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Couples in Recovery: The Sobriety Shift

Issue 29

From Pink Cloud to Lasting Change

We often hear this same story from couples in recovery: “I was so happy when my partner got sober. It was like being in a pink cloud for both of us. But now it seems like our same patterns of arguing with each other have popped up and I feel like nothing has changed except the drinking.”

It’s a great accomplishment to stop engaging in one’s substance use disorder as it is also a big stride for one’s partner to acknowledge their part in enabling. Once life moves past this sobriety transition, work can begin to create lasting changes in ourselves and our partnership. Taking a deep look into unresolved beliefs and behaviors that have followed us through a lifetime is the work of reprogramming.

The patterns of behavior we learned from our family of origin or other early life experiences are so firmly ingrained because they allowed us to survive and sometimes prosper. However, when our relationships are repeatedly impacted by wounds from the past, we come to see our old behaviors no longer serve us. This can become painfully clear once the substance is behind us and the conflict continues. In fact, these patterns will continue to occur in our lives until we are willing to do “the work.” Whether it is through the 12-steps, other modalities, and/or therapy, we all have an opportunity to acknowledge and reprogram our wounds.

The process to uncover, honor, grieve, and give voice to the patterns we learned to survive can be both painful and enlightening, and doesn’t happen all at once. However, under the care of a trusted therapist, sponsor, or guide we can begin to be aware of when these behaviors show up. Perhaps we learned to not trust others and tracked situations that felt dangerous to us as a child. In our adult relationship, believing we are always right and not listening to our partner doesn’t serve anyone. For many there was no room for us as a child and we learned to pretend we were okay, without needs, and had no voice. Not expressing ourselves and taking care of our partner while ignoring our own needs is a recipe for resentment. These unwanted behavior patterns are all tied to unresolved pain.

Starting to become aware of how these patterns show up in all our relationships is the first step to reframing our experiences. We don’t have to carry these feelings like a heavy burden or as an excuse for “bad behavior.” We can go from feeling shame to becoming curious and compassionate with ourselves. From there, by lengthening “the pause” in a conflict, we can choose to communicate differently, connect, and repair.

It is often said that it only takes one person to change the relationship. This is true but ideally, both partners would be interested in doing their work and sharing their stories. It requires us to learn how to listen, ask open-ended questions, and acknowledge our partner’s story and pain. Witnessing and validation is often all we need to engage on our journey of discovery. Couples therapy can be very useful especially when both partners’ pain stories are clashing with each other. In this safe setting, skills can be learned to pause, listen, repeat back, and ask for help.

In the end, embracing the journey of self-discovery and mutual understanding paves the way for a profound, lasting connection— a testament to the power of humility, curiosity, and the willingness to put in the work. Beyond the pink cloud lies a fulfilling life of genuine interdependence and unwavering love!

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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