By David Kalmansohn
People who like to complain about their partners—and just between us, who doesn’t?—always get trumped when they swap stories with the partner of an addict: Yours leaves her clothes on the floor every night? Mine leaves herself on the floor. Yours invited his mother on your family vacation? Mine invited Jack Daniels on ours.
Game, set, match.
“Every relationship involving an active addict is always a broken relationship,” says lecturer and counselor Earnie Larsen, author of Stage II Relationships: Love Beyond Addiction and Now That You’re Sober. “Addiction specifically destroys the skills that relationships demand such as an ability and willingness to trust, to be honest and responsible and to ‘get out of self’ enough to make room for the other person. That’s why there is no better way—there’s no other way—to save a relationship than each person working their programs to become healthier people.”
The sobriety of the addicted partner is not enough to mend a marriage, Larsen stresses.
“It takes both parties being willing and able to function—or even wanting to function—in a healthy relationship,” he says. “Loving and making a relationship work are two totally different things; relationships take skills, not just good will.
There are two questions each partner must answer: What change do you—not the other person—need to make to become a trustworthy partner in the relationship? And are you willing to make that effort?”
Sobriety is only one aspect of the healing process; the partners of substance abusers have their own essential journey of recovery to make. Like most partners, Russell B. came to his first Twelve Step meeting unable to identify as a codependent and with the wrong goal in mind: to help fix the addict. And it took more than a few meetings to convince him that he was looking in the wrong direction and feeding into a self-destructive pattern.
“Finally I realized that I liked my partners to be drunk because it created more power and control for me,” says Russell, a Los Angeles artist. “When they sobered up, I was afraid they would leave me; they were looking to the program for solutions, and they no longer needed me to clean up their mess. And who was I if I wasn’t in a relationship?”
Any effort to heal a relationship should start with honesty and humility on both sides, says Ellen Katz, LMFT, a Chicago-based psychotherapist and clinical director of the Inner Balance counseling center in Northbrook, Ill.
“Once both parties are in recovery, the key step is a willingness to be humble and to take inventory. With spiritual maturity and a willingness to forgive, there’s room for healing.”
Room, yes, but no guarantees.
“There are limits,” Katz acknowledges. “I know a spiritually mature woman whose partner went to prostitutes for more than a decade. Both partners are in recovery now, and she no longer blames him, but she couldn’t wrap her brain around it—all those moments that she thought were sober and authentic, and now she has to rewrite the entire history of her marriage. She knows her own truth and pain limit, and that has to be honored.”
Katz says that the more effort partners spend on their individual recovery, the better the chances of reviving a relationship.
“Working on yourself includes how you relate to others,” she says. “What I look for [during couples counseling] is that both partners are in alignment with their highest good, their highest truth. Then you can start dealing with the trauma.”
Los Angeles–based freelance writer David Kalmansohn has a long history of covering issues of mind, body and spirit. He is the former executive editor of Natural Healthand the former deputy editor of Men’s Fitness.