Words are potent. They can be the vehicle we use to deliver love, affirmation, appreciation, and hope. Conversely, words have the power to hurt, condescend, hate, and offend. In the Bible, the book of Proverbs says, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Sigmund Freud said, “Words have a magical power. They can either bring the greatest happiness or the deepest despair.”
Even with this being true, it is not uncommon for me to hear a client tell me what they have learned in their 12-step recovery group – “words don’t mean anything – The only thing that matters is what you do.” This makes sense when you are trying to repair a relationship with your partner. When a betrayal has occurred, it is no simple process for a partner to feel she can trust again when it feels as though all that she thought was true has been discovered to be a lie. When she hears you say, “I’m never going to do it again,” or “I’ve told you how sorry I am – I’m doing all the things you’ve asked me to do,” she isn’t going to instantly feel safe and let go of all her pain. Only the test of time, with your healthy behavior being demonstrated, is going to allow her to actually begin to trust you again. Author and pundit DaShanne Stokes might agree with the admonition from the 12-Step group in his quote, “If your actions don’t live up to your words, you have nothing to say.”
I have observed a phenomenon in some of my clients as they progress down their recovery road and relationship repair is actually in process. In the earlier phases of recovery, holding on to this concept that “only your behavior matters” has helped to tolerate the discomfort felt as they have seen and heard their partner’s continued unhappiness, pain, or anger. Now – as the couple moves toward rebuilding trust, the partner needs to be able to communicate how much she has been hurt. The partner often feels that their addicted partner needs to “get it,” to really feel the pain she has experienced. She may express the fears and feelings of inadequacy that have arisen as she has experienced the betrayal. At this point, the person with the addiction pulls out the maxim they’ve heard in their 12-Step meetings – “words don’t mean anything.” He stays silent. The silence falls hard onto the partner’s ears. She might think he doesn’t care or that her hurts really don’t matter to him.
The addicted partner is often showing great improvement from how he used to respond. He may be much better in refraining from defensiveness. He is not trying to make excuses, deflect, or gaslight, turning it around on her. This much growth is exciting to be sure. But in order to find connection, safety, and trust, the partner longs to hear some reassurance and affirmation that she is still wanted and desired. She needs to hear words that convey he is hearing her pain, that the “getting it,” is actually happening, and that he does love her and want her.
It is true that words alone don’t accomplish the task. If the words are spoken but not backed up by a history of the behaviors of recovery work – meetings, work with a sponsor, therapist, and participating in group therapy, then the words become meaningless. The fruit of the hard work of recovery is the changed behaviors. Your spouse will not be able to hear your words if she has not experienced your changed attitudes, your willingness to do the work, feeling your kindnesses and sincere attention. But there is a time and place when words are actually needed. Words convey the feelings in our heart. Words have the power to let our love, care, sorrow, grief and empathy be known.
Most of the time, the source of the silence is actually a freeze response. There is a fear of saying the wrong thing, or a fear of not being believed or accepted. Often, as the raw feelings of the partner are being communicated, the addicted individual sinks into a shame spiral. Hearing the intensity of his spouse’s pain brings up a sense of “being bad” and it feels unbearable to experience it and feel the pain – hers and yours. When all that fear is activated the “fight or flight” part of the brain is in high alert, causing the body response of “freeze” and your cognitive thoughts shut down in the moment. Sometimes, when the anxiety is in high gear, a maladapted response is to bring in that old message – “my words don’t matter – I don’t haveto say anything.” In the moment it feels safer.
However, in this case, the message doesn’t apply. If the silence is actually fear in disguise, it’s time to disarm the fear.
Here are some things to remember when you’re trying to calm yourself and find your words:
- Your words don’t need to be perfect.
- You don’t have to have it all figured out before you speak.
- If you’re not sure what to say, the best thing to say is, “I don’t know what to say.” Your partner actually welcomes hearing your sincere, moment of being unsure.
- The best thing to convey is just what is happening in the moment. For example, “I’m scared of what you will think.” “I can’t be sure that what I am going to say won’t hurt you.”
- If you know you’re in a shame spiral, take a deep breath, pause, and let in the truth that you have learned in your recovery. Your value is inherent and not connected to how good or bad you are. Your value is in being you – your human self. Remember the difference between toxic shame, “I am bad,” from healthy shame, “I’ve done a bad thing.” Then go back to #4.
- Your partner wants you – your heart, your emotions, even your fears. She is not needing your perfection.
Words do matter. Insincere words don’t work. Words that are sputtered out too early – before you can follow through with actions don’t work. But words offered with rigorous honesty and feeling are a conduit to share emotions in your heart to the other person. Letting yourself be known and extending your heartfelt care for your partner will go miles in the process of reconnection and safety.
Written by: Cheryl Schenck, LPC, CSAT