The truth is being in recovery from alcohol or other drugs does not guarantee that you and your husband, wife, partner, son or daughter, brother or sister will not face issues in your relationship.
In early recovery, the many perpetual issues couples face may seem more visible. The therapist John Gottman reminds us when thinking about conflict in a relationship, it is important to ascertain whether a problem is solvable or perpetual. His research has shown that 69% of relationship conflict is about perpetual problems.
All couples have them — these problems are often grounded in the fundamental differences in personalities that repeatedly create conflict, or fundamental differences in your lifestyle needs. One individual may be neat, the other messy, one vegan, one eats meat, one is a Democrat while the other is Republican, etc.
Let’s take a look at the types of relational problems folks – in or out of recovery – can experience. Gottman identifies three types:
- Solvable problems can be about housecleaning, disciplining children, sex, and in-laws. A solvable problem within a relationship is about something situational. The conflict is simply about that topic, and there may not be a deeper meaning behind each partner’s position. Thus, a solution can be found and maintained. In truth, what may be solvable problems for one couple can be perpetual problems for another and vice versa.
- Perpetual problems are problems that center on fundamental differences in your personalities, or fundamental differences in your lifestyle needs. All couples have perpetual problems. Unlike a solvable problem, these are the problems that a couple will return to over and over and over again.
- Gridlocked perpetual problems are perpetual problems that have been mishandled and have essentially calcified into something “uncomfortable.” When a couple tries to discuss a gridlocked issue, it can feel like they are “spinning their wheels” and getting nowhere. The nature of gridlock is that hidden agendas underlie the issue.
When thinking about relationship problems, it can be helpful to identify what kind it is and approach it with open eyes. In Gottman’s research, he concluded that instead of solving perpetual problems, what seems to be more important for couples is to establish a conversation about them. If they cannot establish such conversation, the conflict becomes gridlocked, and may lead to emotional disengagement. This often happens when one person in the relationship is in active addiction and so in recovery couples have to re-engage, learn how to talk to one another and begin a new conversation.
Here are four common issues couples may encounter in early recovery:
- Differences in how to raise and discipline children. If you are just getting home from treatment, the children have been praised and disciplined by the other partner. One of you may be more lenient than the other. Starting over means having joint discussions, hitting pause and saying, “Dad and I, Mom and I, or Mom and Mom, Dad and Dad will talk things over and get back to you with Our decision.” No more allowing your child to triangulate, meaning getting something from one of you without the other adult’s consent.
- Couples may fight about how to help their son or daughter who is getting home from treatment and have some fundamental differences on how to help someone launch. Working with a professional on what will be acceptable behavior is imperative. Remember your goal is to support each other in health and wellness.
- Differences in handling finances are almost universal in relationships. While you were in treatment a loved one may have taken over finances. Sharing and delegating the checkbook becomes an issue.
- Differences in emotionality like sharing feelings in new ways is always part of recovery. Before recovery, for example, I only knew the emotions anger and sadness. After recovery I learned how to share using “I” terms as a way of expressing how I felt and this opened up a cornucopia of feelings. Check out this feelings chart to better understand your emotions.
For the couple in early recovery, some solvable and perpetual problems may be exacerbated. Remember these problems were there before and may reflect fundamental differences in personality and lifestyle plus anxiousness about a loved one coming home from recovery, or wherever the couple is at in their relationship.
Gridlocked perpetual problems can occur with families who are ravaged by substance abuse, mental health and chronic pain. After years of acting in one way, things have become frozen and may have entered a no talk, no feel zone. Underlying issues bubble up to the service.
Opening dialogue and expressing feelings in a non-judgemental way is one way to begin to tackle gridlock problems, painful exchanges or icy silence, and the Four Horsemen, which are criticism, contempt, stonewalling, and defensiveness. Recall that these may have begun before recovery. What matters most is opening a dialogue that communicates acceptance of your husband, wife, partner with respect, humor, affection and to actively engage in recovery that allows all to grow. In early recovery everyone is rearranging roles and ways to communicate and fill.
In another vein, Byron Katie writes in her book Loving What Is that we need to become aware of our stories, and suggests that when we have a stressful feeling we often attach an untrue thought and that unfortunately becomes a guiding force. In doing so, we become overwhelmed and try to look outside ourselves for answers, hence we latch on to depression, anxiety, discomfort, etc. and make these our mantra. If, however, we look beyond the story we have confabulated and just take hold of what is real we function better and our relationships thrive.
As the partner or parent of someone in early recovery, it’s important to understand that your loved one’s job is his/her recovery. They may be required to go to 90 meetings in 90 days, intensive outpatient, counseling and the like, which requires focus and dedication to working toward a healthier lifestyle. You too may find you are busy with day-to-day responsibilities and may be trying out Al-anon. Working on your individual as well as joint recovery and setting healthy boundaries will allow you to rewrite your relationship.
Ultimately, the key to all of this of course is listening. So next time you have issue with someone ask yourself, “Is this problem solvable? What are your feelings about the issue and if the thoughts surrounding that person are true or untrue?” You will be glad you did.
If you’re looking for more resources and information on this topic, visit my article What’s Love Got to Do With It? Boundaries and Relationships as well as these additional resources.