Early recovery, following drug or alcohol addiction treatment, is probably the most difficult period for people in recovery – the first year specifically. Not only is the likelihood of relapse the strongest during that time, but every relationship in the recovering person’s life is changing. Unfortunately, that means that many marriages and family relationships that have survived for years, even decades, of drug or alcohol addiction, don’t survive early recovery.
Early Addiction Recovery Involves Many Changes and Expectations
The first year of recovery involves many changes in the life of the addicted person. They have to put time and effort into a recovery program to be able to handle the struggles that come with maintaining sobriety and learning new coping skills. Family members may feel as neglected and unimportant as they did when their loved one was using or drinking. They see the person in recovery focusing on their life and issues and wonder when they will make time and pay attention to the family.
Spouses and family members likely had to take on the addicted person’s responsibilities within the family during the active addiction, and now that the person is sober they have expectations that he or she will be able to reclaim those responsibilities. They may also have expectations that since the loved one has now stopped drinking or using, things will be as they always wanted them. These expectations may cause frustration or anger in the family members because they feel that the recovering person is not accepting enough responsibility or progressing in recovery quickly enough.
There may also be expectations on the part of the spouse and family that the person in recovery will be able to say or do something to make up for the all of the pain and frustration they caused. They may believe that if the person makes amends in the right way – by being sorry enough – that it will take away their pain.
Although family members have these expectations, they are often hesitant to talk to the person in recovery about them because they fear relapse. They think that if they confront or even bring up their feeling to their loved one, that they may be responsible for the person returning to active addiction. That fear is rooted in memories of how the person in recovery reacted to those types of discussions in the past.
Family Members May Not Have Effective Coping Skills
It is not only the family members that have difficulty with the relationship with the person in recovery. The former addict may also get defensive or angry when any issues are brought up, wanting to leave the past in the past and only look to the future. He or she doesn’t want to hear about the pain and turmoil that the addiction caused for the family, especially his or her spouse. The guilt and shame that accompanies early recovery can feel like it is too much to handle for the recovering person. It’s likely that he or she is still in denial about the consequences of the addictive behavior and problems he or she caused.
People who are new in recovery don’t yet have the skills to communicate effectively, problem solve situations, or identify and manage their feelings. So even when a couple, in which one person is in recovery, seeks counseling or therapy, the former addict isn’t capable of the communication that’s needed to repair the relationship. Another roadblock in therapy may be that the couple is struggling over the changes in roles of the relationship, making reaching a resolution very difficult.
Family Roles Change in Addiction Recovery
Early recovery is a time when families struggle to define the new roles and relationships. Sometimes it isn’t easy for the non-addict who has been picking up the slack for the addicted person to relinquish responsibility and power in the relationship. They have likely been taking care of things for a long time, and they don’t have any confidence that the person in recovery can successfully take on responsibilities. This doubt can cause the recovering family member to feel threatened and impotent.
Meanwhile, the person in early recovery may still be hanging onto old behaviors like lying, manipulation and self-absorption. It may seem like he or she only cares about him or herself, and not about family members. The recovering person may feel entitled to some reward or praise for getting sober, while the family members struggle to comprehend this way of thinking because they are still recovering from the hurt caused by the person’s behavior in the past. It’s a complicated dynamic to navigate.
The time just after treatment is also when many newly recovering addicts make new friends and establish new relationships with others in recovery. They are likely not as dependent on spouses and family members as they have been in the past and that can feel threatening to their loved ones. As they become increasingly more self-aware and return to or exceed their previous level of functioning, their family members may feel alienated.
Families Need Help Too
Early recovery is hard on everyone involved, and no one is immune. But being armed with the knowledge of what realistic expectations are, and what the difficulties of early recovery often look like can help make the transition less challenging. When a family can work through problems – past and present – together, relationships can become stronger and healthier than they have ever been. Everyone involved should remember that to make it past early recovery takes patience and compassion on all sides.
At Life of Purpose treatment centers, we can help families navigate the challenges of early sobriety. We believe that family members should be involved in the recovery process and get the help that they need. If your loved one is struggling with addiction, contact us today so your family can get started with recovery and healing.
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