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Recovery is messy. Having a conversation with someone you love about relational experiences that you have hurt are difficult. This challenge includes every relationship but is particularly difficult when the harm and hurt involve betrayal and broken trust. Much has been written regarding broken trust. In the world of addiction recovery, families and partners decry that it is the lie and deceit that unravels safety even more than the destructive behavior itself. It is so difficult to converse about relational recovery issues without getting stuck with defensiveness. Defending your position will block the possibility toward healing at a deeper level. No one matures in recovery to a place that they are able to eliminate defensiveness.

Here are a few things to consider that can help you manage your own defensive tendencies.

1. Take time to acknowledge your own tendency toward defensiveness: In context, cultural history underscores that there is great fear of rejection and being disconnected from community. Historically, to be disconnected or disfellowshipped meant death. People struggled to survive without connection with
community. In today’s society, where people tend to minimize, it is common to deflect and rationalize hurtful behavior to avoid the anticipation of rejection from others. It is important to embrace your own tendency to avoid fear of rejection through defensiveness. Tell on yourself to your partner and your family. Commit to share with your partner and family the destructive behavior engaged and take responsibility for it in a way that is restorative to the relationships. Simply tell on yourself.

2. Create an atmosphere that adopts collective responsibility: Everyone is responsible for their own actions, for sure. When sitting down to discuss relational problems, it is important that each party identify their behavioral change that can promote a different outcome. This is difficult. When betrayal occurs because of addictive behavior, the injured party is hurt and it is difficult to focus on what they might do to improve the relationship. This is not the same as the injured party looking at what they did to cause harm. Relationship healing requires that each take responsibility for their own contribution to relational distance. In making this point, I do not overlook the necessity to triage and prioritize the treatment and validation of hurt. Simply, it would be inappropriate for an injured party of betrayal from addict behavior to feel pressure to make amends for contributions to relational distance before the addict perpetrator even owned and made amends for their hurtful actions. Guidance for this healing is often necessary from a professional coach/therapist/or religious guide. From this position, both addict and partner can create an improved environment that fosters a healing outcome. Healing requires collective responsibility.

3. Take time to listen to your partner’s experience of harm. It must go both ways. When you or your partner has been harmed, it is important to listen and validate. Slow down your thoughts and behavior and listen to each other’s storied experience of harm done by the other. Spend as much time as needed to validate his or her story of harm. Acknowledgement comes from listening. The amount of listening time required is determined by the one who has been hurt. When both feel hurt, it is effective to recognize adequate time for both parties to share their experience of pain and exasperation.

This time allotment will breed validation. Once you have heard the pain of one party and they feel validated then you can share your experience. It will take maturation and discipline to achieve this task. It often takes time. When done successfully, it becomes a slow way to a shortcut. But, when you hear the depth of loss and pain felt by your partner because of your offense it will be healing and will create a sacred safe space for rebuilding trust.

4. Practice amends making. In recovery, amends can be difficult. Sometimes amends are symbolic. Other times they are actual. You don’t have to know which needs to be employed. This is when you trust the collective process between you and your partner and your community of support. A commitment to amends will lead to a healing action that will emerge as a result of collective dialogue.

5. Evidential change: Shifting away from defensiveness leads toward essential change. For healing to stick, there must be the evidence of commitment to doing things different. This does not require perfection. But it will employ circling back to make amends of behavior when you backslide into old destructive behaviors. The commitment to change is a focus on eliminating the destructive response so
that when the hurtful behavior appears, the behavior itself becomes more important than the point you are trying to make. Work to eliminate the destructive response. The “amends circle back” is a process of change that gives evidence to a paradigm change of behavior. In this way, you build an “I care about you” environment.

6. Recognize that the current reaction often has historical roots. Subconsciously, your over-reaction that initiates defensiveness may have roots with past experiences of feeling dominated at other times in your life. Particularly, you need to pay attention to those childhood experiences that fuel mistaken beliefs
in the here and now. This is a subtle awareness that requires introspection. During the magical years of childhood, you will make emotional conclusions about relationships that are harbored throughout your life. Even though you grow and develop physically, intellectually, and socially, you can remain stuck in emotional immaturity and mistaken beliefs that were cemented during the vulnerable years of childhood emotional development. So, if you felt that you did not matter as a child, it is likely that you will be vulnerable to respond like a child when your partner treats you in ways that trigger that childhood experience. Being aware of this is beginning to abandon childhood conclusions and embrace adult empowerment when you feel defensive.

Overcoming defensiveness requires that you treat your partner with dignity and respect when you have harmed them. When you hold space for your partner’s pain, you establish an environment to deconstruct shame and blame. When you feel defensiveness coming up in your conversation, privately identify it as like heat coming through your body. Sit with it and speak to yourself with care and compassion until it passes. Don’t say or do anything until the heat of defensiveness subsides. Recognize the difference between intention and impact. Work to change what you are doing so that your intention matches your impact of action. Then respond in a different way.