After Years of Sobriety She|He Won’t Forgive or Forget

After years of sobriety she [or he] still won’t forgive or forget! What can I do? I’m so tired of being the bad-guy!

I’ve often heard this from persons in recovery – persons who are doing “everything right” but still are unable to get the forgiveness and the sense that “it” is really in the past they so desperately want (and deserve). This post attempts to answer their question…

Why Is It That After Years of Sobriety She/He Won’t Forgive or Forget

There are three key reasons:

The number one reason – your behaviors – the things you said and did, the lies you told, the words you sliced and diced, perhaps the DUI or two you got and put your family through, the insane circular arguments, the emotional / verbal / physical abuse, the on and off parenting, perhaps there was infidelity, the wasted money, the lost friendships, the lost hours and endless worry about where you were, if you were coming home, what kind of shape you’d be in when you did, the shame. In other words, all the things you said and did or didn’t do while you were active in your addiction.

But you know all of this and you’ve made your amends – sincerely – and you’ve walked on eggshells and you’ve given in to her (him) time and again to make up for what all happened before – but it’s S T I L L not enough. It’s never enough, and though she (he) may try, it’s always there – that elephant in the living room is still there, only this time, it’s purple.

The number two reason – your loved one still does NOT understand the nature of the brain disease of addiction. Without this understanding, it’s about impossible to believe it wasn’t really you but rather the characteristics of your brain disease that were in control (cravings, tolerance, physical dependence and loss of control). Without this understanding, it’s about impossible to understand that as long as you used ANY amount, you would continue those awful behaviors – your brain had mapped all things addiction.

The number three reason – your loved one has not gotten the help they need to heal their own brains – their own physical and emotional health – of the impacts of secondhand drinking | secondhand drugging; the kind of help that allows them to truly let go of their resentments and hurt feelings, to truly know and believe in their heart of hearts that you are the person you are – the person in recovery – the person who has every intention and the absolute capability to live a “normal” life and not hurt you in that way, again.

For these three reasons, your loved one still associates your pre-recovery, pre-treatment behaviors as intentional, rather than an outcome of the chemical and structural brain changes associated with the brain disease of addiction.

This is totally understandable.

For until a person understands the disease, they can only assume the person who is abusing drugs or alcohol does not have the willpower, the love for their family members, the integrity or the whatever else they consider to be their underlying reason for not changing, thus they have no reason to trust your recovery because it makes no sense you didn’t do this “recovery thing” before things got so bad.

And, here’s another wrinkle.

For some family members, it's difficult to forgive and forget a loved one - even after years of sobriety.If they do not understand the disease of addiction, it’s unlikely they (or you, for that matter) understand secondhand drinking | secondhand drugging and therefore their (the non-addict | alcoholic’s) contribution to the “muck of it all.” If the person on “that side” of this family disease does not treat the secondhand | secondhand drinking impacts they’ve experienced, it’s doubtful they’ll ever be able to appreciate that addiction recovery is real, it works and it can be trusted (or if not trusted, then addressed through stipulations for outcomes if relapse occurs).

So they hang onto old experiences and assumptions and often punish you – the recovering alcoholic | addict in the process. Sadly, this dynamic is not only bad for you, it’s bad for them, and if there are children involved, it changes their lives and sets them up to continue the cycles.

As one of “them” – the one who could not forgive or forget for all three reasons I listed above – I know.

So let me share what I’ve learned over this past 12 years researching all things addiction and treating my own secondhand drinking impacts through three years of therapy with a therapist who specializes in the family side of this disease, participation in a 12 step program for families, and research – lots of research – into the science behind it all.

What Can Be Done – How Can She/He Get to the Place of Forgiveness and Letting Go

Given there is no way to provide the depth of coverage an answer to this complex question deserves, I’ve chosen to highlight three key areas that if understood can go a long way towards helping all concerned.

Understand the disease of addiction and the crippling stigma and shame that surrounds it

For this, I suggest the following:

  • The Addiction Project, a collaboration of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and HBO. There is a GREAT deal on this website – how a person develops the disease, how drugs or alcohol hijack the brain, what effective treatment looks like, and more.
  • Shatter the Shame of Addiction, a blog post highlighting the critical information all must understand in order to get past the stigma and shame.
  • Quick Guide to Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn’t – Kindle | iTunes – a short eBook on what effective addiction treatment and recovery entail and what family members can do to help themselves and in that process, help their loved ones.
  • Why Addicts | Alcoholics Lie, Cheat and Steal From Those They Love the Most – a blog post explaining the nature of the brain disease of addiction and thus why a person with this disease will hurt the people they love the most.

Understand Secondhand Drinking – what happens to family members

For this, I suggest the following:

Understand addiction recovery is real and it happens all the time

This brain disease can be successfully treated and people can live happy, healthy, productive lives in recovery.  To learn more about people who are doing this, today, check out:

Bottom Line

No one sets out to develop the disease of addiction and no one sets out to cope with it in unhealthy ways. So this is all about gaining understanding and from that place, finding oneself able to move to the place of forgiving and forgetting. Trust me – it’s an incredible place to be.

Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at BreakingTheCycles.com
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of BreakingTheCycles.com. She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.

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  1. Hi ,

    Al-Anon’s book The Dilemma of The Alcoholic Marriage illustrates but a false dilemma. The true dilemma is marriage itself whoever to. It has little if anything to do with an alcoholic. That book is sexist and outmoded. It should have been discontinued a long time ago. It should have never been written in the first place. There is but 10-12% men in Al-Anon Family Groups, no wonder why. I owe my survival to Al-Anon; but I believe AFG will disappear before men are equal to women – at least in number – in that “wonderful” fellowship.

    Also much more is known today about mental illness (schizophrenia, depression, addiction, etc.) than at the time of the two cofounders. The pamphlet Do You Doubt Your Sanity says nothing about neither sanity, nor insanity and less yet about substance-induced psychosis – mental drunkenness. It is an empty pamphlet like many other useless Al-Anon pamphlets. Let’s keep it simple. There is much too much useless Al-Anon literature that speaks about anything but the real thing and that keeps members deluded about the real thing: their own mental illness.

    If Al-Anon literature does not reflect today’s reality, then what? If his/her/their alcohol or drug abuse is your obsession (schizophrenia-related obsessive-compulsive disorder), try AFG and hurry on to more important matters. See Schizophrenia and Related Disorders Alliance of America (http://www.sardaa.org/)

    In short, any literature but Al-Anon’s. It’s a love-it-or-leave-it matter.

  2. Addicts continue to take after they are sober. They expect support and forgiveness. They want their victims to believe it was the disease, not them. It’s ALWAYS about the addict. The family member who cut them off is “diagnosed” with their addiction as well, since they won’t “forgive” or let the addict back into their life. The addict is hugged and comforted while the person who cut them off is punished, or hounded to go into a program for family members, where they will be “diagnosed” and “treated” as having the problem, too. It’s another con on the family….make them believe they are part of the problem and “need” resolution,,,,,which is usually about “Forgiving”…..

    • Thank you for commenting, DM. I was of a very similar belief when one of my loved ones entered residential treatment for alcoholism in 2003, and I was told I was an enabler and codependent and that I needed help. It infuriated me and made no sense. In time… based on the research I’ve been doing ever since and through my own therapy and recovery work, it’s not so much that we’re part of the problem as we’ve been deeply affected by the problem. The affect on us is chronic stress and chronic stress makes a person physically and emotionally sick and destroys the quality of one’s life. If you’d like to talk about this, feel free to give me a call (no charge) at 650-362-3026 (PST) or send me an email at lisaf@BreakingTheCycles.com.