Our son is in recovery from pornography addiction, but still struggles with feelings of self-worth and wonders if he can ever truly be forgiven. It has been a heart wrenching experience for us as well. I personally have seen my own emotions rise and fall with his successes and setbacks and recognize that I am probably on the unhealthy side of preoccupation with his challenges. The Addiction Recovery meetings that I attend in his support help tremendously, but I still struggle; in many ways, he is still at the center of my happiness universe.
I am a smart woman, and I understand about trusting God, turning your worries and fears over to Him, and putting your child in His care, but making it happen is a much more difficult endeavor. I don’t think I have ever struggled as much with letting go as I have with this.
My question is: What is the correct model for a mother who would give her life for her child? I recognize that much of my spiritual energy is sucked into fretting over how my son is doing (Is he happy? Is he safe? Is he progressing? Does he need my counsel?). But letting go of all of that feels terrifying. As if I were letting go of the steering wheel on a car that needs my direction. My better sense tells me that none of that is true and that I should let go and put his care in God’s hands, but I don’t know how. How much should I let go? What does Heavenly Father want me to let go of? What is my responsibility to my child?
The idea of letting go of a child who is clearly in danger goes against every parental instinct. Your brain understands that holding on to your son in this way isn’t good for him or for you. Your heart, on the other hand, overrides logic and keeps both of you afraid. Your heart is good and I want to help you leverage the love you have for your son so you can truly do what’s in his best interest.
First, recognize that there isn’t a way to fully detach yourself from your son’s struggles or successes. You’re going to hurt when he hurts and you’re going to rejoice when he’s doing well. It’s the roller coaster of emotions we all sign up for when we become parents. You don’t want to create a world where you’re emotionally untouched by your son’s life.
Even though your heart and soul is eternally linked to his, it doesn’t mean that his life directs your life. You will continue to respond to the challenges, defeats, and victories he experiences in his journey, but it doesn’t automatically mean that these emotions hold you hostage. If your actions are only motivated by fear, then you won’t feel settled. If they’re motivated by love and respect his agency, then you’ll be able to share and relinquish responsibility.
Be careful you’re not letting his behavior become a reflection of you as a mother. It’s easy to personalize both the victories and the struggles. Remember, he is making choices even when he’s in the middle of his addiction. He still has moral agency, though it’s diminished.[i]
“Letting go” of your son doesn’t mean you’re releasing him to a free fall in the pit of despair. Instead, you’re handing him over to Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ, who will do more with him than any mortal can. Remember that they loved him first and are completely aware and present to bless him. This faith is the only way a parent can let go of their child and have healthy boundaries. They have to know their child will be in good hands.
President Harold B. Lee taught: “Sometimes we think the whole job is up to us, forgetful that there are loved ones beyond our sight who are thinking about us and our children. We forget that we have a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother who are even more concerned, probably, than our earthly father and mother, and that influences from beyond are constantly working to try to help us when we do all we can.”[ii]
It’s also important for your son, as a recovering addict, to see how his behavior affects other people. If you were indifferent and pretended that his choices had no effect on you, then how would he ever learn empathy? This is a critical skill individuals in recovery from addictions must learn. It’s been said that, “the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety. It’s connection.” Your joy and sorrow is something he should experience as part of his recovery journey so he fully understands how to connect to his own and other’s emotions.
In his most recent General Conference address, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland recently gave examples of how some mothers have effectively borne the weight of their children’s struggles.[iii] If your son continues to work his recovery and is doing everything he knows to do, then your reaching to him and supporting him doesn’t enable anything. On the other hand, if he expects you to do things for him that he’s unwilling to do for himself, this is where learning some healthy limits will protect both you and him. The Church’s family support program has excellent resources to help you learn how to live in relationship with someone struggling with addiction. You both need the Savior to help carry you through this dark wilderness. The Spirit best directs knowing when to help and knowing when to back off.
Your son has been weakened by addiction, but if you treat him like he’s weak, he will never heal. The truth, however, is that your son needs to honestly answer one simple question if he wants to heal his addiction. The question is, “Do you want to get well?” Even the Savior asked those he healed to do certain things for themselves that he didn’t do for them. He heals us but also respects our willingness or unwillingness to be healed.
Let your son answer this question and take responsibility for the answer. It’s a question only he can answer. We know how you would answer that question. However, we don’t know how he’ll answer it.
Your influence matters and you shouldn’t give up facing his direction and extending love and concern to him. He’ll need you and other supports in place to overcome his addiction. It can take years to fully rid oneself of the patterns that create and maintain an addiction. If he’s reaching out to other supports, including counselors, group members, church leaders, and others, your efforts will be part of a larger support system that helps him back to safety. You both need that support.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.marriage-recovery.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic and currently serves as the primary chorister. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
[ii] Harold B. Lee, “The Influence and Responsibility of Women,” Relief Society Magazine 51 (February 1964): 85. At this time, Harold B. Lee was serving as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and made these remarks during the October general Relief Society meeting.