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Couples in Recovery: Being Yourself, Together

In the recovery community, we hear the word “codependent” a lot when describing people in relationships. Another way to look at this word is to understand how it relates to our ability to differentiate between our true “self” and others.

In this work, we disengage from dysfunctional behaviors and invite our partners to do the same. In relationships, there are often common patterns that turn out to be detrimental to the growth of each partner and, ultimately, the couple.

Psychologist Murray Bowen used the words “differentiation of self” to describe healthy dependency as “the ability to maintain one’s feelings and thoughts in the presence and pressure of close, intimate relationships.”

Through ups and downs of recovery, our thoughts and actions can be dramatically influenced by emotions like anger, jealousy, fear and sadness. The trick is to acknowledge and process our feelings and not have them overwhelm us or our partner. We also do not want to feel like we must remain silent to “keep the peace.”

A healthy level of interdependence looks like two solid individuals with their own thoughts, beliefs and feelings, respecting and appreciating those of their partner.

Changing dysfunctional patterns we learn in childhood takes work. Becoming aware of how we fuse our emotions and reactions to those of others, or how we cut off and disengage, takes conscious effort.

However, we’re never too old to learn new skills and respectful communication. The goal is to maintain our individuality within the relationship. This is an ongoing self-growth process and may require the intervention of a professional.

Here are some questions to ask yourself to better understand your own level of differentiation. Do you:

• Hide how you really feel about things?

• Let feelings build up until you feel like exploding?

• Feel a need to match your partner’s feelings when they are sad, angry or in crisis?

• Say what you think others want to hear?

• Avoid conflict?

• Look for ways to fix or control others?

• Have affairs?

• Agree to do things you are not interested in?

• Demand praise and compliments?

• Disregard your own needs for the needs of others?

• Always see your partner as the problem?

If you answered “yes” to many of these questions, you may want to work on gaining more confidence and a sense of who you are and what you want. As you do this, you’ll be more prepared to work with your partner on a new dance of intimacy. It only takes one person to change things up!

Look in the next issue for how you can learn to communicate together with more authenticity, resulting in a deeper, more joyful commitment!

Elaine Shamos
Elaine Shamos
Elaine Shamos, MPH, has 30 years experience as a public health professional and is the former director of Dartmouth’s Women’s Health Resource Center. Glenn Simpson, LCSW, CADC, has a private practice specializing in substance use disorder, and couples therapy. They are working together on a book for couples in recovery.

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