“Lord, please don’t let me lose my love for my husband,” I would pray. After years of living with a man with active alcoholism, I felt anything but loving. In fact, I was often in despair, full of fear, grief, and resentment, and on my knees with this prayer on my lips. I was trying my hardest, fighting every day but I just could not figure out how to love my husband. How do you love someone whom you feel is destroying himself, you, and your marriage and family?
How do you love someone whom you feel is destroying your very life?
For years I thought the solution was to get my husband sober. I was so dependent on my husband’s sobriety for my sense of value—for my very life—that I often treated my husband as if he were my god and that he held the power to destroy or save me. I was hypersensitive to everything he did, always walking on eggshells around him. If someone asked how I was doing, I would respond by telling them about my husband. I could not be okay if he wasn’t okay.
I also tried to play God myself, becoming obsessed with control, constantly agonizing over the smallest interactions and decisions. Should I kiss my husband good night? Should I keep dinner warm? Should I leave the kids with him? Should I speak or stay silent? And, especially, should I confront him about his drinking? I believed everything depended on me and what I did, and the pressure of so much responsibility almost killed me. I lived most of my life on the edge of a cliff—one wrong move and all would be lost.
I believed that a good wife should always please her husband and try to make him happy. Often this looked like enduring bad or even sinful behavior. Then, in reaction to this behavior, I would lash out in confrontational anger or coldly give the silent treatment, reflecting my disgust for him. I lived with these huge swings of emotion, and I was so exhausted and confused that there was no way for me to figure out what the real problem was.
When I hit rock bottom and came into Al-Anon, I began to understand what was happening to me. I learned I was completely powerless over my husband’s addiction and my fear and controlling behavior were symptoms of my own disease—the family disease of alcoholism. What I thought was loving behavior actually had a lot of selfishness behind it.
I learned to practice detachment to stop playing God for my husband. Before I thought setting boundaries were unkind and selfish but I began to understand that they were actually very loving and necessary when used properly. I slowly learned to balance being compassionate and caring with being detached and setting boundaries. This took great patience and courage as I navigated the complicated situation of being married to an alcoholic. After a time of doing this, I made the hard decision to separate from him.
This boundary gave me the space I needed away from the daily exposure to his drinking. I continued to recover—one day at a time. I got a sponsor and worked the Twelve Steps and it was in seeking to practice Step 11—“Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out”—that I came back into my Catholic faith and began to understand what true love meant.
The more I wedded my Catholic faith with my recovery, the more I was able to practice the principles of the program and use the tools of Al-Anon in a loving way. As Catholics, we have so many rich ways to maintain conscious contact with God, to be filled with his love, and to learn to love as He loves.
As I began to turn to Jesus through the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, I started to practice several forms of prayer, such as mediation, the Liturgy of the Hours, and the rosary. I found that it was essential to have morning prayer time before all else, and I began each day by getting filled up with love and then asking, “How can I love you today, God?” As His peace and love began to fill my heart, I found that it would overflow to others.
When I joined Catholic in Recovery I found communal support and deepened my love for God and others. I had a life-changing shift in perception when one woman shared in a CIR meeting, “To love is to will and act for the good of the beloved.” I could see that this was how God loved me and I began to try and love my husband in this way. And I could only learn to love others by looking to Jesus as the ultimate model: His love, His gentleness, His mercy, His grace, His freedom, and His faithfulness.
It was in Scripture where Jesus gave me the complete answer to the question of love:
“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39).
As I studied these words, I realized I don’t have the power to love anyone by myself. Trying to love others, especially my husband, through my own self-will was a lesson in futility. I knew this from bitter experience. I needed to stay close to God to love. Always.
That was the key—in order to love my husband I had to love God. It seemed counterintuitive at first to love my husband by turning my attention away from him and placing my gaze squarely on God. It felt as if I was uncaring and uninterested. But I found that the more I did it, the more peace I had. I also experienced less fear and resentment, and I became less emotionally reactive to my husband and his drinking. Now, when I feel my old codependent and selfish way of loving rising up in me, I know the most loving thing I can do in the moment is turn to God and give my husband and myself and my marriage over to Him who loves us all.
I am still married to my husband—and he has not yet said “yes” to recovery. Of course, I pray daily that someday he will, and I know this is one important way I can love him through his addiction. We live separately but we see each other often and, although it’s still painful and I still battle the effects of this family disease of alcoholism, I have learned to be more compassionate, patient, and forgiving with my husband and myself.
I can finally love my alcoholic husband, whether he is drinking or not. What a relief to know that whatever I choose to do in any given moment God will guide me in willing and acting for the good of the beloved. And the beloved for me is my alcoholic husband.
No matter what is going on in your life and the life of your loved one struggling with addiction, as Søren Kierkegaard reminds us in The Prayers of Kierkegaard, there is always reason to hope in our God who first loved us and who will never leave us or our loved ones.
“You have loved us first many times and everyday and our whole life through. When we wake up in the morning and turn our soul toward You – You were there first – You have loved us first; if I rise at dawn and at the same second turn my soul toward You in prayer, You are there ahead of me, You have loved me first.”
With the help of Al-Anon and Catholic in Recovery, Elizabeth is recovering from the family disease of alcoholism and learning to live a full and peaceful life. She finds strength and joy in sharing her journey with others who are also affected by this devastating disease, and in sharing the message of hope found in her Catholic faith.