Addiction takes a tremendous toll on a marriage or long-term relationship and, in many cases, can lead to divorce or a break-up. In fact, couples dealing with addiction have four times the risk of divorce than those who don’t – and many of these divorces take place after the addicted partner is in recovery, according to Bob Navarra, PysD, a Master Certified Gottman therapist, trainer, consultant and speaker. In a study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, nearly half (48.3%) of participants with a past or current case of alcohol use disorder got divorced at some point in their lives.
In some instances, the damage done by addiction may just be too severe to fix. No matter how much you try, your partner simply may have too much contempt and feel too hurt, or just find it impossible to forgive you or trust you again. While you can’t control whether your partner wants to call it quits, during your first year of recovery you shouldn’t initiate any major changes, and that includes ending an existing relationship or marriage, if possible, or starting a new relationship.
Now that you’re in recovery, you can reflect on your marriage or partnership and start to think about what you want to do differently, perhaps recommitting to a new kind of relationship. And you can begin the process of making amends and rebuilding trust with your spouse. Members of 12-step groups make a list of all the people they’ve harmed while using – which almost certainly includes your partner — and they do their best to repair the damage done to each person, except if doing so would injure themselves or others. This step can take as little as a few days up to many years to complete.
It’s important to realize that you can’t expect to get back the same relationship you had prior to your addiction – after all, there’s no changing what’s happened or forgetting the hurt and anger. You can create a new marriage, however, that’s based on mutual support and respect, solid communication and trust – but doing so will take time and effort on both your parts. Similarly, chances are good that you’ll need to work on any unresolved issues and problems your relationship had prior to your addiction.
Reconciling with your spouse after the trauma of addiction will likely require professional help. Many people turn to counseling — both as a couple and individually. This is crucial, says Dr. Navarra, who believes that every couple dealing with addiction must focus on both individual recovery and what he calls “couple recovery.” Even if you eventually split up, it’s vital that both partners keep up with therapy; you’ve both been damaged and you both need healing, no matter what happens to your marriage or relationship.
Although not considered professional counseling, going to support groups like Alcoholic Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Al-Anon and Codependents of Sexual Addiction (COSA), alone or with your spouse, can be very helpful. Even if you aren’t ready to share your own experience and you simply listen to the experiences of others, you’re likely to find that others are going through very much the same things you are, which is usually tremendously comforting to hear. You’re definitely not alone in this.
It’s important for your spouse to be involved in your recovery and for he/she to understand that addiction is a disease that affects both brain functioning and the person’s ability to choose. Repairing your relationship, then, shouldn’t be a blame game but, ideally, healing through acceptance, even if that takes some time for your partner to feel genuinely. Your spouse may not realize that you have been traumatized by your addiction, too, and the events that damaged your relationship, says Navarra, who works with many couples in addiction recovery. During couple’s sessions Navarra raises these ideas and questions to encourage patients to work together:
- Addiction has infiltrated your relationship. Tell your partner about a specific instance where addiction impacted you.
- What did you know about addiction at the time of that event?
- How did this event affect you, or the kids or your family?
- What regrets do have?
Recovery and relationship experts offer some more suggestions for starting to repair the bond between the two of you:
Ask for patience and time. Especially in early recovery, when staying sober is your primary focus, your partner/spouse may feel neglected or unimportant. Explain that you will need to be self-involved for a little bit longer, and that this is necessary for you to get well again. Involving your spouse in the process to some extent can also be helpful for your marriage. As mentioned above, consider including some couples therapy sessions so you can start rebuilding your relationship as you learn to live sober.
Be honest and build trust. Even as you’re dealing with trying to trust yourself, your partner is working on trusting you again, too. Initially, it may seem difficult, if not impossible, for trust, respect and love to be re-established. It might help to create a system that works for both of you and agree to honor it; for example, you might agree to always call your partner if you’re going to be home late. Whatever you both agree to needs to be consistently upheld if trust is going to be rebuilt. Intimacy is also founded on trust, so don’t expect your partner to quickly welcome you back into the sexual part of your lives; that will typically take time and rebuilding trust will be key here, too.
Accept responsibility. Your partner needs to know and hear from you verbally — perhaps many times — that you accept complete responsibility for all the things you’ve said and done as part of your addiction. This doesn’t mean that you’re absolved or that your partner will necessarily forgive you, but it does show your loved one that you’re taking a crucial step toward repairing and rebuilding your relationship.
Forgive yourself. As hard as it may seem, you will also need to find a way to forgive yourself first, and then others. Some people in your life may find they’re not able to let past transgressions go, and that’s something you cannot change. But you can work on unburdening yourself of the guilt, shame and regret over your past deeds.
Learn to listen. Rebuilding trust is a process that starts with acknowledging the betrayals, and most important, making every effort to understand the impact of those betrayals on your partner, explains Navarra. One way to do this is by practicing good listening skills, which goes beyond simply nodding your head and uttering an occasional grunt to indicate you’ve heard what your spouse said. You must really hear what he/she has to say – without being defensive — and then ask questions to show him/her that you did truly listen.
Write about your issues, concerns and feelings. Sometimes, there are things you just can’t say to your spouse because they would be hurtful and counterproductive to a reconciliation. For example, you might not want to reveal the times you fantasized about harming or leaving your partner. If you can’t say it, but you’re still feeling it, write it down. Keep a journal that is private and just for you; you should feel safe to write down whatever you want here and the experience just may be cathartic, helping you to release and better understand long-held, complex emotions.
You can also use writing as a way to communicate with your spouse. If you’re finding it tough to talk through what you want to say, you’re definitely not alone. After months or even years of emotional pain, frustration and rage, as well as lying and hiding, it can be very difficult to switch gears and become open and communicative almost overnight. If talking about tough issues is too hard at first, write it down in a letter. Once the two of you have begun communicating through letters for a while, it should become easier to have face-to-face discussions.
Focus on being a better you. As you work towards reconciling with your spouse and creating a new, happier and healthier marriage or relationship, don’t forget yourself. With so much emphasis on the two of you as a couple, it can be easy to neglect your needs as individuals. Make sure you each take the time to indulge your own interests and take time alone to do what makes you happiest. If either partner wants to participate in individual counseling, the other should support that decision. By becoming the best people you can be, you will have a better chance of creating a successful marriage or relationship.