The Couple Recovery Development Approach: It’s Time (Special Thanks to Dr.John Gottman)

Couple Recovery: There is a path to follow

Many people and events over the last eight years have contributed to my interest and commitment to researching and exploring the concept of helping relationships where one or both partners are in recovery from chemical dependency.  My firm belief is that individual and couple recovery approaches are not mutually exclusive. We know from research that long-term successful recovery from alcoholism has a strong correlation with a positive and healthy relationship. That really isn’t surprising if one thinks about it, but what is surprising is why we don’t account for that variable in treatment – sooner than later in the recovery process.

Certainly there are circumstances when the relationship will need to take a back seat with efforts focused on individual recovery, but even then, it can be helpful to give couples strategies to manage these times. In active addiction, the elephant is the unspoken reality of that addiction. When couples are managing recovery, I don’t think we need to create a new elephant by discouraging and avoiding the reality of recovery in their lives.

Mike had been in recovery for almost 15 years and recalls how difficult the first year of recovery was, on him and especially on his relationships with his wife and family. He states that he wished he had been able to talk to his wife  about some of what was happening for him and in the relationship. Instead, the advise they received at Mike’s treatment program was to focus on their individual recoveries only. They followed this advise, remaining silent on the recovery issue and on all the changes they were experiencing – recovery was off-limits. He was to work his program, she was to work on hers. Ellen too regrets that they didn’t have the tools to even acknowledge the huge changes taking place in themselves, their relationship and in their family. They now have those tools and for the first time feel they are a couple in recovery, they feel closer together, and support the idea of  “Couple Recovery” sooner not later in the recovery process.

I am a therapist and researcher. A brief bio: I  have specialized in chemical dependency treatment since 1987 in my private practice; I have completed two addiction certifications, Advanced Drug and Alcohol Training (UC Santa Cruz) and Master Addiction Counselor (National Certification); I have trained with leaders in the field; worked as a clinical director of a drug and alcohol clinic; and did my doctoral dissertation on long-term recovery process in couple relationships as a part of the Family Recovery Project, directed by Co-Founders Stephanie Brown, Ph.D. and Virginia Lewis, Ph.D., at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto. The overwhelming consensus in the field has been that doing couples work in early recovery was a bad idea. Over time, in my work with individuals and couples in all stages of addiction and recovery, I came to see that not addressing couples issues was in fact a critical oversight. It isn’t couples work that is the problem, it is how to approach the couples work that becomes the central issue. Assessment is core to determine what kind of approaches are appropriate in any given situation. Relationships don’t go away once a person begins recovery, wouldn’t it be better to account for that reality in recovery?

   Getting on the right track

After I completed my dissertation and completed my doctorate I was invited by Dr. Virginia Lewis to stay at Mental Research Institute as a Research Associate. We co-founded Center for couples in Recovery. The research continued and I learned that the skills used by couples in long-term recovery could in fact be adapted to couples early in the recovery process. My clinical experience in individual couple therapy and multi-couple therapy groups was confirming that Couple Recovery indeed had a place, even in early recovery. As I shared my model at professional conferences at the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, and the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, the feedback from therapists was consistently positive as we raised the issue: “Why aren’t we helping couples in addiction recovery?”

I found out through my friend and colleague Lynda Voorhees, MFT, Certified Gottman Therapist,  that that the research-based Gottman Method Therapy model and interventions were very congruent and compatible with my developing model of treating couples in recovery. I did not have to rediscover the wheel!  Fast forward – I completed the Gottman training, became Certified in the Gottman Model and went on to complete training as a Gottman Method Consultant and Trainer and began presenting my research at Gottman Conferences.  John Gottman expressed his enthusiasm for this model and research and offered to collaborate on this relational approach to addiction treatment I had named “Couple Recovery Development Approach” (CRDA). John graciously invited me to co-author a chapter he was invited to write for Routledge Press, and he asked me to include in this chapter my own research on recovering couples (Case Studies in Couples Therapy: Theory-Based Approaches, 2011) e. Additionally, John asked me to join the Relationship Research Institute as a Research Scientist and suggested we apply for funding to set up set up a randomized clinical trial in treatment programs comparing outcome results from standard treatment with outcomes from the CRDA program.  John’s encouragement, support, and mentoring has been an invaluable experience for me personally and professionally and I am deeply appreciative to him for his contributions to the field of relationship therapy and for his nudging me along on my own journey.

Here’s where things are at:

Phase 1: In collaboration with John Gottman, I further developed CRDA through John’s insights and suggestions for additional interventions and adaptations inspired by Gottman Method Therapy research. John’s suggested a workshop format followed by multi-couples groups as a follow-up. I thought that was brilliant! Additionally, feedback from the monthly meetings of the Recovery Forum at Mental Research Institute has been a steady stream of support, feedback and encouragement. The Recovery Forum consists of therapists interested in addiction treatment, research, education, and writing – much like the old days at MRI  – a think tank.

Phase 2: In May, 2011 I offered a CRDA workshop at Santa Clara University Professional Development Department (thank you Dr. Jerry Shapiro) training therapists, counselors and students through explaining the model and having participants role play the couple exercises. I offered the workshop again in July at Swedish Hospital in Seattle, this time co-presenting with John Gottman who brought his latest work on trust and betrayal – a very relevant addition to the workshop – and an additional technique for relationship repair. These workshops functioned like focus groups of therapists sharing their responses and ideas about the interventions and how to best help couples in early recovery

Phase 3:  In September I am giving the workshop to couples at three drug and alcohol treatment programs: Thank you to Sequoia Center in Redwood City, CA; Alternative Options in Cerritos, CA (Los Angeles area); and Bayside Marin Treatment. Sponsored by a grant for Center for Couples in Recovery at MRI, couples will take this two-day workshop to learn and develop skills in conflict management, problem solving, managing emotions, ways to support individual recovery programs, repairing the damage from the past, and how to develop a “Couple Recovery”. At the end of the workshop, we will once again ask for feedback in this prototype workshop.

Phase 4: We will be seeking funding from NIAAA for a two-year randomized clinical study looking at the effectiveness of standard treatment in outpatient programs verses couples given CRDA interventions on  measures comparing relapse rates, relationship satisfaction, quality of life, and taking a closer look at the relationship between relapse rates and relationship satisfaction or dissatisfaction. The couples in the CRDA group will be given a two-day workshop with six follow-up multi couple group sessions.

Phase 5:  Don’t know what that is yet, but that’s ok – (One phase at a time)

Many people have supported this work, too many names to mention here, and I am grateful for your support, ideas and encouragement. It will take a community to make “Couple Recovery” a standard part of addiction treatment and recovery approaches. CRDA is simply one approach, not the only approach – Recovering Couples Anonymous (RCA) has been a leader in advocating a couple approach to recovery. Now we have research to help us with a road map to find our way through the maze of couple recovery issues and challenges.

I will keep you posted on how things go over the next month. I’m always interested in thoughts and ideas about couple recovery so I welcome your responses.

Addiction Recovery: Looking Ahead

Looking Ahead at Recovery: What do you see?

I remember as a kid, we would be on vacation at some scenic observation area on the way, and there they were: those coin-operated binoculars. I also remember being absolutely fascinated with those things, thinking how cool they looked, all metal and indestructible, those beauties could swivel to move the viewing area vertically and horizontally. All it took was an available binocular and 25 cents.

Somehow, I couldn’t seem to appreciate the view until I was able to take a turn. If they were all being used I would feel impatient, scanning for the one that seemed to have the shortest line. Except, there weren’t really lines typically, it was more like people milling around either not interested in using the binoculars and simply standing close to one, or people actually waiting for the next opening.

Even as a kid I knew  it was good to have strategies when hoping to get some coveted time with the viewer on a popular vista. I would scout for the people looking for change, men digging deep in their pockets and women opening their purses, find something away from where they are standing. Next, I would check out where the kids were, they always wanted to use the binoculars. I would be on the lookout for people hitting the binoculars and yelling out something like “Hey, what’s the matter with this thing? It just ate my quarter!” Somehow losing 25 cents to a machine becomes very important to our sense of injustice in those moments. Well anyway, avoid that machine. Finally, when I would actually get my cherished time on the binocular, I would really want to make good use of that time, zooming in on every area within that view. You never really knew for sure just how much time you had, so every second counted. A little trivia – the average time ranges from 1.5 minutes to 2.5 minutes. These devices have been manufactured since the early 1930’s by a company called Tower Optical, they are still in operation and only make about 35 devices a year. The basic design has never changed and I think they still charge 25 cents.

It turns out that about the same time Tower Optical began producing their viewers that theories about alcoholism began to emerge. As early as 1930, long before the advent of family therapy as a field, treatment concerns for the alcoholic focused on the importance of family interactions in influencing drinking patterns. In the 1940’s and 50’s psychoanalytic theories focused on the wives of alcoholics, speculating a relationship between the wife’s personality functioning (usually described in negative terms) and her ending up in a relationship with an alcoholic husband. It wasn’t until the late 1960’s when family therapists began applying concepts and theories again to alcoholism treatment specifically.

When I look ahead at recovery I see us rediscovering what the theorists started with in the 1930’s – relationships as a core issue when treating chemical dependency. Looking at addiction as a “family disease” should mean treating the whole family. There is a circular relationship between the addict/alcoholic and the family: each affects the other. There has been a lot of research on that relationship, and only now are we beginning to see the importance of that circular relationship in recovery as well. Recovery means so much more than not using the substance – more on that in a later blog.

Let’s imagine that you are standing with other people at an interesting vista. Let’s make the vista the future of recovery and trying to figuring out what’s helpful to you (if you are in recovery) and to other recovering people. Let’s further imagine that we all have a viewer available. Wouldn’t it be great if we could share what we see? What part of the scene jumps out? What is the vision we can share with others. Looking out, what do we hope to see? I’m betting couple recovery is out there, ready to be seen and rediscovered.

Behind the 8-Ball: When Partners Won’t Get Into Recovery

Addiction is described as a cunning, baffling, and powerful disease; the impact on relationships is devastating. When a partner is addicted, everything in the relationship changes. When the addict/alcoholic is in the middle of the disease denial buffers the addicted person from acknowledging the reality of their addiction and how it is affecting those around them. It is hard for partners to understand why their loved one doesn’t see the damage or do something about it. It seems so clear, yet, there often is tremendous resistance and anger directed at the non addicted partner. 

In Wikianswer.com, being behind the 8-ball is described as this: “In the game of pool, the 8-ball is the last ball a player must sink in order to win the game. However, until he or she has sunk all the rest of the balls (i.e. 1 through 7 or 9 through 15), touching the 8-ball with the cue ball is considered a foul stroke. Therefore, one is said to be ‘behind the 8-ball’, it means to be stuck in a position where any move will have a negative result — to be trapped with no way forward.” If you are in this situation, I imagine this sounds and feels familiar. I call this the “8-Ball Dynamic” because in active addiction, addicts often are very skilled at putting their partners behind the 8-ball: Efforts to get help, or address problems in the relationship, or simply trying to enlist support to manage the responsibilities of  life are met with anger, blocks, challenges, and obstacles of all sorts.

It is important for partners to understand that the drug of choice (or addictive behavior) is the primary relationship for the addict. When someone is in the middle of their addiction, reason and judgment are impaired. The biological impact of chemicals on brain functioning and the psychological mechanisms of denial, projection of blame, and minimization all serve to keep the addict from accepting the reality of addiction. 

I worked in a drug and alcohol treatment program years ago and learned that the staff could never really tell initially who was going to be successful or drop out of the program. Those patients that at first looked motivated could still relapse. Those most resistant to treatment sometimes proved to be the poster child for addiction recovery. We never know what will happen; people can come to that place of “surrender” and suddenly “get it”. In the meantime, all that one can do is to focus on taking care of themselves. Get help and support, go to Al-Anon and/or other support groups. Remember you can’t control your partner, no matter how loving or how angry you get. Recognize the “8-ball dynamic” for what it is, a symptom of active addiction. Don’t buy into the blame or accusations of why the addict is using, instead try to focus on help for yourself. It is a hard thing to do, but you don’t have to stay behind that 8-ball.