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Fixing Relationships: An Essential Part Of Addiction Recovery

Fixing Relationships: An Essential Part Of Addiction Recovery
Written by Seth Fletcher on October 18, 2019
Last update: May 15, 2024

The first seven steps in any 12-step support group and program are all about the addict. They have worked hard to overcome painful withdrawal symptoms and to get right with the reality of their addiction, with God, and with themselves. Recovery is not easy; if it were, more addicts would do it. Hopefully, at this point, they have worked through these steps with some gusto, broken the cycle of addiction, and experienced the serenity, manageability, improved overall mental health, and sobriety that come with being part of 12-step support groups.

A life centred around our own needs and wants becomes very isolating and self-fulfilling. Trust, intimacy, and connection with others can only start to form when the addict puts time and effort into establishing appropriate boundaries and fixing the relationships marred by substance abuse.

The Rewards Of Trust

Offering amends and taking ownership of the hurt and pain an addict has caused is a great first step. These will be discussed later as part of an overview of steps eight and nine (the amends lessons) in the 12-step program. It begins the healing process for the friendships and entire family structures that have been damaged by substance abuse or behaviourial addictions.

However, they are just words: trust is easily broken and tough to rebuild. Trust is the true reward that comes with taking the time to resolve relationship issues. Friends and family members who have walked alongside the addict through the pain of substance abuse have likely heard every excuse in the book. ‘I’m powerless to control my addiction,’ ‘I won’t do it again,’ and ‘I love you’ may bring some solace, but when relapse happens, hope comes crashing down again.

Here are some benefits to working on trust in fixing broken relationships:

  1. Rebuilding connection and removing isolation. When those around a recovering addict see an earnest desire for healing and a deep commitment to change, many will often join them on the road to recovery. Others will eventually begin to take pride in the work the recovering addict has completed. This will likely require an adjustment in attitude and behaviours, and possibly the help of a support group, rehab centre, or treatment program, but the outcomes are well worth the work.
  2. Restoration of Self. Scott’s wife used to tell him ‘self-martyrdom is not sexy.’ Scott is a recovering pornography and sex addict who struggled to make amends with his wife. He would often sacrifice himself in an effort to show his wife and family his commitment to sobriety and their family structure. However, he soon began to discover that as he took better care of himself by getting good nights of sleep, eating healthily, and having more respect for himself, that he was able to be a better and more trustworthy husband and father. Additionally, as the addict begins to ask for forgiveness and to forgive others, it becomes easier to forgive themselves. They begin to realize that others do care about them, and as trust and compassion are built over time, that they have inherent value and are worthwhile. Addicts who have spent years or decades running from themselves can begin to have a new relationship with themselves and others.
  3. True Joy. Dopamine is the brain’s reward system; it tells us that what we have done is good and thus rewards us by feeling happy. For the addict, their drug of choice, alcohol use, or behaviour has been what they have used to feel happy or joyful. In recovery, the addict begins to discover other ways they can be happy. New and healthy neural pathways develop, and they begin to discover that healthy relationships and healthy activities can bring joy. Not only that but they can begin to experience joy in their daily life without the guilt, shame, remorse, low self-esteem or financial strain and other lows that often come with substance abuse.

The Rewards Of Intimacy

Intimacy can be a scary concept for many people, not just for those recovering from a substance use disorder. Those with a substance abuse or impulse control disorder may have forsaken relationships with a spouse, grandparents, and close friends, and sacrificed or damaged other family relationships or close relationships with extended family members, caregivers, old friends, and many others in the name of getting ‘high.’ Their compulsion takes over and for many, they have lost contact with those who are closest to them in their life.

The word ‘intimacy’ comes from a Latin word meaning ‘inner’ and can be defined as having a particularly close interpersonal relationship that could include both emotional and physical intimacy. Working on ‘letting people in’ and being emotionally intimate is worth the risk.

Here are some benefits to working on intimacy when fixing relationships.

  1. Vulnerability. Many addicts are closed off from the world around them, and possibly even themselves. They either are not vulnerable or do not know how to be vulnerable. However, vulnerability is part of the core of intimacy and building meaningful long-term relationships. As with any relationship, there are times of distance and times of closeness, but when an addict begins to open up and discover that they will not be ostracized, valuable relationships start to be formed. In turn, and in time, others reciprocate with openness and vulnerability by sharing their own feelings and desires, and those in recovery are rewarded with truly healthy, fulfilling, and mutually supportive relationships.
  2. Trust. Our deepest desires, our secrets, our unique characteristics, and our dreams can be some of our most intimate details. Letting someone into this realm requires risk. Developing intimate relationships involves trust and vulnerability. If an individual can be vulnerable by taking the risk of sharing a glimmer of some of these details, and they are accepted, then intimacy and trust are developed. This risk can also fall flat and cause damage if the result of the leap of faith is guilt or shame. This risk is even greater in romantic relationships or sexual relationships. However, if the risk is accepted and reciprocated, then positive relationships can be cemented.

Steps Eight and Nine of a 12 – Step Program

Many treatment programs and recovery processes, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, use the 12-steps as a foundation. In a 12-step program, steps eight and nine begin the amends lessons, where individuals begin to examine their relationships and start the process of getting right with those around them. Step eight says ‘we made a list of all persons we had harmed and become willing to make amends to them all.' Step nine says ‘we made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them, [yourself], or others.’

For the individual, active addiction can be a very isolating experience. In many cases, they will put alcohol use, their drug of choice, and their own needs ahead of close relationships. Steps eight and nine are critical to fixing relationships, as these steps start the process of looking outward. Recovering individuals begin to examine how their drug abuse has affected others, and the toll they have taken on the people in their lives. Rather than having an attitude of ‘it is all about me’, they begin to build an awareness, a new attitude about themselves, and their interactions with others. Toxic relationships should also be considered during the amends lessons. Forgiveness or repentance should still be offered, but perhaps it is in the best long-term interest of the recovering individual to end unhealthy relationships with enablers, and with those who are toxic.

A word of caution about steps eight and nine. There are some instances when amends cannot be made safely. It is important to not be impulsive during this process, and to work with an accountability team and a sponsor. If amends will cause more harm to an individual or potentially cause harm to a dependent, other forms of amends may need to be considered. This could include burn letters or journaling. Causing more harm in a person’s life is not conducive to the goal of fixing relationships and building trust.

Humility and empathy are required when fixing relationships, especially those scarred by addiction. Earnestly working steps eight and nine are critical, as they begin to break down the barriers of their substance use disorder. Apologies and restitution are offered, and the healing process begins for those who have been damaged in their wake. For the drug addicts, they begin to experience the freedom that comes with releasing the burdens involved with their drug use. However, apologies are ultimately just words. True healing and restoration of relationships and family dynamics take time and work - trust is not built overnight.

Final Thoughts

A new narrative begins to form when someone with a substance use disorder enters rehab or an addiction recovery program. In many cases, positive relationships can be established quickly during the early recovery phase. A sponsor is put in place to help walk the individual through the recovery process. An accountability team is formed, usually comprising two or three (or more) people currently in recovery who can be called upon when they are at risk of relapse, or when one occurs. Counselors, caregivers, and other trusted professionals team up to monitor the recovery process and offer professional help - such as family therapy or group therapy - along the way. Over time, trust is developed with these individuals, and meaningful relationships are practiced and established in a safe environment. Using these experiences and tools, new relationships and friendships can be formed, broken ones can be restored, self-esteem starts to improve, and the walls of isolation are torn down.

Sources used for the article


Certified Addiction Counsellor

Seth brings many years of professional experience working the front lines of addiction in both the government and privatized sectors.

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