Addiction is difficult and affects not only the person with the substance use disorder, but also their close family, friends, coworkers and others. In fact, addiction can have a ripple effect in all areas of life.
According to a national study, there are approximately 20 million people in the United States with a substance use disorder. And of those, 9% have recovered from or resolved an alcohol or drug problem.
Helping a loved one live sober
As the partner of someone newly in recovery, you are probably experiencing a mixed bag of thoughts and emotions.
“You may have been traumatized by a variety of events and experiences that were brought on by your partner’s addiction,” said Scott Bartlett, LCSW, Case Management Director at Banner Behavioral Health Hospital. “Now that they are staying sober, you may worry over whether or not they will follow through with treatment and how it will change your life and your relationship.”
If someone you love is working on sobriety, here are several ways to make recovery easier on both of you.
Have patience and stamina
“I won’t sugar coat it; your patience and stamina may have been exhausted but prepare yourself that you will need to draw on these strengths every day as you move forward,” Bartlett said. “Progress in recovery happens for many people but not in a linear way.”
Recovery has many ups and downs, mood changes and sudden outbursts. As much as you both want life to go back to normal, you have to accept that it won’t happen overnight. “Both of you will need to remember the rule when you’re sharing a canoe: No sudden moves,” Bartlett said. “Try to have patience and understanding that there will be good days and some tough days.”
Establish open lines of communication with one another and come up with a plan of action. This will set you both up for success and avoid pain and conflict down the road. While it may be difficult, remember that each step forward is another step closer to recovery.
Keep a sober shared space
A house or living space with no alcohol or drugs is extremely helpful in early recovery. Even the sight of an empty bottle could trigger a relapse. Research has shown that people with substance use disorder are much more likely to be successful if they live in a sober space, especially in the early stages of recovery.
“There are enough temptations as close as a cell phone to pull your partner off path,” Bartlett said. “A new life requires new routines, and you at least have control of your living space.”
By removing all reminders early in their recovery process and by supporting a policy of abstinence for the whole family, you show your partner you’re committed to their wellness. As their recovery progresses, your loved one will need to learn to take ownership of their own sobriety, even when substances are accessible.
Seek sober fun and activities
Part of recovery is learning not just to avoid destructive behaviors, but to learn to have a good time doing things that are drug and alcohol-free. This is good for you both.
“The more hours you spend together in relative calm engaged in pleasant activities, the better your path to healing your relationship,” Bartlett said. “Accumulating these hours over time can create new associations in both of your minds that being together is enjoyable.”
Return to activities and pastimes you once found enjoyable. Chances are, you let some of those go a long time ago, just like your partner. Discover them together and make time for them.
Recognize what triggers your partner
Is your partner more vulnerable to relapsing during stressful or difficult times? Maybe it’s the sight or smell of alcohol or drugs. “Know your partners triggers and recognize your triggers too,” Bartlett said. “As recovery progresses, you can reassess the risk, because you can’t avoid all triggers forever.”
Early in recovery, sensory reminders (visual, smell, places, certain people) are best avoided, but down the road some triggers may lose potency. Occasionally check in and see how your partner is doing and readjust accordingly.
Establish healthy boundaries
Oftentimes poor boundaries are formed during active addiction and may continue into your partner’s recovery. This is a good time for you to gain insight into how you may have been unaware of actions you took that enabled the addiction to continue. “This is not about you taking any responsibility for your partner’s use, but it can be helpful to identify any behaviors that need to stop,” Bartlett noted.
These enabling type behaviors may include lying to cover up your partner’s use, taking on extra tasks your partner was not completing, continuing to participate in high-risk situations (sports bars, hosting parties where alcohol is served), giving up activities that are meaningful to you so you can supervise your partner, or avoiding conflict of any kind (walking on eggshells).
Take care of yourself
With all the focus on your partner’s recovery, you may ask, silently or aloud, “What about me?” Now that things are less chaotic, less overwhelming, you may be surprised at the feelings that start bubbling up within you. Pay attention to them.
“You may feel relief and observe your stress level going down as life begins to stabilize, but you may also notice anger, resentment, distrust, sadness, emptiness or irritability in yourself,” Bartlett said.
It is likely your partner has entered treatment of some sort and is receiving support and encouragement from peers and professionals who are now part of their life. Remember, proper self-care and support is important for you as well. Traditional support for loved ones can be found through mutual groups such as Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, CODA, Celebrate Recovery and other groups, as well as licensed behavioral health specialists who are experienced in addiction and family dynamics.
“You may be surprised at how much you may have pushed away to cope with the effects of your partner’s use,” Bartlett said. “Having someone to support you individually can give you perspective and support you. Couples therapy may be needed sooner or later, once sobriety has been established.”
[Check out “Do I Need Therapy? 10 Reasons It’s Time to Seek Help.”]
What should you do if this is not your partner’s first time in recovery?
Unfortunately, addiction is a chronic disease. There may be bumps along the way, such as relapses or broken promises, but multiple relapses and treatment episodes will erode trust—sometimes permanently.
When facing a partner’s relapse, you may impulsively try to take control of the situation, but it’s important to recognize that they are accountable and responsible for their recovery. If they are truly to recover, they must do it on their own. However, putting in place accountability measures may help with repairing and rebuilding trust.
“Supporting a partner includes the understanding that the recovering individual needs to earn trust, and that it can’t be demanded,” Bartlett said. “If you are uncertain if you want to continue the relationship at all, some couples delineate conditions under which the recovering person can return to the home environment. Sometimes an extended time outside the home, along with couples or family therapy sessions can help with this process and determine the timing of return home.”
Being involved in your partner’s recovery process can have a positive and lasting effect on their ability to move forward and keep your relationship moving in a healthier direction.
If you or a loved one is struggling with substance abuse, call Banner Behavioral Health at 800-254-4357, or visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to find help nearby.