I see a lot of couples in my office that have alcoholism and addiction as part of their relationship. It might be that one or both of the partners is in recovery from drugs or alcohol, or they may still be active in their addiction and that’s why they’ve come for my help. They may have even suffered trauma in their family as a result of substance abuse by a family member and that has affected their relationship with their partner.
What happens in relationships when people get into recovery is that trust is always an issue. Addicts are master manipulators and will say or do whatever they think they need to get their drug. This means that spouses are often lied to, and trust is broken. My task is to help couples learn how to put their relationship into recovery as they recover individually.
12 step programs are wonderful and work very well for some people. It requires a commitment to work the steps and to attend the meetings. People “in the program” or new to recovery are advised not to enter into any new intimate relationships for at least one year. Do they listen? No they do not. What happens then is that I end up with couples in my office who met each other in a 12 step meeting, get together, fall in love and get married.
It seems all good on the surface. The logic is, we’re clean sober and not using drugs, we both are in the program, so what’s the harm? Then you begin to live together, have normal couple stress, maybe have a child together and things begin to go south. Why would you be surprised that you might be having problems with someone you met in AA? Think back about where you were in your sobriety when you met your wife. If you were new in recovery, you might think that she is the one who “saved” you from yourself and helped you get clean and sober. Did she really do that? Or was she a wonderful distraction that kept you from working on your problems or from working the steps you needed to get through to get to the bottom of your alcohol problem?
People use alcohol to cope with stress and with emotions they’d rather not feel or are too painful to face. AA warns against substituting one drug for another and we can see that moving too quickly into a new relationship while you’re new to sobriety can fit that description of substituting one drug for another. Your love affair becomes your drug and you put all your energy into that instead of into your own mental and emotional well- being. Everything in your life gets tied up in that one person and you don’t think of anything else. Sound familiar? This is the same thing we do in addiction. We only think of the one need as being thing that makes us happy.
If you’ve not done the work on yourself to be on a solid footing in your recovery, your sobriety is at risk. If all you’re doing is sweeping the root causes of your problem under the rug and using your relationship as the fixer, it’s not going to work for either of you. Is it any wonder that as soon as you begin to be stressed in your relationship, you revert back to your same old patterns of behavior, and the same problems you’ve had in your life resurface? Why? You didn’t do the work. No one person can save you, no relationship or marriage is the answer to your addiction. You only complicate the other’s life and shouldn’t be surprised when problems come up and you don’t know how to cope since you never learned those coping skills in the program.
You go into recovery because your life is out of control. You admit that you’re powerless over your addiction. What makes you think you can control your emotional life? I always do my best to help these couples stay together but it’s a hard road for them. It’s a tall order for me to help them see why the advice to stay away from new relationships in recovery is so sound.
So if you’re new to sobriety, new in the program and don’t have much “clean time,” I strong advise you to work on yourself. Get a sponsor in the program, but don’t have a love affair with them. Make friends and develop a strong support system. You’re going to need it.
If you find someone in AA or NA that you are attracted to, get to know them. Spend lots of time together as friends. If you do decide that you want to be a couple, consider all of the consequences. Sex changes everything between friends and adds a whole other emotional layer to the relationship. Can you handle it?
Keep in mind the advice of the program and work on your own emotional issues and get yourselves on a solid foundation of healthy interaction and self- awareness before you jump off the deep end into a romantic attachment. Work your steps and help yourselves and each other to recover individually before making that commitment to each other. Then I might not have to see you in my office for marital problems later on.
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