Trauma Is Not Codependency: Part 2

When you get wrapped up in feelings, be cautious in how you label those feelings

In my last blog article, “Trauma Is Not Codependency: Part 1”, I addressed the importance of acknowledging and understanding that active dependency on drugs and alcohol creates trauma for both the addict/alcoholic, as well as partners and family members of the addicted person. I’m sure this is not really a news flash for anyone, but I do wonder if many recovering couples recognize and understand that it is normal that the impact of active addiction does not end when the alcoholic (or addict) gets into recovery. In fact, despite initial feelings of relief that the partner is now in recovery, there may be ongoing struggles with feelings, such as: fear of relapse, being on guard, or experiencing an enhanced state of sensitivity to the partner’s behaviors  (hypervigilance); nightmares, startle responses; depression, and generally, feeling triggered and on alert.

My research couples consistently identify emotions and managing emotions as one of the toughest parts of recovery.  It’s not surprising if we think about the person recovering from addiction needing to develop a whole new set of behaviors supportive of abstinence and of recovery, but also needing a way to understand and cope with the roller coaster of emotions without numbing. Similarly, the alcoholic’s (addict’s) partner will need to identify their own unhealthy behaviors created by active addiction and develop ways to disengage by focusing awareness on own needs and on self; it is no less of a challenge for the coalcoholic to manage emotions. Often times intense feelings of fears, worries, and upset feelings for the coalcoholic are understood to be a codependent relapse, the sign of unhealthy emotions and an inability to detach. I believe that this take misses the mark. 

A relapse for an alcoholic isn’t really a relapse unless there is the actual behavior of drinking or using. Having thoughts, cravings or ideas of using may be warning signs for possible relapse: but it isn’t a relapse. Hopefully the alcoholic learns through work with a sponsor, program or recovery therapist or coach how to read these potential relapse triggers and what to do about it.

I believe that the same is true for the coalcoholic (the addict/ alcoholic’s partner) in that feelings and thoughts are different than behaviors in defining relapse. For example, you could argue that the coalcoholic who feels responsible for their partner’s addiction is demonstrating active codependency. Another position is that while these are feelings that warrant exploration, understanding, and probably education, unless that person actually takes action to try to control the alcoholic’s behavior, then this is in the category of learning to manage the feelings and it is not a relapse merely because you have those feelings at all – it’s what you do with those feelings!

Addiction and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder PTSD

A big part of recovery is learning new behaviors to replace the old behaviors, which ultimately can apply to perceptions and beliefs as well, replacing old beliefs with new beliefs and thoughts. This is the essence of “working a program”, integrating new ways of thinking which ultimately helps us to actually change behaviors. These new understandings can change our feelings about ourselves and partners and lead to new ways of acting and living consistent with healthy boundaries and healthy relationship patterns. What happens when intense feelings are felt in reaction to an event or feared event, and no amount of logical thinking, education, program or reassurance helps?

It might help to understand that the consequences of active addiction always involve levels of trauma, for both the alcoholic and the coalcoholic. So how does this relate to feelings? Our brains are wired to be on the lookout for danger, and past experiences become a measure of what is dangerous. It is perfectly normal and understandable for these trauma reactions to emerge in early recovery and well into recovery.

When we get our button pushed: emotions follow

When we get our button pushed: emotions follow

A couple I am working with James and Karen (not their real names)  have been seeing me for about 10 months. James has been in recovery from alcoholism for 4 months and has stayed alcohol and substance free during that time. He has been attending Alcoholics Anonymous 3-5 times a week, just found a sponsor and is attending an aftercare program once a week. Karen has been attending Al-Anon once a week and sees an individual therapist trained in addictions treatment.

James and Karen came into a session reporting having had a major breakdown in their relationship. In the prior week James came home from an AA meeting later than usual. He called to let Karen know he would be late, that he was hanging out with some AA friends getting coffee after the meeting. James reported, “She was a mess when I walked in the house, she totally lost it. I didn’t do anything wrong, I called, what else could I have done, get a note from my sponsor (he said sarcastically)?” Karen reported that when James called to say he would be late, at first she felt a little uncomfortable, but almost immediately after hanging up her feelings escalated into raging anxiety, dread, anger, and fear. She described feeling nauseous, “Sick to my stomach, I couldn’t help it”. So did Karen have a full blown codependent relapse? Is this a sign of her pathology and her need to control James schedule and whereabouts? I think a more useful way to understand Karen’s reaction is that she was experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). These feelings are triggered from previous trauma of the countless times during the active drinking years that James would come home late, often calling with lies and excuses, coming home drunk, then denying drinking and escalating in his aggressive and accusatory defensiveness. Karen’s feelings are normal in the sense that it is understandable why she reacted the way she did given the trauma she has experienced and the triggers embedded in James phone call. The issue isn’t that Karen had these feelings, it’s more about identifying and learning to manage these trauma reactions.

James didn’t do anything wrong but he did need to understand- as did Karen – that her reaction was an involuntary trauma reaction triggered in the parts of the brain designed to protect us from danger. The hippocampus (memory) and amygdala (emotions) are linked through an emotional memory sequence that aims at identifying possible threats.

I don’t believe it’s ever helpful to pathologize these reactions, but rather, I explore where they come from and help couples understand trauma reactions. When James understood Karen’s reaction was PTSD, and not about him “screwing up again”, he was able to move more toward compassion. Similarly, when Karen was able to see her reaction as a full blown PTSD, then she was able to better let go of her guilt and SHAME for her feelings. We discussed what to do in the future when there are strong reactions that likely have been triggered. This isn’t to say that additional individual focus like extra support from Al-Anon or a sponsor and/or a therapist wouldn’t be helpful or appropriate as well, in fact, we in fact explored these options. Identifying and understanding triggers and PTSD will be an essential tool for both James and Karen in their navigating recovery individually and as a couple.


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.

Swinging Into Recovery From Addiction

Recovery Has Its Ups and Downs:

Do I Want To Get On?

Several years ago Jerry and Carol (not their real names) came in for couples therapy. They stated that they had a good marriage, but that they needed a “tune up”.  Jerry talked about how he felt that stress was impacting their relationship, Carol agreed, but also expressed concern over Jerry’s drinking and wanted him to better control his drinking, like he used to. Over the next several months we addressed their relationship concerns, but what emerged as a central issue was  the fact that Jerry’s  alcohol (mis)use was seriously affecting the marriage, his relationships with his young children, and recently, his work. In our counseling sessions we had explored Jerry’s drinking and where it might fit on the drinking continuum between heavy, abusive, and dependent. Understandably, the possibility for Jerry and Carol that Jerry had an alcohol dependency was frightening, but the evidence was mounting. When Jerry opened the session to talk about his latest drinking episode, he said “I have to stop drinking, I don’t feel in control anymore”. When we discussed what happened and what led him to decide that he wanted help to stop drinking, Jerry described what he remembered about the night.

Jerry attended an important meeting in San Francisco that ended very successfully with his small company closing a lucrative deal. After the meeting he and two of his colleagues decided to celebrate and go out for drinks, something Jerry had not done before because of his policy not to drink at work-related events. Over the course of the evening Jerry drank too much,  neglected to call Carol, and somehow got home safely after 2:30 am. The next day Jerry felt tremendous shame and anger at himself, there were parts of the evening he could not remember and the parts he did remember were embarrassing. He knew he had hurt Carol and felt like he had hit bottom.

Jerry decided to begin going to AA and agreed to pursue referrals to therapists specializing in addictions for individual therapy. The decision to get into recovery from dependency is not an easy one for most people. Self-identifying as an alcoholic or co-alcoholic is a huge shift in one’s identity. Also, learning what works to stay sober and manage life – all at the same time – takes effort and  adapting to a new way of thinking, behaving, feeling. It comes with its “fits and starts”. Carol and Jerry continued couples therapy, and Carol agreed to begin her own recovery in Al-Anon. She also attended with a close friend a recovery group with a Christian orientation that she felt would be a good match for her.

Couples Need Their Own Recovery

Each Person Finds Their Own Way of Moving Through the Ups & Downs

Carol found the support from her groups extremely helpful. At first she felt embarrassed, self-conscious and a little guilty that she was somehow ‘telling a secret” about her husband’s drinking problem. However, she also felt others understood her and supported her in her recovery and what she needed to do to stay on track in her recovery.

Jerry too  found AA difficult at first. After he committed to go, it still took another 3 weeks before he was able to walk through the door of a meeting. Once he was there he stated it was easier. He found a sponsor 1 month later and stayed in close contact with the sponsor. There was one occasion, several months after Jerry started attending AA, when Jerry “experimented” with having a glass of wine at the restaurant he and Carol went to with another couple they were close to. Jerry felt uncomfortable telling their friends that he wasn’t drinking, so he had just one glass and made an excuse for not having more.

Jerry and Carol shared that even at the time both agreed to this plan ahead of time, that they felt uncomfortable with the decision. While the glass of wine didn’t lead to more drinking, Jerry shared that afterwards he started thinking again about drinking, and wondering if perhaps he could control his drinking this time. Work with his sponsor, some additional meetings, and work in our couples sessions all seemed to help him become clear about the risks and soon he felt clear again about what his recovery was about – his commitment to abstinence.

The couples work focused on a number of issues:

  1. Helping Jerry and Carol adjust to the tremendous changes taking place in their relationship on a day-to-day basis
  2. Exploring ways to support each other’s recovery without taking responsibility for it – keeping boundaries clear
  3. Finding a way to talk about how each felt affected by alcohol and the impact it has had on them personally and in the relationship – without blame or accusation


Couple Recovery Allows Room for the Relationship

With All of Its and Downs

Carol and Jerry began to find ways to talk about their concerns about all the changes that were happening in their relationship: what they were going to tell friends and family about Jerry not drinking anymore; the time away from each other as they both were involved in their own recoveries; struggles with fears of what the future would hold, and the ever-present fear of relapse; dealing with some of the baggage from the past and the impact of alcohol on their relationship, and now the impact of recovery on their relationship; the awareness that both Carol and Jerry had alcohol issues in their family of origin, and how this factored into their recoveries and their relationship.

Central to couple recovery is the focus that each person is responsible for their own recovery, but both partners are responsible for the relationship. Supporting each other’s recovery doesn’t qualify as “codependent” when boundaries are clear and the focus is on finding ways to appropriately discuss individual needs and relationship needs without blame and without taking on all the responsibility. While active alcohol or drug dependence often becomes the “elephant in the room”, recovery can become the new elephant. Every relationship has its ups and downs, recovery aside, what helps is to find ways to connect that work for both partners.

Recovery Can Replace Dependency as the New Elephant in the Room

He doesn’t Look So Scary, Does He?


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.

Yours, Mine & Ours (Recovery)

You may remember or heard of the old movie, “”Yours, Mine and Ours”, with Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda (1968). A remake starring Dennis Quid and Rene Ruso came out in 2005. The movie was loosely based on the true story of Helen and Frank Beardsley who had 8 and 10 children respectively at the time their former spouses died. They ended up marrying and became  an instant family of 18 children, an endless interest to an amazed public. Most of the original movie was shot in San Francisco by the way.

In a most unlikely scenario, apparently things worked out fairly well for the Beardsleys.  They learned how to adapt their life styles and make things work, requiring creativity, perseverance, and learning what works. So what does this movie have to do with recovery and couples?

Last Friday I spoke about couple recovery at a speakers luncheon sponsored by Bayside Marin Treatment Center. The setting was a wonderful sample of a beautiful sunny day in San Francisco – sights, sound and food – right on the Embarcadero. The venue was at the Delancey Street Restaurant associated with Delancey Street Foundation, the leading self-help residential program for those who have hit bottom around alcohol, drugs, including the  homeless and those who have been in jail or prison. Volunteer efforts from some of the best chefs, restaurant owners and wait staff launched the resident staff who then in turn trained those after them. This is a core philosophy of Delancey Street, learn and pass it on.  The residents learn success, productivity and ultimately contribute back to the community. Another unlikely scenario that has worked out because of creativity, perseverance, and learning what works. A model community.

I believe that we are at a new era in addiction recovery. Bringing the relationship into the process of recovery adds an important dimension of recovery that has the great potential for each partner to feel support and understanding in their own recovery process. At the same time relationship issues no longer need be ignored or avoided. By developing a couple recovery three recoveries are addressed: each individual recovery and the couple recovery. Several of the therapists I spoke with after the talk expressed excitement and enthusiasm for this concept and the need to include the relationship in recovery.

To some, this idea will seem like another unlikely scenario, but we now know through research that couple stability predicts long-term sobriety. We also know that there are certain tools and relationship skills that all couples can benefit from and will greatly influence relationship stability.  I am suggesting that we put the research together with creativity, perseverance, and learning what works for each couple.

I want to thank Bayside Marin Treatment Center for sponsoring the luncheon and providing the opportunity to share ideas on helping recovering couples.

For more information on the Delancey Street Foundation in San Francisco Click Here

Recovery Secrets for Couples: Part 1

There have been many studies over the years on the impact of alcoholism on couples and on families, but nobody had ever asked the question: What is normal in family recovery processes? That changed in 1989 when Stephanie Brown, Ph.D. and Virginia Lewis, Ph.D. joined forces as founders and Co-Directors of the Family Recovery Project. Sponsored by the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, the Family Recovery Project was the first research project to study recovery processes in the family with varying lengths of recovery time, asking the question: What is normal?

Drs. Brown and Lewis studied families with varying lengths of recovery ranging from two months to 18 years, interviewing and videotaping the 52 volunteer families who also filled out a number of paper and pencil tests. What did they find out? The following is a brief overview:

  1. Moving from active addiction to recovery often comes on the heals of a lot of instability in the family – which preceeds change. The old family system needs to collapse; letting go of old ways of functioning allows for a new life, not regaining the old one
  2. Recovery is a long-term, multileveled process effecting individual development, family development, and the family environment – it is more than simply not drinking
  3. Recovery is a huge transition for families in that so many changes take place, this usually means learning how to adjust and cope with a new set of problems and challenges 
  4. Recovery is a long-term process with different developmental issues associated with transitioning from active alcoholism to early recovery, and to long-term recovery 
  5. Finally, Brown & Lewis emphasize the importance for families to get help, reaching outside of the family to learn new ways of relating, of caring for self and incorporating recovery into individual and family life

What Brown and Lewis emphasize is that a lot of the difficulties couples and families experience in alcoholism recovery is normal! While It is painful when denial starts to crack around the reality of one’s addiciton or around the partner’s addiction, awareness of the realities of alcoholism creates an opening for change. Since individual and family development tends to come to a screetching halt in active addiction, recovery is the process to move forward again: focusing on one’s own needs, redefining relationships, learning to manage feelings, and creating new ways of dealing with the eveyday responsibiliites of life.   This is a lot of change, but as one person recently told me, “Recovery is hard, but it is better than being numb, I want to live life, not hide from it.” 

My doctoral dissertation was based on a separate component of the Family Recovery Project, the “Couples Focus Group”. In that research effort, the question was: What leads to successful couple recovery? I have continued this research as a Research Associate at Mental Research Institute and as Co-Founder with Dr. Lewis of Center for Couples In Recovery. Next time I will review my research findings on what I found out.   As always, questions and comments are welcome. 

Recovering Couples: Dealing With Fear of Relapse

Ron had been in recovery from alcoholism for several months. He had been going to AA, had a sponsor, and spoke about his commitment to recovery and how important it was to him. It was Friday night and Ron was going to his 7:00 PM meeting again, stating that a small group was going out for coffee after the meeting. Cindy supported Ron’s involvement with AA, she didn’t really like giving up Friday nights – it used to be their night – but she realized that his recovery program was important.

At 10:00 PM Ron still wasn’t home. She tried to reassure herself that everything was probably fine, but a familiar, creeping feeling of fear and dread began a relentless path in Cindy’s mind. She tried watching television, working with her favored Sudoku puzzle, and self-reassurances, but by 10:40 she was feeling angry, upset, and physically sick. She tried calling Ron on his cell, but it rolled to voice mail. She tried several more times with the same outcome.

At 10:50 Ron calmly walked in announcing his arrival. Cindy carefully scanned him for everything she knew and had experienced when he had been drinking. She went through the check list, looking for tell-tale signs of drinking that she knew so well: they weren’t there. What should Cindy do? Everything in her felt danger, how should she manage that feeling?

Ron immediately picked up on her upset and apologized for not calling. His cell battery was dead, but he admitted he should have called her. He stated it was a great meeting, and that the group continued their discussion in the restaurant over their coffees and dessert.

When a partner fears that their partner has relapsed – either with a substance or with co-dependency – use the “soft start” technique to express your feelings and state what you need. Dr. Gottman’s research on what works in how to raise a problem or concern led him to discover that couples who mange difficult conversations tend to start the conversations with a description of what happened, how they felt about what happened, and what they want. Cindy could say this, “Ron when you stayed out later than I thought and I didn’t hear from you or couldn’t reach you on your cell phone, I was worried and scared that you might be drinking again. I need to know, did you?” Cindy could go on to say that what she needed in the future is for him to call if he is going to be late.

Some would argue that this is co-dependent, checking to see if the partner is drinking. What I have learned is that if couples can own their fears, talk about them and ask for what they need, then these fears don’t build up. Ron and Cindy are learning to simply be honest with those feelings and needs, not control the other.

Ron acknowledged and honored Cindy’s feelings and her request for reassurance and enough details about the evening to understand what happened. He could have gotten angry or defensive, but he didn’t, so the event was dealt with, repair happened, and they drew a bit closer as a result. This helps to build trust, the ability to express and be heard.