Our multi-part series on addiction and the five stages of grief continues with bargaining, the third stage. While the five stages do not necessarily occur in a specific order, feel free to read our articles on denial and anger for more detailed information on how we are affected by each of these five stages. Denial is particularly relevant to a discussion of bargaining, since bargaining could be said to act as an extended form of denial. While the truth has generally been realized by this stage, those who resort to bargaining will promise anything to change the reality of the circumstance that is causing their grief.
Much like denial and anger, bargaining is exhibited by both addicts and their families. While bargaining itself does not take an overwhelming number of unique forms, it can appear quite different depending upon the goal of the bargaining itself. Those in active addiction will not necessarily be bargaining for the same things as those in recovery, even if there are some similarities. We will discuss this further below, as well as ways that one may attempt to move past this stage.
Defining Forms of Bargaining
When we think of bargaining outside of the grieving process, we generally picture one of two things. The first is the standard monetary form of bargaining or bartering for the purposes of financial gain or the acquisition of goods. The second is plea bargaining, in which someone charged with legal wrongdoing offers information in exchange for a diminished sentence. What some might not realize is that even these forms of bargaining are steeped in psychology. For instance, those who identify deeply with a collective (such as a street gang) may be less likely to cooperate with a plea bargain that sells their comrades down the stream. In the case of an addict in denial, however, they might be all too willing to set themselves apart from other users.
Bargaining while in grief and denial can take a form very similar to those above, but it can also be much more personal. In fact, Psychology Today writes that some people form entire identities around their bargaining. This is generally a fear-based act, in which the person bargains that they must behave a certain way in order to achieve social acceptance or other desired results. It may sound as if this form of bargaining often results in healthy and socially acceptable behaviors, but this is not necessarily the case. How many addicts and alcoholics have we met who felt that people only liked them when they were drunk or stoned?
Psychology Today also notes that we do not always use bargaining to deal with situations occurring in the present. There are sometimes issues in our past, things we have done or that have happened to us, with which we are still struggling. We attempt to bargain with ourselves that things could have turned out differently. We tell ourselves that if we had only made one decision that we didn’t make, then we would not have lost our marriage, kids, job, education, etc. Unfortunately, this only exemplifies our grief and regret.
Melody Beattie talks briefly about bargaining in her pamphlet on denial (which can be purchased from Amazon at a low price). The notes that bargaining “is usually characterized by if…, then… statements which measure what we give against what we get,” and that these negotiations can actually sometimes be helpful. Unfortunately, this is not usually the case. Beattie notes that we are rarely able to uphold our part of the bargain, hoping that merely making the promise will be enough for us to get our way. Whether we are making an actual bargain with someone to get what we want, or simply trying to change our way of thinking, bargaining truly is an extension of denial.
Bargaining in Active Addiction
Each of the types of bargaining we’ve explored above can be experienced while in active addiction. The most basic form of bargaining might be exhibited when the addict stands to lose a job or relationship that is important to them. They will promise to quit or to seek help, but may renege on these promises once they feel that they are no longer at risk of losing anything. Addicts with legal troubles may also bargain with the justice system, agreeing to take drug classes or attend AA meetings to get out of a DUI or other substance-related charge. But unless they are on a strict monitoring program, these negotiations may fail to have much of an impact.
There are times at which the addict may become cognizant of the harm that their substance abuse has had on themselves, as well as those around them. In these cases, bargaining can lead them down a bad road. We already mentioned the belief of some addicts and alcoholics that they must abuse substances in order to gain social acceptance. In other cases, however, their bargaining is used in a more directly negative fashion. They might bargain that long-term sobriety is impossible, so they may as well stay the course and continue their substance abuse. In some ways, this is the origin of the “one day at a time” precept. According to a 2013 edition of Frontiers in Psychiatry, the addict is somewhat aware that their attempts at bargaining are not trustworthy. Dealing with addiction one day at a time is a way of “restarting the bargaining process with a low level of trust.”
When we are in active addiction, we will often try bargaining with ourselves to find a way that we might control our drinking without giving it up altogether. Chapter 3 of Alcoholics Anonymous provides some examples: “Drinking beer only, limiting the number of drinks, never drinking alone, never drinking in the morning, drinking only at home, never having it in the house, never drinking during business hours, drinking only at parties, switching from scotch to brandy, drinking only natural wines, agreeing to resign if ever drunk on the job, taking a trip, not taking a trip, swearing off forever (with and without a solemn oath), taking more physical exercise, reading inspirational books, going to health farms and sanitariums, accepting voluntary commitment to asylums—we could increase the list ad infinitum.”
The reasoning that this bargaining never seems to work is not that the addict or alcoholic is necessarily lying intentionally, but that the rewards of sobriety are not exactly imminent. A Huffington Post article references what is called “temporal discounting,” similar to the “intertemporal bargaining” mentioned in the Frontiers in Psychiatry article referenced above. Substance abuse offers what we perceive to be an immediate reward, but sobriety takes more time to deliver on the promise of a better life.
Whether we are bargaining with ourselves or with others, it is difficult for us to truly face reality when stuck in this stage of the addiction process. We find ourselves in a state of cognitive dissonance. One foot has stepped outside of denial and is aware that our way of life is not working for us. The other foot is still entrenched in the belief that we can both control and enjoy our substance abuse. The realization that we cannot will often lead to depression.
Bargaining in Addiction Recovery
In her blog Life After Alcohol, writer Allie Holbrook explores the Kübler-Ross model of grieving as it applies to addiction recovery. In her exploration of bargaining, Holbrook notes that it simply doesn’t work. She notes that “more time, more energy, more success, a more defined waistline and more money” were the primary reasons for her journey into sobriety. When she was denied these things, she felt as if she had been given the short end of the deal. This is the type of dilemma that faces many addicts in recovery. We expect life to become instantly better. Thanks to temporal discounting, we may find it difficult to remain sober if we begin to doubt that this bargain has paid off.
Holbrook also notes, however, that going back on this bargain will not be effective because “it won’t be fun anymore.” Nonetheless, the temptation for the recovering addict to return to their old ways can be quite strong. As Psych Central notes, any attempt at bargaining meant to prolong their recovery might merely be “an attempt to maintain the status quo without making any real change.” The addict is still in danger of relapse if the need to maintain the status quo is jeopardized for any reason. If they have not truly accepted their addiction as a problem and cannot identify a clear benefit to staying sober, they will surely use again.
Even after the addict or alcoholic has accepted the nature of their problem, bargaining can easily follow them into long-term sobriety. Journalist and recovering alcoholic Beth Leipholtz writes that, even a couple of years into sobriety, her bargaining still occasionally tries to bring her down and coerce her off the wagon. The addict or alcoholic may think that they have learned the requisite skills to begin using again while keeping themselves under control. If anyone has ever actually managed to accomplish this feat, then we are not aware of it.
This style of bargaining can be especially dangerous when the addict or alcoholic is undergoing some type of emotional disturbance. If they are dealing with stress or other negative emotions, then the irrational belief that they can overcome their addiction while continuing to use will become increasingly appealing. In fact, About.com makes the important observation that even positive emotions can result in such a disturbance. Our bargaining might tell us that a drink or two is fine in times of celebration, such as a birthday or a wedding. This sounds good, but the notion of a true addict having only “a drink or two” is something of a fantasy. They might succeed for the time being, but it will undercut their recovery and lower their defenses against similar bargaining in the future. It will not be long before they are again fully immersed in active addiction.
It does not matter if we are early in our recovery or if we have years of sobriety under our belts. It does not matter if we are bargaining with whether or not we can afford another drink, or if we are simply bargaining that we can change the past and get back jobs, spouses, or other luxuries that were lost to us through addiction. No matter what the circumstances of our bargaining, we stand to lose everything if we let it overwhelm us. We cannot allow this to happen.
Bargaining and Codependency
Friends and family in codependency go through the bargaining stage on a somewhat regular basis. Sometimes, this is very literal bargaining, in which they are begging their loved one to stop using substances and seek help or rehabilitation. Other times, they are bargaining with themselves in order to try and make sense of their situation. They bargain that their loved one is not truly an addict, that they are just going through a rough patch. This type of bargaining can be unhealthy for both the addict and the codependent, as it can lead to enabling those we love to continue using.
Licensed counselor Brett Newcomb refers to this cycle of bargaining and enabling as “the devil’s bargain.” It is not merely that codependents wish to deny the state of their loved one’s addiction, but that many of them enter a stage in which they find it difficult to satisfy both their own needs and those of the addict in their lives. They will therefore find ways of bargaining that serve to minimize their own needs, their own importance. They will learn to think less of themselves, chiefly because they cannot rationalize their conflicting interests in their own well-being and that of someone who is currently hurting themselves.
Michelle Kunz of Psych Central writes about the devil’s bargain in different words. The way she puts it is that she was taught forgiveness. She notes, however, that there is a fundamental difference between forgiveness in its purest form and the tendency of codependents to allow themselves to be victimized by those they love. In fact, the very concept of forgiveness in this regard is most certainly an instance of bargaining. Those in codependency do not want to accept that their loved one’s addiction is not going to stop on its own. But they convince themselves that if they can help their beloved addict through this rough patch, then maybe they can influence a change by the sheer power of forgiveness and good will.
Forgiveness is a good thing, but trying to demonstrate forgiveness of this magnitude will have unhealthy long-term effects on the relationship. Codependents can become trapped in the belief that, if only they had done something different, their loved one’s addiction might not have spun out of control. Trapped in this belief, they fall prey to self-blame. They are also reticent to let the addict in their life suffer any consequences, feeling that it is their responsibility to somehow save them from any harm or danger that may result from their use. They fear that failing to enable the addict in their lives will result in losing them, and they cannot cope with the grief of this anticipated loss.
Bargaining and denial are closely related stages, and the plight of the codependent exemplifies the connection between the two. Given that the five stages can be experienced in any order, with multiple stages sometimes experienced at the same time, it is not surprising that denial and bargaining often go hand-in-hand. But even if codependents mean well, their bargaining will do no good for themselves or for the addicts in their lives. Moreover, for the codependent, bargaining can become an addiction in and of itself. This is when it becomes particularly dangerous.
Living and Coping with Bargaining
Since we have mentioned it in the other articles in this series, we should briefly mention the existence of multiple support groups for codependents. These support groups are full of people who have gone through the bargaining stage, and have learned that loving really is letting go. This does not necessarily mean cutting the addict out of your life completely, but rather allowing them to suffer the consequences of their actions. Otherwise, addicts may never come to grips with the startling effects that substance abuse has had on their lives.
There are three main support groups that we have advocated in our previous articles. First, there is Al-Anon for the friends and families of alcoholics. Then, there is Nar-Anon for the friends and families of drug addicts. There is also Co-Anon, which is specifically geared toward the friends and families of those who are struggling with cocaine addiction. We also have our own means of seeking support, such as the Amethyst Recovery Moms’ Corner on Facebook, as well as our parent alumni program. There may be other relevant support groups in your area, so feel free to conduct some internet research to find one nearby that works for you.
As for addicts themselves, it can be difficult to break through the habit of bargaining. Eventually, they must do this if they stand any chance at true recovery. As we mentioned before, one primary mode of bargaining involves ruminating on the past. This is corroborated by Dr. Christina Hibbert, who refers to bargaining as “a sense that we just want life back to the way it used to be.” But the way things used to be is precisely what led to addiction. To truly begin moving past the grief process, the addict must learn entirely new ways of thinking. This is what makes the journey toward acceptance so difficult, and it is why many of us will spend a great deal of our early recovery trying to bargain our way around it. We are essentially trying to change without changing, but we fail to see the lack of sense in this endeavor.
Those who use bargaining in order to find excuses for using again will also find themselves highly disappointed should they succumb to the urge to relapse. There is a particularly enlightening article by Vicki Hogarth of Jezebel in which she recounts her struggles with mouthwash addiction. She relapsed on mouthwash after rehabilitation, something that many alcoholics have done. For a time, she appeared to be functional. After a while, however, she descended into misery. No matter how much we tell ourselves that we can begin drinking again, those who have experienced the joy of recovery for any decent period of time will often find that their relapse is a much different animal. They likely weren’t having much fun when they entered recovery to begin with. Now, they will reap no enjoyment from their substance abuse whatsoever.
A brief note should also be made on interventions. One of the major keys to staging a successful intervention is to set firm consequences. The recipient of the intervention may wish to avoid these consequences without actually seeking help, in which case they will attempt to begin literally bargaining their way out of it. Some codependents might wish to let them have their way, seeing the compromise as a win/win. It is, in fact, lose/lose. Nobody will learn what they need to learn, and the cycle of addiction and codependency will not cease. It is important for both addicts and codependents that no attempt at compromise or bargaining be made.
It can be difficult to handle the bargaining process, but it is ultimately not unlike dealing with denial. The primary difference is that the addict or codependent is a little more aware of what they are doing when bargaining. The denial stage does not offer this awareness, and is therefore more difficult to treat. When addicts enter our programs, they will be given addiction counseling by licensed professionals who are able to recognize and handle this type of behavior. They may attempt to bargain with their predicament for some time, but they will ultimately find it fruitless and move on to the next stage of grieving their loss. Even once their bargaining has ceased for a time, their journey is not yet over; however, they have made it one step closer to true acceptance, enabling them to move forward a step in their recovery.