“I’ve Already Done My Work”

By Ken Wells - 04/29/2022


Series Three: Blog Twenty-Five

When I was a 9th grade boy I got a summer job detasseling corn. Detasseling corn is removing the immature pollen—the tassel—from the tops of the corn and placing it on the ground. It is a form of pollination control, employed to cross-breed two varieties of corn. Every corn plant has both male and female parts. Removing the tassels from all the plants of one variety leaves the grain that is growing on those plants to be fertilized by the tassels of the other, resulting in a hybrid.

Today most of the tassels are removed by machine. However, when I was a kid it was done manually. Kids from my home town would be hired and bussed to farms north of town. We would work all day detasseling and then bussed back home. If you were lucky you were able to ride on a detasseling machine which allowed you to pull the tassels off corn plants without having to walk through the rows of corn. It was much easier to ride than walk. When you walked the rows it was hot. Early in the morning corn plants gathered dew from the night before. If it rained the night before you would get soaking wet and the rows were a muddy mess.  The sunshine increased the humidity and it was suffocating. 

I never got a job on the machine. I always had to work with a crew of walkers. One guy on our crew named Chuck would always end his day by 9am. Everyone else worked until 5pm. Chuck would say “I’ve done my work, now it’s your turn”. He figured he had enough of detasseling and simply waited in the bus for everyone else to do their work. There were thousands of acres of corn that needed to be detasseled, but Chuck thought he had done his work. He was just waiting on the rest of us to do our work so he could go home. Sometimes he would impatiently prod us to hurry up so he could go home. Chuck really believed that he had done his work!.

As a therapist treating addiction, I hear this refrain all too often. I hear it from addicts who tell me they don’t need to do counseling or go to a 12-step group because they have “done all their work” even though they are mystified as to why they relapsed. I hear it from partners of addicts who don’t want to go to therapy or join a support group. They tell me they previously went to therapy and have done their work. Now their addict partner is the identified patient. It’s like they are waiting for Bozo Bill or Screwed Up Sally to get their act together and everything will be just fine! I wonder if they ever met Chuck from my detasseling days.

As a therapist, I approach treatment from a systemic point of view. Like the mobile over the baby’s crib, when you strike one butterfly, all the butterflies respond in movement. So it is in treating family dysfunction and addictive behavior. When one acts out there is a response by everyone in the family system and all need to be treated.

Addictive families want to ignore the obvious and embrace the improbable. If Bozo Bill will just stop acting out, the rest of us in this family will be just fine! Even though his wife is depressed and acting out by binging on food and the kids are enmeshed with mom, getting high on drugs with their friends.

A partner to a sex addict often thinks that the addict is the problem. The idea is to send the addict away and get h/her fixed with therapy. The partner is devastated from betrayal but doesn’t want to do therapy because the addict is the problem. Really? It’s sort of like a pedestrian being run over by a car while crossing the street.  Paramedics are rushed to the scene and pick up the driver and rush him to the emergency room because he doesn’t know how to drive and needs help! The partner has a broken heart and needs therapeutic care for healing, but argues  they are fine.  It is common to hear a partner say “just fix Bozo Bill. I  already did my work in the past”!

Don’t get caught becoming like my detasseling buddy Chuck. Here are some considerations for healing.

  1. The work in building healthy relationships never ends. There never is a time that addressing issues on your side of the street is over. That said, the work you will need to do is not about taking responsibility for your partner’s addiction or actions. That’s not about you. However, there is need to gain support toward healing the painful aftermath and carnage created by your partner’s acting out. There is work to be done in addressing your contribution to intimacy problems in the relationship. You didn’t cause the addictive behavior, but you do make a contribution to intimacy distance. Focus on your self-care and your responses in the relationship. There’s always work to be done.
  2. Don’t assign or become the “Identified Patient”. The relationship work that needs to be done requires work by both parties. There is no “Identified Patient”.  It is like the analogy of the three legs to a stool. Two legs represent the two individuals’ issues and the third leg represents couples issues. Without each issue being seriously addressed, the relationship will remain hobbled.
  3. Sometimes when a partner in a relationship says they have done all their work, it is a way to avoid having to face the question of whether they want to be in the relationship at all. Many times partners focus on fixing the addict with recovery and therapy to avoid facing the decision to leave the relationship. When all the attention is placed on the addict in recovery, a partner sidesteps their own unhappiness and the fear of disrupting family dynamics with a separation or divorce.
  4. It requires work to face painful decisions. Taking care of yourself in addiction and in partnership requires making painful choices. Setting boundaries requires following through with consequences when a boundary is not honored. In order to have a secure relationship, you will need to let go of what you cannot control. This is always difficult. It engages recovery work. Surrender is never one and done. When your relationship is stuck in a painful, destructive place, there is always work to be done by both parties. When you truly have done all of your relational work, you will be at the end of your life. You will be dead. Don’t allow yourself to be disillusioned by my childhood buddy, Chuck. There’s always work for you to do in building a healthy relationship.

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