Addiction is not a party. It's a slog, a struggle, a mess. Most anyone in recovery will be the first to tell you that. The second to say it? The person who loves and lives with them. Partners and spouses suffer, and many leave: One recent survey found that in half of divorced couples, at least one partner cited substance use as a major reason for the split. But recovery is a new chapter, offering new opportunities and hope.
As we often write, recovery from addiction is hard work, and some of the toughest, rawest moments happen in the course of reckoning with and repairing relationships. In the early days of recovery, either or both partners in a relationship might feel disconnected from their significant other or guilty for hurting them with past actions.
But you can grow and heal together. Therapy and other support services are a great place to start as you find healthy ways to mend your relationship and move forward. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) notes a few benefits of counseling that can also be read as broader goals in recovery relationships: "to improve the quality of relationships, engage in healthier communication and build positive relationships with one another."
And guess what? Working toward that, in turn, bolsters recovery itself.
The Importance of Supporting Your Partner During Your Recovery — Or Theirs
Having the support of a significant other you love can make all the difference, especially in the phases of treatment and early recovery from substance use disorder (SUD).
Whether it's you or your partner in early recovery, remember you are not alone in your experience; everything you feel will impact how you react to your partner's actions and choices. Many couples struggling with SUD fall into maladaptive, codependent or enabling relationships to avoid emotional distress. Treatment and therapy can help you avoid those behaviors in recovery and ensure that you support one another in healthy ways.
Love and encouragement from a significant other can empower and motivate the partner in recovery through these early days. Some of the benefits of close partner relationships during this period include:
- Greater accountability
- Stronger support system
- Increased motivation to follow treatment protocols and heal
- Improved emotional stability
- Reduced feelings of isolation or loneliness
If you're the recovering partner, having someone in your corner who supports you without judgment can help you feel more confident in overcoming your addiction. Being able to share your successes and feel proud of what you accomplish is one of the great joys of early recovery; it will boost your overall well-being and self-confidence.
How Addiction Erodes Relationships
All relationships that involve excessive substance use are affected by it to some degree.
A strong and loving relationship can actually help pull the struggling partner up. According to a study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, "Marriage, cohabiting relationships, and non-cohabiting dating relationships were associated with reductions in heavy drinking" and drug use. Healthy romantic relationships can also lessen the risk of developing additional substance use disorders or mental health issues.
But untreated addiction can seriously damage your relationship. Either partner may feel:
- Loss of trust
- Lack of responsibility and reliability
- Inability to communicate effectively
- Emotional disconnect
There are other aggravating factors. For example, the financial strain often caused by severe substance use can put a relationship under heavy stress. Substance use is also linked to domestic violence. No partner is obliged to stick with the relationship and "fix" the other.
Healing Together From the Damage of Addiction
If you, as a couple, decide to make it work in recovery, you'll most likely need to take steps to repair your connection. As we mentioned, therapy is often a highly effective option, but some couples may explore peer-led support groups, alternative holistic therapies and other support options as well.
Proceed in the relationship with real willingness to achieve all of the following, and it'll help you both get back to a place of closeness:
- Active communication
- Openness to having difficult conversations
- Acceptance of past choices
- Accountability for personal decisions
Some of this may feel new, some may be painful and you'll both make missteps. But you'll make progress, and you absolutely can have a beautiful relationship again.
How You Can Help Your Partner Through the First Steps of Recovery
If your partner or spouse is undergoing treatment or embarking on early recovery following substance use issues, you can significantly improve their resilience and emotional health by showing your love and support.
Every person has unique needs during this time, and significant others often know the best way to inspire and encourage their loved ones.
Both you and your loved one need to feel heard, understood and valued. Your relationship is vital to positive mental and emotional well-being during the recovery process. It's also possible that both of you decide to enter addiction treatment or early recovery. Mutual understanding and compassion will help you continue moving forward as you support each other.
A Final Word on Holding Them Accountable
People in recovery benefit from having loved ones hold them accountable for their behaviors and choices. You're not the "bad cop" for doing so. Major lifestyle changes are challenging; when your partner has someone to keep them on track, it will make their transition to sober life easier.
Here's a phrase that has become a mantra in some recovery circles: The opposite of addiction is connection. In the best cases, recovery will strengthen the connection and deepen the understanding you and your partner share – sometimes beyond what you've ever had.