Marriage after sobriety can be a rocky time. Both partners feel vulnerable as they transition into their “new” relationship. To help couples during this time, Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT, shares the following post. To read her longer version, please click here.
Darlene is the author of Codependency for Dummies and Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You, and her latest eBook is titled, Dealing with a Narcissist, 8 Steps to Raise Self-Esteem and Set Boundaries with Difficult People. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or you may wish to follow her on Facebook or visit her website www.whatiscodependency.com.
Marriage After Sobriety by Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT
When long-awaited sobriety finally arrives, partners expect their past relationship problems will disappear. But it’s also an unsettling time. Both partners feel vulnerable. It’s a rocky transition in the relationship presenting many challenges.
Sober or abstinent addicts can find it difficult to get through a day without using or drinking or fighting the urge to do so. Drugs smoothed over anxiety that may be covering deeper feelings of depression, shame, and emptiness. Childhood trauma can drive these feelings. 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.
The spouse may continue to “walk on eggshells,” as he or she did living with addiction, afraid of precipitating an argument or relapse. Trust has been broken many times, and has to be regained. 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.) Being a codependent caretaker hid an 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.
In new sobriety, couples don’t 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.
Top Dog has been the mainstay of the family and doing most of the parenting. Underdog needs to be encouraged to take on more responsibility, while Top Dog needs to let go of control and stop enabling the addict by being super responsible. This is difficult for both and causes friction. Addicts usually have guilt and shame about their past behavior, while their mates harbor resentment. Just when the recovering addict needs forgiveness, the partner may view sobriety as an opportune time to bring up long held grievances. However, adding to the addict’s shame can undermine an unstable abstinence.
Addicts may also resent their dependency on their spouses and feel managed by them. Their partners cling to control and have trouble focusing on themselves. This mutual dependency makes couples highly reactive. They need to be more emotionally autonomous, which lessens reactivity and facilitates better communication and intimacy. That may mean each spouse initially talking over things with their sponsor or therapist rather than confronting one other, except when it comes to abuse, which should be addressed.
The non-addict spouse may have high expectations for long been missed intimacy and disappointed when it doesn’t materialize. This may be compounded by the addict’s commitment to put sobriety first. Both spouses may feel especially vulnerable when it comes to sex. Sexual intimacy usually mirrors the lack of emotional intimacy, particularly with alcoholism and often with drug use, as well. Anger, guilt, hurt, resentment, dependency, and blame typify these relationships, and that doesn’t necessarily change with sobriety. The cause is the underlying codependency of both spouses and its symptoms. Toxic shame is at the core and leads to most of the dysfunctional patterns and conflicts. (To understand the impact of shame on relationships and codependent symptoms, see Conquering Shame and Codependency). Partners eventually need to heal deeper issues of shame and learn to be autonomous and communicate assertively.
Depression may affect one or both spouses, and either may take up a new addiction or compulsive behavior, such as shopping or overeating, to fill the void in their lives that sobriety brings. All of these stressors can result in the addict drinking or using in order to return to familiar status quo. Both partners need outside help to alleviate stress on the family system and guidance in learning new coping and communication skills. See How to Speak Your Mind – Become Assertive and Set Limits and How to Be Assertive.
©Darlene Lancer 2017