Recovery takes a toll on the addict and their romantic partner.
When the news broke in March that Jon Hamm had recently completed 30 days in rehab for alcohol addiction (shades of Don Draper!), the nation collectively exhaled a sigh of relief that his 18-year relationship with Jennifer Westfeldt had seemingly survived this crisis intact.
Earlier this month came word the couple had split amid statements that the breakup is not related to his battle with addiction. Whether or not their denials are true, when one partner goes through addiction recovery, the relationship cannot help but be affected.
There is no simple connect-the-dots formula to help a couple heal after such a tumultuous time, but these tips can help.
1. Don’t lose yourself in their recovery process
Being with someone who is struggling with sobriety can be a consuming, soul-numbing experience. My client, Anna (name changed) told me, “When Jeff came out of rehab, I walked around for months terrified he would take a drink and the whole house of cards would crumble. I had no energy to do anything other than be there for him if not actually with him, at all times… I stopped seeing my friends, didn’t go to the gym, didn’t go anywhere except work.” She admitted, half laughing, “Under all that strain, I nearly started drinking!”
This level of desperation and watchdog-ness doesn’t help your spouse maintain their sobriety. That is ultimately their job. Your job is to be supportive, but put your needs first — through Al-Anon meetings, individual therapy, spending time with friends, enjoying hobbies and little luxuries — whatever feels replenishing.
2. Sidestep the enabling trap
True, you weren’t the one with the bottle attached to your hip. However, behind many addicts is someone unintentionally making it easy for them to continue being imprisoned by their addiction.
The reason — you hated seeing someone you love suffer. So when they were sick, you nursed them. When their binge prevented them from making it to work, you lied to their boss and said it was a 24-hour bug. When they insisted they would stop drinking tomorrow, next week, next month, you said you believed them. (Though you know you didn’t.) And on and on…
Now that they are in the first fragile stages of recovery, you need to let them go through what they need to endure to help them stay sober. Be empathetic, but not enabling.
3. Set boundaries
Your partner getting sober does not suddenly make everything all better.
Actually, in some ways a person in early recovery is harder to live with than someone who is still in addict mode. They are likely moody, impulsive, very scared and totally self-involved.
It is up to you to set boundaries as to what behaviors are and are not acceptable. For example it is not OK for them to use you as a verbal punching bag to let off steam. It is OK for them to confide in you that this is a tough, tough fight and sometimes they’re not sure they will succeed. It is imperative that you open up an honest and ongoing line of communication. Which brings us to…
4. Educate yourself about the recovery process
It is not a straight line. There are risk factors for relapse. The more you understand about what your partner is experiencing, the less you will take their struggles personally. Hopefully they are in a program, have a sponsor and good support from other sources — not just you. But addiction is a disease and it is likely there will be setbacks.
5. Go to a couples therapist specializing in addiction issues
For years, the relationship was ruled by your partner’s struggle with addiction. That was terrible but familiar. Now both of you are in a different place, which is scary. Suddenly perhaps your partner is not relying on you for everything, but trying to be independent and cautious rather than impulsive. Yet they desperately need your emotional support, while you desperately need them to know the toll years of their drinking have taken on you. How can the two of you work together to deal with stress and promote sober living? Who are the two of you when you are not ‘addict and burdened spouse’?
This is where couples therapy should come in. Indeed, many drug addiction treatment clinics offer therapy for couples. In the end, despite the love and years of devotion, like Jon and Jennifer, the relationship may not survive. But you will be learning tools that can help you for the rest of your life.