How to Support a Spouse in Addiction Recovery

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One of the lowest points in a marriage may come when one spouse is battling an addiction to alcohol or drugs. There are challenges throughout the process of addiction recovery, from the feelings of powerlessness a spouse feels while their partner is actively abusing drugs or alcohol to the odd combination of hope and anger that arises when a spouse enters drug rehab. With the persistent threat of relapse, the emotional roller coaster can continue for many years.

While addiction recovery is seldom easy – for either the addict or their spouse – getting support and giving support are two ways you can overcome the obstacles with your marriage intact.

Getting Support: Taking Care of Yourself

Addiction is a disease that can have a devastating impact on those closest to the addict/alcoholic. That’s why the best drug rehab programs involve family members in their loved one’s treatment. Through educational workshops, family therapy sessions and family visits, partners learn new skills right alongside their loved one and practice those skills before their spouse returns home. Drug rehab programs often recommend resources in the local community as well, including therapy and Al-Anon meetings.

When you’re living with a spouse who is addicted to drugs or alcohol, you’ve likely grown accustomed to dysfunction. At various points, you may have alternated between being the spouse who tries to fix all of the addict’s messes to the disengaged spouse who just wants some peace.

Without intending to – and perhaps without even realizing it – you may have assumed some unhealthy roles, such as enabler or codependent spouse. Through counseling, you can identify unhealthy patterns and learn more positive ways to get your needs met.

Giving Support: Being There for a Spouse in Recovery

Early recovery is sometimes the most challenging time for a married couple because of all the significant life changes happening in the first year of sobriety. During that time, addicts and alcoholics need to be somewhat “selfish,” focusing on themselves in order to maintain sobriety and rebuild their lives and their self-esteem. This can leave spouses feeling neglected and resentful.

What a recovering spouse needs more than anything is the support of their partner. A study by researchers at the State University of New York at Buffalo found that men recovering from addiction are more likely to relapse if they feel that their partner is critical of them.

You can be there for your spouse – and help preserve your marriage – by taking the following steps:

  • Educate yourself. Learn about the process of recovery and the risk factors for relapse, and work with your spouse on their relapse prevention plan. Try to understand your spouse’s journey into sobriety and the obstacles and personal torment they’ve faced.
  • Open the lines of communication. Talk to your spouse about the kind of support they need, taking care not to sacrifice your own emotional, physical or mental health. Share your hopes and expectations so that you can work toward the same goals. In counseling, you’ll be able to practice new communication skills and work together to identify and manage feelings.
  • Know that your relationship is going to change. Your spouse’s progress may be slow, or it may be surprisingly quick. They may meet new friends, excel at work and perhaps even outshine you. Allow your spouse some freedom to explore who they are without drugs or alcohol, knowing that a shift in responsibilities and power dynamics can bring greater happiness to your home.
  • Know that you and/or your spouse may consider leaving the marriage. In the process of getting reacquainted, you may feel that you never knew or loved your spouse, or that you no longer have anything in common. The emotional ups and downs of recovery may place a great deal of stress on the relationship, and it can be difficult to repair the damage, particularly if legal or financial problems continue to impact the family. Counseling can help you reconnect and remember why you came together in the first place.
  • Be patient. Even without drugs or alcohol, your spouse may not become the person you’ve always hoped they’d be – at least not quickly. It will take time for them to fulfill family responsibilities, and it may take time for you to be ready to put those responsibilities back in their hands.
  • Work on forgiveness. Partners often have a lot of pain and anger built up after years of dealing with an addicted spouse. Those feelings are unquestionably valid, but holding on to them may prevent you from healing and moving forward.
  • Avoid blame. Remember that addiction is a disease – not a moral failing or lack of willpower – and your spouse likely feels a great deal of shame and guilt for their past behaviors.
  • Praise your spouse’s progress. Encourage them to go to 12-Step meetings and meet with their sponsor any time, even if it’s inconvenient.
  • Prepare for setbacks. Even after completing drug rehab, your spouse may struggle on the path of addiction recovery. Hurdles can range from lying, manipulating and selfishness to full-blown relapse.
  • Don’t take relapse personally. Your spouse’s recovery involves you, but it is really about them. If your spouse falls back into old patterns, continue to lend your support and get them back into drug rehab.
  • Spend time getting to know each other again. You may not recognize the individual you’re living with, but chances are you’ll grow to like this person far more than the person they were under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

For most couples with a spouse in addiction recovery, life doesn’t magically fall into place without a lot of hard work by both partners. Recovery can deepen the bonds of marriage, but only if you take care of yourself and each other. Although recovery may be your spouse’s number-one priority right now, there’s an important place for you in the process.

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