What does it take to create meaningful and healthy relationships in addiction recovery?
It takes lots of work.
But this is works that is well invested because relationships are extremely important to our emotional sobriety.
In fact, when I was in very early sobriety, I observed that the number one cause of relapse among my peers was a relationship that had gone bad.
Let’s take a closer look at relationships in recovery and see what we can learn.
No man is an island in addiction recovery
If you look at the 12 steps of AA you should get a pretty good clue about the importance of relationships, as many of the steps have to do with this directly.
No one recovers on a deserted island.
Recovery is really all about our relationships, all about our interactions with others.
For one thing, you have to learn from other people in recovery. If you try to learn the whole of recovery just from books like AA you will find that it is lacking. The real knowledge comes from your interaction with other human beings.
This is because much of the information that we need to remain sober is actually dynamic information. The big book of AA is static, the knowledge doesn’t change, it just sits there. But the information that you need to remain sober can change on a day to day basis. The challenges that you face in recovery are changing every day as you evolve in your journey.
And nowhere is this more evident than when it comes to the relationships in your life. For example, many people in sobriety have a particularly tough time staying sober if and when they go through a breakup with a significant other. It is the perfect emotional crisis and excuse to justify a relapse. However, if you reach out to a support network while you are going through this challenge then it is possible that you can resist the urge to relapse and overcome it. We can gain strength during such trials and live to fight another day. Of course, doing so relies on the fact that we have a healthy support network in place to begin with. It’s all about healthy relationships–even the safety net that can protect us from relapse comes down to our interactions with other humans.
Eliminating toxic relationships is critical to success
One of the most important things that you can do in your recovery journey is to eliminate negative parts of your life.
For example, many people in early recovery have strong resentments and lots of stored up anger inside. That is a major negative and it is something that needs to be eliminated. Once you get rid of the negativity in your life you are left with peace and harmony.
This is definitely true when it comes to relationships as well. If you happen to have a negative relationship in your life then it becomes your number one priority to eliminate it.
What we are talking about really is toxic people. Sometimes there are people in our lives that are downright toxic. They infect us with negativity. They sap our good intentions and drain us of positive energy.
If you have such a person in your life then it should become your priority to eliminate that person from your routine. You have to do this for your own sanity and sobriety. Having them around will only serve as a major influence in driving you towards relapse.
The problem is that sometimes we can be addicted to a relationship or another person, especially when addictions are involved as well. This is called codependent. When we are codependent we are in an unhealthy relationship with another person and we generally are either enabling them or being enabled in some way. This means that we are doing something for another person that they should be doing for themselves.
Or sometimes it is not that complicated, and we just have someone in our lives who is angry, violent, toxic, or nasty. In such cases the best course of action is to simply get away from the person as quickly as possible.
That is the challenge that we often face with toxic relationships: The fear of being alone versus the madness of living in torment. It can take a leap of faith or a lot of courage to distance ourselves from someone who is no good for us. But sometimes that is the most important thing that we can do for ourselves.
Sponsorship and modeling in the 12 step programs as a means of learning
We learn from other people in our recovery.
Perhaps no where is this as pronounced as in the sponsor and sponsee relationship.
If you happen to work a 12 step program for your recovery then it is likely that you will run into the idea of sponsorship.
This is modeling. You are learning by example. Find someone who is living the sort of life that you want to live, and ask them to help you. If they are active in sponsoring people in recovery then they may very well choose to help you out. Sometimes they will decline (usually because they are too busy) and you will have to look further to find an active sponsor.
One of the most important things about sponsorship is that it be active. What you don’t want to do is to find a sponsor in name only, and never really use them to learn anything. This actually happens quite a bit in the 12 step programs.
Instead, you want to find someone to work with that will actually get involved with you. Someone who will take you through the steps of AA and really work with you. This is an important learning opportunity and you don’t want to be passive about it. If your involvement with a sponsor is passive then you may as well not even have a sponsor. The goal is to learn something. You only learn when you are taking action.
In order to do that you need to take suggestions and advice and put those suggestions into action. I went through this process with my own sponsor many years ago and it certainly helped to shape and sculpt my life in recovery. Essentially I was taking life advice from someone and putting those suggestions into action. This had a positive impact on my life because obviously the actions that were suggested were all very positive things (chair meetings, go back to college, get a job, etc.).
Sponsorship is probably not for everyone, but it is certainly better than nothing if you are struggling to learn a new life in sobriety. Just reading a book or a website is not enough to give you the dynamic sort of information that you need to remain sober. Having a sponsor can give you that sort of information and it might make the difference between being sober or ending up relapsing.
Step work and repairing damaged relationships
Part of the 12 steps of AA and NA deal with relationship repair.
The idea is that we have damaged our relationships during our active addiction due to our bad behavior. Now that we are in recovery we need to take steps to right these wrongs and attempt to clean up the wreckage of our past.
There are several reasons to do this tough work. One is that it is simply the right thing to do, and any decent human being should, in theory, try to right their own wrongs. Two is that if we fail to do this then we may eventually relapse as a result.
One of the most difficult things to deal with is animosity among our peers, friends, or family. If there was ever a good excuse to drink, this is certainly one of them. Part of staying sober in the long run is taking away these sort of excuses that we might use to justify relapse. This is all part of “doing the work.” In order to remain sober you have to feel comfortable living in your own skin on a day to day basis. If you have bad feelings about other people in your life then you need to do the work to eliminate those bad feelings.
How do you do this? You may need to ask for help. Some people can do this by working through the 12 steps. Other recovering alcoholics may need to go to therapy or talk with their peers on a regular basis in order to process their feelings.
Communication is a huge key in this regard.
For example, let’s say that you are upset with your spouse. They have done something that has angered you greatly. You are upset and it may be close to the point where your emotional state could lead to relapse.
Obviously this is something that we want to prevent. So you need to know how to deal with this emotional state and process those feelings in a way that give you relief.
So how do you do this?
There is a method but it takes real work. Here is the basic idea behind this sort of healthy communication:
1) Stop yourself when you get angry or upset and remove yourself from the situation. Don’t let a fight escalate when it is blind siding you. Get away from the fight temporarily so that you can calm down and think straight. This is an important step because if you just go with the heat of the moment then that will likely only lead to more anger and fighting. Recognize the emotion and distance yourself at first. This is key.
2) Think about why you are angry. Recognize that anger is actually a secondary emotion, it is not primary. So the anger does not exist by itself. This is impossible. Rather, the anger is a secondary emotion that is sort of “covering up” another emotion, such as fear or hurt. In all cases you are either feeling some form of fear or hurt underneath that anger. Your job in this case is to figure out what that primary emotion is that is under the anger. Are you scared? Hurt? Afraid? What is it that is under the anger? Figure out what it is.
3) Communicate the primary emotion to the other party. So if you are upset with someone, and you have identified the emotion that was under the anger, then that is what you need to eventually communicate to that person. Do it without judgment. So you might say something like “It scared me when you told me that you spent all the money in our checking account.” That is the fear that was under the anger. Notice that you are not passing judgement on the person. You are simply stating your primary emotion, which in this case was fear, and you are stating what made you scared. That’s it! Don’t go into further explanation. Don’t start ranting and raving. Just state the emotion, own the fear, and give a single sentence as to why you were afraid.
4) People can’t really argue with this. Do you know why they cannot argue with you about it? Because you don’t get to choose your emotions! If we get scared, did we choose that fear? No we did not. The fear came out of nowhere, it just happened, we did not get to choose to be happy instead of scared. So when you tell someone what your emotion was, they cannot really argue with you about it.
5) This is the most honest form of communication. When you communicate those primary emotions that are underneath the anger, you are communicating your highest truth. Yes, you got angry, everyone can see that plainly. But what is really going on? What’s really going on is the emotion that is behind the anger, the fear or the hurt that is driving that anger. That’s what is really going on inside and that is the honest truth.
This process that I have listed above takes a lot of work. It takes serious effort. You don’t just accidentally do this process that I have outlined. You must do it deliberately. You must actively work through this process in order to heal your communication and thus improve your relationships.
Most people are not comfortable doing this sort of honest work with their emotions, and therefore they will avoid it at all costs. But this is where the growth is at. If you can honestly communicate your real feelings and your real emotions then you can experience huge breakthroughs.
Notice that when you are doing this you will often times communicate an opinion rather than a feeling. This is a trap. When you communicate a feeling, you should probably stick to the four basic emotions of “sad, mad, glad, and scared.” Tell the other person which one of those you are feeling. If you don’t use those terms then it is likely you will just start throwing your opinions around and you will be fighting again.
Stick to those basic emotions when you communicate and it will help you tremendously.
Becoming a better version of yourself to enhance all of your relationships
In the long run the best plan that you could possibly have to improve all of your relationships is to change yourself.
Personal growth is the best form of relapse prevention. It is also the best way to insure that you are improving yourself and the interactions that you have with others in your life.
When you first get clean and sober you are starting from ground zero. Most of us will have very low self esteem at that point and therefore we will not think much of ourselves. If you have low self esteem then it will cause all of your relationships to suffer as well. You will never be giving your best to others because you will not have the confidence in yourself to really do so.
Therefore, personal growth in recovery has to start with yourself and your own life. Before you can improve your relationships with others you have to improve your relationship with yourself.
Depending on the type of recovery program you are working on, this may also involve improving your relationship with a higher power as well.
Now you may be wondering how exactly you go about improving yourself in such a way that it will also improve your relationships.
The first part of this has to do with honesty. The key is in self honesty and breaking through all forms of denial in your life. This is a huge step in early recovery and it is also critical in terms of building healthy relationships.
It is not so much that you need to be honest with others, as that much is painfully obvious to most of us. Of course we can’t lie to others and expect to build healthy relationships.
But the real key is that we have to learn to be honest with ourselves as well. If we are not honest with ourselves then we will be holding ourselves back in the recovery process.
This can be very subtle as well. For example, in my early recovery I was prone to self pity. I spent a lot of time and mental energy feeling sorry for myself. That was part of how I justified my addiction to myself.
So at some point I had to get honest with myself about this character defect. I had to get real with myself and realize that this self pity was not helping me to remain sober. I had to realize that the only thing this self pity was good for was to justify drinking or drug use. It was no longer serving me well.
So I had to get honest about that and then take action to correct it. And in doing so, I got one step closer to improving my relations with others as well. If you haven’t noticed, most people don’t like to listen to others who are feeling sorry for themselves. It can get very tiresome!
So that was part of my own journey in learning to repair the relationships around me. I had to work on myself, I had to improve my own character defects, so that I could bring more to the table when it came to my interactions with other people.
In this same way, we all have character defects that we could stand to improve in our lives. Maybe you have fears that hold you back, or resentments that block you from being truly happy. When we remove these negative parts of ourselves it opens us up to a new level of communication with others. When we improve ourselves in this way it enhances our interactions with others.
If you want deeper relationships with other people then you must first create a deeper relationship with yourself and with your higher power. This doesn’t happen by accident. It requires real work and real effort. Doing that work might come through the 12 steps of AA, or it might simply be personal growth that you identified in your own journey. Either way, the work that you put into yourself and your own personal growth will later on be reflected in the quality of your relationships with others.
What about you, are your relationships in recovery meaningful? Has your own personal growth led you to better relationships with others? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!