Dear Dr. Norquist:
I’ve recently discovered that the marriage I thought was so perfect isn’t so perfect after all. Unlike in prior relationships, I thought I was marrying someone totally different from my father. I guess I duped myself again. This realization is extremely upsetting. Again, I find myself in a co-dependent relationship with a man with an addiction. My father was an alcoholic. My husband, I discovered last month, has a gambling problem. He is a kind and loving person, but unbeknownst to me, he has racked up so much gambling debt that we may lose our home in the next two months. Still on Super Bowl Sunday, he lost another $10,000. He still thinks he can win the money back. When I suggest he go to Gamblers Anonymous, he agrees but doesn’t follow through. I feel so angry and so helpless, watching him gamble away our home and our financial security. What can I do?
Dr. Norquist responds:
When the behavior of someone in one’s immediate environment is out of control, the normal response is to focus on it. This is especially so when the out-of-control behavior affects our sense of safety or security.
Safety is a survival need and it naturally trumps all other needs. Maintaining safety around an addict requires constant vigilance regarding their behavior. Growing up in an environment like this, one learns to focus on the out-of-control other to the determent of developing an awareness of your own life path.
The way out of this is to stop living your life in response to your husband. Start living your own life. An image I sometimes use to describe this kind of relationship is that of two ships. The co-dependent image is one where a smaller ship is tethered to a larger ship where no one is consistently at the helm. The healthy image is of two equal-sized ships, both with competent and aware captains at the helm, each aware of their own ship’s needs and capacities, deciding to share the journey side by side.
You need to start focusing on your own ship. This is the only thing you have control over. You are not at the helm of his ship. You will never have control over his behavior or his decisions regarding his addiction. You must leave this responsibility where it belongs – with him. Instead you must start learning how to take responsibility for yourself and your own life.
Practice shifting your focus from your husband to yourself. Bring your awareness to what you are feeling and needing. What do you want to do with your life? What do you want to create?
You can turn this into a time for you to come into your own life and your own power to create. When you make this shift in the way you relate to your husband and to yourself, your husband will react. He will initially try to pull you back into your co-dependent behavior. If this doesn’t work, then he will change his behavior in some way; perhaps for the better, perhaps for the worse. It will be up to him. Learning to steer your own ship is the best way for you to give him an opportunity to change his own path.
(Dr. Sallie Norquist is a licensed psychologist (NJ #2371) in private practice and is director of Chaitanya Counseling Services, a center for upliftment and enlivenment, in Hoboken.)
Dr. Norquist and the staff of Chaitanya invite you to write them at Chaitanya Counseling Services, 51 Newark St., Suite 202, Hoboken, NJ 07030 or www.chaitanya.com or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by fax at (201) 656-4700. Questions can address various topics, including relationships, life’s stresses, difficulties, mysteries and dilemmas, as well as questions related to managing stress or alternative ways of understanding health-related concerns. 2009 Chaitanya Counseling Services