Addressing the “Tilt” in an Addictive Relationship

By Ken Wells - 06/08/2021


Series Two: Blog Thirty-Six

Addictive behavior has a systemic impact in the life of a family. The behavior is fraught with trauma. There is the trauma of broken trust. There is the unpredictable environment that is created by the addict’s unstable behavior. There is the harm and devastation that an addict creates for themselves. There is the fear and anxiety that permeates every family member who wishes the addict would just stop using.

Theorists have likened the family impact of addictive behavior to the mobile of butterflies suspended over an infant’s crib. When you hit one butterfly (addict’s behavior), all of the other butterflies (family members) attached to the mobile (family system) are impacted by the one hit.

Trauma becomes imbedded into the fabric of family behavior through minimization and denial as a survival skill. Families where addiction exists learn to ignore the obvious and embrace the improbable. They gaslight each other saying that living with an addict is not as crazy as it really is. They walk around the elephant in the living room hoping that denial of what is real will someday stop the constant chaos and crisis that an addict creates for the family.

When an addict finally gets into recovery through intervention, or outpatient or inpatient treatment, the damage done to the health of a family system and relationship is significant. Many families have become entrenched with dysfunction and covertly make no bones about wanting the “old addict” back without the emphasis upon radical change.

Addicts take up all the space in family relationship. Subconsciously, the entire family learns to navigate around the addict’s behavior. They learn to read the tea leaves very well about what triggers negative addictive response and when to go under the radar because the addict is intensely angry, spun up with energy, or miserable and bummed out.

All of this behavioral energy requires emotional space. For loved ones, being in a room with an addict during the cycle of addiction is like taking an exercise ball and blowing it up so that it takes all the space available in the room and smashes all the other family members against the wall. There is no space available for anyone else in the family because an addict will take it all. They want what they want when they want it. In recovery, if you eliminate the addictive process or substance (put the cork in the bottle), addicts remain prone to take up too much space. It is all about them and their neediness. Partners can be triggered with codependent response to avoid addict relapse. As they scurry around, the rest of the family walks on eggshells to keep an addict from acting out. It becomes obvious that much of the family’s focus and energy remains centered on the addict’s behavior.

There is a certain “tilt” factor that must be addressed systemically for addicts to recover relationally. By “tilt” I mean there is a predisposition established in the addictive family context that subconsciously gives the addict more than necessary space. This can be likened to the creation of Title IX that prohibits anyone from being excluded from participation or being discriminated from any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance. For example, there must be an equal number of sporting opportunities offered to male and female students. The Educational Amendments act of 1972 was created to eliminate the “tilt” factor toward students with unequal opportunity.

Addicts create a “tilt” factor when they take other’s space by wanting what they want when they want it. Conscious attention and emotional space is ceded to the addict in an attempt to satisfy and prevent addiction acting out. Of course, this unspoken relational dynamic is hurtful and dysfunctional. The “tilt” factor in addictive relationships must be addressed by the addict who seeks to heal trust in broken relationships.

Here are a few considerations:

As an addict, you must decrease so that your partner can increase: This suggestion can be tricky. It is not intended that an addict needs to go to the basement or the doghouse in order to rectify past addictive behavior. Rather, it is meant to suggest that as an addict you will need to be sensitive to the many ways you ran roughshod over your partner in order to get what you want. Because you lied to get what you want, be humble and recognize that you don’t deserve to be believed until you demonstrate living in truth over a period of time. When disbelieved, suck it up and be all-the-more determined to live in honesty. When making decisions and having conversations in the family context, consider whose voice is least heard and give space to that person. As an addict, likely, it won’t be yours. You will need to prepare to talk less so someone else can be heard. It’s not as if you don’t matter, but your partner and other family members who previously have not been heard need to have voice before you weigh in. It will be awkward but necessary toward correcting the “tilt” factor in your damaged relationships.

Be curious about your partner’s reactive response to your behavior in recovery. Often, partners of addicts react in fear when they are triggered by behavior that takes them back to days of addictive acting out. Almost anything can trigger trauma. You will best position yourself in recovery with your partner’s reaction when you practice being curious about their reaction. The tendency will be to become defensive. “I never meant anything close to what she has accused me of!”, you will want to defend. As we all know, this response only accelerates attack/defense responses and further alienates you from the one you would like to be close to. Practice being curious. “You seem hurt, help me understand what triggered this pain for you”. Then carefully listen. Becoming curious about your partner’s feelings/thoughts and actions will help you create compassion for their position in pain. You will get far more mileage from being curious than confrontational.

Practice “circle back”: You will not always be on top of your game. Neither will your partner. Overcoming the “tilt” factor when there has been betrayal in addictive behavior means that as an addict you will need to take the initiative to circle back when there is a misunderstanding and to listen more deeply to your partner’s point of view. You will need to lead the way through “circle back” to tell on yourself when you commit inappropriate defensive conduct or otherwise dismiss your partner in conflict or other conversation. You taking action and leadership is a way of altering the “tilt” factor where historically you have dominated with abusive behavior. Tit for tat is never helpful toward overcoming the “tilt” factor that resulted from addictive behavior.

Give partner consideration: “When will h/she ever give it up?”is a common lament often heard from addicts who express discouragement and frustration about being dragged across the coals again for their addictive betrayal behavior. Some addicts try everything possible to tread carefully in order to avoid triggering partner explosion about past addictive behavior. Others minimize partner response and emotionally and verbally shut down. They wall their partner out and both agree to not talk about the dead dog in the living room–the pain of betrayal. This will do nothing to correct the “tilt” factor. Courageously, it will be helpful if you as an addict will lean into the lament. To do this you will need to practice not personalizing where your partner is at that moment of the relationship. It’s not about you, it’s about their pain. With consideration, you will need to validate the pain that your betrayal created. With compassion, you can ask “how can I support you right now?” If h/she wants you to listen, you do that. If h/she wants you to leave their presence, you do that. If h/she wants you to hold them, you do that. You do whatever you can with whatever is asked.

Consideration is crucial to altering the “tilt” factor when healing the impact of addictive behavior in recovery. At times it feels unfair. Yet, being willing to embrace the ways in which you have taken up other’s space in hurtful ways will require that you decrease your space so your partner can increase space. Circling back to tell on yourself is a vital way to increase consideration toward your partner that opens your heart to healing your broken relationship.

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