This post is an excerpt from the study guide which accompanies the “Overcoming Codependency” seminar. This portion is an excerpt from Step 7 “IDENTIFY GOALS that allow me to combat the impact of my suffering.” To RSVP for this and other Summit counseling seminars visit bradhambrick.com/events.
One of the typical impacts of being in an unhealthy relationship is the habit of being reactive; merely responding to the crisis created by your loved one or trying to predict how to prevent the next outburst. The result is that your loved one begins to exert more influence over your world than you do.
“Yet by believing that she had no choice in the matter, she was not able to realize any of the self-respect or satisfaction we gain when we know we are making good or right choices (p. 107).” Leslie Vernick in How to Act Right When Your Spouse Acts Wrong
This section looks at how you can begin to grow the amount of positive influence in the space and time you share with your loved one. Again, these approaches are not presented as having the force to coerce unwanted change in your loved one’s life. However, they can (a) prevent your loved one’s negative behaviors from having an undue influence on you and (b) create an environment that is more conducive for healthy behaviors.
We will consider this subject in two ways. First, we will describe four options for responding to problematic behaviors. Second, we will think through an approach to fostering desired behaviors.
1. Responding to Problematic Behaviors
When your loved one behaves in a way that exemplifies the destructive patterns that prompted you to start this study (or in ways that demand unwarranted trust for their initial efforts at change), then you have four possible healthy responses. By this point in the study, these responses and the explanation of each should begin to feel fairly intuitive.
A. Allow Natural Consequences:
This is not punishment (which we’ll discuss in a moment). It is simply you removing yourself as the buffer between your loved one and life. Unless doing so would unduly harm an innocent person, this response should be your new normal.
“People learn from the direct consequences of their actions. When it comes to negative consequences, you only have to step out of the way (p. 134)… We call this strategy ‘quiet confrontation’ because allowing natural consequences helps relocate the stress, frustration, and fight within your loved one, rather than between the two of you (p. 196).” Foote, Wilkens, Koskane and Higgs in Beyond Addiction
Some problematic behaviors are not worth addressing; addressing them would only give them more negative influence. Ignoring is particularly effective when there is reason to believe your loved one’s problematic behavior was engaged with the motive of punishing you. The most effective (and enjoyable) means of ignoring problematic behaviors is by engaging one of your personal interests.
“We can’t sell ignoring without a product label warning. Sometimes ignoring the behavior you don’t want results, initially, in an escalation of the behavior, a phenomenon called ‘behavioral burst.’ Bursts are often seen right before the behavior extinguishes, or stops altogether, and they are hard for everyone involved (p. 201).’ Foote, Wilkens, Koskane and Higgs in Beyond Addiction
“We don’t have to yell to show power. The more certain we are about our limits and our rights to have them, the softer we’ll speak (p. 38)” Melody Beattie in The New Codependency
C. Punish: Punishment should be the most seldom used strategy. Punishment tempts you towards controlling motives and allows your actions to become a distraction from the natural consequences of your loved one’s choices. The lack of punishment does not mean you allow your loved one to “get away with it.” Rather, it means you refuse to become enmeshed in a parental style relationship with someone for whom you do not (or no longer) play a disciplinary role.
D. Withhold Reward: Next we will look at the use of reward as a way of fostering an environment conducive to desired behaviors. This response is stronger than allowing natural consequences (because its volitional on our part) without crossing into punishment (adding to natural consequences). We want to be kind enough (previous section) that the removal of our kindness in response to abusive-addictive behaviors is felt by our loved one. This is part of the power of kindness.
Read I Thessalonians 5:14-15. First, notice that there are a variety of responses advocated for in response to problematic behaviors in this passage. We see that there is no one “biblical” response to problematic behaviors. The premise of this study is that the behaviors we are addressing fit in the “unruly, disorderly, disruptive” (depending on your translation) category. This study also presumes that initial appeals to admonish (verbally ask for change) were not received. The approaches above are meant to be next tier responses for how to continue to have influence with someone who persists in problematic behaviors without having their choices dominate your life.
2. Fostering Desired Behaviors
Part of being “salt and light” (Matthew 5:13-16) is endeavoring to create a context in which a godly life is as easy and desirable as possible to pursue. In the same way that we do not personally grow without intentionality, we will not create environments that foster the growth of others accidentally.
Below we outline a five step process for cultivating an environment which promotes a more godly, or at least healthier, life for your loved one.
1. Create a concrete list of concrete behaviors between how your loved one currently acts and what would be God honoring (not exactly the same as “what you want”).
All growth involves knowing what we want to become; not just what we want to stop. Too often with destructive relationships what needs to stop is clearer than what needs to start. Behaviorally define the journey from terrible to bad to less bad to acceptable to good.
“A doable goal is put in positive terms – what will be done rather than what won’t. Here ‘positive’ doesn’t refer to your feelings or demeanor. It doesn’t mean ‘cheerful.’ For the purposes of goal setting we define a positive goal or communication by what you do want rather than what you don’t want (p. 146).” Foote, Wilkens, Koskane and Higgs in Beyond Addiction
In times when your loved one seems open to constructive conversation ask for the behavior that is “next” for them on their journey to honoring God in your relationship. If they are receptive, thank them for hearing you without defensiveness. If they are not, then use a responding to problematic behaviors strategy (see above).
“Simply asking permission to offer your thoughts can communicate respect for your loved one’s feelings before you say another word, and set a better stage for what follows (p. 167).” Foote, Wilkens, Koskane and Higgs in Beyond Addiction
2. Be content with progress (not just perfection).
You have worked hard to get to this point in your journey. It is understandable for you to expect your loved one to work equally as hard. But your effort is not their standard. When you are not content with progress, then you reinforce the idea that your loved one will never get it right enough to please you and reinforce your own destructive script that the relationship is hopeless.
3. Refuse to be a distraction for non-progress (see – responding to problematic behaviors). One of the values of this study is that you should feel like there is plenty for you to work on while you prayerfully wait for your loved one to engage God on their journey. By engaging your own journey you are both serving as an example and refusing to be distraction for your loved one’s non-progress.
4. Reward incremental progress (with joy). It is easy for those who struggle with addiction or relate destructively to begin to believe that everyone is against them. Once we are free from feeling like we have to appease them to have stability in our world, we can consider how to counter this destructive narrative in their world.
Remember, we are not taking responsibility for their destructive actions or their change. But our response to their progress can foster a sense that additional effort at change would be “worth it.”
“The most common mistake people make in reinforcement is choosing rewards they would like rather than what’s most rewarding for the person they want to reward… The power of rewards to effect lasting change come from their integration into the fabric of your lives together, so they should be affordable and sustainable (p. 178).” Foote, Wilkens, Koskane and Higgs in Beyond Addiction
What are the rewards that your loved one would appreciate that would not involve enablement, denial, or undue relational risk on your part?
5. Creating a satisfying homeostasis that does not involve addiction / abuse (creating a new, healthy normal).
Over time and with your loved one’s cooperation, your actions can create a new homeostasis for your relationship. “Homeostasis” is a term from biology that refers to an environment in which an organism thrives.
If your loved one is not a believer, the trust-equity that is built during this process will create an opportunity for you to share more overtly about the motive behind your love (i.e., a response to Christ’s love for you that enabled you to endure the difficult season in the relationship and that you long for them to know).
When your negative response to their destructive choices can no longer be used as an excuse for their destructive-addictive choices, they will be left more bare before the eyes of God. You can be praying God would use this experience to open their eyes to their need for Christ.
Read I Peter 2:13-3:6. Often this is a scary passage for people in destructive relationships. It is interpreted to mean that the only biblical response to abuse is to endure it. Hopefully, at this point in your journey, you can both understand (a) that God does not call you to be a doormat for addiction and abuse and (b) that God’s call to undermine destructive patterns through quiet means is wise; more aggressive methods tend to only further destabilize the situation. The goal of this study has been that God would both restore your life from the effects of abuse or addiction and redeem your loved one from the snare of their sin. Whether the latter has happened, you can rest knowing that you walked a journey that honored God, relied on His Word, and afforded your loved one every opportunity to change.
If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Codependency” post which address other facets of this subject.