Having Difficult Conversations with People You Love

By Ken Wells - 05/27/2022


Series Three: Blog Thirty-Four

Recovery is messy. Having a conversation with someone you love about relational
experiences that you have hurt is difficult. This challenge includes every
relationship but is particularly difficult when the harm and hurt involves betrayal
and broken trust. Much has been written regarding broken trust. In the world of
addiction recovery, families and partners decry that it is the lie and deceit that
unravels safety even more than the destructive behavior itself. It is so difficult to
converse about relational recovery issues without getting stuck with defensiveness.
Defending your position will block the possibility toward healing at a deeper level.
No one matures in recovery to a place that they are able to eliminate defensiveness.
Here are a few things to consider that can help you manage your own defensive

  1. Take time to acknowledge your own tendency toward defensiveness:
    In context, cultural history underscores that there is a great fear of rejection and being disconnected from community. Historically, to be disconnected or disfellowshipped meant death. People do not survive without connection with community. People tend to minimize, deflect and rationalize their behavior to avoid the anticipation of rejection from others. It is helpful to embrace your own tendency to avoid the fear of rejection through defensiveness. Tell on yourself to your partner and your family. Take time to share with your partner and family an experience and take responsibility for it in a good way that is restorative to a relationship. Simply tell on yourself.
  1. Create an atmosphere that adopts collective responsibility: Everyone is responsible for their own actions, for sure. Regardless of environmental influence, each person in a relationship to community is accountable for their behavior and actions. However, when sitting down to discuss relational problems, it is important that each party identify behavioral change that can promote a different outcome. This is difficult. When betrayal occurs because of addictive behavior, the injured party is hurt and it is difficult to focus on what they might do to improve the
    relationship. This is not the same as the injured party looking at what they did to cause the harm. Relationship healing requires that each take responsibility for their own contribution to relational distance. From this position, both addict and partner can create an improved environment that fosters a healing outcome. Healing requires collective responsibility.
  2. Rather than defend, spend time listening to your partner’s harm. It must go both ways. When you or your partner has been harmed, it is important to listen and validate. Focus on listening to the story of the one harmed. Spend as much time as they need to validate h/her story of harm. Acknowledgement comes from listening. It breeds validation. Once you have heard their pain and they feel validated then you can share your experience. It might take awhile. It will feel like a slow way to a shortcut. But, when you hear the depth of loss and pain felt by your partner
    because of your offense, it will be healing and will create a sacred safe space for rebuilding trust.
  3. Practice amends making. In recovery, amends can be difficult. Sometimes amends are symbolic. Other times they are actual. You don’t have to know which needs to be employed. This is when you trust the collective process between you and your partner and your community of support. A commitment to amends will lead to a healing action that will emerge as a result of collective dialogue.
  4. Evidential change: Shifting away from defensiveness leads toward essential change. For healing to stick, there must be the evidence of commitment to doing things different. This does not require perfection. But it will employ circling back to make amends of behavior when you backslide into old destructive behaviors. The commitment to change is a focus on eliminating the destructive response so that when the hurtful behavior appears, the behavior itself becomes more important than the point you are trying to make. You work to eliminate the destructive response. In this way you build an “I care about you” environment.
  5. Recognize that the current reaction often has historical roots. Subconsciously, your over-reaction that initiates defensiveness may have roots with past experiences of feeling dominated at other times in your life. Particularly, you need to pay attention to those childhood experiences that fuel mistaken beliefs in the here and now. This is a subtle awareness that requires introspection. During the magical years of childhood, you will make emotional conclusions about relationships that are harbored throughout your life. Even though you grow and develop physically, intellectually and socially, you can get stuck with an emotionally immature belief that was cemented during the vulnerable years of childhood emotional development. So, if you felt that you did not matter as a child, it is likely that you will be vulnerable to respond like a child when your partner treats you in a way that triggers that childhood experience. Being aware of this is a beginning to shifting away from childhood conclusions and embracing adult empowerment when you feel defensive.

Overcoming defensiveness requires that you treat your partner with dignity and
respect when you have harmed them. When you hold presence for your partner’s
pain, you establish an environment to deconstruct shame and blame. When you
feel defensiveness coming up in your conversation, privately identify it as like heat
coming through your body. Sit with it and speak to yourself with care and
compassion until it passes. Don’t say or do anything until the heat of defensiveness
subsides. Recognize the difference between intention and impact. Work to change
what you are doing so that your intention matches your impact of action. Then
respond in a different way.

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