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Escaping the Vicious Cycle

woman looking out the window

Member Carrrie1 and her daughter are worn down. Their Loved One can be abusive, and their energy for dealing with him is running low. Laurie MacDougall takes a hard look at their situation, and offers some tough but time-tested advice on boundaries, managing intense feelings, self care, and the CRAFT way of putting all of these into practice.

Note: this post builds on Carrrie1’s discussion of her Loved One’s struggle with drinking and depression, and Allies CEO Dominique Simon-Levine’s response, which appeared here in December 2021.

woman looking out the window

Thank you for responding to my question with helpful advice. I will not go to counseling with my husband, as he will forever be a victim and blame me. It’s a vicious cycle I won’t expose myself to anymore. I have tried that route several times with him and he is emotionally abusive. I am not safe to go to counseling with him. I have learned to set boundaries and am much stronger now. I try to be supportive of him, but I am tired of it. My daughter, who is 16, is tired of it also. We arrived at our up-north cottage only to turn around because he had been using. It was a four hour drive. It gets old.

Hi Carrrie1. I can hear the angst and frustration, all the feelings of vulnerability when dealing with your husband’s illness. This one short post is packed with emotion and topics so critical to dealing with Substance Use Disorder (SUD):

1) Anger and the myriad deep feelings that drive our actions,

2) boundaries, and

3) a topic not often discussed, victimhood

What is difficult to see when we are in the chaos is how connected and intertwined these topics are, and how to make sense of it all. You and your daughter are both exhausted by the vicious cycle and the lack of change: that’s a feeling very familiar to me and, I’m sure, everyone on the Allies website. Although each situation differs, we are a community that shares similar feelings, reactions, and circumstances. You are sooo not alone.

When emotions grab the wheel

One gift that I have learned on my journey with my Loved One (LO), is that my emotions play a huge part in driving my behavior. This is true of both the welcomed feelings like love, empathy, and compassion; and the feelings I dread experiencing, like anger, hate and frustration. In my early days of dealing with SUD (and I guess life in general), avoiding, pushing down and escaping the difficult feelings was the way I dealt with them. Unfortunately (and also fortunately) once SUD reared its ugly head, these skills of avoidance did not work well. Pushing these feelings down just made me angrier. I began to react to situations by lashing out—with accusations, tears, pleading, blaming. Sometimes I was passive aggressive; at other times I took a more authoritative stance. My reactions tended to push my LO away from me, and very rarely did I see positive change.

On the other hand, there are emotions we invite in and wish wouldn’t go away. I don’t know about you, but I found that “good” feelings can also wreak havoc when one is dealing with SUD. There were times when I would become so overcome with anger that I would just give up and walk away for awhile. Over time, feelings of compassion and caring would take over. When that happened, I softened and was susceptible to thinking that maybe the event itself was enough for my LO to start to change. I was not good at maintaining healthy boundaries. I’m sure you can imagine how ineffective that was!

The problem was that my emotions were driving my behavior, and the result was a pattern that both my LO and I were trapped in. So while my hard, drastic, desperate responses were unproductive, the same was true of my relaxed, hope-for-the-best responses, even though they felt loving and understanding. I was getting nowhere, except deeper and deeper into a hole.

You can’t wish your feelings away…

I think because of this, I worked really hard at not feeling too good or too bad. I didn’t want to feel tricked by my feelings of love and care only to come crashing down with feelings of despair when things spiraled out of control again. That all changed, however, when a wise woman, Pam Rickard, an ultimate marathoner and person in long-term recovery told me, “You have to feel your feelings. Every one of them. The good and the bad. You’re human and there is purpose in your feelings.”

I would encourage you to go to Module 7 and watch the videos there. This module is all about managing difficult emotions. And difficult emotions include both positive and negative feelings. It just seems as though it’s the negative feelings we must wrangle with first.

Module 7 points out that pushing feelings away just lets them build up, until eventually they emerge in negative ways. The suggestion here is to let those feelings (and thoughts) flood in. Just like Pam said, “feel your feelings.” What’s important, is not to react to the feelings. Maybe just acknowledge them.

…and you can’t neglect to care for yourself

This is a moment when taking care of yourself is so important. Any time negative, harsh emotions engulf you, look for a way to give yourself some space from what is happening. Not reacting and taking the time for you in these moments is critical, yet probably among the most difficult things to do. Just recognizing the moment itself is hard!

Here is where Dominique’s thoughts about creating a safe bubble for yourself can be so helpful. When I started becoming mindful of my own thoughts and feelings during moments of chaos, I realized that I had to first get myself physically away from the situation, and then slowly get myself mentally away. I would go for a ride in the car or take a walk. I would often engage in a pity party for awhile (I think everyone should be able to have a pity party) but then calm myself down.

I must warn you, the space you need from a situation may be a couple of minutes, but it could also be days or even weeks. That is okay. Take the time you need to do some healing and be better prepared to respond to the situation instead of react. The whirlwind in my head often does not settle down quickly. But I have found that giving myself enough time and space usually brings me to a much better position. It at least gives me the time to consider the CRAFT skills and strategies to support a healthy response.

Healthy boundaries can break the cycle

Which brings me to the second topic, boundaries. Module 7 encourages us to find ways of dealing with negative feelings by making space to calm down and think. This often leads us back to more positive thoughts and feelings, helping us to manage our own stress. This is when compassion, caring and feelings of empathy often come into play, and when we tend to become very loose with our boundaries (if we set them at all).

Positive feelings can loop back into negative feelings like guilt, shame, and self-blame. These in turn can lead to avoidance again, reducing the likelihood that limits are going to be set. Examples of this might be:

“If I was a good mother and really loved her, I would just give her what she wants.”


“If I just stopped yelling at him, he wouldn’t drink, and things would get better.”

Learning how to set and maintain healthy boundaries is a valuable skill that can help a person stop the cycle brought on by both negative and positive emotions. The thing is, boundaries are very complicated. They sound easy enough, but it is difficult to determine which to use, how to implement them, and (most difficult of all) how to maintain them.

Boundary basics

I work with a lot of families, and we explore boundaries extensively. I would like to draw attention to a few points that can take a long time to fully understand:

• Boundaries are a form of self-care.

• Boundaries are love and understanding for the Loved One. They empower both the boundary-setter and the person the boundary is being set for. Not setting a boundary sends the message that your Loved One is incapable of doing something. Setting and maintaining a boundary sends the message that, regardless of how little they may want to comply, you believe they are capable of respecting the boundary.

• Boundaries do NOT determine the other person’s behavior. We set boundaries regardless of, and without expectation of, how the other person is going to behave. Just because you set a boundary does not mean the other person is going to respond the way you want them too.

• Boundaries do determine the boundary setter’s behavior.

• Boundaries are NOT, and I repeat NOT, punishment. If they are being used as punishment, then they are a tool of manipulation, perhaps because the boundary-setter wants their LO to behave in a particular way or wants to be allowed to lash out with their feelings. I have often asked myself why I am doing something. Is it to punish? Am I letting my emotions get the best of me?

• Boundaries are for you to set and maintain, regardless of the other person’s behavior.

Start out by setting small, baby-step boundaries. They are easy to manage and measure the progress of. Saying something like, “I really need you to start helping me out around the house,” is general and vague. Will it really help if I ask my LO to do the laundry, mow the lawn, wash the dishes, clean the bedroom, and do the vacuuming, but my LO thinks taking out the trash is enough? Too many requests will be hard for both me and my LO to manage. How can I measure progress if only one or two of the tasks are completed?

Now consider this narrow request: “I was hoping you might be in charge of getting the garbage (and all that entails) down to the curb by Thursday night before pickup on Friday.” Much easier to manage, and easy to recognize progress (notice the communication skills right out of Module 4!).

Keep it simple, keep it short

Another thing to consider in your search for progress would be short, low-key events with the family, at least for now. Situations that are easier to step away from if he is using might make it easier to manage your boundaries. Instead of a four-hour drive for a couple of days, you might try an afternoon out for a bite to eat at lunch. Follow the guidance in Module 6 (My Loved One is Using, Now What?). If your husband is using, find a way to remove yourself (and your daughter) or to go out without him. It might sound something like:

“I can see that now is not the time to go to lunch. I am going to take a drive and will be back this afternoon. Maybe we can try again next week.”

Short little jaunts will make it easier to back out. This should be less punishing for you, your daughter, and your husband when things don’t go as planned. Removing yourself is still difficult to do but easier to manage. Be prepared at the start for things not to happen the way you would wish. But if you keep at it, you will create an environment where your husband can start showing what he is capable of.

If you try for lunch again the second week and he is not using, then words like, “I really enjoy our time together, let’s plan to this again next week! I love you!” will reinforce a behavior you would like him to repeat. Even if it’s only an hour or two, that’s an hour or two with him not using (as discussed in Module 5).

What’s yours is yours, what’s his is his

I highlighted the last bullet point about boundaries because it brings us to the last topic, victimhood. Determining what was my responsibility and what was my LO’s helped me tremendously. I became more empowered and less the victim of the illness-driven behavior of both my LO and myself.

I often hear from family members that because their LO is not respecting a boundary they’ve set, that boundary is not working. It’s important to remember that the boundary is not for your LO to maintain. It does not determine their behavior. We set down boundaries to keep ourselves safe (physically, emotionally and mentally). They’re our boundaries, so we must maintain them. If our LO is overstepping the boundary, then it is up to us to maintain the boundary through our behavior.

Especially if this is your first time setting a particular boundary, your LO is likely to test it. It is imperative to: 1) maintain that boundary and 2) do it in a compassionate and understanding way. Of course it’s difficult to be caring when our LO is hurling insults and blaming us, but if we react to our negative feelings then we become victims of the illness. I often make a game of it and use my inner voice to tell myself, “You will not fall into the pattern again. The illness wants you to react in a way so it can blame you! Do not let it get the best of you.”

Verbal abuse is a challenge, but there are approaches worth trying

You wrote in your comment that your husband has been verbally abusive towards you in the past, and that this discourages you from seeking out counseling together. I have questions about this and would like to know more. Was it in counseling sessions that he was abusive? Is that what is scaring you away? Would you consider a different therapist who would create asafe space for both of you, where verbal abuse would not be tolerated? Or is it that your husband is verbally abusive after the session?

Verbal abuse is also a perfect chance to practice everything discussed above. As soon as you sense the conversation heading toward an attack or you experience any negative feelings at all, could you take the time first to recognize that this is happening and then find a way to get space away from the conversation? It could sound something like, “I feel myself getting resentful and angry, and I need some space. We can talk later, but I am not in a good space right now.” Or maybe just find a way to slip away, get in the car and bring your daughter out for a ride. Make “Go to the bubble!” your mantra. If your husband has been using, having a discussion in that moment would not be productive anyway. Remove yourself, as CRAFT suggests, and address needs later.

At a better time, pull out those CRAFT communication skills and request that he not use particular language or call you names (this is setting the boundary). And every time it starts again, remove yourself. In that way you’ll get space from the chaos and maintain the boundary at the same time. Of course, this is all done with calmness, patience, and perseverance. It is not a punishment but you taking care of yourself, and absolutely one of the most important things you can do. You need to be in a healthier space to take care of yourself and your daughter, regardless of your husband’s actions.

The work isn’t easy, but it’s worth it for all of you

What I have outlined above might seem daunting. I will forewarn you that it was incredibly difficult for me to put these ideas into practice, but ultimately very rewarding. Setting healthy boundaries, not reacting to your feelings around your behaviors, trying things in smaller and more focused doses, and never using boundaries as a punishment—all these can help to support and empower you. They will make you less a victim of your husband’s illness-driven behavior. You have some very compelling reasons to learn and start using CRAFT: your own health and healing, setting an example for your husband, and most importantly, being a role model for your daughter.

Let me underscore that last point: your efforts are critical to her. Becoming educated on all things SUD, learning CRAFT, and aiding your daughter to understand that her father is not doing this to hurt her can all help her to cope in a healthy way. The healthier you are, the better your ability to support her. His behavior is illness-driven and quite possibly the result of trauma, mental illness, or a difficult childhood—really a perfect storm of factors coming together.

Have you thought of attending one of our group meetings? They can be very supportive and helpful with CRAFT skills, and also get you connected to other families that understand what you are going through.

My heart goes out to you, Carrie1, as do those of so many Allies members, I’m certain. Again, you are not alone! Keep coming back. We care and want to support you in any way we can.


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In your comments, please show respect for each other and do not give advice. Please consider that your choice of words has the power to reduce stigma and change opinions (ie, "person struggling with substance use" vs. "addict", "use" vs. "abuse"...)