It’s all about the meta-message. If you aren’t sure what a meta-message is, Deborah Tannen will explain it to you on the video.
This question we addicts get asked reminds me in a way of when my children were little and they asked, “Would you still love me if I … turn into a bad man… go to jail when I’m a grown up… throw a rock through the window… etc.” There’s only one right answer to that: “I love you. No matter what.” When they were little, I answered the question in their hearts not the one on their lips.
I think we need to do the same when we’re answering our spouses when they ask, “Do you know how much you hurt me?” In a linguistics book I read years ago, this is called addressing the meta-message. When someone sneers at you and says, “Have a nice day,” you’ll probably respond to the meta-message rather than their actual words. (One of the difficulties of email is that we often create the meta-message rather perceiving the other person’s intended communication.)
So with a spouse – what I’d do (what I’ve done) – is say I’m sorry. Again. Because I really am sorry. If there was any way I could go back in time and undo the hurts that I’ve caused, I would. And if I still feel sorry, I’m sure there are times when he still feels hurt and betrayed. And afraid that I’ll do it again. I mean — I’M often afraid I’ll do it again, it’s why I still go to SA meetings.
And I ask if there’s anything at all I can do right now, in this moment to help. Sometimes my husband just wants to hear that I love him. Sometimes he wants me to stop doing whatever I’m doing and spend some time with him.
Does this make sense? When I am able to act out of sorrow and compassion – I’m kind. When I’m acting out of guilt and shame I get angry that he doesn’t just get over it. But the guilt and shame is really huge – for me there’s no getting over it without help from my sponsor and my therapist.
And here’s another thought: when you’re answering literally, or at least if I’m answering literally I’m gonna have to say, “No. I really don’t know how much I hurt you.” At which point my husband might be inclined to try to explain it to me. I know from listening at meetings that the conversation often goes this way, especially when the spouse doesn’t have enough support. Like most of the men I know, I’d be able to listen to this sometimes, but usually, I just can’t. The world gets black around the edges and I hear a roar, like the ocean, in my ears. I can see his mouth moving, and I know I’m supposed to be listening to him share his pain and betrayal, but I don’t hear a word. Not a single word. In my mind, I know he’s saying, “I hurt. I hurt. You hurt me.” But what I hear is … not that. I hear the universe confirming that I’m a bad, shitty person and that the world would be better off without me. That’s not what he’s saying, but even now, after residential treatment and over two years of sobriety, fighting to hear how I’ve hurt him is a battle that’s just too big for me. As I mentioned awhile back, just seeing the title of a book my therapist gave him (Shattered Hearts, by Stephanie Carnes) was difficult enough that I had to work hard to stay sober.
I’m so grateful that my husband really understands this part of the addictive cycle. That doesn’t mean I’m “off the hook” or that he hasn’t been hurt. It just means that he accepts that I’m sorry. Even though it’s not enough, it’s enough for him for now. I’m really lucky. He’s an exceptional man.
An interesting interview with Deborah Tannen on meta-messages can be found here
if you scroll down a bit. Her books on communication are fascinating!