Recovery and Relationships
People commonly cite the old adage “relationships take work” when noting the difficulty of partnerships. It is frequently accepted that people have difficulty when in relationships and we find ourselves supporting friends, family and coworkers alike when those inevitable times of strife arrive. As a couples and family therapist, I am often asked why the divorce rate is so high?
I have my own beliefs about the “high” divorce rate (spoiler alert, this therapist does not see the value in stigmatizing divorce). Yet, I am always curious as to their thoughts before I go into my long-winded perspective. People tend to speculate about things like a lack of family values and the stress of the changing economy, but they often miss considering the impact of addiction in relationships. If we know that relationships are hard work regardless, it is not surprising that when someone is also suffering from addiction the inevitable hard work may feel like a burden that may be quite challenging to carry.
Drs. Julie and John Gottman have made a sig-nificant mark in understanding relationships with their groundbreaking research data (see information about The Gottman Institute at gottman.com). In the 1980s John Gottman and colleagues observed couples interacting in a research lab (which was an apartment in Seattle, Washington, outfitted with recording equipment). This research yielded an understanding of what makes the difference between a “master of relationships” and “disaster of relationships.” Their research has been converted to tangible consumer tips so that anyone can work on being a master of relationships. Couples and family therapists routinely receive training in Gottman methods because of the research evidence and client accessibility. In short, the Gottman perspective matters because it works.
John Gottman is able to predict, with over 90 percent accuracy, which couples will divorce and which couples will stay together (Gottman & Levenson, 2002). I am sure that his friends accept dinner party invitations with a certain degree of hesitation. The Gottmans have coined the “Four Horseman,” criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling (shutting down, withdrawing), as the factors that predict divorce (Gottman, 1994). Contempt is when we treat others with disrespect and sarcasm, disregarding their position and/or perspective, often with a mocking tone. When we have contempt in our communication, we are truly mean. Contempt is the leading predictor of divorce, though the other horsemen are often present.
So how does one maintain a great relationship when managing their recovery process? The Gottmans have long presented the “Sound Relationship House” (Gottman, 2000) as their main recommendation for building healthy, happy relationships. In sum, The Gottman Institute recommends that couples do the following: (a) build love maps by knowing about each other’s inner world –their stresses, hopes, joys; (b) regularly share appreciations for each other; (c) turn toward instead of away in times of stress; (d) maintain a positive perspective; (e) manage conflict by accepting that conflict is normal in relationships; (f) help one another reach their goals; (g) create shared meaning about the relationship, understand how the other sees the story of your relationship; (h) trust and commitment.
These central tenets of the Gottman method require us to be actively tuned in to our relationship. When addiction takes its toll, it’s common for the four horseman to be present. Those suffering from addiction commonly report that they have felt criticized by their partner and/or the interactions felt mean. We know that relationships require recovery from the impact of addiction; significant muscle work may be required to repair the relationship. But please note, it’s not the person who has been suffering from addiction that is the problem.
The problem is what happens between people when addiction is present. The criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling produce a strong vortex of pain and misery. The interactions become redundant with these present, and partners become reliant on these (unhelpful) strategies. When recovery comes along, partners need to be retrained to not use these strategies and to employ positive antidotes. Relationships can withstand addiction, as long as the interactions also receive “treatment.”
When a person is in early recovery they have to consider if they are ready to manage the inevitable stressors and conflicts that come with a relationship. Sponsors, treatment centers, counselors, friends and family will all have their opinions about whether a person can be in a relationship in early recovery. I have never felt comfortable having a hard rule about this given the unique ways people manage their life. I have had friends and colleagues get into a relationship in early recovery and flourish and have had others say they crashed and burned.
I prefer to invite people to consider what a relationship will be like for their recovery. Can their recovery withstand the work it takes to build a sound relationship house as discussed above? Will they be able to prioritize their recovery pro-tection while navigating (inevitable) relationship conflict? How do school, friends and family commitments impact the equation? In my role, I am not in a position to tell someone exactly what to do, nor would I want to. My intention is to provide a space to effectively contemplate these questions so that a person can discover their own answers. We must consider what we know about ourselves, what others know about our tendencies and what resources we have to protect our recovery. I do not fault people for offering their strong opinions on this topic; the opinions provide data in the contemplation process.
It is not a novel idea that recovery and relationships take work. Giving ourselves a moment to reflect on how we can best “show up” for our-selves and the people in our life is pivotal. The connection that comes from relationships can be very healing and meaningful in our overall journey.
Dr. Tiffany Brown is a Lecturer and Clinical Director in the Couples and Family Therapy graduate program at the University of Oregon.
She is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist as well as a clinical fellow and approved supervisor with the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT). Brown received specialized training in addiction and recovery through the Center for the Study of Addiction and Recovery at Texas Tech University as part of her doctoral studies. Brown’s expertise includes self-harm education, prevention and intervention; the family dynamics of addiction and recovery; grief and loss; and collegiate recovery.
For more information, email Tiffany at firstname.lastname@example.org.