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How Recovering Couples Can Deepen Their Friendship

Steps to Increase Intimacy and Closeness

Friendship is essential in developing and maintaining an intimate relationship. Based on John Gottman’s groundbreaking research involving 3,000 couples over 40 years on what makes relationships successful. We now know what it takes to foster friendship in an intimate relationship.

Gottman found that couples with the greatest relationship satisfaction consistently demonstrated strengths in three areas:

  • Building Love Maps
  • Sharing Fondness and Admiration
  • Making Bids and the Emotional Bank Account

Each of these components require specific relationship skills. Recovering couples have additional challenges to consider. Let me introduce you to three couples, problems they are experiencing in their friendship, and what they can do about it in the context of couple recovery.

Key Skill #1: Love Maps

Alice drove home from her AA meeting. She was excited about an awareness that opened up new insights on a recent struggle. As she walked in through the door Michael greeted her with “About time you got home, what an evening I have had with the kids. Jess needs a bath”. Alice silently felt deflated and resentful. She shrugged her shoulders stating “OK”, and walked past Michael to tend to Jess.

Goal: Sharing Your World with Each Other

Good friends know something about their friend’s world. Sharing day-to-day experiences brings partners closer together emotionally. Keeping up with changes is important. Good friends check in with each other and make a committed effort to listen without judgment.

Catching up on the day

Michael and Alice need to take time to catch up with each other’s day. Agreeing to set a time each night to get a “live update” fosters a sense of knowing your partner and his/her world. It is about being known and understood by your partner. Finding a time to talk after Jess’s bath, Alice could share that she had a particularly meaningful meeting. For example, without necessarily sharing details, she could let Michael know how she feels about what she is learning about herself. Michael could share what was stressful for him. Making space for for both partners is crucial.

Asking each other about the day and what is was like goes a long way in giving each partner a sense of feeling loved and cared for. Unless asked for, the key is to avoid giving advise or giving one’s own perspective. Instead, learn a little bit more about your partner’s external and internal world.

Key Skill #2: Fondness and Admiration

Chris was learning in therapy how difficult it was for him to ask for what he needed. He felt desperate as he looked at his partner Sam. Chris concluded that after Sam got in recovery he seemed more self-centered. It was difficult for Chris to share his thoughts and feelings with Sam. It’s hard to notice what is going right in the relationship with increasing resentment about what isn’t working. Sometimes partners may need to step back from the negativity and focus on what is working. Gratitude changes attitude.

Goal: Sharing Your Appreciation with Each Other

Friends are able to express what they like and appreciate in each other. Feeling loved and appreciated creates feelings of emotional safety and trust. Would you want to stay in a friendship where you felt constantly criticized and judged? Likewise, couples need to remember to express needs, but also to focus on the positive qualities and attributes of their partner.

What are you grateful to your partner for?

If Chris was asked what he appreciated about Sam, he may remember that Sam did take him out for a wonderful birthday dinner last month. He may recall that Sam often asked how his therapy sessions were going. He also was grateful that Sam called his family to tell them they were not able to attend the family reunion this year because Sam had an important work conflict. Noticing and giving voice to what we appreciate in our partner provides balance avoiding black and white thinking. Increasing positivity helps partners deal with the negative problematic areas of the relationship.

Key Skill #3: Bids and the Emotional Bank Account

Lisa and Bill led very active and busy lives. It was hard to find time for each other. Both were attending a mutual aid group to support their individual recovery efforts. They were considering joining Recovering Couples Anonymous, but hadn’t yet taken those initial steps to find meetings. They both felt that their relationship had taken the backseat to the point they were feeling distant and disconnected.

Remember the song “You’ve Got a Friend”? The lyrics tell of how the friend expresses his commitment to the friendship; he will be there, just give a call. A bid refers to every time a partner reaches out for connection or attention. When the other partner responds positively to that bid, it’s like putting money in the emotional bank account. A bank account in the black builds friendship and closeness.

However, if the bid is ignored, or if what comes back is negative or attacking, it’s like taking money out of the emotional bank account. Over time, that bank account may end up in the red, leading to emotional disconnection. Gottman found it was the little bids and positive responses that made a huge difference in the big picture of the relationship.

Goal: Make Attempts to Initiate and Respond to Efforts to Connect

For example, a bid might be “Let’s talk and walk after dinner, how does that sound?” Any response that acknowledged the partner’s bid is turning toward and builds up the emotional bank account. Turning toward responses include, “Sounds good”… or, “I’m kind of tired, how about a rain check?” Frequent bids and positive responses to those bids can turn a relationship back on to the path of a good friendship.

Taking a moment to connect

Once Lisa and Bill understood the importance of bids and the emotional bank account, they focused on trying to better recognize when the partner was reaching out. They usually responded and acknowledged the bid with words or a smile. Studies indicate if bids are ignored and rejected, the bidder stops trying. The net effect over time is an emotionally distant relationship. Lisa and Bill, as with the other two couples, will do best if they can try to incorporate and work on all three components of friendship: Love Maps, Fondness and Admiration, and Bids.

Make Time for Each Other

Recovering couples are challenged with finding a place for recovery in the relationship. Partners with one or both in recovery are often unsure how to share more as a couple. Some individuals find themselves alone in their recovery or even criticized by their partners for being in recovery. Regardless of each individual situation, developing a better friendship means “progress not perfection” in each of these areas. Having a discussion about these concepts is a step in the direction of improving or strengthening one core aspect of a satisfying friendship.

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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