When long-awaited sobriety finally arrives, partners expect their past relationship problems will disappear. Often, there is a “honeymoon” period when they’re on their best behavior and reaffirm their love and commitment. After all that they’ve been through together, they have high hopes for a rosy future and easier times ahead. Yet, sobriety destabilizes the status quo, offering opportunities for positive change. But it's also an unsettling time. Both partners feel vulnerable. It's a rocky transition in the relationship presenting many challenges.
Darlene Lancer, JD, LMFT is a marriage and family therapist. She is a relationship expert and author of "Codependency for Dummies" and "Conquering Codependency and Shame: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You," as well as five ebooks. She has worked extensively in the field of addiction and codependency. Her work is informed by training in Self-Psychology, Voice-Dialogue, Dream Analysis, Jungian Therapy, Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, Somatic Work, EFT, and Hypnosis. She has also previously supervised other therapists as an AAMFT Approved Supervisor and practiced law as an entertainment attorney.
Sober or abstinent addicts have their own emotional challenges. It may be difficult to get through a day without using or drinking or fighting the urge to do so. In addition to worrying about a slip, a recovering addict has anxiety that the substance abuse has masked. Drugs smoothed over difficult feelings and situations that now must be faced “on the natch.” Anxiety may be covering deeper feelings of depression, shame, and emptiness. Childhood trauma can drive these feelings, but early sobriety is not the time to address it. Moreover, if substance abuse started before the addict was an independent, self-sustaining adult, then new skills need to be learned. It’s said that maturity stops when addiction begins. Hopefully, the addict is getting support from a 12-Step program and an experienced sponsor or counselor.
Perhaps there were other sober periods that didn’t last, so the belief is, “Why should this time be different?” The spouse may continue to “walk on eggshells,” as he or she did living with addiction, afraid of precipitating an argument or a slip. Trust has been broken many times, and it will have to be rebuilt – a process that can’t be rushed.
Hopefully, the partner has also been in a 12-Step program, such as Nar-Anon or Al-Anon. (Al-Ateen is a great resource for children, too.) There those affected by addiction learned that they’re not responsible for the addict’s drinking or using and that they’re powerlessness over the addict’s recovery. New sobriety leaves a void, which formerly was filled with all the mental and physical activity of trying to control and manipulate the addiction and substance abuser. Being a codependent caretaker hid their inner emptiness. Feelings of anxiety, anger, loss, boredom, and depression may arise. The spouse is now “out of a job” of watching, enabling, and checking up on the addict and taking over his or her responsibilities. Secretly, the spouse may fear not being needed, and worry, “Will I be enough to be loved?” should the addict becoming a fully-functioning, independent adult. This reflects the shame that lies beneath the caretaking, self-sacrificing, role of being a super-responsible partner – shame that underlies codependency.
With sobriety also comes the fear of relapse. It’s overwhelming to realize that a loved one has a life threatening addiction, subject only to a daily reprieve, over which we’re powerless. The spouse must turn to filling a life that may have been consumed by addiction and the vagaries and needs of the addict. If the spouse has been in recovery, then this process has already begun, and it’s an easier transition. Still, he or she may watch and worry whether the addict is doing what’s necessary to recover and be intrusive with statements like, “Did you call your sponsor?” or “You need a meeting.”
This article also applies to unmarried couples. However, the longer partners are together, the more their patterns become entrenched. In new sobriety, couples don’t really know how to talk to one another. Partners are accustomed to their roles – the addict being unreliable and dependent, and the partner being a super-responsible fixer. In Codependency for Dummies, I term these roles Underdog and Top Dog. The Underdog addict is self-centered and irresponsible, and feels vulnerable, needy, and loved only when receiving. Top Dog is other-centered and over-responsible, and feels invulnerable, self-sufficient, and loved only when giving. They both feel sorry for themselves, blame one another, and have guilt and shame, but Underdog feels guilty needing help, and Top Dog feels guilty not giving it.