In the twelve steps, first adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous, step eight and nine say, “Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to made amends to them all. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”
That last little phrase, ‘except when to do so would injure them or others,’ has become one of the most hotly disputed phrases of the 12 steps and, I would argue, one of the most compromised phrases. The intention behind this phrase was to protect innocent bystanders from having their lives damaged by the actions of the alcoholic. An example used in the Big Book is of a man who devastated a business rival by taking money from him, refusing to pay it back and discrediting him, bringing the rival to financial ruin.
To right this wrong would put the man’s business and livelihood at risk, potentially harming not only his family but his business partner’s livelihood and family as well. These are the types of innocent bystanders the ninth step is talking about. Those who through the confession of a wrong would be implicated in or brought to serious harm because of the addicted person’s actions. Interestingly, after consulting with his wife and partner (notice how the two people who would be harmed were brought into the decision) this man decided to go ahead and make things right with the business rival.
What I see happen with this ninth step phrase is that it gets co-opted and used as an excuse to lie or maintain lies that feel very scary to tell. At CRR we primarily deal with sexual addiction, which means that we are automatically dealing with sexual betrayal as well. The compulsive behaviors of our clients include violating the sexual agreements in their relationships that tear trust apart in one of the most sensitive and vulnerable areas: the sexual relationship.
I have sat with addicted clients and watched them literally sweat through their shirts, physically begin to shake and have to excuse themselves to use the bathroom as they have contemplated telling their spouse about their sexual behaviors. This is not just fear that is being experienced but outright terror. Terror regarding how their spouse will view them and that they will lose their partner’s love and their partner’s respect. Terror that they will lose their relationship because despite their behaviors, most of the addicted clients we work with love their spouse very much and are extremely invested in making their relationships work.
With so much to lose, with everything that is most important on the line, it makes perfect sense to look for any available loophole to avoid telling these hard truths. Where that little phrase from the ninth step is particularly compelling is for those individuals who are committed to the path of recovery and are desperately trying to repair the damage and move into emotional, sexual and relational health. These individuals are striving to be honest, to take responsibility and to make heroic efforts to amend the relationship with their partner. This little ninth step phrase, when co-opted and twisted just slightly, gives them the ability to not tell the truth while still feeling like they are being honest and doing the right thing.
Isn’t that sneaky? And that is where this phrase can be so dangerous. When experiencing the risk, vulnerability and terror associated with telling the truth to a loved one, the mind will search for any way possible to avoid it. Outright lying is not an option that many recovering addicts want to choose. They are trying not to do that anymore. But, perhaps talking oneself into the idea that telling the whole truth is not advisable, that it would cause harm and is therefore not appropriate, that withholding the truth is even, in fact, the nobler, more righteous path, now that is an option to consider. That is an option that allows you to feel like you are doing the right thing while also avoiding the fear and potential consequences of your behavior. Win, win.
These kinds of mental, and dare I say spiritual gymnastics, create grave danger for the recovering person. The lies that addicted individuals tell themselves are called self-manipulation defenses. For many addicted individuals, the compulsive sexual behaviors are at odds with their self-concept and who they profess themselves to be. In addition, the behaviors often violate their relationship agreements, violate the boundaries at their place of employment, violate the boundaries of other people, or are in direct conflict with their personal value system. To over-ride the discomfort created by acting against their value system or being incongruent in their identity and self-perception, they must use these self-manipulation defenses to justify, minimize and rationalize their behaviors into a shape they can live with.
The most seductive manipulation of the addicted self is the belief that one lie, one twisting of the truth, one secret won’t matter. Everything else can continue: the recovery, the therapy, the relationship with your spouse, children, sponsor and friends. That the lie won’t affect these things.
The reality is that the lie does affect things. It creates compartmentalized thinking. It is now something that you need to keep track of and make sure doesn’t somehow surface and bite you. It may be a lie that you have to tell more lies to maintain. It becomes something that sits in your relationships in between you and the loved ones you have lied to, blocking connection, vulnerability and intimacy. It puts your recovery at risk, makes sobriety harder to maintain and creates shame that is then carried around inside of you in secret.
Without doubt, telling the truth is terrifying. It is risky. You may experience loss as a result. But it also opens a pathway to living in integrity, and by integrity, I mean a sense of wholeness and congruence with yourself. It supports your recovery and lifts the burden of shame off your shoulders. It opens up the possibility of a truly connected relationship where the real you is known, accepted and loved. Those are some significant gifts. They might just be worth the risk.