Couples in Recovery

Couples. They come in all shapes and sizes. But no matter what they look like, addiction can devastate them. Addiction is the great leveler which renders all relationships as equal and the same.

When addiction strikes, what happens to a couple? In couples where one partner is using and the other is not, spouses usually develop over-functioning and under-functioning roles.

That is, the user under-functions and the non-user over-functions to compensate for their mate. As a therapist, I frequently hear the non-using partner complain about how “irresponsible” and “untrustworthy” their partner has become. On the other hand, the using partner typically complains that their mate is a “nag” or is “always on my case.”

One would think that once an alcoholic or addict enters recovery the picture would become rosy. But the truth of the matter is, it usually doesn’t at first.

As a couple, how do you make sense of that?

How do you explain the fact that what was wanted and wished for can yield such an ironic result?

Perhaps George Bernard Shaw said it best when he wrote, “There are two great tragedies in life, one is never getting your heart’s desire. The other is to get it.” The lesson: no matter how alluring a change may appear, it too, can have its challenges.

Perhaps George Bernard Shaw said it best when he wrote, “There are two great tragedies in life, one is never getting your heart’s desire. The other is to get it.” The lesson: no matter how alluring a change may appear, it too, can have its challenges.

The positives are obvious. Your partner is sober! So why aren’t things turning out better? At the onset, when a mate obtains sobriety there is usually a redistribution of power in the relationship. The once using partner who habitually occupied a one-down position no longer finds himself or herself as the low man on the totem pole.

By virtue of being sober, he or she is now on more or less equal footing with his or her partner. And, conversely, the non-using spouse is no longer in the one-up position. The over-functioning stance is suddenly challenged. The hyper-vigilance that was required when living with an active alcoholic or addict is no longer necessary.

This phase of readjustment, during which couples find themselves having to adapt to these new behaviors, can be terrifying.

Change, despite its promises, can bring turbulence–which is why many treatment facilities will recommend that a couple make no major life decisions such as a job change, a move, etc., during the first year of sobriety.

How does a couple make the transition from having to cope with their partner’s addiction toward a relationship that does not include drinking or drugging? How do they take the next step?

One thing couples must remember is that recovery is a joint venture. The once-using spouse cannot be expected to shoulder the entire weight of stabilizing the couple’s newly defined relationship.

The non-user must embrace personal recovery as well. Just as AA, NA, CA or any of the 12-Step programs are the cornerstones upon which so many successful recoveries rest, Al-Anon can be a crucial step for the non-using partner. Al-Anon is important because it not only educates the user’s spouse about addiction, it addresses the non-user’s interdependency with their spouse.

That is, it helps the non-user identify those behaviors in which they have assumed over-responsibility for their loved one. This could mean something as simple as putting a dish in the dishwasher to larger issues like making excuses for them at work.

Al-Anon is helpful because it teaches people how to differentiate between what is their responsibility and what is not. It provides lessons in setting limits and establishing boundaries for those who have grown unaccustomed to knowing when and where and how to draw the line while their loved one is still abusing.

When all is said and done, making any partnership work requires effort–and a lot of it. Even the best relationships are subject to a seemingly never-ending process of resettling.

In the case of couples where there has been alcohol or drug abuse, this resettling can stand out in high relief because the changes a couple of experiences in the shift from abuse to sobriety can be very dramatic.

That is why it remains crucial for these couples to understand that abstinence is just the beginning in the journey towards creating a more fulfilling and expansive life – both as an individual and as a couple.

(Amy Zachary is a therapist based in New York City, specializing in substance abuse, addiction issues, anxiety disorders, anger management, adolescent issues, and more.)