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Restoring Trust: A Tricky Balancing Act

Addictive Disorders and Trust

Trust is basic to the foundation of any significant relationship. It is hard to imagine anybody feeling comfortable in a relationship where trust has been broken consistently. How do couples impacted by addiction and by recovery deal with the ongoing issue of trust – or more to he point mistrust?

Tom and Jana

Tom had been struggling with his feelings since Jana began recovery from a severe alcohol use disorder. At first he felt tremendous relief when she began going to her support meetings and had reassured him of her commitment to sobriety and her program.

Tom found that his relief was  soon replaced by increasing fear and anger. He seemed plagued by a relentless internal and silent stream of anxiety fueled by questions he couldn’t turn off:

  • “Are  her eyes blood-shot? Maybe she’s tired, or maybe she has she been drinking?”
  • “Why isn’t she home, the meeting was over 40 minutes ago?”  
  • Will she drink if I tell her how angry I really am at the mess her drinking has caused?”
  • “Will she drink because of the stress she feels at work?”
  • “Is that alcohol I smell on her breath or is it the new toothpaste she bought?…Why did she buy new tooth paste?”

Jana knew Tom struggled with trust. While she could understand his anxiety, if she were honest with herself, she also resented it. From Jana’s perspective she was doing everything she could to work her program, stay sober, and deal with work stress. Jana felt that she did not have any right to share her feelings and struggles with Tom. Thankfully she had outside support, but she was feeling uncomfortable that she was keeping secrets from Tom, again. That felt way too familiar from when she tried to hide her drinking from him.

Recovery: The New Elephant

Jana figured it out, what bothered Jana the most was that Tom’s mistrust was starting to feel like the new elephant in the living room – they both knew it was there, but nobody was talking about it. Their relationship felt as off balance as it did before Jana stopped drinking, just in a different way.

Tom didn’t want to upset Jana, but sometimes he couldn’t hold back the questions or the extended looks that communicated the fear and anxiety he was feeling. Jana felt guilty about her alcohol use disorder and felt that she owed Tom a lot of patience. However, it was becoming increasingly difficult for her to deal with the tension every time something triggered Tom’s fears.

What Strategies Might Help Tom and Jana?

After some encouragement and support from the therapist, Jana and Tom began to share their feelings. The therapist told them that their struggles with trust were normal for a couple in recovery, especially early recovery. Things do not automatically get better when a partner gets into recovery. In fact, new problems emerge, and issues in the relationship that have laid dormant start to re-emerge. While old problems may need to be put away a bit longer for now, current feelings and struggles with trust need to be dealt with in the here and now.

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Individual Health and Recovery Focus for Both is Crucial

Tom agreed that he needed to learn more about addiction and how to deal with his feelings, especially related to control and fear regarding Jana’s recovery. Through education, support, and an awareness Tom would get better at recognizing and managing his feelings. Accepting he can not control Jana’s recovery did not mean that he could not share his feelings with her.

The therapist encouraged Jana to try to not respond defensively when Tom is describing his feelings (and not her). It is normal for partners to struggle with trust after all the deceit and lying that comes with active addiction. The person with the addiction struggles to come to grips with their own loss of control and inability to stop. This certainly was the case with Jana’s drinking history and her attempts to hide and deny her drinking from Tom.

Tom also learned that Jana’s feelings were very typical of somebody early in recovery. Guilt mixed with anger and frustration at feeling not trusted is “Par for the course”, the therapist reassured them both. Both partners had feelings that needed validation if nothing else.

The Relationship Needs Recovery Too

This approach of finding ways to express feelings, while at the same time holding boundaries, breaks from traditional guidelines of only focusing on self. Avoiding relationship issues is summarized in the mantra, “Stay on your own side of the street”.

A New Recovery Approach: Partner Communication

Partners who learn to state what they see, share feelings, and express needs begin to break the patterns established in active addiction as summarized in Claudia Black’s signature statement about the family rules learned in addiction: Don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel.

Research on stable and satisfying relationships points to these successful couples communicating in a way that avoids blaming the partner. Trust is built on each person knowing there is room to talk about what is happening in the relationship, even difficult emotions.

Communication involves the person describing themselves as opposed to describing the partner. Listening skills involve non-defensive responses aimed at trying to understand the partner’s perspectives, whether the partner agrees or not. There are three areas that partners include when talking about concerns in the relationship:

  • Here is what I see happening…
  • This is how I feel about what I see happening…
  • Here is what I need, or hope for…

Putting Strategies Into Action

When Tom thought Jana’s eyes looked bloodshot and that worried him, he learned to say, “I noticed your eyes look blood-shot. This makes me anxious and brings back old feelings. I just want you to know what I am feeling and why.” That may be all he would want to say.

He may need more, however, and add the question “I would like to know if you did drink alcohol.” There, it’s out in the open and not hidden. Tom then could choose to deal with how Jana responds in the context of his own recovery and wellness, and keeping healthy boundaries.

A New Way to Acknowledge What is in the Room

This approach breaks with current conventional thinking about codependency. Jana could listen and acknowledge Tom’s feelings. She could also answer the question, truthfully, or she could lie. In any case this process at least brings the question out in the open, rather than leaving it unspoken and lingering. The alternative of not saying anything is an old pattern well established in active addiction – silence or attack. Recovery is often doing the exact opposite.

Defining Trust

I don’t ask partners to trust each other or to expect trust. I define trust in the context of what healthy couples do. They have an interdependent relationship defined as:

In this relationship we need to trust that it is okay to share our thoughts, feelings and needs without being criticized as speaker or listener.


Partners sharing reactions and expressing themselves is not the same as trying to control each other. We can ask for what we need, and the other person can chose how to respond.

Expressing Perceptions, Feelings, and Needs

Is this codependent? I could see an argument for viewing this approach as codependent if the motivation for Jana and Tom to share feelings and ask these questions is to control, blame, guilt, or manipulate the other.What we are aiming for is establishing a way for partners to trust that in this relationship it is okay to express what they see, what they feel, and what they need, and establish healthy boundaries.

Trust and recovery really is a balancing act of healthy behaviors for the individual and for the relationship. The more stable the relationship, the greater the likelihood of successful recovery for both partners.

There will be times and circumstances when it’s best to not have the above type of conversation. The overall goal is to find that balance so that recovery does not become the new elephant in the living room.

If you have any thoughts about this article please include them in the comments section below. Your voice is important. What issues do you see for couples in long-term or early recovery?

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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