Being in a relationship comes with all kinds of challenges. We are constantly hearing about how to build intimacy, improve communication, share responsibility, create friendships, manage finances, raise children and so on. But for couples where one partner is in recovery from addiction, these how-to ideas often fall short.
When you love an addict, you are wired to be hypervigilant, on alert, worried, scared, doubtful, obsessive, heartbroken—hopeful and then devastated—again and again. Your partner, when actively using, was wired to be unpredictable, with lying, manipulation, secrecy, unexplained absences, changes in personality, mood swings, energy shifts—often resorting to making excuses and promises to try to save the relationship.
Enter recovery. You both have survived, have committed to loving each other and repairing the damage done to the relationship by the addiction, but you are still interacting via the negative cycle above. Sobriety does not change this pattern. How you connect with each other does.
Here are 5 ways to begin rebuilding your relationship:
- Practice reaching for your partner by expressing what you’re feeling. This will interrupt the old behavior pattern that wasn’t working before. If you feel anxious and start making up stories inside your head because he or she seems more subdued and quiet, let them know. “I feel a little scared, like you’re going away from me.” No blame, no accusations. Name it—this thing that is happening inside you—fear, sadness, worry—and make the bid to connect with them. Letting them see you will encourage them to risk being seen.
- Create a no-shame dialogue. Addicts have tremendous guilt and shame from the hurts they have caused themselves and their loved ones. The letdown list goes on and on. Reassure your partner that you are not judging them. This doesn’t mean you won’t still have reasons to feel angry or things to forgive, just that you see your partner beyond his or her addiction. Look for their essential goodness, the light of their soul that you fell in love with.
- Increase your trust in each other. This step is yet another way to create safety in the relationship. Where there once was chaos and unpredictability, instead there is an actual effort to stay present with each other and not leave the situation. Instead of running away, becoming self-absorbed, using substances or trying to control the environment, you tolerate this discomfort. Now you are showing loyalty to your partner instead of to the negative pattern that you used to manage your anxiety in the past. Real relationship growth requires that you can bear the discomfort and stay present. Only then will you truly become compassionate or “suffer with” each other.
- Bring the addiction/recovery into the relationship. It was there before, but either not talked about or used to fuel anger and resentment. It wrecked havoc, much like an affair. Now you need to welcome it as a way to heal the relationship, understand how it changed your identities—who you were with and without addiction in your lives, and explore ways to keep the good parts and lessons in your relationship going forward. These conversations that you and your partner have about addiction, sobriety and recovery will be some of the most open and vulnerable moments that create deeper intimacy and connection.
- Play and have fun with each other. Warning—this is a lot harder than it sounds! Addiction stole the lightheartedness from your relationship, and recovery has now added serious weight of meetings, new habits, self-care routines and usually more structure in general. Plus, both of you may have forgotten—or perhaps not even experienced—when things were carefree, playful, silly. Whether you’re cracking each other up with humor, having sex, exercising together, singing, cooking or dancing, this kind of adult play can bring you closer through laughter, touch, movement, and just being in sync. This shared physiological activity regulates your emotions as a couple and makes you more attuned to the other. Having fun goes a long way toward rewiring the old isolating patterns of addiction and creating a secure foothold for connection and repair.
Loving an addict in recovery and rebuilding your relationship is as possible and rewarding as it is challenging. Be sure to seek other sources of support for this journey, such as a 12-step group, a rehab community, a spiritual group, an online forum, couple’s counseling and individual therapy.