Trust: A Tricky Balancing Act

Trust is basic to the foundation of any significant relationship, it’s really hard to imagine anybody feeling comfortable in a relationship where  trust has been consistently broken. How do couples affected by addiction deal with the ongoing issue of trust – or more to he point mistrust? Many addicts and alcoholics in recovery will often focus on one day at a time, the position that one can’t guarantee never using again, all one can do is take recovery day by day, or perhaps hour by hour. So what does this mean to the partner who is being told, or simply knows and understands that reality?

Tom had been struggling with his wife’s recovery from alcoholism from the start. At first he felt tremendous relief when she began going to AA meetings and reassured him of her commitment to deal with her drinking problem. Tom found that his relief was  soon replaced by increasing anxiety, plagued by a relentless internal and silent stream of anxiety fueled by questions he couldn’t turn off: “Are  her eyes blood-shot, maybe she’s tired, or has she been drinking?” “Why isn’t she home, the meeting was over 40 minutes ago?”  Will she drink if I tell her how angry I really am at the mess her drinking has caused?” “Will she drink because of the stress she feels at work?” “Is that alcohol I smell on her breath or is it the new toothpaste she bought?…Why did she buy new tooth paste?”

Jana knew her husband struggled with trust, and while she could understand his anxiety, she also resented it. From Jana’s perspective she was doing everything she could to work her program, stay sober, manage a high pressure job as a mid-level manager in a major accounting firm, and tend to the thousand other things on her plate. What bothered Jana the most was that Tom’s mistrust was starting to feel like the new elephant in the living room – they both knew it was there, but nobody was talking about it. Their relationship felt as off  balance as it did before Jana stopped drinking, just in a different way.

Tom didn’t want to upset Jana, but sometimes he couldn’t hold back the questions or the extended looks that communicated the fear and anxiety he was feeling. Jana felt guilty about her alcoholism and felt that she owed Tom a lot of patience, but it was becoming increasingly difficult for her to deal with the tension every time something triggered Tom’s fears.

We discussed their feelings in a therapy session. I told Jana and Tom that their struggles with trust were normal for a couple in recovery, especially early recovery. Things do not get automatically better when a partner gets into recovery, in fact, new problems emerge, and problems in the relationship that have laid dormant start to re-emerge. While old problems may need to be put away a bit longer for now, current feelings and struggles with trust need to be dealt with in the here and now.

What strategies might help Tom and Jana?

  1. Tom needed to learn more about co-alcoholism and how to deal with his own control and fear issues regarding Jana’s recovery. Through education, group support, and an awareness of Tom’s own recovery issues, Tom would get better at recognizing and managing his feelings and accept he can not control recovery outcomes for Jana.
  2. At the same time, there is a place to discuss feelings here with a model of managing feelings that breaks from traditional “stay on your own side of the street” advise. I encouraged Tom to share his feelings and to ask for what he needed when it concerned his own recovery, not Jana’s. The formula starts with: stating what is happening – expressing feelings – asking for what you need. For example, when Tom thought Jana’s eyes looked bloodshot and that worried him, I told Tom he could say, “I noticed your eyes look blood-shot. This makes me anxious and brings back old feelings”. That may be all he would want to say stating, “I just want you to know what I am feeling and why.” He may need more however and add the question “I would like to know if you did drink last night after the meeting .” I realize this approach breaks with current conventional thinking about codependency, and Jana could lie anyway, but this process at least brings the question out in the open, rather than leaving it unspoken and lingering. The “rule” in most alcoholic families is that members can’t talk about what the see and what they feel – I believe recovery is about doing the opposite.
  3. I encouraged Jana to not respond defensively and to try to understand that it is understandable that Tom is going to struggle with trust because drug and alcohol dependency patterns almost always includes patterns of deceit and lying, as the dependent person struggles with their own loss of control and inability to stop. This certainly was the case with Jana’s drinking history and her attempts to hide and deny her drinking from Tom. I don’t ask partners to trust each other or to expect trust, I ask them to share what their struggles are in a non blaming way and to normalize those struggles. I stated, “Of course Tom is not feeling trust, given the toll that alcoholism has taken on trust, but if couples can manage it,  it is helpful to the recovering couple’s relationship when partners can begin to share what concerns them and know that their partner will try to hear and respond to those concerns. So Jana you could state, ‘When you look at me that way and worry about me relapsing, I feel hurt and frustrated that you may not see how hard this is and how hard I really am working, but I would rather you tell me what you are thinking then silently holding it in and withdrawing – that makes me even more tense.’

Is this codependent? I could see an argument for viewing this approach as codependent if the motivation for Jana and Tom to share feelings and ask these questions is to control or manipulate. What we are aiming for here is trying to establish a way for partners to express what they see, what they feel, and what they need – as long as it is not about trying to control their partner’s recovery.

If Tom is concerned that Jana missed a meeting this week, I could imagine standard advise as, “That’s her program, she needs to work on that; You need to work on your own program.” Not bad advise, but another approach could be for Tom to focus on sharing his feelings about this WITHOUT having a goal to change her behavior. For example, “I noticed you missed a meeting this week. I realize this is your program and that you are in charge of, but I have to say I do get a little anxious when you miss a meeting.”  I would encourage Jana just to listen and acknowledge Tom’s feelings. “I can understand why you would feel that.”

Trust (and recovery) really is a balancing act. There will be times and circumstances to not to have the above type of conversation, but I am hoping couples will work at trying to find that balance so that recovery does not become the new elephant in the living room.