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Couples in Recovery: “Let’s Talk!”

Issue 19

Couples in recovery have some unique characteristics, which can make communication about everything from the mundane to the most serious topics especially difficult.

A common issue we hear from couples is the fear of telling their partner some truth, feeling, need, or desire. When asked what they are afraid of, the response is often: “upsetting him,” “she will ramp up the conflict,” “he will bring up the past,” “they will leave me.”

Before one or both people were in recovery, many couples learned a co-dependent style of interacting that often included hiding, controlling, lying, or “faking it.” When each person begins to grow in their individual recovery, healthy communication may stand out as a problem. Research shows that relationships can only thrive when the couple is able to communicate openly and honestly.

This first takes questioning one’s beliefs about the consequences of being honest with each other.

Fear of abandonment, anxiety, past trauma, and resentments are real. Your partner will likely be able to relate, although your stories may be different.

Here are some steps you can take to approach the topics you’ve been avoiding.


• Make a list of what you’ve been avoiding talking about.

• Ask yourself what you believe will happen if you tell your partner.

• Question your beliefs about your imagined consequences.

• Look at how you may be projecting those beliefs on your partner.

• Consider professional help to better understand your issues.

Planning with your partner:

• Talk about making a “date” to talk about your reluctance to bring up feelings.

• Use only “I” language. For example, “I feel anxious when I want to bring something up with you because I was criticized in the past. I’ve been working on these old beliefs and want to be able to share more with you.”

• Ask each other the best ways to approach better communication. For example, you may want to share your “lists” with each other, make a plan for when you are “activated,” or set up regular date nights taking turns telling your partner more about yourself.

Practicing the new communication style:

• Choose a time and place where you are both relaxed, safe, and uninterrupted.

• Start with what you are grateful for in your partner.

• Simply state your feelings using “I” statements. For example, “I feel nervous asking if you would mind my playing video games once a week at my brother’s house. I want to hear your concerns. I have been afraid you wouldn’t trust me and get mad, and I want to work on that.” Remember, your partner can’t “make you feel” something.

• Learn to listen all the way through to your partner. Then you can ask for clarification by repeating what you heard.

• Thank your partner for being vulnerable and honest. Pause or take time out to think before you respond.

• Come up with a plan to resolve that issue that works for both of you.

• Follow-up at a future “date” with how that solution is working out for both of you.

Most of all, let in humor and fun. Don’t prolong the discussions—you can always decide to come back to it later.

End the “session” with affection and joy for creating a great foundation for your relationship!

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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