The Importance of Family in Recovery


By Jane St. Clair

While the first members of Alcoholics Anonymous were meeting, spouses often waited in the kitchens of churches or school gymnasiums. They began to talk among each other and share stories of what it was like to be married to someone with an addiction. They found out that not only did they have much in common, they had much to offer each other in terms of support and information.

In 1951, formal groups for spouses and family members formed under the name “Al-Anon.” Before then, family members of addicts were considered a forgotten population in treatment. Today, the importance of spouses and family members to the recovery of an addicted family member is well-documented. Research shows that people recovering from addictions who even perceive that their family members as supportive and emotionally available have better long-term outcomes and fewer relapses.

The Idea of Codependency

The label “codependent” was often applied to partners of addicts in the 1970s. It was thought that spouses of addicts were codependent on or enabling of the addictive behavior. They somehow got gains from mothering the person, covering up for them or being the “good parent” to the children.

The new thinking among therapists in substance abuse treatment is that addiction is a physical disease that affects marriages because one spouse has to change their behaviors in order to accommodate their partner’s condition. If your spouse is about to drive drunk, or passed out on the sofa when it’s time to go to work, your behaviors are not “codependent” but rather logical responses to difficult situations.

The latest research also disproves the idea that spouses of alcoholics are any more emotionally disturbed than other people. However, their partners’ problems takes a psychological toll on them, and puts them at risk for physical and emotional abuse, child-rearing problems and feelings of emotional abandonment, distrust, shame and embarrassment.

Sabotaging Recovery

As much as they can help, family members can also sabotage recovery by their actions. A study in the journal Behavior Therapy found that a recovering alcoholic is less successful if they believe their spouse is critical and unsupportive of their recovery efforts. If both partners use drugs or alcohol, it becomes harder for one partner to recover. Recovering substance abusers experience also experience higher rates of depression if their families and spouses are unsupportive.

Residential Treatment Centers Can Help

If you are the partner of someone in substance abuse recovery, your role is very important. If your partner opts to attend a residential treatment center, counselors at the center will probably advise you to enter both couples counseling with your partner and individual counseling. Couples counseling can help you form new and healthy behavior patterns as a couple. Individual therapy gives you the opportunity to work out your own feelings about your past history together, such as abandonment, distrust and anger, so that you and your partner can make a fresh start together. Taking care of yourself and your own needs is the best thing you can do to help your partner remain sober throughout your new life together.

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