Women who are in relationships with pornography addicts or sex addicts often feel stuck in a position of responsibility for their partner’s addiction and recovery. So often, a woman’s identity, or sense of self, becomes wrapped up in their partner’s recovery choices.
If his recovery seems to be going well, you feel more confident, happy, or purposeful in your life. When he struggles, you begin to lose yourself to despair.
Loss of Identity
It’s important to note that your recovery work is valid and important–and so is his. But you are not defined only by your recovery. There is more to you than recovery alone. Here are a few signs that your identity and worth may be tied up too heavily in his addiction or recovery:
- You find yourself giving constant reminders of what he should be doing in his recovery
- Your day-to-day emotional stability depends on the state of your partner’s recovery
- You exclusively or mostly introduce yourself as the wife or partner of a pornography/sex addict
- Your sense of self is tied up entirely in your own recovery identity (sponsor, group member, recovery blogger, advocate, etc.)
In the list above I mention recovery identity. This concept of recovery identity can mean different things. But in this discussion I refer to the idea that the deeper you delve into a recovery community and recovery behaviors the more you begin to shape an identity that is recovery focused.
This might include having friends who are part of your recovery community, using recovery language, writing blogs or articles about recovery, and general focus of your life on recovery talk and behaviors. While this is not necessarily a problem, the risk you face is that you may lose the other important parts of yourself in the process.
It requires balance. You cannot ignore the recovery work you need to do. But certainly no one gets married with a plan to lose every other part of their identity to a recovery-only identity.
Another issue might be that even the idea of “regaining” your identity seems strange to you. Some people grow up in families that do not value individual identity. Or, perhaps your identity was something you did not choose for yourself. Maybe you were the parentified child who had to take care of her parents. You might have been considered the “problem child” that no one knew what to do with. And maybe you were the doormat of the family that everyone stepped on or took advantage of.
If you never had an identity that you liked, then your work is less about regaining an identity. Your work is more about creating an identity that you can love.
Whether you are finding yourself for the first time or rediscovering your whole self after having lost important parts to your partner’s addiction, this message is for you.
Your identity generally involves two things:
1. Personal uniqueness.
2. Your choice of social connection.
The person you are can be described both by the traits that make you uniquely you and by the groups you affiliate with.
Things that make you uniquely you could include:
· Your sense of humor
· The way you problem solve
· An ability to empathize with others
· A strong sense of right and wrong
· Your honesty
· The way you help others feel emotionally safe
· Your artistic sense
· A love of the outdoors
· Your athletic ability
· A sensitivity to spiritual things
Notice that I only write what I would consider either neutral or positive unique traits. Many people have an identity marred by negative or shame-based characteristics. These may be real or they may be perceived. Consequently, early in the process of reforming your identity, you will get the most benefit out of efforts that focus on highlighting or enhancing positive attributes. There is room to address issues and problems, but I wouldn’t start there. It’s hard to get momentum that way.
No single characteristic can uniquely define you, but the constellation of your interests, personality traits, skills, values, etc. combine to create a person that is truly one-of-a-kind.
Social Connection Choices
Your choice of social connection also helps describe and define your identity. You might connect to groups based on common goals, personal characteristics, education or career interests, or religious beliefs. Every interaction you have with a group will help shape the way you think, the way you feel, and what you value.
When your partner’s addiction becomes an active part of your life, the trauma that can follow may send you into a survival-only mode. In this mode, there often is no time or space for hobbies, laughter, relaxation, or even social relationships. It is only when you can work to step back from survival mode that you have more freedom to rediscover your own identity. Your personal boundaries will certainly help create a space for you work on this rediscovery.
In order to gain or regain your sense of identity, you have to address both uniqueness and social connection. A great way to understand how this works is to look at teenagers. Most teenagers are simultaneously obsessed with seeking social acceptance among peers, and with creating a totally unique personal identity (“No one understands me!”).
One challenge you’ll face is that being totally unique and finding belonging don’t always mix perfectly. The more unique you are, the less you might feel you fit into any social circles. In contrast, the more you fit in, the less unique you might feel. As always, we’re looking for balance. As you consider how you will gain or regain a sense of identity and self-worth in recovery, consider the following questions.
- What parts of my identity are lost or buried? Is there one step I can take today to claim part of me again?
- What statements run through my head that tie my value or worth to my partner’s recovery? How can I combat those statements?
“If I were enough for him, he wouldn’t need pornography or sex with others.”
“The fact that I choose to stay with someone who is hurting me means I am weak and pathetic.”
- Even if I struggle to believe them, what would my most trusted friends say about who I am? Which of those things would I like to claim for myself?
- What would I do, say, or choose today if I were the person I wanted to be? What is stopping me from doing, saying, or choosing those things right now?
- Are the social connections I have today helping or hurting my own healing? Which will I keep? Which do I want to abandon?
- What parts of my identity need to be scaled back or limited to make room for other parts?
This article is written by Dr. Adam Moore, Ph.D., LMFT. He is the Clinical Director at Utah Valley Counseling and provides guest content for recovery communities. This article was originally featured as guest content for The Togetherness Project in June 2015.