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Relationships After Addictions Recovery

Relationships disintegrate too often after recovery from addictions. Learn how to avoid triggering shame in the partner in recovery to have greater success.

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After almost 40 years of working to help couples, I offer a podcast of substance on what relationships require to last for the long haul. I use books & movies to illustrate the points I’m trying to make. I offer challenges of things you can actually do in your own relationship at the end of every podcast which is under 10 minutes.

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Removing the addiction can topple over the marriage. I made a mistake with one of my clients (who was a couple of decades into recovery) a few weeks ago. I was concerned because he’d repeated a severe mistake that profoundly affected his spouse. In my deep concern I tread too heavily on his shame and I was fortunate he was able to speak up and let me know so I could make amends.

Then the next morning, when I still felt bad about the night before, I had a couple that has been very successful but she and her husband were stuck. I realized it was because her husband had triggered her shame and that was why they were dead in the water.

As an alcoholic in a very new recovery, I was able to teach her about shame as her stumbling block. Shame is a land mine waiting to destroy couples who step on the trigger without realizing it.

Those who are in recovery have a real struggle to push through their shame to be successful. That’s why AA can be so helpful – it’s a room full of people sharing their shame with each other. This helps to diffuse the shame.

Relationships can have only one person in recovery and often the other partner is too comfortable being the good one who has put up with too much crap from the alcoholic or addict. It’s so easy to point the finger and be the martyr. Too many marriages fail because only one partner is willing to look at themselves and recognize their part in the problem.

So Step 1 for a successful relationship after an addict is in recovery is for both people to accept they have a part in the problem.

Step 2 is to change bad habits of fighting that trigger shame for the partner in recovery. Let me give you an example:
Describe your experience –
“I’m really frustrated that you don’t recognize this is important to me,” instead of:
“You are so selfish, you always ignore what’s important to me.”

Can you see how the second statement is an immediate trip wire into the spiral of shame and defenses will build up so quickly that nothing will change?

Shame is something I think about a lot because so many people can’t climb out of it to get better and I still made the mistake of adding to someone’s shame so I know exactly how difficult this is. And yet it is crucial. It would be great to reduce the divorce rate after someone is in recovery.

The bad habits with each other, layered slowly over time, takes a good chunk of time to undo to create new, healthy behaviors.

Imagine the worst things you’ve ever done, gnawing at you in silence over the years. Things you are deeply ashamed of. These are things that rob you of your belief in progress, change, or success. We want to forget who we’ve been so we gamble and drink, use pills or heroin or sex – the goal is to become numb to the memories.

Someone in recovery is like a toddler learning to walk. They fall down into the shame so quickly and want to give up. If the person I’m with makes me feel bad all of the time then why not find someone else in recovery instead. They won’t have the memories to see the ugly me. They’ll be willing to give me a fresh start to see me as the good person I know I can be. I just don’t want to look in the mirror of ugliness and shame that my partner keeps holding up.

It’s too hard. I need to breathe and know I will make it, not be reminded of who I was. In my mind, the core of addiction is taking the easy way out. Moving on is easier.

So if you are in recovery and you decide to try and work on the original relationship you have to find ways to tolerate the shame better within yourself and teach your partner how you get triggered and stuck in shame.

If you are in a relationship with someone in recovery you have to give up the blame that’s been so easy to do over the years. You have to try and not add to the shame that is already there. Both of you have to keep working on how to be a team. That’s Step 3. Addictions create two ships passing in the night.

The over-responsibility, over-functioning, controlling, non-using partner with the formerly under-functioning, under-responsible addict . (Movie)

Being a team means learning how to see each other in new ways and both people need to step up and own their part in the problems. It means making deals and sticking to your promises. Being a team is complicated and requires a lot of honesty.

If the person who is in recovery can’t feel their potential to be a good person because the past history is suffocating, then the couple will not survive. The addict in recovery cannot spend years developing intimacy with others in AA or NA and not work on intimacy at home.

My challenge:
The addict in recovery needs to self-evaluate their shame and needs to share how it trips them up. The non-using partner needs to consider Al-Anon, Nar-Anon or Sex-Anon. They need to learn how to not add to their partner’s shame and be less easily disgusted.

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About the Rhoda Mills Sommer

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