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Is Couple Addiction Recovery Really a Thing?

What is Recovery ?

This is a really good question to grapple with, one that can be answered from many perspectives. Let’s start with some definitions found in some mainline professional addiction treatment sources. As you read each of these definitions, try to picture and visualize the person(s), real or imagined, that these definitions would or could be applied to.

Definition #1

“SAMHSA’s working definition of recovery defines recovery as a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live self-directed lives, and strive to reach their full potential.”

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

Definition #2

“Recovery from a substance use disorder is defined as a process of improved physical, psychological, and social well-being and health after having suffered from a substance-related condition. There are several other ways in which recovery can be defined – some, for example, mention the resolution of a substance use problem, while others specify abstinence.”

Recovery Research Institute

Definition #3

“Learning how to live in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction—actually changing your mind-set and behaviors in almost every aspect of your life—presents new challenges at every turn. As the recovery saying goes, it’s about learning to manage “life on life’s terms.”

Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, “Living in Recovery”

My guess is that the vast majority of people who read this article will imagine the person with the addiction as the person in recovery. Yet, if you re-read each definition and mentally try to place the partner, or family in the recovery definition, it takes a different turn and perspective. Try an experiment, re-read the definitions and imagine the couple relationship as it applies to these definitions. Additionally, you could substitute family in recovery. It is likely to be a new perspective, one that I think is largely missing in current recovery approaches.

Why are Couples Often Overlooked in Recovery?

I have worked in the addition field since 1985, some five years after I became licensed and started a private practice. It was the point in time when I realized that 85% of my clients were experiencing significant distress from substance issues impacting the relationship. I pursued addiction training, consultation, and completed a certificate program in addiction treatment to fill in the gaps in my training. In 2000 I began my research on couple recovery for my doctoral dissertation and have continued that work through the present. Throughout my career I have found that approaches to address couple recovery have been minimal. Unfortunately, I have seen a consistent blind eye to the plight couples and families face in the path from active addiction to active recovery.

Few addiction professionals would argue with the statement, “Addiction is a family disease”. The problem is that current recovery approaches and biases seem to not address what that really means. I believe there are several reasons why this is the case. 1) Addiction professionals and programs (including 12-Step programs, often don’t know what to do with couples beyond separating them and encouraging individual support and education on defining addiction, addressing “codependency”, and discouraging partners from talking about their individual recovery, much less their relationship recovery. 2) Couples aren’t aware that couple recovery is really important for the health of individual partners as well as for their relationships.

I have noticed that few people in 12-step programs have heard of Recovering Couples Anonymous, a 12-step program designed specifically for couples and help for their relationship based on the same steps and traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous, and Al-Anon Family Support Groups. The good news is that when I present to addiction professions in webinars and workshops, for professional groups and treatment programs, the response has been very positive and is summarized with a statement I have heard many times, “Why aren’t we doing this in treatment programs?”

Roadmap for the Journey and Couple Recovery

I have created two workshops through the encouragement and support of Drs. John & Julie Gottman and the Gottman Institute. The first workshop, Roadmap for the Journey, is a two-day workshop designed specifically for couples impacted by addiction and recovery. The transition from active addiction to active recovery is a significant challenge for most couples. This workshop provides tools to support three recoveries: each partner’s individual recovery, and the relationship recovery. I have blended my own research, the Couple Recovery Development Approach, with the Gottman’s Sound Relationship Model. For more information click here.

Couples and Addiction Recovery Training is designed for therapists and counselors and is based on the interventions I use in Roadmap for the Journey. I have presented this training live nationally and internationally. The Gottman Institute filmed a live presentation of this workshop. This training is now available as an on demand online class with an option I provide for a 90 minute live training session as part of a package. 8 CE’s are available as an extra option. For more information click here

The Legacy of Recovery

An 8-year study showed that a stable relationship with a significant other is the single biggest predictor of successful long-term recovery. Research also indicates that when a person with an addictive disorder gets into recovery that this increases the chance of others in the family with a substance use disorder of getting into recovery. Additionally, the skills in healing damage from the past, as well as developing new positive relationships that strengthen connection, all point to the important need for couple and family recovery.

Isn’t it time to put to rest the question of whether addiction recovery is really a couple’s thing? Given that the professional community has been slow to advocate for couple recovery, I am convinced that it will take couples and families to challenge the prevailing ideas that overlook the importance of couple recovery. What do you think?

Coming up next: Is Codependency Really A Thing?

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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