake up at 4 am and notice he wasn't in bed with me, and came upon the empty bottle, the passed out partner, etc. We'd discuss his anxiety and his use of alcohol as self-medication. But I know that as much as I wanted him to get help, he wasn't going to get better or manage his anxiety in a more healthy/less risky way until he wanted to.

Then we had kids. And our careers got more successful. But at the same time, more stressful. And what was once an occasional thing began to become more frequent. One night (maybe 10-11 years after that previous porn blow up), I came downstairs to find him passed out after watching webcam girls. And where I used to have a banging bod, I'm now in my mid-40's and not so hot and I'm exhausted from the kids (one of whom has major health issues that require us to get up a lot during the night) and these nubile webcam girls in their 20's...yeah. I felt crummy and depressed and somewhat betrayed. He had promised me that he would include me in any adventures in porn so that we kept those lines of communication open, and here he was hiding things again. And had gone from static to interactive in a way with live cams vs. scripted videos/photos, which sounds like an odd distinction to make, and I'm still questioning myself about that. I expressed that my anger about his lack of communication, the breach of trust, my own insecurities, etc. I also had the added fear that one of our young kids, especially the night walker, would find him passed out with his laptop on and his pants off. I was worried that he was using his work laptop (incognito browser isn't fail proof) and blow up his career. And I was worried about his health...the drinking and sitting is not good for his health, he's still relatively young (younger than I am by a few years). We talked about this. He told me that part of the thrill IS the shame, the adrenaline from that fear and shame. And it creates a lot of self-loathing, which pained me to see, because he doesn't internalize the amazing things that I and others see in him. We talked about his job and lots of strategies to ratchet down the stress. We live a very humble lifestyle compared to our earnings, and I'm all for his taking a less stressful job even if it means a cut in pay. Getting to the gym together, etc. He wanted to muscle through and just make himself change through force of will. I'm a big believer in therapy and self-care, but at the same time, I could not make him go. He had to want to go. So I explained my boundaries on engaging in interactive porn...please let me know about it, please keep talking about it, it isn't shameful, I'll do it with him, etc. And don't cheat on me with someone else...even a stranger, because I was cheated on once in a previous relationship and I know myself and I won't be able to come back from that. That was 2 years ago.

Three weeks ago, the drink > go online > pass out cycle began again. Now with Omegle. Now with chat. And video. And risky behavior masturbating on camera and online. And I calmly reminded him of the line. I explained that it might be better if we separate for a bit and we both could figure things out. I didn't scream or freak out. I'm actually blown away by how calm I felt (and still feel). He came to me the next morning and told me that he was ready. That he has researched AA meetings in the area. That he has started reading the Big Book. That he is so full of self-loathing and now knows he cannot do this himself; that he has to let other people know about this and help; that part of his addiction to this type of release is the adrenaline coupled with the alcohol and the cycle of shame > lack of inhibition > shame.

I'm wary and self-protective. I curbed the impulse to immediately begin researching rehab centers (do they have those for shame-based sexual behavior?) or therapists. Just taking it day-by-day to see if he follows through. And I'm tired, so tired. Because of a lot of different things, our lives are a ball of stress right now, this is a pretty peak stress time for both of us. I'm trying to stay open, and present, and calm. And it's hard to know how to do this type of thing.

I thought of a few things to work on myself and not to take him on as a project. To get a therapist for myself. To look up a list of ACOA or Al Anon meetings for family members. To secure a new babysitter for date nights. And...I'm clueless. I'm trying to think of other things to do to navigate this because this is uncharted territory, and to anticipate how to explain things to our kids in various scenarios as this plays out. I'm sad for my partner at the same time I've relieved to see him begin to open up about these secrets that are hurting him. I'm sad for myself and lost time in our relationship.

Looking for those "5 things to do, 5 things not to do when your partner is struggling with shame and addiction"...and if it is specific to alcohol and/or addiction to shame-based adrenaline, even better. Thanks.

tl;dr Partner who is engaging in shame-based, secretive sex stuff on line and abusing alcohol; I want some tips and advice on how to navigate this part of the process where he is initiating seeking help. We also have young kids.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Oh sweetie. I think this is definitely a case of "get your own oxygen mask on first."

He is drinking and engaging in risky behavior because he is an addict, not because you don't have a bangin' bod anymore.

You are on the right track in thinking of seeking therapy for yourself. Do that ASAP. There is more than a little whiff of co-dependency in your question and you will need help with that.

He needs to solve his problems on his own, both because that's the only way they'll get fixed, and because you need to worry about yourself and your little ones. I know you know that, but I think you'll need to hear it a lot. Let him find the therapists, the groups, the whatever he wants for himself. You can be supportive, but you can't fix this for him.

I wouldn't worry about explaining anything to the kids just yet (you're in triage mode now, I think). Just take it one day at a time.
posted by pantarei70 at 3:49 PM on August 14, 2014 [5 favorites]

I am so proud of you. You sound like you have a good head on your shoulders with respect to controlling your impulses to help-help-help right now. Really, being sure that this is not your cross to bear is so, so important. You can be supportive but - and you know this - that is not the same as researching options for him, pushing him along, etc. That is the number one thing; as pantarei70 just said, put on your own oxygen mask first.

Watch and observe. Pay attention to how you feel. Start writing a journal because you will be able to keep track of your feelings and his behaviors throughout this process. Writing down what is happening and how you are feeling about it will help you stay in touch with how all of this is affecting you and your kids.

And instead of taking him and all this on, take on something for yourself. Start learning or doing something that is yours, that's all for you: knitting, reading all of Sue Grafton's books, yoga, etc. Get a babysitter for those nights. You say "secure a babysitter for date nights" and I'm not sure if you mean a date night with your husband, or dates with other people (since you mentioned separation). Instead of thinking about dating others (actually, including your husband), I would gently encourage you to date yourself. You've been in this marriage for a while and you say you feel like you've lost time; you're probably going to want and possibly need to get re-acquainted with yourself a bit.

And as far as telling your kids and dating and all that anticipation of what might happen... try to stay present. One of the reasons I suggested yoga was that it can be very helpful for learning how to stay in the present moment. Mindfulness and possibly looking for a cognitive behavioral therapist (CBT) could also help with this. Don't do anything until it is time to do it - telling the kids, going on dates, etc. You will know when it is time. You are still watching his behavior right now.

People often say they will change and then they don't change. They don't even try to change. Words are one thing, but you will be able to see actions. Pay attention to him, see if he gets help, see how much he works on all this, and that will give you an answer about what you need to do about your relationship with your husband and how it fits in with you and the rest of your life.

Take care of yourself. I am sorry that you're going through this.
posted by sockermom at 3:55 PM on August 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Be more angry.

The word for insisting on indulging a kink you hate in full view of you is asshole, and you should reject his stupid excuses and make him choose his outcomes.

Don't buy his ridiculous line that being raised in a culture with completely normal and unremarkable traditional sexual mores somehow made him mentally unhinged with shame. All or most of the Indian, Middle Eastern and African immigrants you know grew up that way and in the event they are webchatting hookers they have the class to do it on from business trip hotel rooms and to clean their laptop cache before they get home.

Drinking -- also a red herring. Lots of hardworking 40-something guys will tie one on when they're stressed. It's an excuse for having to lay out $50 bucks for cabs home and back to pick up your car from the bar, or misplacing your iPhone in the john of said bar, not this crap.
posted by MattD at 6:55 PM on August 14, 2014 [8 favorites]

I'm pretty sure your partner is depressed. That doesn't excuse the behavior, but he might need meds for that, in addition to the AA stuff. Quitting drinking is a necessary, but not sufficient, first step. As Letterman once said, "First you put out the fire, then you fix the faulty wiring." Self-loathing is a hard thing to get over. Ask me how I know.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 7:04 PM on August 14, 2014

"Just taking it day-by-day to see if he follows through."

This sounds like a terrible place to be. Can you take the children and go somewhere else for a while? I think you would feel better if you focus on ways to act in your self-interest that do not involve the compulsion to "care" for your partner.
posted by macinchik at 10:26 PM on August 14, 2014

I wish I could give you a hug. You sound really tired.

Please think of yourself first. I know it is hard disengaging from this situation because of the kids but you have been so supportive from the beginning. You drew a boundary and your husband repeatly crosses it knowing sure well that it hurts you. Maybe he's an addict but he did make a choice. He forgets that he is not the only one who is stressed but you have your own career, the kids to take care of and your own insecurities and fear as well. You have stayed calm, put forward some solutions and none of which he has attempted until you wanted to separate.

Please take care of yourself first. I don't have any other useful advice for you at the moment but this.
posted by azalea at 10:31 PM on August 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

(Clean & sober here since 1996.)

Stoneweaver's "someone in your corner" comment is dead on. A support group can be hugely helpful because there's a shared experience; you don't have to try and explain the feelings, because the other people there have a sense for what you're going through.

As for your partner, if he's serious about getting sober, he'll do it whether or not you're there, because that's what the recovery process is about: doing it because it's necessary, full stop. His recovery can't depend on anyone but him, his choices, his actions.
posted by ElaineMc at 11:54 PM on August 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

From an anonymous commenter:
I've been here without the kids and my "last straw" was him having sex with a prostitute in our shared apartment while I was sleeping in the other room. I calmly accepted everything for years without yelling or shame and accepted all the promises to change, to include me, etc. And repeatedly the drug and alcohol abuse and boundary crossing continued.

Guess what? He quit AA approximately two weeks after I moved out (he refused to leave).

Maybe you love him but this has been escalating for years, and even if you don't think you have a "banging bod" you deserve to have a partner who respects you and is attracted to you. Please realize that he's broken trust again and again, and just because you're at the end of your rope, does not mean that he is taking you any more seriously than he has before.

Please do what is best for you and not some man you shouldn't trust and who doesn't appear to take your feelings into consideration.
posted by taz at 12:04 AM on August 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

As I read this, all I could think was how understanding and level-headed you seem to have been, how kind and accommodating. You deserve better, and he has to be the one to step up and take responsibility for his actions. HE has to work on this, not you. It's time to separate. If he works out his problems, perhaps you can reconcile, but it's my intuition that this will get far worse before it gets better. The fact that he's being so reckless, especially not taking enough care to ensure that his children aren't exposed to his behaviour and using his work computer to masturbate online is especially worrying. Please take care of yourself and your children. He'll have to take care of himself.
posted by alltomorrowsparties at 3:03 AM on August 15, 2014 [1 favorite] has some excellent, free, materials for you. Cognitive Behavioral based, and can stand alone or supplement any other approach(es) you choose. Online support, so it can work with your schedule and obligations.

Perfect for getting "your own oxygen mask on first."
posted by egk at 8:11 AM on August 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

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