Relationships in Recovery

Recovery, not unlike life in general, is all about relationships: relationships with ourselves, friends, families, neighbors, co-workers, a higher power, etc. Learning how to navigate these relationships is one of the most challenging things for people who are recovering from a substance use disorder.

Imagine that you went hiking and spent several hours walking deep into the woods. How long would it take you to get back to where you started? Likely about the same amount of time, right? 

I use this metaphor to help my clients understand that they have spent many years. and sometimes most of their lives, traversing deeper into their addiction. Along the way, their relationships suffered. Their ability to form new, healthy relationships was damaged. It’s not reasonable for them to expect their relationships to return to what they once were just because they’ve removed drugs and/or alcohol from their lives.

In most cases, relationships come down to trust. Those of us in recovery need to allow time for people to learn to trust us again. We will also need to make some adjustments. In the absence of drugs or alcohol, finding meaningful ways to relate to people can become a very different experience. It’s a skill that needs to be re-learned, or in some cases, learned for the first time. 

Existing Relationships

Whether we’re aware of it or not, each of us is subconsciously training those present in our lives. When we’re being responsible adults, we’re training people to treat us in a positive way. In comparison, those who are suffering from addiction are training people to treat them in a very different way.

When people enter recovery, they can make the mistake of expecting others to treat them differently from the start, due to their newfound sobriety. They have a tendency to put a lot of pressure on themselves, and on others, to get back to how things were before their addiction, or how they always intended things to be. 

Part of the healing process has to do with the roles that people found themselves playing as a result of active addiction, and this happens on both sides. Some people get used to playing the caretaker when a person is in active addiction. When caregiving is no longer needed, it can be a challenge to adjust. Consider the partner who became a watchdog for signs of drug or alcohol use — how long will it take this person to stop analyzing every aspect of his or her partner’s demeanor and behavior? 

Family Relationships

When families are willing to reflect on the roles they played or the ones they were forced into, due to addiction, we usually see recoveries that progress faster, as well as better long-term outcomes. This makes sense. These families are actively taking steps to rebuild relationships and make them healthier. They’re learning how to react differently to one another and respond to challenges in new ways. This breaks down the already established patterns and also supports the “re-training” that is necessary for all involved. When this happens, relationships can take on a new life.

Early in recovery, people are often surprised by the strength of emotions they’re feeling — particularly when it comes to family. Feelings that were once anesthetized by substances can become highly pronounced. This can come in the form of both higher “highs” and lower “lows.” We have to watch out for this over-sensitivity, and not let these fleeting feelings — good or bad — dictate an individual’s recovery plan. 

Ending Relationships

It’s also true that some relationships may need to come to an end to support one’s recovery. While an important part of the recovery process for many is the act of making amends, pursuing this doesn’t mean that a relationship necessarily needs to continue. Recovery coaching is particularly helpful in this area. It can be difficult for a person to sort out these complex emotions on their own. 

Part of the disease of addiction is a willingness to “cut and run” from people and things in life. When it comes to ending an important relationship in recovery, severing ties completely isn’t always the healthiest way to operate or cope. It’s often better to set safe and appropriate boundaries, instead of retreating completely. 

Work Relationships

Challenges in recovery may arise when co-workers plan to get drinks and host get-togethers, etc., after work. In some cases, transparency is needed. Being honest, straightforward, and not over-explaining is helpful. Most co-workers will understand and won’t judge. 

At work parties and gatherings, having a strategy in place for what to do if things get uncomfortable is useful. An “exit plan” not only creates peace of mind but is also a practical solution at a potentially “boozy” event. 

Commitments related to work itself can also present challenges. Imagine a boss wants us to work late, or work on weekends. A person in recovery might feel obligated to try and make up for past behavior or a lack of productivity that was related to their drinking or drug use. It’s important to be mindful of not overworking or overcompensating — particularly in early sobriety. In the beginning, creating a work/life/recovery balance is critical.

An easy trap to fall into is to try to make up for lost time and have work/career/finances be the number one priority. Are these things important? Absolutely. Should they be pursued to the detriment of our recovery? Absolutely not. 

New Relationships

An important part of recovery is not just learning how to navigate existing relationships, but also forming new and healthy bonds. Learning how to approach new relationships and connect with people, without the social lubricant that alcohol and drugs provide, can be an entirely new experience for some. It takes practice to learn how to socialize soberly. We should practice this often, as many new relationships will emerge while in recovery. 

An opportunity to connect with people who are on a similar path is one of the many benefits that mutual aid and peer support groups offer. Not only can these groups offer unique insights on how to relate to others, but they can also provide practice, and practical experience, with recovery. With so much of addiction often being spent in isolation, recovery is a chance to rejoin the world. 

Learning how to contribute to your community, society, and other human beings is not only rewarding, but it also supports successful long-term recoveries. It’s incredibly important to learn how to be available to others in a way that was not possible during active addiction. Throughout my recovery, I’ve felt that one of its greatest gifts has been the many opportunities to be of service to others in a very real way, and on a regular basis.

Romantic Relationships

Romantic relationships are often the most “emotionally charged,” which means they can be the most challenging and the most rewarding. With sobriety, people become “available” in a way that they likely weren’t before. It’s an opportunity to enter into a true partnership with someone. People in active addiction are usually focused on what they can “get from” a relationship, rather than what they can offer. In sobriety, we finally have a chance to focus on what we can bring. 

Due to the personal nature of romance, many people in recovery don’t think to ask for support in this area. I would strongly advise them to do so. It can be incredibly valuable to get coaching or therapy, specifically surrounding romantic relationships. Again, romance can be incredibly “emotionally charged.” When we are emotionally invested, we sometimes don’t see things clearly. By having an objective observer, they can very much deepen our awareness and offer a new perspective.

There are varying opinions on the topic of romantic relationships while in recovery. Some argue that starting new romantic relationships in early sobriety can be dangerous. This is due to a person’s tendency to shift their focus from recovery to their “new love.”’ There’s also a real concern that being rejected, or hurt emotionally, could lead a person to revert back to previous self-destructive behaviors or patterns. The truth is that there isn’t an answer for everyone. What’s important is that a person in recovery is honest and transparent with those who offer their support. 

Are there any other relationships in recovery that you’d like me to specifically address? Comment below and I’ll make sure to answer your specific question. Lastly, if you’d like to ask any questions confidentially, please don’t hesitate to send me an email at tshivley@feinbergcare.com.

Thatcher Shivley photo

Thatcher Shivley

Certified Recovery Coach | Interventionist

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