To better understand this seemingly paradoxical outcome, we first need to understand what occurs between couples when addiction is present. Frequently, in a relationship in which one person uses and the other does not, spouses develop "over functioning" or "over responsible" and "under functioning" or "under responsible" styles and roles. Typically, the "over functioning" partner begins to assume more and more day-to-day responsibilities even if it means jeopardizing their own health and welfare to do so. On the other hand, the "under functioning" spouse, who is abusing, increasingly neglects their commitments and obligations to their relationship and/or work. The addict's orbit continues to contract into a smaller and smaller space in which there is room for only for two e.g., their habit and themselves. Consequently, when caught in this downhill trajectory, couples become increasingly isolated and find that what ever future they have together has become suspended and frozen in time.
In my practice, I often hear the addict complain that their "over functioning" partner is a "nag" or "always on my case" while the sober partner retorts with how "irresponsible" and "untrustworthy" their partner has become )which in all likelihood they have). What this dynamic describes is the distribution of power in a relationship which undergoes a seismic shit when sobriety enters the picture. Most couples anticipate a smooth transition from addiction to recovery but, as I stated earlier, this is a common misconception and of of recovery's ironies. Perhaps George Bernard Shaw, the renowned British playwright, 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 life lesson being that no matter how alluring a much sought after change may appear it, too has its downside. The once using partner who habitually occupied the one-down position in the relationship no longer finds themselves 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. Conversely, the sober spouse is no longer in the one up position. Their "over functioning" stance is suddenly challenged. The hyper vigilance which was required when living with an active addict is no longer necessary.
This period of readjustment can be scary and confusing for couples. If the "over responsible" partner no longer has to hold everyone and everything together, what exactly should they be doing? And, if the addict no longer has their addiction to keep them occupied what exactly do they do with themselves? Sobriety requires that each partner redefine themselves not only in relation to themselves but with each other as well. It can't be stressed enough that the early days of recovery are among the shakiest and couples are especially vulnerable as they learn to adapt to its uncharted waters. That's why it's important to advise coupes not to make any major life changes during that first year of sobriety. Things need to decompress and even out first.
During the transition from addiction to sobriety, couples need to remember that recovery is a joint process which includes both parties. This is not to imply that each partner is responsible for the other's progress. However, it is important to remember that the once offending partner cannot be expected to shoulder all the weight for the couple's ensuing success or failure. Their job is to stay sober one day at a time and to restructure their life around recovery. Concomitantly, their partner must undergo their own recovery as well. They have emerged through a trail by fire, often traumatic, and need time to lick their wounds and heal, too.