Relationships in Addiction, and Recovery

Relationships in addiction and recovery are common issues that everyone has to address in the process of getting better. Our active addiction affects relationships across a wide range. And, really, no matter what the interactions we have with other people during active addiction, there is some degree of difficulty. Of course, the closer the relationship is, and the more regular interaction it demands, the greater the difficulty that can arise.

Effects Upon Primary Relationships in Addiction

Primary relationships are those that are regarded as the closest and most significant. Typically, these involve spouses or partners, children, siblings, and parents. Living in a home together can constitute a primary relationship with anyone if daily life is shared rather than if the arrangement is simply sharing space as roommates might who have no other significant bond. The primary relationships in our lives are the most vulnerable to disturbance in active addiction. And, these relationships are the ones we are likely to find ourselves in pain over, as well as in need of making amends and repairs.

It is often said that addiction is a family disease, and in any primary relationship, this usually bears out as true. Chronic substance uses impairs us on many levels–emotionally, mentally, behaviorally and even spiritually. It can also dismantle any realm of life such as the financial, the social, and even the legal standing we have had prior to substance problems. Given all this, one’s addiction has rippling negative effects throughout the family unit that is interdependent and reliant upon its members in many ways.

Many spouse and partners, as well as larger family units, depend on all of their members to contribute to the household stability, well-being and functioning in some way. Even the youngest members of a family have their parts to do to contribute well-being and smooth household and family functioning. Before dismissing the role of an infant in creating household and family well-being or chaos, think for example how the home functions when the infant is ill and cannot be consoled…

When a family member is impaired, that member’s responsibilities and contributions to the family shift to the rest of the family members. When income is lost due to substance-related behavior, someone else has to compensate for that, or the entire family suffers because of it. When parenting is no longer viable for the addicted person, someone else has to shoulder those responsibilities…

Loss and Grief–Relationships in Addiction

The loved ones of a person with an addiction struggle in many ways. It is painful to lose someone to an addictive illness, that is exactly what happens–an addiction takes the loved one over time in greater and greater pieces. It can very much seem that the addicted loved one has died in some way, even while living. In such situations, we lose a great deal: companionship, intimacy, affection, time, shared moments, the opportunity to create good memories together… This situation can be a long-standing event, too. Loved ones often live with years of loss, and a worsening, compounding sense of loss as the illness progresses. These sorts of dynamics leave loved ones in an unusually prolonged grief and one that isn’t allowed to heal before more loss accumulates.

The losses and grief experiences are not just limited to losing the addicted loved one to a series of intoxications. There are other ‘more personal’ losses for loved ones. These involve the loss of a fully available partner or spouse, or the loss of a fully available parent, for example. And, each member of a family that has an addicted loved one will have his or her own personal losses in this regard, too.

More internally, loved ones can experience loss in their own growth and development, no matter how old they are, or at what stage of life. An elder may lose the opportunity to enjoy retirement, the young adult may lose the opportunity to leave home and go to college because the family needs him. Or, a child may lose her dreams of an addicted parent attending milestone events in her life…

Codependency and Enabling in Relationships in Addiction

Codependency and enabling are likely responses when there is a long relationship with an addicted person. There are many dynamics at work in both these issues, but some of the most common are:

Felt responsibility for the well-being of the addicted person

Felt responsibility for ‘fixing’, controlling and minimizing the damage caused by the addiction

Feelings of guilt and shame about another’s addiction

Intense anxiety that drives compulsive behavior like caretaking

Sacrificing for others and disregarding one’s own well-being

Denial that obscures the reality of the situation

Fear of something bad happening if one does not enable

Belief that one can control or even cure the addicted loved one, or should be able to

Chronic depression with lack of pleasure, low self-esteem, feelings of emptiness, helplessness, and hopelessness

Already Established Relationship Issues in Addiction Recovery

Treatment finds many of us ashamed, remorseful, guilty and grief-stricken as we realize the damage that has occurred in our relationships. It’s common to ‘wake up’ in rehab having a very sobering moment in which we see such damage. If we are to return to a marriage or to resume parenting, for example, there is work that has to be done to prepare for that.

We have work to do in our social relationships as well. By the time an addiction has taken us to rehab, we have accumulated a lot of dysfunction relationships that revolve around using. We have using buddies, or dealers, for example. And, we have typically involved others through their codependency and enabling. We ‘need’ codependents in active addiction who will stick with us, and take up our slack. We also need enablers that will help fund our addiction by cleaning up after us when we’ve made financial or other responsibility-related messes.

Our recovery efforts will find us having to make a series of relationship adjustments. We have to find ways to deal with the using buddies and the dealers, for example. How will you avoid interactions? How will you cope when someone offers you substances?

Also, in the more significant relationships, how will you manage your burdensome bad feelings about yourself and any losses you’ve incurred in important relationships? How will you forgive yourself, make amends, and accept the wishes and feelings of others you have hurt? Not all will easily heal from your past dealings with them, and not all will be willing to resume a close relationship.

Regarding codependents and enablers, how will you avoid falling back into those patterns that make fertile soil for relapse? All such issues require commitment on your part to address them effectively, and these sorts of patterns can be tenacious. Even others can be. It’s not unusual for example, to have people you’ve used with, or buy drugs from, to be very persistent. And, those close to us have their own patterns that aren’t always easy to change. How will you deal with loved ones who are used to taking care of your responsibilities for you?

Establishing New Relationships in Recovery

An essential part of your recovery plan is establishing and maintaining a recovery support system. It is a vital part of anyone’s relapse prevention plan. We are social by human nature and do best when part of a group in which we feel we belong, can contribute, and are supported.

Not having a good support system leaves us vulnerable. Isolation and loneliness, as well as self-pity and self-doubt, are difficult to manage, and almost certain to emerge when we don’t have adequate support. Of course, very few newly sober people have an already intact and healthy support group. And the longer you were in active addiction, the greater your chances of having none.

It’s important to set about building a recovery support system as you would approach any other task that needs to be done. You have to be proactive, and not wait for people to come to you because that doesn’t work. You have to put yourself in places where there are such people–like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous (AA or NA); other support groups and counseling services, a faith community. And, once there, you have to reach out, initiating, and cultivating the relationships once a connection has been made.

You should include relationships in your support system that provide several different types of recovery support such as friends, family members, 12 Step members, peers from the faith community, and professionals, for example. Having a diverse and well-rounded mix of supports provides the greatest quality of support, and you will find dramatically increases your resiliency.

Establishing New Social Relationships in Recovery

One of the slippery slopes of recovery is the love and/or sexual relationship. It is tempting for any newly sober person to miss the comfort of their substance use, and to look for substitutes. This works well if the replacements are healthy like exercise, meditation or a remembered passion for a particular hobby. However, the slope is slippery when your replacement for substance abuse becomes another consuming, obsessive and compulsive activity like love and sex can become.

Many treatment and recovery people will recommend that you not enter a new intimate relationship until you have some sobriety time under your belt. Some even say for the first year of sobriety you shouldn’t. However you choose to proceed, you should be aware that love relationships and sexual relationships can share many things with an addiction such as mood and mind alterations. And, if you do find yourself entering a new intimate relationship, it is helpful to discuss it with trusted recovery supports.