As a couples therapist, I receive a lot of calls from couples in which one partner is either in or recently completed a recovery program. I wish there was a manual to help couples navigate this transition. Whether it’s completing inpatient treatment, starting therapy, or a beginning a 12-step program, navigating recovery in a relationship can be unfamiliar, uncertain, and tricky.
Through my years working with couples and drug and alcohol addiction, I have observed some helpful and not-so-helpful strategies. Here are 10 tips for couples navigating recovery:
1. Share your stories.
If one partner left for an extended period for inpatient treatment, the other may feel left out of the process. Additionally, the partner at home must manage the household alone and perhaps take care of the family as a single parent. Both partners have gone through significant ups and downs but have done so separately.
I encourage partners to debrief with each other and share their stories of time apart. What were the hardest parts? What were the biggest victories? How did they feel supported? When did they feel alone?
2. Find healthy ways to include your partner in recovery.
At times, I see couples do their recovery completely separately. They attend meetings, share with sponsors, work their steps, and go through significant therapy. They create deep and meaningful relationships with others, but not with their partner.
While you do not want your partner to be your sponsor or the overseer of your program, it is important to include them in healthy ways. Whether you have attended Alcoholics Anonymous or Al-Anon or participated in a group therapy session, share how it impacted you. Share how it elicited compassion for the struggles of your partner, or how it made you think differently about something in your own recovery.
3. Share your process and your struggles.
While it may not be helpful or advisable to tell your partner about every urge and triggering thought, a daily or nightly check-in could help. Questions you could ask each other: What were your highs and lows from the day? What was a success? What was a struggle? What are some ways I can be there for you?
These are not fix-it sessions or opportunities to give advice. You are just listening—without judgment—to your partner about where they are.
4. Find ways to encourage each other’s recovery.
If you feel your partner isn’t taking their recovery seriously, it can be tempting to criticize or put down their efforts. Instead, try encouraging their recovery. Try phrases such as: “I know it can be hard to stay the course. I believe in you.” “It brings me a lot of relief and reassurance when I see you commit to your program.” “I have a lot of hope for us when I see you prioritize your recovery.”
Criticism can be deflating, but hope can be motivating.
5. Practice compassion and empathy.
Put yourself in your partner’s shoes. How hard is it to fight the daily battle of addiction? What kinds of feelings and emotions do they experience due to their addictive behaviors? What is the hardest part of their recovery?
Alternatively, how hard is it to watch a loved one struggle with addictive behaviors? What kinds of feelings and emotions do they experience as a result of their partner’s addictive behaviors?
6. Find healthy ways to lean on each other emotionally.
Couples in recovery often struggle to connect with each other in a way that isn’t “codependent.” I view codependency as the unhealthy behaviors we use to try to connect or protect the relationship.
However, there are healthy ways to connect. There is this amazing tool in your recovery tool belt called your relationship. Not learning to use the power of your relationship for emotional comfort and support is like not using a top-of-the-line tool in your toolbox. It’s true your partner cannot be your sponsor or CEO of your recovery. People in recovery tend to lean on others in their recovery community when they struggle. While these relationships are crucial to success, your partner is an important person to talk to, confide in, and draw support from.
7. Praise each other!
Has your partner completed a milestone in their sobriety? Have they taken a risk and tried something new? Tell them what a great job they’re doing. Share your successes with each other and use praise liberally. Make sure your partner knows you see their efforts.
Pick up a book, read a blog, talk to people on the other side of the fence. If you are struggling with addiction, read about what loved ones go through. Or talk to a partner of someone dealing with addiction.
If your partner has addictive behaviors, read about the grip of addiction and how hard it is to break. Talk to someone who is also in recovery.
9. Work through the hurts.
This may require the help of a couples therapist. Addictive behaviors can create a lot of hurt in a couple and family. Seek the help of an experienced therapist who can guide you both toward healing. Ultimately, you want to create a safe space for each other to share any painful emotions that develop.
10. Share your fears.
It is normal to have fears about the recovery process. Will my partner stay committed? Will they relapse? Will I have to go through this again? Will my partner be there for me? Will they ever forgive me?
You may cover up fears with questions or by criticizing your partner’s recovery. Did you go to your meeting today? Have you been to therapy lately? Which leads to the next fear: Is this relationship going to survive?
Instead of criticizing or questioning your partner’s efforts, share your fears and your need for reassurance.
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