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Recovery in Three Short Chapters – Chapter 3: The Road to Couple Recovery



Chapter 3: The Road to Couple Recovery: An Alternate Path

Transitions – Alternate Recovery Path

John had hit bottom and decided to get help, he began an outpatient program and got into recovery. Carol was relieved now that the problem was finally being addressed. Just maybe their life could get back to normal.

At first Carol didn’t think she needed any help, after all, this was about John and his drinking. After getting a call from one of John’s counselors she reluctantly agreed to attend a family group where she was told she would learned about addiction, recovery, and codependency. She was shocked to think any of this was something she should work on. Yes addiction had impacted her, but John was now getting treatment. What else needed to happen?

Carol met with the counselor, despite her reservations and having more than a little bit of anxiety. The counselor asked how she was doing and how thing have been since John started recovery? At first Carol didn’t understand what she was being asked and thought the counselor was asking her how she thought John was doing. The counselor gently redirected her to talk about herself. Over the course of the session Carol heard herself begin to tell her story to the counselor, her real feelings and how difficult things have been for her.

Much to Carol’s relief, not once did she feel blamed. Carol was told that recovery is not about blaming the person with the use disorder, or the partner. It was important to understand and talk about the impact of addiction on relationships, as well as learn ways to develop healthy practices for individual and relationship growth.

Managing Emotions is Key

Carol responded that while that sounded like a good approach, in fact Carol was very angry and did blame John. The counselor again validated Carol’s feelings, that Carol’s feelings were normal. Living with addiction is actually traumatic for both partners. Carol hadn’t really thought about John’s own addiction being traumatic to him as well. She needed to understand more about alcoholism as a disease.

The counselor reassured Carol. “It makes perfect sense that you feel what you do. Both of you need individual support to deal with what you have been through. Learning about addiction and how it affects both partners is crucial in trying to make sense out of all that has happened. There are many paths for recovery, no one size fits everybody. Would you be willing to explore what may fit for you?” Carol felt hope for the first time in a long time.

The counselor told Carol about support and mutual aid groups, recovery therapists, 12-step programs, and alternatives to 12-step programs. The counselor also went on to explain what scientists have learned about addiction, and why good people do bad things, even to the ones they love the most. “A severe addiction is a disease that affects the parts of the brain related to reward and ultimately to judgement and decision-making.”

The counselor also suggested to John, and to Carol, they consider doing some couple work to create ways to talk about the changes that are taking place in the relationship. Setting boundaries to support individual growth did not mean ignoring the relationship. The two were not mutually exclusive.

“We have learned from research that the first year of recovery is very difficult for most couples, even with the partner remaining abstinent. Understanding how to make recovery a part of your relationship provides opportunities to support not only your relationship, but also both of your individual recoveries.”

A Place For Couple Recovery

Later that evening Carol and John shared their thoughts about the couples work. They both had more questions for what this would involve. The next day, in a conference call with the counselor, they asked their questions and expressed their concerns.

They were told that a research-based approach to couple recovery offered understanding and tools for supporting individual recovery and couple recovery, and included how to effectively manage conflict, establish healthy boundaries, develop a new relationship with one another, and change communication patterns. The counselor emphasized that recovering couples often need help with ways to talk about feelings and needs. Learning to find the balance between self-care and relationship-care can feel confusing, especially after living with the impact of addiction. It was surprising to learn that recovery brings a new set of challenges and problems. This in itself can feel traumatic as the addiction was traumatic.

John and Carol agreed to grab a cup of coffee the next day and discuss what they wanted to do about recovery. They both felt that they needed something to help them right now. They were committed to their individual recoveries, but they also realized the relationship needed attention too. Neither was willing to give up their own support system, their own programs, so learning to balance these recoveries would take work.

A Roadmap for Couple Recovery

When they shared their intention to piece together a recovery approach that addressed their individual as well as their relationship recovery, some of their recovery friends expressed concern that this could take away or distract them from their individual recovery. It seemed that there are firmly held beliefs well rooted in the recovery and addiction treatment communities, but nobody could really explain how not talking about what they were experiencing in recovery was better than talking about it.

There were so many things that have changed between them, so much they had been through. Why was it better to wait a year to talk about recovery and not now? Where did this time frame come from? John heard that 80% of the relapses take place in the first 90 days of recovery; clearly this was a crucial time. John asked his counselor about these concerns.

The counselor explained that Claudia Black, a pioneer in treating families with addiction, noted many years ago the common injunction she saw in alcoholic families: ‘Don’t talk, don’t trust, and don’t feel.

John wondered how is was different from current approaches in recovery where he and Carol were told to wait a year before talking about addiction and recovery? John reflected that not talking about recovery kind of felt the same as not talking about his drinking when he was in the middle of it. The silence in their relationship felt deafening John reflected.

John shared his conversation with Carol when he returned home. Carol, shook her head affirming she understood and related, “Today in a meditation I read this: ‘Your present circumstances don’t determine where you can go; they merely determine where you start.’

I think we need to do this for ourselves and our relationship.” John agreed, “I know we have to talk about what has happened, but maybe that will be easier if we start working on writing a new chapter.” Carol nodded, “It’s time.”

Dr. Robert Navarra

Robert Navarra, PsyD, LMFT, MAC, is a Master Certified Gottman Therapist, Trainer, and Speaker, and an author. He is is certified as Master Addiction Counselor and specializes in treating and researching couples in recovery from addictive disorders. Dr. Navarra created "Roadmap for the Journey: A Workshop for Couples Embracing Recovery" and "Couples and Addiction Recovery: A Gottman Approach for Therapists, Counselors, and Addiction Professionals".

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