How Do You Forgive a Loved One After Addiction?
It’s hard living with a loved one with a substance use disorder. You may have put up with years’ worth of bad behavior, including lying, stealing, violent behavior, manipulation, and general unreliability. You may find that even when your loved one gets sober that you still have trouble forgiving them for everything they put you through when they were actively addicted.
If you want to repair and preserve the relationship, it’s necessary to forgive them at some point, so you can move on, but that can be a huge challenge. It’s hard to let go of the hurt. The following tips can help you forgive a loved one for their sake and yours.
Remember That Forgiveness Is Not Approval
One reason people find it hard to forgive is that they feel like forgiving someone is the same as condoning their behavior, that it’s like saying that they really didn’t do anything wrong after all. That’s not what forgiveness is about.
Forgiveness is nearly the opposite. It’s saying, “You certainly did something wrong but I’m not going to continue being angry about it.” Forgiveness is not approval and it’s not forgetting. You should certainly retain the lessons you learned from your loved one’s addiction, but in forgiving them, you let go of your resentment.
Remember That Forgiveness Is for You as Much as Them
Your loved one may want your forgiveness and even ask for it but that doesn’t mean forgiveness is only for them. In fact, forgiveness is primarily for you. Holding on to anger and resentment is bad for you. It’s a form of chronic stress that impairs your immune system, disturbs your sleep, and generally makes you less happy.
Resentment also means you are continually reaffirming your status as a victim in this situation since you still feel harmed by the person’s past actions. Forgiveness means taking responsibility for your own mental state, leading to greater freedom and well-being.
Try to Understand Addiction
If you’ve never experienced addiction for yourself, it can be very hard to understand from the outside. Every bad thing your loved one does seems like a choice--something they deliberately do to you. It’s easy to take their actions personally and hard to forgive. However, as you learn more about addiction, the role of choice in addictive behavior appears to shrink significantly.
Addiction often causes structural changes in the brain that optimize your thinking for drug or alcohol-seeking behavior while ignoring collateral damage. The roots of addiction are also complex, involving genes, childhood environment, and mental health issues. Being angry at someone for a substance use disorder is like being angry at someone for having diabetes. It’s not something anyone chooses.
In addition to understanding addiction better in general, it’s important to understand your loved one’s particular experience. For that, listening is important. Becoming a better listener is a whole skill in itself but the basics include giving your loved one your full attention, reflecting back what they say, “So, what you’re saying is...” and trying to put yourself in their place.
That means suspending judgment at least temporarily and trying to imagine what it must have been like for them to struggle with substance use and related behaviors. Often, you’ll find that their experience has been far worse than yours, which will engage your compassionate instincts.
Talk to a Therapist
Forgiveness isn’t something you have to work through on your own; you can always enlist the help of a therapist. Your therapist can help you untangle the difficult emotions you feel related to your loved one--love, hurt, anger, sadness, fear, concern, compassion, resentment, and so on. You may be having trouble with your own feelings including guilt, shame, and anger towards someone you’re supposed to love and care for.
Validating these feelings is just as important as understanding what your loved one has been through. It may also help to participate in family therapy as part of your loved one’s treatment. Many programs like to involve the families in treatment as much as possible. It helps untangle unhealthy family dynamics, improve communication, and educate families on the recovery process.
Seek Social Support
If therapy isn’t an option for you, or even if it is, you may consider attending a group like Al-Anon or Nar-Anon for families of people with substance use disorders. Forgiveness is a common theme of these groups and you can talk things over with people who have had many of the same experiences as you’ve had.
Maintain Healthy Boundaries
As noted above, forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting. In fact, remembering how bad things got can give you ancentive to maintain healthy boundaries with your loved one. Part of the ongoing resentment is the fear that you’ll be hurt again. If you are able to insulate yourself from the consequences of your loved one’s substance use, you will be better able to forgive their past behavior.
Be Patient With Yourself
Finally, be patient with yourself. Often, the anger and resentment you feel towards a loved one with a substance use disorder is a habit of mind built over years of pain and disappointment. You can’t expect to let it all go overnight. The point of forgiveness is to allow yourself to be free from that anger and resentment but if you criticize yourself for being slow to forgive, you only add to your own pain. Give yourself time. The important things are that you want to forgive and that you’re actively working on it.
Forgiveness can be hard. It feels like you’re condoning your loved one’s past behavior or leaving yourself vulnerable to being hurt again. In reality, you’re letting go of an unnecessary burden, even if you have to do it one brick at a time.
At The Foundry, we know that recovery is stronger when you have the support of friends and family. That’s why we promote family involvement and building a strong recovery community as well as addressing the underlying causes of addiction. To learn more, contact us today at (844) 955-1066.
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