Triggers. We all know how they can throw us into a panic in seconds, and leave us spinning, even when we thought we were beyond such cycles. Like a wind out of nowhere, they rock our world. And they often result in relational conflict, because our partners don’t “get” why we are so edgy, reactionary, and fragile. But if both parties in the couple are on a recovery path, and trying to save their marriage, boundaries can make a huge difference. The right kind of “boundaries,” that is. And I have a great example for you of the kinds of boundaries I’m talking about.
Christy Kane, the first coach to join Marsha’s team many years ago, who is now completing her practicum as a therapist in Minneapolis, and her husband, Dan, recently allowed me to share their couple’s boundaries with you as an example (Dan and Christy's Couples Boundaries Contract). And I have to say, I think what they crafted is ingenious—and better yet—they have 18 years in recovery and their marriage is thriving, so their boundaries work, if both parties are working to save their marriage and family!
Ladies, as you read this, pay special attention to the fact that both Dan and Christy, crafted, agreed upon, and abide by the boundaries they chose to include. In other words, it’s a two-way street. Dan can check Christy’s devices, etc, too. That’s where I think the genius comes in. These boundaries aren’t a set of rules that Christy crafted to keep Dan under control. Rather, they are guardrails designed by both partners to, above all else, protect their relationship and grow it for the long haul.
Marsha’s Interview with Christy
MARSHA: Christy, I remember meeting you way back in 2001 when you and Dan were a young married couple with two small boys. I remember you well because you cried through much of the SA recovery conference where we first met. Can you share what it was like for you back then shortly after your personal D-Day? Did you have any hope that you and Dan would make it? Where did you find the courage to go on?
CHRISTY: Wow. It’s amazing how long ago that seems! My “D-Day” took place about a year before that conference, and I was already leading a support group by then and had come to the conference in hope of finding materials to help my group and myself. I was emotionally spent from dealing with my own stuff and carrying the weight of the women in my group, too—not to mention working and raising two kids who were 6 & 1 at the time. Going back to just after I confronted Dan about 10 months prior to the conference, I felt utterly lost and invisible. Our church had a group for men, so he was going to that within a week. But for me? Nothing. The women’s group didn’t start for 4 months, and there wasn’t even a facilitator that I could talk to in the meantime! He’d go to group every Tuesday night, and I’d sit home with the kids, barely able to function enough to meet their most basic needs. A part of me didn’t believe he was really going. He’d come home all chipper and expect me to be happy, and all I could think was, “He’s the one who did something wrong and he’s getting all the support!!” In January, when the women’s group started, it was a huge relief to find others who understood how I felt. For the first time in years, I no longer felt crazy or that I was making a big deal out of nothing. Early attempts at boundaries and adding self-care back into my life were products of those first couple of months of group. As for hope, I wasn’t ready for that yet. I knew I wanted my marriage to work, but I also knew I needed to strengthen myself for the possibility that I might be a single mom. It was really a “one day at a time” journey. It’s my kids that kept me walking through it and finding the courage to keep going. I knew that whether my marriage survived or not, my kids needed me to be the best mom I could manage to be.
MARSHA: How did early recovery look for you and Dan as a couple? And how did your recovery look? Was learning to detach a struggle, as it is/was for most of us? Was there a time when you knew you had crossed the line from survival to hope that your marriage would make it?
CHRISTY: Early recovery was tough. As relieving as it was to go to group, I admit I went home angry—angry that there were so many women damaged by this addiction. It’s probably a very good thing that Dan and I drove separately most of the time. It gave me time to process and settle before being with him again. At least now I knew for sure he was indeed going to a group on Tuesday nights! At first detaching was very hard, as his addiction reinforced every negative belief I had about myself-that I was ugly, that I was not good enough, and that I was to blame for everything. But I did start to see change, and that gave me some hope. I think, though, that it was after the conference when we had specific tools to use in our groups that provided forward motion that I crossed the line from survival to hope. That hope got challenged a few times, to be sure. Perhaps there was still a part of me that was reserved on the subject until well after Dan’s last slip, which was over 15 years ago now. I saw his determination to get back on course, and his humility and willingness to do whatever it was I needed in order to heal.
MARSHA: How did you deal with triggers back then? Do you ever get triggered now that you are 18 years into sobriety as a couple? If you do, how do you respond to them now?
CHRISTY: Ah, those wonderful triggers!! I think this is where some of the hardest parts of our recovery work started. I got triggered a lot at the beginning. Just seeing his briefcase triggered me, as that’s how he used to sneak porn into the house. We had learned to talk to each other in the formalized “12-Step Speak.” I’d share something that hurt me, and he’d say, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” That would only exacerbate things, but I couldn’t figure out why. I finally realized that it was because his response made me feel more like his sponsee than his wife. It was so impersonal. We ended up in marriage counseling to learn a different way of communicating with each other, because his responses just did not make me feel heard. They lacked empathy. It took a while, but we learned how to share hard things with each other and communicate empathy. I was able to talk to him, then, about my triggers, and he was able to give me what I needed-to be heard, to be understood, and to feel safe. I rarely get triggered anymore. When I do, we talk about it. I think the more safely we can talk about the hard stuff, the better. We’ve learned to approach difficult topics with patience and kindness, putting any assumptions aside, using “I statements” and vulnerability rather than accusing. It takes practice, but it’s worth it.
MARSHA: I remember that there was one small relapse a few years into Dan’s recovery, and that it was pretty hard on you. How did you handle it? What boundaries, if any, did you impose to make room and time for you to heal? What made you decide to get back up and keep moving forward in your marriage?
CHRISTY: There were two. One two years in, one 4 & 1/2 years in. The last one was especially tough, as I think I’d just started to let my guard down. It was the year of our 10th anniversary, and we’d already started planning a party and vow renewal. It happened 2 days after Valentine’s Day, too. There was a part of me, though, that wasn’t surprised, as I’d noticed a change in his behavior. It was also especially painful because when he told me, he did admit to briefly going back into the addict mindset—that he wasn’t going to tell his accountability partner or me as our agreement stated. I almost asked him to leave. Our Boundaries Agreement allows for that if I find out before he tells me or if his accountability partner tells me. I talked it through with my own accountability partner, and acknowledged that he did ultimately follow our agreement, and did not make him leave. I did, however, ask for some additional boundaries. I asked him to leave the door between our bedroom and the bathroom cracked open when he was using it, asked him to leave the room when I was dressing, and asked him to not touch me in bed. This stayed in effect for a couple of weeks, until I was ready. For myself, I talked to my dear friend and accountability partner, and started one-on-one counseling again. A rather funny part of it was that we’d started taking a fencing class a few weeks before this. The night after he slipped, I beat him in a match. It’s entirely possible that he let me win, but it still felt good!
MARSHA: Have you ever regretted giving Dan another opportunity to gain long-term sobriety for the long haul? How do each of your recovery journey’s look now? And how does your marriage look 18 years out?
CHRISTY: I don’t regret giving him the chance. Yes, it was incredibly hard, but we have a marriage now that is absolutely incredible. We’ve been through a lot—not just his sex addiction, but plenty of other struggles as well. Next month we’ll be celebrating 25 years – 15 & ½ years of sobriety for him. We’re empty-nesters now, which is weird. As far as our recovery, we both go to counseling, and he stays in touch periodically with a couple of men. We continue to nurture our marriage and talk about the tough stuff as well as celebrate the good. I’m proud of how hard he has worked.
MARSHA: Is there anything you would like to say to women who are new in this journey? What “advice” would you like to give them, as well as other women who’ve been on this journey for years, but long-term sobriety has not been achieved?
CHRISTY: Most of all I would say that it isn’t your fault, and you haven't done (or not done) anything to “deserve” it. It is 100% about him, and how he learned to cope with his pain. Sometimes in their addict mindset, they will make all kinds of accusations or implications that “if you … then I wouldn’t …” The truth is, they were likely participating in their addictive behavior long before you were in the picture. Sometimes it’s the result of abuse, sometimes it starts as curiosity and quickly becomes a high they pursue whenever life gets too uncomfortable. BUT it is absolutely not about you. It does, obviously, hurt and impact you. Find a counselor or coach who understands the trauma that betrayal causes. Join a support group. Connect with other women who know and understand what you are going through. You do not have to walk this road alone. Other than that, only you can decide if you want to stay in the relationship or leave it. If your spouse is willing to get help and starts showing change—not just for a day, not just for a week, not just for a month, but long-term, (empathy, humility, patience with your healing and triggers, going to at least one men’s group, daily contact with an accountability partner, willing to develop a Boundaries Agreement with you, whatever it is you need from him to start healing) and you have the support you need, it can be worth seeing where things go. And it is up to you.
If you’ve been hanging in there waiting for long-term sobriety that isn’t coming, consider reviewing the recovery plan. Is he willing to go to multiple groups? Is he being humbly honest or resorting to pity parties? Is there a Boundaries Agreement in place? I want to stress that it isn’t all up to you. You are not responsible for his recovery (or lack thereof). Only you can decide what you can and cannot live with. Many stay for financial reasons, because they’ve invested their lives caring for children at home and cannot support themselves on their own. Others give themselves a set amount of time to stay while they brush up on or learn new skills that will help them develop an income of their own. Others decide to live as roommates and minimize the emotional damage as much as they can. Each person has their own reasons for the decisions they make. However, please know that leaving is an option. I know from experience that kids pick up on things even when the arguments don’t take place in front of them. They know when something is wrong and are prone to blame themselves.
All this comes with a caveat. If you or your children are being abused in any way, developing and carrying out an escape plan is vital. Many communities have legal workshops that can help you determine what you need to do. Counselors and therapists, doctors, nurses, and other professionals can also help you. It’s scary to reach out, but necessary for your safety and that of your children.
MARSHA: I understand you are now offering Journey to Healing & Joy Support Groups out of your internship office in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. How can women reach you if they live in your area and would like to participate?