Whether embarking on a new relationship with a recovering alcoholic or addict, or attempting to rebuild one that survived the perils of addiction, rebuilding intimacy is key. For addicts in recovery, learning to manage emotions and build healthy, intimate relationships can be a struggle. There are, however, some simple activities, based on Erikson’s Stages of Development, to help build connection in a physical, mental and emotional relationship.
Struggles Left from Addiction
One study revealed specific themes that haunt women in addiction recovery with regard to building intimacy with a partner. Early in sobriety people may feel they are somehow damaged or don’t deserve the pleasure of an intimate relationship because of their pasts. Many are trying to cope with the shame of trading sex acts for drugs. While the hope of recovery looms in the future, the reality of the past creates a struggle in forming lasting connections with others.
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Building trust is important in any relationship. For people in recovery from addiction, trust can be fleeting. Consider one simple activity to build trust and offer opportunities for even greater development within the relationship. Partners should schedule appointments for conversations, social outings or even meetings to complete joint projects. Each partner must commit to keep the appointment or call if something comes up. By honoring each other’s time, trust develops in the relationship.
For an addict, deep feelings of shame remain long after the chemical is removed. In a relationship, create a “safe place”. Even if specific acts are not discussed in the relationship, allowing each party to say, “I feel ashamed, and I am struggling to leave the past behind,” is a powerful statement. Alcoholics and addicts crave acceptance, even in the face to struggling to accept themselves.
In a healthy relationship, partners need to feel empowered to explore new things. Finding a hobby that one can pursue independently or something the couple can enjoy doing together can be empowering. For a long time, addiction has dominated. Painting, gardening or returning to school can be part of a fulfilling new adventure. The point is to allow each other to explore interests and support each partner’s efforts.
Physical activity is as good for couples as it is for individuals. Walking, jogging or hiking together provides a sense of connection while engaging in a healthy, positive activity. Specific endorphins and feel good chemicals in the brain are released, creating an atmosphere for intense connection.
At least once or twice a month, engage in recovery activities together. Going to meetings, attending counseling or getting together with others in recovery helps develop a new sense of what recovery is like within the relationship. Embracing ongoing maintenance activities that are required for the addicted person can bring about bonding opportunities for couples. There are even recovery meetings available specifically for couples in addiction recovery.
Using the “safe place” strategy for conquering shame can also be employed for intimacy. Finding a way to tell each other one new thing each week in early recovery is critical to building intimacy. Short conversations, gentle touches and simple, non-threatening activities are all tools to deepen intimate connection. There is no timeline for developing intimacy in a relationship.
In Erikson’s stages, integrity equals acceptance. However, Merriam-Webster defines integrity as “the quality or state of being complete or undivided.” For people in a recovery relationship, this state can feel unattainable. By practicing the activities above that are designed to build intimacy, real connected moments will be experienced by both parties in the relationship.
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Recovering Couples Anonymous. (2017). Retrieved on February 12, 2017 from: http://www.recovering-couples.org/index.html
Rivaux, S., Sohn, S., Amour, M. & Bell, H. (2008). Women’s early recovery: Managing the dilemma of substance abuse and intimate partner relationships. Journal of Drug Issues. 38(4): 957-979. Retrieved on February 12, 2017 from: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/002204260803800402
Vogel-Sclibilia, S., McNulty, K., Baxter, B., Miller, S., et. al. (2009). The recovery process utilizing Erikson’s stages of human development. Community Mental Health Journal. 45(6): 405-414. Retrieved on February 12, 2017 from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2791471/