Cathy Patterson-Sterling MA, RCC
Former Director of Family Services
Sunshine Coast Health Center
When we are in a relationship with someone who has an addiction, the focus of our loved one is often on how to get their drugs of choice. As a loved one, we may feel hurt as well as betrayed because we are not the main priority in their lives. When this same person enters treatment, as loved ones we may form expectations that finally we will now be a main priority in the lives of the addicted person who is now in recovery.
This experience is similar to a spell that we may feel has overcome the person during their addiction. For many us, treatment then becomes the spell-lifter and our hopes are that individuals in recovery will now return back to the loving people they once were. Somewhere in our hearts, we may believe that the person in recovery is a new and improved version who will love us more intently and make up for all the horrible mistakes of the past. There are some of us as partners and family members who do reach this connection with individuals in recovery right away as we desperately hope that these good times will not end.
Then there are others who hear from their loved one in recovery that recovery is the priority and that somehow they are getting in the way of individuals’ recovery programs by making demands around emotionally connecting. In this second scenario, partners and family members are expected to be just grateful that the people they love are now sober rather than expecting some type of miracle emotional connection.
All of these experiences are common. As people in recovery grapple with exactly the nature of their recovery programs and decide how they will maintain sobriety, they may struggle with how to build emotional connections in their relationships. In early recovery, individuals may feel overwhelmed just trying to remain sober. This is not an excuse since people in recovery will need to balance both recovery and the rebuilding of emotional connections in their relationships.
Self-test for Family Members
1. Have you had that experience whereby you expect someone to be totally different now that they are out of treatment?
2. Do you struggle with trying to be a main priority in someone’s life only to find that their focus is more on recovery than you?
3. Did you believe that some type of spell would lift as your loved one went into treatment and you had high expectations that they would come out and be a new and improved (more loving ) person?
Often when people leave treatment they realize that they have to set up a support network of some kind. One of the fundamental reasons why they were able to stay sober during their 49 day program was because of the strong support they had from their fellow peers. Now the challenge is to recreate that type of support network when returning home.
As a partner or family member, this process can appear quite intimidating because individuals in recovery will often rely on their support network when they are having problems or are struggling. As a loved one, we may wish that person would come to us with their troubles and explain the difficulties that they are having coping with cravings etc. The problem is that we as partners and family members are too close to the situation and people in recovery need other objective people who know the program so that they can provide outside support. As loved ones, we may feel jealous that the individuals we love in recovery have their own “support team” rather than coming to us for consoling and advice. We may even begin to resent the time that they spend at meetings or feel spiteful of the relief they experience after spending time with other people in recovery. In the end, we may even have a sense that there is an “us” (family) and a “them” (outside people in recovery supporting our loved one). After a while, we may resent the “them” for being there for our loved ones in ways that we cannot provide support in recovery.
We must remember that the fact that our loved ones have a support team does not mean that they love us any less. We are their partners or family members and we are not being replaced. Individuals in recovery need to learn to find balance between spending time with their support group and also being emotionally-connected to us as loved ones in their lives. This adjustment can take some time and is part of a normal process.
Self-test for Family Members
1. Have you ever felt jealous or resentful of the focus your loved one has on their recovery?
2. Do you ever wish that there were times when your loved one did not have an addiction so that you could enjoy life without meetings and this outward focus on recovery?
3. How have you resolved any jealous feelings you have of your loved ones recovery and have you worked on creating your own support network to help you in your healing from the impact of the addiction?
In early recovery, as partners and family members we may feel guilty making emotional demands of the people we love who are in the process of healing form their addictions. We may think that they have struggled enough just maintaining sobriety. Yet, we may still feel alone and are carrying the main balance of responsibilities in our relationships with them. If we say anything to them regarding our displeasure, we may worry that we are triggering a relapse or somehow that we are not being supportive.
It is important for us as loved ones and family members to remember that we teach people how to treat us. If we are still being taken for granted in recovery as we were in the addiction, then we need to say something to the people we love who are in recovery. In addiction, our roles may have been to be a loyal rescuer or caregiver, but over time we emotionally burnt-out from continuing these patterns. A common AA saying is that “if nothing changes, then nothing changes.” This is why it is important for us to declare our needs. If we want emotional connections in our relationships, then we need to tell our loved one exactly what it is that we need. We are not asking for them to compromise their recovery, but we do need them to spend more time with us and connect on a deeper emotional level.
Part of the disease of addiction that loved ones experience is a complete feeling of isolation. Individuals in addiction are used to going off to use their drugs of choice and emotionally disconnect to the people they love. Therefore, in recovery, these same people need to make a consorted effort to re-connect in their relationships. We are not helping them if we suffer in silence and do not share with them our needs.
Self-test for Family Members
1. Do you ever feel like you have suffered in silence by not declaring your needs for emotional connection to your partner or family member?
2. Do you worry that by declaring your emotional needs that you will be setting up your loved one for a relapse?
3. How have you emotionally-connected once again in your relationship as you begin to heal from the impact of the addiction?
In order to rebuild emotional connections in our relationships, we as partners and family members need to risk being vulnerable. During someone else’s active addiction, we often learned how to be quiet and censor what it was that we said out of fear that we would upset others. There were consequences in the addiction if we truly spoke our minds. For example, in the addiction if we told our addicted loved ones what we really thought then they may disappear for days on end using drugs and not communicating with us. In some cases, they may even storm out the door telling us that we were at fault for their problems as they went on another drug run or “bender” by drinking excessively.
Now in recovery, we may have similar hesitations about truly speaking our mind. We may have fears that the person in recovery will emotionally withdraw or that we will be punished with the silent treatment for sharing our real thoughts. An important part of connecting on deeper emotional levels in relationships is having the ability to be honest. We need to share what it is that we truly need and how we feel. If we fear reprisal, then we may only be half-honest with people that we care about in our relationships. An important part of building up our self-esteems and engaging in self-care is having the courage to speak our truth about issues. If we are to heal, then we cannot suffer in silence when others are not being respectful of our needs or they are taking us for granted. People in recovery are only one half of a relationship, and if they want a real partnership with true emotional connection, then they will need to give back in their relationships. An important part of giving back is to be receptive of what other people have to say.
Therefore, we need to overcome our fears and share with others what we truly need in life rather than martyring our selves and believing somehow that our deeper emotional needs will never be fulfilled. We have the right to be loved, supported, and appreciated. If ever we do not feel this type of support then we need to communicate this fact. For some of us, this may mean overcoming deeper fears of abandonment as we share what we truly need from others during our journey to building deeper emotional connections in our relationships.
Self-test for Family Members
1. Do you have fears about sharing what is really on your mind with the person you care about who is in recovery?
2. Do you remember the consequences of sharing your true feelings during a loved one’s addiction? Now that your loved one is in recovery, is this memory holding you back from communicating?
3. Do you have fears of abandonment? Are these fears blocking you from being honest in your relationship? Are you afraid to express your deeper emotional needs?
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