Relationships and Addiction
Living with active addiction creates extraordinary relationship challenges and does considerable damage to significant relationships—with partners, parents, children, and close friends.
When you enter recovery, it’s natural to want to repair this damage as soon as possible, and your impulse might be to try to do just that. However, attempting quick fixes is rarely helpful and almost never works well. Often, it can make things worse.
In terms of the relationships you want to improve, how long did it take to damage them in the ways that you had prior to commencing recovery? Months? Years? It may not take as long to undo the harm your addiction caused, but it will take time. How many times before have you promised your loved ones that you would change? Create empathy by putting yourself in their position. How many times have you said, “I’m sorry—it won’t happen again?" Perhaps you believed it yourself and genuinely intended to change, but “it” did happen again (and perhaps again and again).
Whether you’ve been in recovery previously or this is your first attempt, why should they believe you now? How many times have you told them that this time things will be different? The more often this happens, the harder it is for the important people in your life to trust that this time really will be different.
Adjustments in recovery
Most people experience deep regret, guilt, and shame related to the harm their use of alcohol and other drugs has caused to the people they care about. Frequently, wanting to “fix” important relationships immediately is based on a desire to alleviate the emotional pain of having hurt loved ones. But pain—both emotional and physical—is an inevitable aspect of life. It is part of being human. The process of recovery requires learning how to accept and go through the pain that life brings you. Part of this process is accepting that repairing the damage your addiction has done to your relationships will only happen gradually over time—based on what you do rather than what you say. The saying "actions speak louder than words" is especially accurate related to recovery.
It will be helpful to resist the urge to focus on fixing your relationships and keep the focus on making progress in your recovery. As you continue to work on your recovery, your relationships are likely to improve over time. The best way to resolve relationship issues is through slow, incremental change.
The role of relationships in recovery
Clearly, supportive relationships provide many benefits. The process of recovery from addiction is supported through relationships and social networks. Recovery support is provided through treatment, services, and community-based programs by behavioral health care providers, peer providers, family members, friends and social networks, the faith community, and people with experience in recovery.[i]
Unfortunately, people with addiction are inclined to isolate, effectively cutting themselves off from the health-enhancing effects of social and emotional support. This support becomes even more important in early recovery when people are struggling to get used to life without using alcohol and other drugs. At this time, developing relationships that provide mutual support and connection is essential. Twelve-step programs and other mutual-aid resources help serve this vital purpose.
While some relationships are based on circumstances over which you have little or no control, you do have choices in establishing relationships that provide support and nurture you. Cultivating and maintaining supportive relationships takes time and energy. It requires effort, along with the strength and courage to step outside of one’s comfort zone.
Part of the growth and healing that frequently occurs in recovery involves learning how, when, and with whom to take down the walls and false fronts that people have put up to protect themselves and begin to allow others to see and get to know the “real” them. Twelve-step programs can offer support and guidance from others who have been through the same kinds of experiences—who have been there and done that—and have learned how to be successful in the face of the challenges of recovery from addiction. To paraphrase the twelve-step literature, through the process of recovery you can transition from a life characterized by taking and being taken to one based on giving and being given.
Reviewing your current relationships
It is important to take inventory of your current relationships so you can identify those that will help or hinder your progress toward health and healing in recovery. Moreover, consider whether relationships that are not supportive of your priorities deserve your time and energy. If something doesn’t seem or feel “right,” it’s important to pay attention to that gut feeling and be able to communicate about it. Identifying and shedding unhealthy or “toxic” relationships is also part of the recovery process.
What about new relationships?
In any close relationship, people share important aspects of their life experience and who they are. As a result, it’s essential to consider sharing the fact that you are in recovery with those people with whom you are or would like to become emotionally close—assuming that they aren’t already aware of it. But, how do you know when to let others know that you’re in recovery from addiction? Many people have a lot of uncertainty about disclosing their status as a person in recovery in new relationships. Such relationships include new friends, co-workers, and romantic partners.
Disclosing your recovery status
There are different opinions on when and how to disclose your recovery status. Some people believe it’s important to be completely upfront and let others know that you are a person in recovery during your very first encounter. Others take the position that it is best to see how the relationship develops and use that information to determine when to disclose. Although rare, there are some work situations in which a person’s recovery status might possibly be held against him or her. There are certain industries where business is frequently conducted around activities where alcohol is served and drinking is customary.
Ultimately, disclosing your recovery status to others is a very personal decision and the timing of it depends on a variety of factors. That being said, your most important priority needs to be protecting your recovery. This means taking care to not put yourself in situations where your recovery is likely to be at risk.
Although no one in recovery is immune to the possibility of relapse, those who are new(er) are especially vulnerable. Therefore, informing people to whom you are becoming close that you don’t drink alcohol or use other drugs—sooner rather than later—will help you avoid many risky situations. Getting involved in or maintaining a close relationship with anyone who regularly uses alcohol or other drugs, particularly in your presence, places you at considerable risk.
You may be concerned about how others will react or judge you when you share your recovery status. This is natural. Some people do not understand what recovery is. They may ask questions. Occasionally, such questions may be asked provocatively, questioning or even testing your commitment to recovery. However, most of the time people ask questions because they genuinely wish to know more. They may want to know why you’ve chosen this particular path because they have questions about their own alcohol or other drug use or are concerned about a family member or friend.
Increasingly, people in recovery are emerging from the shadows and throwing off the yoke of the stigma long attached to addiction. Recovery is becoming more common and accepted in mainstream society. You may be surprised to find that the vast majority of people will respect your recovery and accept it without difficulty.
In terms of how to tell someone that you’re in recovery, there are several options. Generally, the best approach is to be direct and matter-of-fact: “I’m in recovery.” If you’re in a situation where drinking or drug use is suggested or you’re offered a drink or a joint (or something else), you can simply say, “No thank you.” If the other person wants to know why, you can simply say, “I don’t drink (or smoke pot, or do other drugs).”
Other options include: “I’m retired from that area,” “I’m allergic to alcohol,” etc., and “I just don’t like it.” However, it’s important to know that the other person isn’t owed an explanation and offering one is strictly your choice. Like any other new skill, telling another person that you are in recovery becomes easier and more comfortable with time and practice.
Copyright 2017 Dan Mager, MSW
Dan Mager is the author of Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain.
[i] US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA). https://www.samhsa.gov/recovery (accessed 2/23/17).