I belong to a wonderful group of women who are simply committed to praying for one another. I asked these women months ago to pray for a fledgling support group of women whose spouses are addicts. In recent days, I have had three women approach me and tell me that their friend is a spouse of an addict & they are struggling to know how to help her. Each one expressed how overwhelmed they felt. I could see the deep sadness each carried for their dear friend, and their own helplessness. One woman admitted she was having a hard time maintaining the friendship, because she couldn’t take the intense emotional trauma that she felt was being thrown at her from every direction. This woman genuinely wanted to be there, but she personally had no experience to provide support. She found herself withdrawing from, and avoiding, her friend, and even becoming angry with her. Could her friend talk to me, she asked. Which I am happy to do, anytime. Then it occurred to me that this woman’s response to her friend’s emotional pain could make what her friend is going through worse. It could be seen as another betrayal, equal to, if not even worse, than the betrayal by her spouse. I therefore dedicate this post to the friends and loved ones of traumatized spouses.
First, let me acknowledge your grief. Chances are you are not only a friend of the hurt spouse, but also of the offending spouse. I am so sorry. I am sure you feel caught in the middle. Angry at the offender, furious even. At the same time there is a bond of friendship that has been damaged because you love them, too. Maybe you feel guilt because your level of anger and pain doesn’t match that of the traumatized spouse. Perhaps you even feel sympathy for the offender at the embarrassment of having this painful secret broadcast to you. It has to be awful. As a traumatized spouse, myself, I want to say thank you. I am so sorry you are in this position. Please hang in there! The loving support of others is essential to both of your friends’ healing.
Second, try to recognize that you have been given a pretty big honor. It may not feel like it, but you have been asked to walk with your friend through one of the most devastatingly painful journies a woman and a marriage can face. The very nature of this addiction is a HUGE secret and people will not talk about it. It is shameful. The fact that you now know is perhaps one of the biggest blessings of personal trust another woman can bestow upon you. It is a big responsibility, and you will want to manage it with the care you would give her newborn.
What should you do next? It really depends on how recent it has been since discovery day. For the purpose of this post, I will assume that the spouse has just recently discovered the addiction. Many of the following suggestions are appropriate for a spouse who has known for a long time, but there are a few things that are unique to the discovery day.
Just Listen. This may seem obvious, but you might be surprised how many well-meaning friends offer advice at this time. Of course there may be a few nuggets of wisdom you can offer, but sharing them at this time runs a serious risk of damaging the relationship with your friend, and even further damaging the marriage. It is crucial that you keep your opinions to yourself-especially pertaining to the status of the marriage. The time will come when the traumatized spouse is open to advice, but that should wait until after the dust settles. It is very important to understand that each new disclosure or discovery is like Day One again, and should be treated as such.
Accept that your friend is in crisis. This is a hard one to explain to a person who may never have gone through something like this, but their discovery should be treated as if their closest loved one has just died. In a way it has. Their eyes were just opened to what their marriage really is: a sham. All of the dreams they had on their wedding day, all of their hopes in one horrible moment, gone. The relationship they loved and committed to, destroyed. They have been tricked, lied to, made to feel crazy. They are questioning their self-worth, their physical attractiveness, and wrestling with the possibility of it all being her fault somehow. Even if the marriage survives, it is forever changed. She is in deep emotional turmoil, and she may feel as if she is drowning. I urge you not to downplay her emotions at this time. Above all, do not suggest that she is overreacting. She is almost certainly not, and even if she is, don’t be the one to point it out.
Help her create a safe place and an emotional safety plan. This could be in her home, or not, if simply being there continues to traumatize her. She needs to create or have a place where she can feel safe emotionally. Emotional safety doesn’t mean that she doesn’t feel the loss. It is simply a space where she is not surrounded by triggers that actually cause or bring up new trauma. So as she is triggered she has a plan of where to go, and what to do. Examples are: a favorite candle that calms her; a music playlist that brings her happiness; perhaps it is essential oils; a craft that brings her joy or peace. For me, it is a bath. For a friend it is going to the gym.
Do some of the simple things. One good friend and survivor said she wished someone would have just had a pizza delivered. In her devastation and isolation, she struggled even to make a meal. Her mind was swirling. She knew her kids needed to eat but the thought of food simply turned her stomach. Truly in the trauma, putting one foot in front of the other is perhaps the most difficult thing to do. Take some of the simple day-to-day burdens away. Don’t ask; she will feel guilty that she can’t measure up right now. Just do it. Perhaps it is sweeping the floor, ordering a pizza from 5 states away if you’re on the phone, calling in a babysitter or better yet take the kids for an hour or two. Once she is past the initial shock, she won’t need it as much. However, girl time is important all the way through.
Encourage her to seek help. She cannot do this alone. I am sure you are pretty stellar, but unless you are a trained addiction counselor you are both in way over your heads. She may be not able to do this for herself right away. It is okay to do a few Google searches on her behalf. However, do not do the contacting. This is something she must do for herself. But a few well placed websites next to her computer or in her purse, are not such a bad thing. Remain positive. “I wanted to know more, so I looked these up. I think they may help you.”
The Don’ts. Don’t man bash. This is kinda like….I can pick on my baby brother, but don’t you dare pick on my baby brother….kind of thing. He sure deserves it, but just tell her it is okay for her to feel that way, and you get it.
Don’t run away. She already feels abandoned by her husband. Don’t abandon her too.
Do not tell anyone else. This is not your secret to tell. Do not call her pastor, your mutual friends (unless you have permission), her parents, the tabloids, your manicurist….etc. the list goes on and on. You never know who knows who, and dots could get connected that should not have been. If you need help coping personally, your pastor or couselor should be the only ones you talk to. I am not in favor of keeping secrets from your spouse, but this is a grey area. Ask permission first, but if you don’t get it, you can say, “so and so are having a hard time right now. I promised I would not go into details.”
If you are lucky enough to be part of a team of friends and loved ones, be careful not to gossip amongst each other. This is a fine line we walk, but ladies let’s be honest: we have a tendency to cross the fine line of genuine concern to gossip pretty easily. Put an end to it if it starts to happen. If she catches wind that you all are talking behind her back, you risk sending her into utter isolation, which will be devastating to her emotional health. Worse, you will all lose a friend and have committed a serious trust violation. Especially in a time when her trust has already been damaged.
Do not ask, “What are you going to do?” This one is particularly personal to me. After a very traumatic event in our marriage, almost immediately I was being asked this very question. It seemed logical to the person I was speaking with, but I couldn’t have told you how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at that time let alone figure out if I was going to file for divorce. She needs healing and time to get over the initial trauma. She needs to work with someone outside of her immediate circle to figure out what is best for her and her marriage. Please do not ask, give her the time and space.
Lastly, take care of yourself. You are a vital piece to her recovery. Set healthy boundaries for yourself, and be firm but gentle. “I love that you trust me, but I need you to use your safe place & safety plan at 1 am first.” Do a little self care for yourself after spending time with your damaged friend. If you are running on empty, she will be stealing from you what little reserve you have left. This leads to resentment and anger on your part. You again risk losing a dear friend, and missing out on the opportunity to see her grow stronger and more beautiful inside & out than ever before.