Sunday, October 31, 2010

Couples And The Impact Of Addiction

Couples. They come in all shapes and sizes. But no matter what they may look like, addiction can devastate them.  Addiction is the great leveler which renders all relationships as equal and the same. 

When addiction strikes, exactly what happens to a couple? Usually, the dynamic shapes up something like this. When one partner is using and the other is not, each assumes the role of either the over or under-functioner.  That is, the user under functions and the non-user over functions on  behalf of their spouse. As a therapist I frequently hear the non-using partner complain about how "irresponsible" and "untrustworthy" their partner has become. On the other hand, the user complains that their mate is a "nag" or "always on their case".

So logic would predict that once an addict or alcoholic obtains sobriety that the couple go riding off into the sunset. Nothing could be further from the truth. That is, initially.  Exactly how does a couple make sense out of this seeming contradiction?  After all, recovery and sobriety was what was longed for and prayed for. And now that you have it, you're still miserable! Perhaps George Bernard Shaw said it best when he wrote, "There are two great tragedies in life. One is never getting your heart's desire. The other is to get it."

The lesson being that no matter how attractive and alluring a change may appear it, too, has its downside.  The positives are obvious. Your partner is sober! But things aren't all that much better between the two of you. To begin with, it's important to understand that when a partner obtains sobriety there is usually a redistribution of power along the relationship axis.  The once dependent partner who habitually occupied a one-down position no longer finds himself or herself as the low man on the totem pole. By virtue of being sober, they are now on equal footing or in a symmetrical alignment, so to speak, with their partner.  And, conversely, the non-user is no longer in their advantageous one-up position.  Their over- functioning stance is suddenly challenged. The hyper vigilance which was required when living with an active addict/alcoholic is no longer necessary.  But old habits die hard and it's not so easy to "turn off" years of being super vigilant.

This phase of readjustment can be bewildering and scary for couples. The news being that despite its promise of improvement, change brings turbulence and upset.  This is one reason why many treatment facilities will recommend to a couple that for the first year of sobriety a couple make no major life decisions such as a new job, a move etc. until things have a chance to quiet down.

So how does a couple make the transition to a sober relationship? One thing couples need to remember is that recovery is a joint process which includes both parties. However, this is not to suggest that the sober partner is responsible for their partner's recovery. It just means that one partner cannot be expected to shoulder all the weight toward changing their relationship.  Each person must play his or her own part.

Just as AA or any of the 12-Step programs is the cornerstone upon which successful recovery rests, Al- anon is a crucial step for the non-using partner. I tell couples that Alanon is critical because it not only educates the non-using spouse about the physical and psychological aspects of chemical dependency, it addresses the non-user's interdependency with their spouse.  That is, it helps the non-user identify those behaviors in which they assume responsibility for their loved one.  And that's critical. This could be anything as simple as cleaning up after their partner in the kitchen to making excuses for them at the office. 

 Alanon is helpful because it teaches people how to differentiate between what is their responsibility and what is not.  It provides lessons in limit setting and boundaries for people who are unaccustomed in knowing when and where to draw the line, so to speak. It also encourages the non-user to express their own needs, which may have been long neglected, and to define the limits of their tolerance as well.  Doing so, eliminates ambiguity and helps to clear the air.

As a wise mentor once explained to me, the thing to remember is that all couples undergo a continual process of resettling. It's just what life is all about.

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