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How Recovery Affects Relationships. Guidelines for Rebuilding

This is part 3 of a 3 part-series on addiction-affected relationships. In the first article, we explored guidelines for living with a partner who currently drinks/uses, in part 2, we looked at how to go about ending an addiction-destroyed relationship, and in this last installment, we'll explore issues surrounding rebuilding a satisfying relationship to coincide with a new life in recovery.

Out of Balance

Ecology gave us the concept of homeostasis, the idea that ecosystems small and large seek to maintain balance and perpetuate themselves. Substance abuse and mental health disciplines have applied this concept to family units. People tend to derive a sense of security out of predictability and they often subconsciously act to maintain status quo. This is especially true of families impacted by addiction.

The involvement of affected others in treatment is highly recommended if the family seeks to improve relations through the course of their loved one’s recovery. In addition to past and present areas of dysfunction, there is a great deal of change that will occur through the course of sobriety and major life changes.

Partners and spouses of those in recovery often describe to me a point in their relationship that they, “want to get back to.” They’re chagrined when I explain the simple truth: there is no going back.

There are always things from the past that need to be addressed, but the focus must first be on stability in the here and now.

Everything Changes

Sobriety is the ultimate game changer. Everything shifts and our expectations must align with the new life ahead. It’s disappointing to many that achieving sobriety does not resolve every problem. This is an uncomfortable reality:

Sobriety doesn’t make everything better; it keeps it from getting worse.

Sobriety does improve physical health, cognitive processing, and emotional stability. This is not what the affected other is accustomed to. The ways in which we interact change accordingly.

The role of the affected other shifts:

  • The monitoring, the acute awareness of the state their loved one is in (“That’s his fifth scotch”) and the compensating for his/her behavior is no longer necessary.
  • The responsibility that we took for our partner is no longer warranted. Many of us discovered that we had unwittingly been filling a role more closely resembling a parent or caregiver than partner.

We’re liberated from what we did not consciously choose.

So Now What?

Moving from enabler, caregiver, or from being estranged to being in a healthy relationship is a long journey. We’re working against history and all that it holds. Setting new expectations for ourselves and of our partners is a great start. The difficulty is that we’ve been so focused on their needs that we lost sight of our own.

Two of the hardest questions I ask people: “What do you need?” and “What do you want?” For the first time in a long time we find ourselves with partners who have a new found willingness to meet our needs. We also find ourselves free to attend to our own pursuits and goals.

I encourage couples to set goals for every part of their lives – for recovery, for their partnership and for all of their mutual interests and endeavors. This makes expectations overt and it brings the couple to a place of cooperation and shared investment.

Working together builds mutuality and respect.

Too often the person in recovery goes to the extremes of trying to make up for the past in short order or maintaining a selfish focus on their individual interests.

The Fear Remains

Early recovery is a roller coaster ride for both parties. It’s easy to stay with old habits like walking on eggshells. The affected other is afraid to ask if sobriety is intact and if what’s necessary to maintain it is being done. I urge them to ask. If your partner is offended by the question, remind them that you both have the same fear but only one of you has any control over it. Powerlessness can unite us or create distance in our partnership.

Balancing Life & Recovery

Maintenance is not exciting and it is an easy investment to devalue. Many affected others feel that they and their families come second to the fellowship, time spent with sponsors, and meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.

It’s an uncomfortable adjustment that our partners now have a host of people we don’t know in their lives. I urge affected others to attend meetings (choose 'open' meetings from AA and NA). Seeing firsthand what our partners are experiencing demystifies the process and helps us to understand why this is indeed a worthwhile investment.

Rebuilding Intimacy

The partner in recovery is often impatient and will incredulously ask, “Why do you still not trust me?” I’ll ask how long they’ve been sober and contrast it to how long they were active. At this point it’s usually apparent why trust is slow to come.

There’s an adage in recovery that defines intimacy as “In to me, see.” As we share feelings, needs, and shared experiences, intimacy grows. In my clinical experience, the two topics that couples of every background tend to struggle with the most are sex and spirituality.

If ever there were challenges worth overcoming, these are they. Successful recovery is very often associated with spiritual growth. Sex, at its best is both an expression and experience of intimacy. Growing together supports both partners in becoming, “Happy, Joyous and Free.”

Clinical Social Worker/Therapist
My story is I'm forever a work in progress and I love connecting with REAL people who are doing great things. I'm blessed to be making a living doing something I love. I'm a proud dad and the luckiest husband ever. I'm an aspiring author - check out my recovery blog at: Thanks! Jim

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