Couples and Families in Recovery

When a spouse, partner or family member is using drugs, everyone else in the family waits for the day the substance abuse will stop. They believe they can send their loved ones away to residential drug treatment, and that they will come back “fixed.” Once they addicted individuals have recovered, all the family problems will end.

The problem is that none of these assumptions are true. The truth is the entire family has to change, or the drug addict will be much more likely to descend back into substance abuse.

A Family Affair

Most families with drug addicts have two ways of functioning: one during periods of sobriety, and the other when the person is using. They think that when their loved ones return from residential drug treatment program, the family will function in the way they did during the “good times.”

Again, this assumption is untrue. The truth is that the family unit has to learn a third way of functioning if the drug abuser is to remain drug-free. An addict’s treatment program will not work unless the entire family plays an active, positive role.

For example, let’s say the drug abuser is a teenager whose younger sister is playing the role of being the “good child”. Their parents unconsciously put pressure on this child never to have any problems because they are is putting so much energy into the older brother’s problems.

Often such a sibling resents her brother’s drug problems. In fact, the majority of siblings tell family counselors that they were happy when their sibling was sent away to drug treatment. This “good kid” sibling needs to address her feelings of anger and resentment toward her brother, or they will just resurface when he comes home, and she will unconsciously sabotage her brother’s recovery.

Making Changes, Seeing Results

It is not only siblings that need treatment — the entire family does. Typically, the family has forgotten how to relax and have fun. They have to address their feelings of anger and resentment, but they also have to stop being overly serious and focused on negativity. They need to learn new ways of relating to each other and to the recovered addict so that their loved one can be successfully integrated into the family unit as a healthy member.

If drug problems have been at the core of the family’s functioning, the family members now have to replace that focus with something positive.

Wives and husbands of alcoholics have often spent years compensating for their partners’ behaviors. They have covered up for them at work or with legal authorities. They have done more than their share of parenting and housework. They have lived under the constant pressure of worrying about the next argument or crisis.

These non-addicted partners must embrace their partners’ recovery and let go of their resentment and anger – a task that is not necessarily easy to do.

What often happens is that after years of being distant and caught up in their own problems, the drug-addicted partners become emotionally and psychologically available, which can be quite a challenge to those who have always had to do everything alone. The transition requires adjustments on the part of both people.

The End of Enabling

The old way of thinking was to call the partner without the addiction an “enabler.”  The new way of thinking is to realize the covering up for an addict and other such behaviors are natural responses to a difficult, challenging situation.

Families and couples need professional help to get through these transitions together. While the addicts or alcoholics are working their programs in residential treatment, family members often enter counseling in their local areas.

When recovering family member returns home, family therapy and marital counseling are often necessary to help the family change its ways of relating to one another.

Family members have to understand that relapses and “falling off the wagon” can be a recognized part of recovery. They have to help the person remain abstinent by allowing everyone in the family to participate in the privilege of changing and entering into loving, healthy relationships with one another.