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What We Can and Can’t Control: It’s Good to Know the Difference

Photo credit: Engin Akyurt

Erica2727 has a husband who’s working hard on his recovery, but his place of work concerns her. She would like him to consider various options, but isn’t sure about how to talk over such matters with him. Allies’ writer Laurie MacDougall offers a guide to a vital distinction: on the one hand, what we can and should seek to control; and on the other, what we cannot, and don’t need to burden ourselves with attempting.

I have heard having a healthy environment is important to maintaining recovery from drugs. My loved one works construction jobs, and it seems from my perspective that most construction jobs come with co-workers who could tempt him back into that lifestyle. Are there ways I could help him find a better work environment? How can we deal with this? I’ve talked with him about getting a recovery coach, going to NA, finding someone he can talk with to help him stay off drugs. He said that NA comes with temptations of its own, with people slipping up all the time, and that he’s doing well now. He mentioned a friend he thought would be good to talk to, and I told him I would like to meet that friend. Do you have any advice?

Hi erica2727,

Wow it sounds like your Loved One (LO) is working diligently on his recovery. Sounds like he is focused and trying to create supports around himself to help him through his process.

What a struggle it can be for us family members when our LO goes from the chaos and crisis created (a little alliteration there, lol) by use to a focus on ending their use. There may be happiness and relief, but our minds can start to spiral down the rabbit hole and create anxiety that things might tip back to the chaos. It can feel like you’re hanging by a silk string that could break at any moment. Our response to those feelings and thoughts can often drive our behavior.

Spare both of you an impossible burden

I identify with thoughts of, “How can I be supportive? What steps can I take to make sure that my LO will maintain their recovery?” I remember thinking that I would create an environment that would eliminate the temptations to use. I would try to relieve him of all stress factors, and basically set him up to focus solely on not using. Unfortunately, I was putting a lot of pressure on myself and my LO, creating expectations that neither of us could live up to. Really, a recipe for disaster.

Here are a few suggestions on how to cope and manage your thoughts and feelings all the while, supporting and engaging effectively and realistically with your LO in their recovery process:

  1. Remember: their recovery process is theirs to manage, and your thoughts and feelings are yours to manage. It’s okay to express your concerns and anxieties about circumstances that might present your LO with challenges for maintaining their recovery, but it’s up to them to determine how to create their own best environment. When trying to determine what action steps you could take, you might ask yourself this question: What do I have control over, and what do I not have control over?

In My Control

  • My response to him
  • How I talk to him
  • How I manage my thoughts and feelings
  • Whether I listen and hear him out
  • Whether I yell and demand things
  • Whether I share with him my anxieties
  • Learning CRAFT communication skills so I can respond in compassionate, caring way and still be mindful of my own needs
  • My response to a recurrence of use
  • Etc.

Not In My Control

  • His environment
  • His job
  • His choice of friends
  • His recovery process
  • My thoughts and feelings
  • His response to me
  • His choices
  • His response to his stressors
  • Whether or not he has a recurrence of use
  • Etc.

Then turn your focus to the items you have control over and start your work from there.

  1. Start with managing any difficult, ruminating thoughts and feelings. We often have a sense that our reactions to situations must be immediate, but that’s not always the case. And when we act out of anxiety, fear, worry, etc., our reactions are usually not well thought out. Reacting to a situation can also give us a feeling of control, but when we step back, we realize that the opposite is true. Our reaction is a symptom of not having control.

    Head over to Module 7 and begin learning how to manage and calm down difficult and ruminating thoughts and feelings. This is not an easy task, but it is one of the most critical for implementing CRAFT skills and strategies.

  2. Next, check out Module 4, the communication module, and start working on your communication skills. This module will help you start focusing more on the positive and less on the negative. It will help you have difficult conversations better (on your part, not your LO’s), teach you to listen with curiosity and for understanding, and help you build on your relationship.

    You cannot control where your husband works or the environment that might present him with difficult choices. You also cannot control whether he has a recurrence or not. But expressing your anxieties in an open and understanding way may help alleviate some of the stress of holding it in. It might sound something like this:

    I know I can’t control a lot of the circumstances you’re going to face, or what you’re going to do in those situations. I do want to share with you that I have anxious thoughts and am struggling with my own feelings around that. I’m working on managing my own stuff, but I’m also requesting that you be open to me sharing how I’m feeling. Maybe sometimes we could talk things through a bit to help relieve my stress?

    Remember too that no human being is perfect. Recovery is never a straight-line process. Your LO needs to know that having bumps in the road does not equal failure. You need to know that those bumps are to be expected and are just opportunities to learn and grow.

  3. Give him the space to manage his own recovery. Maybe he is not open to meetings right now. That’s all right. Find the positive in his process. He’s making a connection with someone who he might feel comfortable with. If this person is in recovery, they’ll likely be able to identify with what your husband is going through. Your husband can share things with them, and this person will understand and be able to help in ways others cannot.

    Could you take a step back and let his relationship with this person develop and build without you in the middle? I know it’s tempting to want to know everything and everyone involved in our LO’s recovery journey, but that has more to do with our own anxieties and wanting to soothe ourselves. He’s the one who has to determine whether this person is a good support or someone who won’t be helpful. And it’s for him to decide whether or not he’s ready to invite you to be a part of this relationship.

  4. Focus on the positive actions and things your LO is engaged with right now. Reward, reward, reward! He has identified someone in recovery and is making that connection. Reinforce that positive choice: “It’s great to see you forming a friendship with someone who can identify with you and vice-versa. I’m happy you have that to lean on.” If he’s doing well at work, say something like, “I know recovery is hard, but I love how diligent and consistent you are at work.”

    Are there other positive activities he engages in that you could reinforce? Does he go to the gym, to church? Does he volunteer anywhere? If you have children, does he spend time with them and engages in their care? Are there any activities that you two used to enjoy together that you could reintroduce into your marriage? You could reward his efforts not to drink with a date night, or prepare a favorite dinner. Stay more focused on the positive, the things he is doing, rather than those he is not. Focus in on what you are able to control and take full advantage of that. Letting go of the effort to control what you actually cannot can really be freeing. Scary, but freeing.

Thank you so much for your questions, Erica2727. I know that many in the Allies community can identify with your worries and fears. I’ve responded here with a lot of information, but take it one step at a time. Baby steps. Move forward slowly. I hope that these suggestions help, and please keep us updated on your progress.

Laurie MacDougall


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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"...)