Sustaining and nurturing a romantic relationship is challenging for any couple, but when one member of the couple is in recovery there are additional forces at play. There are often unresolved issues resulting from events and behaviors that occurred during the period in which one partner was actively misusing substances. And that partner may also be experiencing the lingering withdrawal symptoms, cravings and “highly sensitive nervous systems” that are common to those in early withdrawal. Relationship expert Dr. Beverly Berg highlights many of these issues, and others that are common to all couples, in this installment of Professional Voices. – Richard Juman, PsyD
I recently watched the entire series of Mad Men (for the second time). If you have yet to watch this series, I will just say that it takes place in the 1950s and revolves around men and women who work in the world of advertising. It was an era when husbands smoked lots of cigarettes, drank lots of whiskey, and unabashedly cheated on their spouses, while their wives stayed at home, made babies, and drank alone. Although the married couples on this show looked miserable, locked into their rigid hetero-normative roles, they at least knew what to expect from their marriages. Typically, men were raised to satisfy their own needs, while the women were raised to serve their partner’s and family’s needs.
Of course, we are no longer living in the Mad Men era. In today’s world, many couples are confused about what to expect from married life or committed partnership. This challenge is even more pronounced for those in a recovering relationship. As a result, much of the effort I make as a therapist working with couples in recovery involves helping the partners whittle down options, clarify expectations, and consciously create a feasible value system for what a partnership can offer.
If you want to give your recovering relationship a running chance of thriving and sustaining itself, you must learn when to work hard to meet your partner’s needs and when to have a hearty fight to be free from meeting unrealistic expectations. Knowledge of how to juggle these two opposing pressures cannot be attained overnight.
Invest in Doing Right by Your Partner
Although each couple has its own unique fingerprint, there are patterns of relationship that are common to recovering couples in general. Take the example of “Lucy” and “Albert.” When I asked them why they had come to see me, Lucy complained that Albert couldn’t stand up for himself during a fight, and Albert complained that Lucy wouldn’t keep her cool like she had promised to work on after getting sober. They explained that they found it nearly impossible to get to the finishing line when an argument would arise. They would dance around and around in circles, with Lucy’s voice becoming louder and louder, while Albert would shut down completely. I could see how frustrated they both were with this dynamic; they each looked tired and wilted just trying to talk about it.
Lucy and Albert had been together for three years but were still living separately. Lucy had recently come out of inpatient treatment for alcoholism and was two months sober when I met them. Albert had visited Lucy at family week while she was in treatment. During Albert’s visit, she had made lots of promises about the things she was going to do to stay sober when she got home. One of those things was to work on how explosive she would get when she was frustrated with Albert. They claimed to love each other, and truly felt there was no one they would rather be spending their time with as long as they weren’t fighting.
Lucy described Albert as an impossible person to have even the most benign arguments with because he would withdraw to avoid conflict and internally run at the slightest display of her anger. Albert admitted to keeping his negative thoughts to himself in an attempt to avoid any potential for rejection or judgment by Lucy. I knew this was a survival tool he had learned way before he ever met Lucy. I asked Albert where he learned to do that. He explained that he had always believed that his feelings were not worthy of respect or of being heard. He spoke about his childhood being riddled with neglect and disrespect by his parents. As a result, he recoiled from conflict, never learned to consider his own needs in his relationships, and had mastered the adaptive ability to disappear right before Lucy’s eyes. I glanced over at Lucy as he continued to talk and I could literally see Lucy’s face soften and her eyes well up with tears.
I suggested that he take on the responsibility of being actively aware of his feelings—both good and bad, at all times—especially when he was feeling afraid of Lucy. My goals for Albert were to help him reduce his fear of conflict and learn to feel worthy of his needs being met and his voice being heard. This way he could learn to take care of his own needs while also negotiating the needs that Lucy was bringing to the relationship.
I asked Lucy to tell me a little about her background as well. She said that she came from a background of similar disregard, but also was a victim of abuse. She said that her father had been hostile and cruel toward both her mother and her. I told her it was our mission to help her find a way to feel safe enough to show her needs to Albert without aggression, and to also lean into taking care of his. I looked over at Albert, and he appeared more sympathetic than afraid. This small step of mutual empathy was already making a change in their dynamic. Each week we worked together, Lucy appeared calmer and gentler in her self-expression when frustrated, hurt or angry, and Albert was standing taller and more confident in the face of conflict. As a result, Albert and Lucy’s individual identities became much more robust, and their ability to take care of each other’s needs was heightened greatly. They could not have been more pleased with the new pattern they carved out just by using a daily practice of conscious intent and consistent practice. Welcome to recovery!
This is just the beginning! For more ideas on how you can make a relationship work when a partner is in recovery, check out the rest of the original feature article Making Relationships Work in Recovery over at The Fix.