A very common question I receive is voiced something like this:

My husband is a pornography addict. Even when he’s not acting out, he is very often resentful toward me and blames me for our problems. How do I protect myself emotionally without crossing over into something unhealthy? How do I keep needed emotional distance without disconnecting entirely from my emotions?

There are many terms people use to describe a healthy emotional distance between yourself and an active addict. We might use the term “serenity” from 12-step or “emotional boundaries” to name this process. Others may use different terminology.

With my own clients, sexually addicted men who are regularly moody, who blame, who are unkind to their spouses, etc. are still very much in ‘addict mode.’ Even when they’re not acting out sexually, the addict part of them harbors resentments and still deeply feels shame—both of which will drive mood swings and unhealthy relational responses.

Blaming others is one of the more common addict responses to their own internalized shame. My sense is that this is a way to push away intense feelings of unworthiness onto others to temporarily relieve the shame feelings. Shame becomes blame. So in cases where the addict is still very much in blame mode, his recovery should be challenged. When recovering addicts are open to feedback, I share these concepts with my clients to help them combat blaming.

1. Surrender

The 12-step program offers a beautiful approach to letting go of resentment. He would call his sponsor and say, “With you as my witness, I surrender the right to blame _________ for _________ ” He may have to call several times a day in the beginning if needed.

2. Provide a counter-argument

Blame is justified by resentment. In an addict’s head, it looks something like this:

My spouse is mean to me and doesn’t meet my needs. Therefore, I am justified in my anger. I have a right to blame and to treat my spouse poorly.

A client once said to me:

I hold court in my head. I am the prosecuting attorney, judge, and jury. I find my spouse guilty of crimes against me and use that verdict to justify treating her however I want.

An addict in recovery would recognize when he’s in blaming mode (whether on his own or by feedback from a spouse or sponsor) and then carefully craft an argument against the resentment and blame. He might say:

I’m angry at how I’m being treated, but I wonder if maybe my resentment isn’t really justified. I don’t like that my spouse is ‘always mad’ at me, but to be fair, I have created a home where there is no trust and I have been dishonest. I’m lucky that my spouse is still with me after all of that. If I can see her anger as a trauma response to being in a relationship with an active addict, I can understand better why she responds to me the way she does. I will choose to see her anger as feedback that my recovery is still incomplete. I will not blame.

In early recovery, this response will seem unlikely. However, I have seen many addicts in recovery reach a point where this is a common thought process when shame, resentment, and blame begin to show up for them. It takes a lot of feedback and practice.

3. Reach out

Almost universally, addicts reach inward for self-soothing when they experience shame and emotional pain. Many addicts I work with struggle to be very aware of their emotional state or needs, so it’s not uncommon for me to see addicts use blame as a way to draw out emotional engagement from others (even if it’s negative emotional engagement).

In recovery, an addict would recognize the blaming as a sign that he needs real human connection—then seek humility and vulnerability, and open up to others. Making real, vulnerable, human connections can have powerful effects on triggers in addiction. It is probably the most healing approach to recovery.

It is so important to distinguish sobriety from recovery. An addict may be sober but still very much responding to the world out of resentment and shame. This is as much a part of the addiction as the sexual acting out behaviors are.

Now, let’s further address how you would respond to the common addict-mode blaming. Addicts will often take a wife’s feedback and turn it around on her. He will transform her feedback into evidence of her “problems” or of her “unwillingness to forgive” or her desire to “persecute.”

Many of the wives I work with, in an effort to be introspective and from a desire to become healthy themselves, will carefully scrutinize the feedback and often wonder to themselves:

Is he right? What if I am all of those things he says? What do I have to work on?

The major issue with this is that the husband’s feedback does not come from a place of humility or a legitimate desire to help his wife heal. It comes from a desire to avoid the experience of his own internalized shame. The way a wife would recognize this is by the way that she internally experiences the husband’s feedback.

This is where I really encourage wives to trust their own instincts. When she is not in an active addiction herself, a wife should feel completely confident in trusting her own “gut feeling” about things her husband says to her. In my experience wives’ instincts are very, very accurate about their addict husbands’ intentions, motivations, and emotional state.

This is where you would then differentiate between a healthy emotional boundary versus what I would call emotional distancing or emotional numbing. When a husband is in addict mode and blame mode, it is completely reasonable and even advisable for a wife to say to herself and to her husband something like this:

I care about you and about our relationship. However, right now my gut is telling me that you are in addict mode. I feel this because of the way you are turning my feedback around on me and trying to blame me for being upset about living with an addict. We have not yet healed and I am still very often afraid about my sense that your recovery is still lacking. I am setting a boundary with you right now. If you choose to turn my feedback around on me and make me out to be the unhealthy one, I cannot emotionally engage with you until I feel emotionally safe with you again. When you are ready to accept feedback from me, which is designed to improve our relationship, I will gladly re-engage. Until then, please do not expect me to be emotionally present because it is too dangerous for my mental health.

The way this is presented helps because it is clear and specific; it outlines that the emotional boundary is there for protection, not punishment; and it provides a way out.

When I talk about emotional distancing or emotional numbing as an unhealthy approach to recovery (on the part of the addict’s spouse), I’m usually referring to a state of mind that involves a lack of emotional self-awareness. I will sometimes see wives get into a state of emotional disconnect with themselves, meaning that they are unaware of their own feelings. They lose touch with their own needs. They are simply in pain-avoidance mode.

Sometimes, this emotional disconnect is done intentionally as a form of psychological control or punishment. The wife intentionally disconnects from her husband as a way to try to punish him or control his behaviors. She thinks, “This will become so miserable for him that he will have to change for me.”

These types of responses are problematic and not representative of real recovery for the wife. Sometimes I see wives taking this approach, but my experience says that in the vast majority of cases, it’s a misguided attempt to elicit empathy.

I often talk and write about this. A wife will think:

If my husband really understood how much he is hurting me, he would not continue his behavior. If he can experience the pain I am experiencing, maybe he will finally understand, and stop hurting me.

Sometimes wives’ attempts to elicit this empathy is through hurting their husbands to help him understand her pain. This, of course, never works.

Most addicts I work with struggle to truly empathize with their wives’ experiences throughout the addiction and recovery process. In fact, I would say that helping a person “learn” empathy is one of the hardest and most elusive elements of recovery work.

So ultimately, as a spouse of an addict, your responsibility is to pay attention to your intentions. You may need the help of a sponsor to evaluate your motivation or intention when it comes to how you emotionally respond to your husband’s addict behaviors.

Seek regular feedback to help you feel confident that your response is healthy. If your intention is to help him understand your experience or to keep yourself safe from the addict side of your spouse, then you are likely on the right track. Again, seek regular feedback about your responses from someone further down the road in recovery.

There will always be a delicate balance between keeping yourself emotionally safe by not investing in the ‘addict mode’ responses and reactions from your husband, and becoming emotionally numb—avoiding your emotion rather than learning to respond to it. I don’t think anyone ever “masters” it. It’s a continuous challenge that requires a lot of feedback from other healthy people who care about you.