Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is celebrating National Recovery Month in September 2021. As both a relational and a substance abuse specialist, I wanted to take a few moments to reflect on the importance of improving relationships in all areas of life for folks in recovery – within their recovery programs, with their partners, family members, friends, co-workers, and more. Our lives are made up of relationships. When a relationship or multiple relationships are not healthy, negative emotions such as anxiety, stress, and re-wounding of prior painful experiences arise. This can lead to depression, loneliness, grief, self-doubt, and low self-esteem.
When people are beginning their journey of recovery from any kind of addictive lifestyle, they rarely get help with their relationships. Instead, there tends to be a strong focus on the individual beginning a program of recovery, focusing mainly on developing a personal identity as a recovering person within their chosen program of self-help or counseling. Meanwhile, their relationships with loved ones have experienced the damage of being with a person who has been actively using their drug of choice, having a primary relationship with that drug, and often lying to self and others creating a lack of trust & safety.
When people begin recovery these relationship challenges and wounds are all still there when they return from treatment. These challenges tend to be the most prevalent within the context of couples & family systems. Recovering families experience many of the same challenges as non-recovering families when in transition. The differences show up in the degree of extremes related to emotional expressions and predictable challenges being more likely to occur.
Imago Relational Therapy (IRT) for families & particularly for couples in early recovery periods is, in my opinion, an effective addition to maximize the healing earlier, rather than later when it may be too late. Many marriages and relationships dissolve and relapses are triggered as a result of the added stressors brought on by constant fighting, cut-off relationships, feelings of loneliness, unmet expectations, and a general lack of authentic, mutually loving connection. Research has shown that couples who reconnect and experience a new sense of hope early greatly enhance their chances of maintaining long-term, continuous recovery (O’Farrell & Fals-Stewart, 2000).
Imago Therapy for couples where one or both are in recovery from substance abuse and working a 12-Step (or other recovery) program, aims to build support for abstinence and to improve relationship functioning. Imago Therapy is perfectly situated to support these goals through teaching communication skills, raising awareness of where relational patterns that are unhealthy and cyclical come from, encouraging personal responsibility for self, improving positive interactions & feelings daily, reducing the intensity of negative feelings and relapse triggers, recommitting to the relationship, inventing a new vision of the future together, learning new skills for conflict resolution and negotiating behavior change, improving listening skills, expressing feelings fully without shame and blame, and finally learning how to maintain and grow your recovery and your partnership.
If you are interested in learning more about Imago Therapy, contact Leslie Sullivan.
References:O’Farrell, T. J., & Fals-Stewart, W. (2000). Behavioral couples therapy for alcoholism and drug abuse. Journal of substance abuse treatment, 18(1), 51–54. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0740-5472(99)00026-4