Couples in Recovery

By Amy Zachary, MSW

Couples come in all shapes and sizes. But regardless of their individual backgrounds, history together, or education, addiction can take hold of one or both partners. Addiction is the great leveler, rendering all relationships equal.

What happens to a couple when addiction strikes? If one person is using and the other is not, roles can shift dramatically. Often, under- and over-functioning roles develop. In other words, the addict begins forgetting or outright ignoring responsibilities, while the non-addict overcompensates for the sudden lapse. As a therapist, I frequently hear the non-using partner complain about how irresponsible and untrustworthy the addicted partner has become. On the other hand, the addict typically complains that the non-addicted partner is a nag or is always on my case.

It’s perfectly natural to think that everything would be OK again if the addict would just get help. But the first few months, or even year, that an addict is clean can be just as challenging. As ironic as it sounds, this phenomenon has a logical explanation.

When a partner becomes drug-free, there is usually a redistribution of power in the relationship. The recovering addict is again able and willing to live up to responsibilities, and is likely to get frustrated when the non-addicted partner continues trying to control everything. Conversely, the partner may be reluctant to release control either out of concern that the recovering partner will relapse or simply because the non-addicted partner likes being in control.

This phase of readjustment, during which couples find themselves having to adapt to new behaviors, can be frustrating and even divisive. This is why so many treatment facilities offer counseling for family members as well as for the addict. It’s a crucial part of the recovery process because the addicts’ partners are educated about addiction and the inter-dependency it causes, which helps them identify the areas in which they’ve assumed too much responsibility.

Support groups like Al-Anon are also helpful because they teach people how to differentiate between their responsibilities and those of their partners.

Making any partnership work requires effort and a lot of it. Even the best relationships are subject to a seemingly endless process of responding to challenges and re-establishing healthy behavior patterns. For couples that have experienced drug addiction, this re-setting is often much harder because the changes they go through are so dramatic.

It’s important for couples who have been affected by addiction to remember that abstinence from the drug is just the beginning. A lot of work will still need to be done in order to move toward creating a more fulfilling and abundant life both as individuals and as a couple.

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

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