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Relationship Recovery Is Critical for Addiction Recovery

How repairing damage and building healthy connections improves recovery

Key points

  • Addiction recovery programs often discourage relationship-focused efforts, but that isn't consistent with the evidence.
  • Relationship recovery can be integrated into addiction recovery in ways that lead to better outcomes.
  • Relationships impact quality of life and present opportunities to practice skills essential for addiction recovery.

Humans are social beings, we thrive when we have meaningful social interactions and connections with other people. The impact of our relationships on our quality of life can be profound. Most of us tend to feel better when our relationships are doing well, and our relationships tend to do better when we are doing well personally. Think about the times in your life when you were happiest—how were your relationships functioning during those times?

There is a large body of research showing that addiction can have negative impacts on relationships, and I have never met someone in recovery who was unaware that addiction hurts loved ones. Substance abuse and addiction can lead to misunderstandings, poor communication, personality changes, social detachment, emotional numbing, and dishonesty. These changes can shatter trust and create a lot of negative emotional experiences in your relationships.

Struggling with addiction can also lower motivation and cause depression, anxiety, and fatigue. These symptoms can make someone seem unreliable, irresponsible, or uncaring. Substance abuse and addiction can lead to behaviors that are not helpful to relationships, such as increased self-focus or selfishness, avoidance, persistent irritability, or withdrawal. These changes can damage the sense of closeness in relationships. During times of active substance abuse, there are usually fewer positive interactions with loved ones. This magnifies the impact on relationships—there are more negative experiences and fewer positive experiences in relationships.

For many people, recovery or treatment is actually started because someone they love has detached, threatened to leave, or been hurt in ways that motivate change. But there's often little direct attention to relationship difficulties in recovery programs unless it includes structured couple or family therapy. A lot of treatment programs and support groups focus on taking personal accountability for the ways that substance abuse has harmed loved ones and led to chaotic lives, but don't focus on the process of repairing that damage beyond staying sober. This intense focus on personal accountability in recovery can lead to completely ignoring the other side of the story—relationships may have contributed to addiction and may be complicating recovery efforts.

In both addiction and recovery, someone may become so focused on individual processes that they neglect the interpersonal processes with others. That is one reason people sometimes find that even though their addiction recovery is going well, their relationship recovery is lagging behind.

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Family sunset
Source: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

Here are some reasons that relationship recovery is a critical part of addiction recovery.

1. Relationships impact quality of life.

Most people see how their relationships impact their quality of life, but sometimes this gets muddied when addiction is part of the picture. Most of us have a lot of different people in our lives. Some of these relationships can be helpful to us, some of them can be harmful to us in certain ways, and some can be both. We tend to focus mostly on romantic and family relationships, but other types of relationships can have a big impact on your recovery efforts as well. Focusing on relationship recovery intentionally throughout addiction recovery can improve quality of life, which will bolster addiction recovery efforts.

2. Relationships interact with addiction and recovery efforts.

Relationships can be a source of support, or they can be stressors that threaten sobriety. It’s very common for loved ones to blame relationship distress on the addiction, and that idea is often reinforced by movies, recovery meetings, and even treatment providers. But what about the impact that relationships have on addiction? What about the ways that loved ones may be unintentionally making it more difficult for someone to stay sober? Those topics get much less attention, and people may feel guilty about even considering that their relationships have contributed to their substance use. But the truth is that relationships interact with addiction and recovery efforts in complicated ways, and exploring those interactions can lead to deeper self-understanding, healthier relationships, and more sustainable recovery.

3. Social support is critical for addiction recovery.

It's no secret that social support is important for addiction recovery, but sometimes there's a tendency to focus on undamaged relationships for that support instead of working to repair and rebuild relationships that need some work. Most people in addiction recovery have some relationships that are supportive and helpful, some that are risky or harmful for their recovery in some way, and some that are a little bit of both. Even the relationships that are generally supportive can be stressful at times, which can create high risk for recovery setbacks. An essential skill for recovery is finding ways to minimize the harmful effects and maximize the helpful effects of relationships on addiction recovery efforts. But that's easier said than done. There isn't much guidance on this, and many people in recovery are given the message that their relationships can wait until they're further along in recovery. That makes the process of relationship recovery pretty abstract for people who aren't engaged with couple or family therapy. For people who want to focus on relationship recovery outside of those therapies, it's helpful to build relationship skills broadly to rebuild damaged relationships and also build new healthy connections moving forward.

4. Relationships present opportunities to practice skills that are essential for addiction recovery.

Many people with addiction histories also have difficulty with distress tolerance and coping skills—for many people substance use became a primary coping strategy, and it can be difficult to learn ways to cope with distress without using alcohol or drugs. Adding the stress of focusing on relationships could feel overwhelming, but it also provides an important opportunity to practice distress tolerance, emotion regulation, and coping skills. Relationships also benefit from healthy communication skills, validation, boundaries, and honesty—all of which are important for addiction recovery.

The idea that recovery should be wholly an individual journey reinforces the idea that addiction is solely a character flaw. That idea has been disproven by loads of research, and although individual recovery is critically important, so is relationship recovery. I have never met someone on a solid recovery path who wasn’t engaged with strong social supports. Even if romantic relationships aren't the main focus, it’s important to make sure that healthy relationships are a primary goal of addiction recovery.

If you're in recovery yourself, you love someone who struggles with addiction, or you're a therapist working with addiction clients and their loved ones, it's important to consider ways that relationships interact with addiction and recovery efforts, and ways that relationship recovery can improve addiction recovery and quality of life.

Copyright 2021 Kelly E. Green, Ph.D.


This post includes selected excerpts from Relationships in Recovery: Repairing Damage and Building Healthy Connections While Overcoming Addiction. New York: Guilford Press, July 2021.

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