Addiction treatment taught me to be open – but my wife doesn’t want to talk

Ask Ammanda Gambling Addiction

Me and my wife are stranger’s in a marriage at the moment. We have been together almost two decades and have several children. I am a recovering gambling addict and have been regularly attending Gamblers’ Anonymous for the past four years.

My addiction meant I was not honest and open in our relationship. Trust is non-existent, but I accept responsibility for the pain and suffering I have caused my wife and family. We have grown apart over the last few months, lost in work routine and looking after the children. Things have come to a head now with me sleeping on the sofa as I’m not allowed in bed anymore.

My wife says I’m not making an effort but she won’t acknowledge me. I try talking to her but she’s either reading a book and won’t look at me. My addiction treatment helped me understand I need to open up and express how I feel. But when I ask if we can work things out, my wife just shrugs her shoulders and says ‘what’s the point?’ I don’t want to walk away from our marriage, especially with our children involved, but I don’t feel like she’s giving me much choice.

Ammanda says…

As you will clearly know by now, any addiction affects not only the person going through it, but their family and friends too. You don’t mention how long you were gambling, but I’m assuming it was quite a while. While you’ve sought help and are making progress by accessing ongoing support via GA, the legacy for your wife (and quite possibly your boys) may be that she’s struggling to believe the change you’ve made will last. Coupled with this, the damage that any addiction causes within a family is usually huge. Family members often have to distance themselves from the person who is addicted to keep themselves emotionally (and sometimes physically) safe. Of course, I don’t know if this has been your wife’s experience, but I’d be surprised if there wasn’t an element of this in how she’s feeling now.

I’m curious about the fact that you highlight the last few months as being especially tricky. I’m wondering what the first three years of your recovery were like for both of you – whether it was better or worse than what’s happening now. Whatever’s the case, I’m sure you’ve all faced a very hard journey.

I understand you’ve been encouraged to open up and share your feelings with your wife. However (and I’ve seen this many times in couple counselling), it may be that your wife’s asking herself why she should be listening. She may feel her concerns and anxieties about your behaviours went unheard by you for many years. It’s not uncommon for partners of addicts to feel a real sense of rage when, after having been neglected for a long time, they’re asked to ‘come on board’ and be cooperative in terms of rebuilding a relationship.

You say your wife says you’re not making an effort. I can imagine this must feel particularly difficult to bear, given the effort you must surely feel you’re making by taking charge of your recovery and trying to move on. It may be she feels you don’t really understand how hard her life was when she was on the receiving end of your addiction.

The effort of maintaining sobriety of usually exhausting – so much so that many support groups encourage the addict in question to take things as slow as possible – using the ‘one step at a time’ method in order to moving away from compulsive behaviours. But this often means that, emotionally and practically, there’s only space to take into account the needs of the addict – and family and friends take a backseat.

While we often feel we have an idea of what it’s like for other people in this kind of situation – indeed, we may feel real empathy and concern – but because we’re also separate from one another as unique human beings, there are limits to how far we can really understand one another’s experiences. It may be that your wife still feels resentful for what she went through.

I’m sure you have apologised to her and other family members. And, of course, none of us can change the past. But it’s possible she feels she’s being expected to just put the past behind her and focus on the future, regardless of whether she’s ready to do this. I also think it’s also likely that, following years of distance, she feels she can’t trust you with her feelings – and, as you’re finding out, losing trust in a marriage is very hard to overcome.

Right now, she’s clearly saying the time is not right for her to consider an emotionally positive future with you. And, although it may be hard to accept, I do have to say that the truth is she may never want to. I know that sounds harsh, but you must recognize that the damage that your behaviours may have caused may not be undoable. It may be difficult to accept, but it could be that, in this new phase of your life, a fresh start is what’s best. In order for everyone in the family to begin to recover from the effects of addiction, they need to be happy – and sometimes that does mean ending a relationship.

However, I know this might not seem like an ideal outcome. And if you think you can make your relationship work, then you should do everything you can to make this happen. You don’t mention if your wife has had any professional support. The first think I would say is I would always encourage accessing this, because the partner of an addict will always need the space to untangle themselves emotionally and mentally from what has happened – and this can be difficult to do alone.

Beyond this, I would recommend that you seek couple counselling to help you both really understand where you want the relationship to go. One of the most important things to realise is that if you do decide to stay, it’s likely to be a very long road before you both feel ready to begin talking realistically and honestly about the future. Be prepared for it to take time and focus.

I know the above may sound very stark and I imagine you might be disappointed that I can’t offer you tips on how to get your wife to talk openly with you. Perhaps in time she may want to discuss things. I don’t know. What I do know is that maintaining your recovery is of paramount importance for all of you. To do that you need to have some level of emotional wellbeing and your current situation is not providing that. This is not your wife’s fault, but a consequence of the effect of an addiction on a family – a family that continues to live with the aftermath. Your recovery is commendable and I really hope that you make the decisions that will support it, whether that’s alongside your wife or apart.

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