The Dreaded What-If List

By Ken Wells - 06/04/2021


Series Two; Blog Thirty-Five

Addiction impacts every level of relational life. Like the mobile of butterflies over an infant’s bed, when you swat one butterfly, the other butterflies jounce as well. Addictive behavior creates the same results in a family system. Every relationship in a family reacts differently to addictive behavior. So, putting a cork in the bottle or ending other types of addictive behavior is only the beginning of relational recovery. Addiction creates trauma in relationships. The ripple effect of the trauma is devastating and broad. The damage to trust from acting out runs deep and special considerations must be embraced in order for trust to be slowly rebuilt.

Many addicts celebrate and count the days of sobriety from the clutches of addiction. It can be difficult for an addict to realize that while they are happy and optimistic, their beleaguered partner is overwhelmed with confusion, uncertainty, and fear, wondering when the next shoe will fall and h/she will be faced with another betrayal.

Frequently, an addict becomes impatient and dismissive about a partner’s mistrust. Whenever a partner shows mistrust, an addict becomes defensive and wonders out loud when will their partner ever get over it and move forward. This response intensifies mistrust.

Another reaction is that when a partner demonstrates mistrust and deep hurt, the addict learns to walk on eggshells and invests immense effort to avoid triggering their partner’s pain and mistrust. Of course, this is an impossible strategy that ends with an addict shutting down to avoid conflict while the partner intensifies mistrust, convinced that the addict’s silence can only mean relapse and more betrayal. These responses must be addressed with the courage of vulnerable straight talk from both parties.

Inevitably, relational trust is tested when the addict must travel for business or for some other reason without their partner. Fear and anxiety commonly strike the footing of the relationship like a bolt of lightning. Partners are often gripped with overwhelming panic and obsessive fear.

It will be important for an addict who travels to create a “What-if” list detailing how they will manage all behaviors while navigating the high-risk zone of travel. Here are some considerations for both the addict and partner around constructing and implementing a “What-if” list when faced with high risk.

Considerations for an addict:

When an addict is facing a high-risk zone, the first priority is to go to any lengths to create safety. The addict must prepare for the high risk. You will need to think through the high-risk zone step by step. If the high risk is travel, think through each segment of time of your travel. Identify your unique vulnerability and create accountability each step of the way. There are different environments to consider. One is your means of travel. Airport, train depots, and bus connections all present opportunities to act out, depending upon your vulnerability. Conversation interactions, mental states, and isolation all create their own impact for an unprepared addict to potentially be triggered to act out. You must know your triggers like the back of your hand in order to effectively manage a high-risk travel environment. Go over your travel environment like a fine-tooth comb and cover all potential triggers that can be real to you.

Once you have arrived at your destination, you will need to carefully consider all potential risk zones. Again, conversations, high-risk experiences, and situations to be avoided and/or managed must be spelled out in your “what-if” list. You will need to be vigilant and attentive to prevalent mind states such as isolation and the temptation to exploit the mentality “I am free and without the scrutiny of accountability— I can do whatever I please”. These vulnerabilities are likely experienced by addicts facing high-risk zones to varying degrees. An addict must be honest with h/himself and prepare with appropriate accountability. Step by step consideration will seem overwhelming in preparation at first. Yet, adopting this approach will become a lifestyle for those serious about long term sobriety. The only people who need to know about your meticulous preparation will be your partner and those to whom you choose to be accountable. Eventually, the “what-if” list will become as automatic as the routine of reviewing your packing and making sure you have everything for the trip.

Considerations for an Addict’s Partner:

Typically, an addict’s high risk zone triggers panic, anxiety and an overwhelming need to control. This makes sense in that when you thought all was well between you and your partner, it was not!  However, high-risk zones for addict relapse trigger a unique opportunity for you to work your program. Many partners ignore caring for themselves, opting to focus on controlling their partner, thinking this to be the best or only way to protect themselves. This never works.

Self-protection does not look the same for every addict. The addict’s betrayal heightens the partner’s overwhelming feelings of fear, uncertainty and mistrust, all of which are understandable. You will need to listen carefully to the “what-if” plan your addicted partner creates to manage high risk. It will not be helpful to tell them how they must handle their high risk. It doesn’t work.

That said, you can share what you need for you to feel safe. However, this need for safety must be created in careful consultation with your accountability and support group (AL-ANON/ACA/S-ANON/COSA/PARTNER’S GROUP, therapist). If you do not have the support structure set up in your life, you will be working from a position of weakness and not strength. Just like your addict partner will only be able to live in sustained sobriety by living close to their accountability for support, you are the same. You will be able to survive and not succumb to your overwhelming desire to control what you cannot by living in consultation and accountability with a solid support system. You, too, will need to create a “what-if” list to manage your fears and anxiety that your addicted partner will betray you by relapsing into old destructive behaviors. You won’t be able to manage all of this by yourself. You will need to be able to say “I need help”.

“What-if” lists around high-risk zones are an opportunity for both addict and partner to work their recovery programs and rely upon their support system for accountability and support. Neither addict nor partner can control the behavioral response of the other.

Often, “what-if” lists are dreaded by both partners who have a tendency to want to ignore the obvious and embrace the improbable. If I ignore the reality of potential relapse, surely it will just go away. This is a thought leading to disaster that occurs all too often.

It is important for an addict to adopt a healthy mature mindset when constructing a “what-if” list. You must refuse the mindset that I am being policed by my partner. This will require conversation with your sponsor/support/therapist and your partner. Such a mindset will undermine relational intimacy. Also, the “what-if” list is not another way of reporting back to mother. It is not surprising the number of addicts who dread the “what-if” list because they secretly think it is just another way for their partner to be on their back. Again, growing yourself up emotionally around the “what-if” list will require processing your immature thoughts with support/therapist and partner.

“What-if” lists are a way of taking care of you, not your partner. It can be an opportune way of deepening connection while traveling and/or existing in a high-risk zone.

Sometimes, when traveling, an addict may feel the relief of being away from the family and emotionally check out. Yet, addicts who manage high-risk zones check in, not check out. Current technology offers new ways to maintain accountability when traveling. Daily and night-time connection rituals can continue via FaceTime or other video technology. If you have young children there is no reason not to continue reading bedtime stories or continuing other relational connections–like attending baseball, soccer or other sporting events via video. Children’s sporting events can serve as an accountability tool. It communicates that you are a part of the family team with your partner whether at home or on the road. There will be times that you cannot attend an activity virtually because of an evening business meeting. During such times it is helpful to communicate with your partner by bookending the meeting with a call to your partner at home and then after the meeting is over. The conversation can be about their day or the kids and sharing about yours.

 “What-if” lists become a dynamic tool that encourages addicts to create ways to be a team player with their partner. This teamwork ensures not only safety in high-risk zones but also transforms volatile feelings into intimate connections.

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