Imagine this scene for a moment…
Your partner is picking you up from treatment today. You’ve been in a 90-day residential program for alcohol dependency. You’ve been drinking daily for the last 2 years prior to treatment and surrendering to your addiction was probably one of the hardest things you’ve ever done. You leave the treatment center today, sober, rested, motivated, and hopeful. You hop in the car to head home. You are excited to sleep in your bed, eat your food, hug your children, and snuggle your pets. You pull into the driveway and suddenly a wave of anxiety rushes over you. You look at your partner wide-eyed and terrified. You think to yourself, “Who am I in this home without alcohol?” and “ How do I begin life anew as a spouse, a parent, just a functioning adult? Where do I start?”
As the supporting spouse or partner, you have a similar but different parallel process going on. You experience a wide range of emotions related to your partner’s homecoming. One minute you are anxious but hopeful for the future. And then the next minute, flooded with horrible memories of their active addiction. Hardened from all the lies, hurt, and betrayal during that time. You are desperate to have your partner back home but so scared the chaos could return at any moment. You are accustomed to over-functioning and hyper-vigilance which makes it difficult to see life beyond the addiction. You ask yourself, “How do I support this person when I feel like I barely know them right now?” “How do I welcome this person back home and ensure a sense of normalcy when this feels like everything but normal?”
Watching your partner battle addiction of any kind can be painful, confusing, infuriating, and often down right defeating. When your partner finally commits to treatment there is a sigh of relief. You can breathe again. In that time of treatment, you experience real hope, perhaps for the first time in a long time and, therefore, will do anything to protect that. Recovery efforts go far beyond just the person who is addicted and impacts the entire system around them, most notably, the partner/spousal system. And just like there is a battle for life in active addiction, there is also a fight to regain control and normalcy on this side of recovery.
Being able to visualize and create a future without alcohol, drugs, gambling, pornography, etc. may be intimidating and scary, but can also be a very freeing and optimistic experience. Recovery in many ways is not “going back to normal” instead, it’s usually working to create a new normal. And as the partner or spouse, you have a crucial role to play in helping your recovering partner navigate that journey safely and courageously.
It’s okay to be anxious about how to help your partner acclimate to life outside of addiction. Here are a few tips to help guide you along in the recovery process that ensure both you and your partner are supported:
Expect change and more change
Recovery is an ever-evolving process. Integrating back into home-life post treatment can be quite the adjustment. Whether your partner participated in a residential program for 30 days or more or an Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) which still allowed them to remain at home, making sense of oneself without drugs or alcohol in their life can be a trying time. What they may have confidence in taking on week one out of treatment may shift and change many times over the next several months. They may not be ready to juggle all the same responsibilities as they did prior to addiction taking over. Be patient. Check-in with them. Go at a pace that is comfortable for where they are in their process and provide encouragement and support as they begin taking on more tasks inside and outside the home.
Educate and take care of yourself
One of the most integral things a spouse or partner can do for themselves and a recovering mate is to learn about the disease of addiction and understand that you also are going through a recovery process of your own. Making the effort to learn and gain insight about this disease, signals to your recovering partner that you care. Additionally, having the support needed on those really hard days is essential to your own recovery process. Programs like AL-ANON , NAR-ANON, and SMART recovery are great for education and support. Additionally, SAMHSA is an excellent resource for reading material and finding other support in your area.
Try not to compound their self-doubt
I have heard repeatedly from those working to overcome addiction that they are very much aware of their shortcomings and are typically mindful of how their actions have fractured relationships with loved ones, whether they have openly admitted or not. Nonetheless, the addict in recovery has plenty of doubts in the back of their mind already. Refrain from adding to this. Attacking their character, putting them down, and always associating them with their addiction may have adverse effects.
Express your belief in them
When someone is fighting to remain clean and sober it’s important to regularly let them know that you believe in them. They are desperate to be more than just the addiction and they are vying for the trust of many around them. In order to keep pushing forward, continued positive affirmations from you can be extremely helpful in getting through each day, sober.
Acknowledge their progress
I had a client recently tell his spouse about his need to feel known and seen for his continued fight to maintain sobriety. He has been clean and sober for almost two years and this need is still incredibly strong for him. It’s important to validate their struggle but notice their achievements and verbalize it. For instance, If you are feeling proud of their efforts to help around the house and take on more responsibilities tell them! If you see them doing well in their new job while juggling AA meetings after work, tell them!
Create a relapse prevention plan together
Another way to say this is, have a game plan to combat triggers for use. You can be a part of this process in a number of ways. You may be involved in this process directly as your partner works toward completion of their treatment program or your partner may share their plan with you upon their return home. No matter how the information comes to you, be receptive and supportive. Now, someone in recovery may not tell you when they are feeling triggered to use due to the amount of shame, guilt and other feelings they may be experiencing. Therefore, it may be important for you to know your partner’s triggers and signs of relapse.
Don’t feel defeated if using enters their mind or even if relapse happens
Just like with any disease, relapse is a possibility. In fact, relapse is pretty common in most stories of recovery and can often take a couple (even several) attempts for everything to gel or find the right type of treatment that is meaningful and effective. As frustrating and defeating as relapse can feel, don’t give up. Be sure to take time to process your own emotions in a healthy way in order to support your partner’s needs.
Shared sober space
A common dilemma that supporting partners run into is discerning if they are able to recreationally partake in substances while their partner is in recovery. Supporting partners may fear that their use could trigger their partner to relapse or create a division in the relationship, or both. Particularly in early recovery, abstaining from use especially in front of your recovering partner is incredibly important. Additionally, ensuring that the home is free of drugs and alcohol will help to minimize visual triggers for use. Having a shared sober space/home will drastically improve the risk of relapse. This is a conversation to have with your partner continually throughout recovery regarding their comfort levels being around stimuli related to their addiction. If your partner feels uncomfortable, be respectful of that.
Try couples therapy
If your relationship continues to struggle throughout recovery, couples therapy may be a viable option. Research indicates that people who engage in couples therapy show a greater reduction in substance use than those who are only receiving individual therapy. It’s important to note that not all couples are appropriate for couples therapy related to addiction, most notably if there are current domestic violence concerns or legal issues, such as active restraining orders that could hinder the process. However, if you feel that you and your partner could benefit from having a safe place to explore the complex emotions and unique circumstances that couples facing addiction encounter please consider contacting us. If you are ready to schedule an appointment and live in Arizona, North Carolina, South Carolina, or Texas, we can help through virtual and in-person sessions.