Relationships in Recovery: Balancing Personal and Partner Needs
As human beings, we are biologically programmed to form relationships. We have a basic human need to feel close to and supported by others, and science validates this need by telling us that we live happier, healthier and longer lives when we have strong, close relationships with others. On the other hand, people with poor relationships are more likely to suffer from depression and have weakened immune systems.
For most of us, it is a relationship with a romantic partner that provides our primary source of the close bonds we need to thrive. But can you have a successful intimate relationship while in recovery?
Relationship Challenges Unique to People in Recovery
Navigating your way through an intimate relationship is challenging enough, but when you add to that the unique challenges faced during recovery, the task can be daunting. A recovering addict often brings additional baggage to a relationship because, for them, many essential relationships tools are yet to be acquired:
- The ability to establish and maintain trust: Addiction is a disease of denial, and denial requires lies and deception. To break free from this habit and tolerate the emotional repercussions of self-blame, shame and emotional vulnerability requires the recovering person to look deeply and honestly within their own hearts and minds. They must face their greatest fears regarding their sense of self-worth and their worthiness to others. Any bumps in the road of an intimate relationship can easily lead to a setback in mastering this important task.
- The ability to manage one’s own emotions and heal old wounds: The real work of recovery is less about being able to resist the addictive substance and more about learning how to relate in the world when the emotional crutch of the substance has been removed. Dealing with old hurts, losses and needs is the underlying layer of deeper work that an addict faces. In a relationship, these old wounds will likely be poked and prodded, and if the recovering person has not sufficiently healed, handling the personal pain while remaining conscious of, and attentive to, the needs of a partner is often more than can be expected of them.
- The ability to acquire and appropriately use positive coping skills: For many people, the use of an addictive substance began as a method to cope with intolerable feelings. So once the addictive substance is no longer being used to fill this need, the recovering person must find new ways of coping that are more life affirming for both themselves and others. This requires learning and practicing new coping skills, and it is not a straightforward path. If relationship challenges pop up (as they invariably will), the success or failure of both the relationship and the recovery process may depend on how far along the recovering person is in their quest to attain these new skills.
Added to these emotional challenges are the more practical and logistical challenges faced when navigating a relationship while in recovery:
- Demands on time and energy: Recovery requires focus, engagement and commitment. There are meetings (support groups, counseling, etc.) and other commitments that a recovering person often is involved in that may or may not be of interest or relevance to a partner. These commitments can become a sore spot in a relationship. The perception of which is more important, the recovery process or the relationship, can create not only a philosophical, but also a practical dilemma for both partners. Unless partners can come to an agreement on how to equitably distribute the time and attention of the person in recovery, such commitments can derail a relationship.
- Risk for setbacks: Recovery is rarely a straightforward path. More often than not, setbacks, slips and relapses are part of the process. These are very challenging to a relationship. Disappointment, worry and uncertainties are experienced by both partners, and the willingness to stay the course and work through the crisis together will likely be challenged.
Why Starting a New Relationship is Often Discouraged in Early Recovery
With all the concerns that need to be considered, is it wise to start a relationship while in recovery? Many recovery programs, Including Alcoholics Anonymous, suggest a “one year rule” regarding relationships for people who are new to recovery. Recovery, especially early in the process, requires one to be self-focused. This is a time when inner reflection, personal evaluation and the gaining of new insights, skills and behaviors must be prioritized in order to have the best chance for achieving one’s sobriety goals.
The general view behind the suggestion to refrain from starting a new relationship in the early recovery stage is that anything that will distract from this necessarily intense self-focus will reduce the chance for recovery success. In addition, it is not really fair to a potential partner to make a commitment to a relationship when you cannot be sufficiently available to them or the relationship itself, which also requires “tending.”
Here are some pros and cons to weigh when considering a relationship while in recovery:
- A relationship can provide a built-in support system: A committed partner can be a cheerleader, a gentle task-master and a source of motivation to help the recovering person stay on track.
- A partner can help with the acquisition and practice of new, positive coping skills. Having a partner with established communication and emotional coping strategies can help the recovering partner learn and practice such skills by providing invaluable feedback and modeling.
- A healthy relationship can boost the self-esteem of the person in recovery. A shared vision, goals and mutual support can greatly assist the recovering person in feeling good about themselves and release the need to numb feelings or avoid self-assessment.
- A relationship can be a substitute addiction itself. For some people, especially in early recovery, the emotional “high” that accompanies a relationship can replace an addiction to substances, but the addictive process itself is still maintained.
- A relationship can thwart recovery goals. When in a relationship, self-reflection, introspection and the intense focus on one’s self is often sidelined as the maintenance of the relationship requires a focus on another and on shared goals.
- A relationship can easily become co-dependent. If partners are not careful, and recovery is not sufficiently established, a relationship can devolve into codependency, where partners excessively rely on one another for emotional and psychological support, rather than developing their own independently.
Balancing a Relationship and Personal Recovery Goals
It is possible to maintain a relationship and maintain your recovery goals if you keep these tips in mind:
- Be true to yourself as well as to the relationship. Remember that your first priority is to yourself and your recovery. Rather than being self-centered, or egotistical, this is a self-focused approach. You have to be your own best friend and supporter before you can effectively offer yourself to another.
- Prioritize honesty and openness in communication and feedback. Resist the temptation to fall back into old, addictive patterns when you are feeling vulnerable. This is the time for trusting your partner to accept you as you are and to build trust within your relationship.
- Practice kindness and compassion to both yourself and your partner. Recovery is hard—on you both. Kindness and compassion can provide the emotional salve to smooth over many bumps and bruises and can make the difference between success and failure, in both your recovery and your relationship.
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