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Couples in Recovery

Issue 14

Welcome back to Couples in Recovery! For this issue we’re going to define the difference between co-dependency and interdependency because ultimately, we all want our relationships to evolve into a healthy, interdependent relationship. The terms can be confusing so let’s start by defining them, and then learn why this concept is so important for a relationship that involves recovery.

What is a co-dependent relationship?

A person is co-dependent when they seek their self-worth by caretaking their partner to the point where they are consumed with pleasing, while not understanding or tending to their own needs and feelings. Usually this dyad involves the other partner feeling dependent on, and glad to receive, these sacrifices from the other. This can look like poor boundaries, the desire to control, or the need to fix their partner’s behavior and struggles. The co-dependent is essentially addicted to their partner. In the relationship, both people become trapped in a cycle of over-reliance, blame, drama, power imbalance, and poor self-worth. This relationship is deemed “unhealthy” because both people are overly dependent on
each other.

What is an interdependent relationship?

When both partners maintain their individuality and support each other when needed, while not taking responsibility for the other’s happiness, they are interdependent. These relationships allow room for each to grow and change without the other feeling threatened. In interdependence, we move away from “needing” the other to “choosing” the other. There is still a reliance on each other, but the couple allows for space to be honest about desires, boundaries and needs. Interdependent relationships are deemed “healthy” because they empower each person to have their own sense of “self,” and to be honest and supportive without the fear of losing the relationship.

Why is this concept so important for couples in recovery?

When a person has a substance use disorder or any kind of addiction, often the natural response of the partner (or child or parent) is to “support” them unequivocally, usually at the expense of their own needs. Not surprisingly, people who are co-dependent are more often attracted to those with an addiction, having learned to be the giver or rescuer early in life. This “enabling” behavior initially looks like support, a way to ease tension, or fix a problem. However, in the long term, it becomes an unhealthy way to connect. Our research has found that a couple in recovery might find it more difficult to change their relationship. In recovery, it is so common for partners to easily fall into a victim and rescuer duet.

What are ways to build an interdependent relationship?

The first step towards a healthier relationship may be to get help evaluating if your relationship is stuck in a co-dependent cycle. Education, couples’ counseling, 12-step programs, support groups, and individual therapy can help. The movement towards repairing an unhealthy relationship in recovery is always changing, as each partner grows. This requires adaptation and ideally learning new skills.

Here are some of the features of a healthy, more interdependent relationship, which we’ll be discussing in future issues:

• Understanding each other’s story
• Active Listening
• Taking personal responsibility for behaviors
• Creating safety to be vulnerable with each other
• Being honest, open, and approachable
• Creating healthy boundaries
• Taking time for personal interests
• Clear communication
• Sharing common goals and values

In reality, working on a healthy relationship is a constant, vigilant process, which changes as each individual’s insights and needs evolve. However, this can be a playful, deeply satisfying and intimate process. We hope to offer some leads for getting to a more trusting interdependent relationship in columns to come.

We invite you to ask questions on our FB page: CouplesinRecovery. Here’s one from a Joanna B.:

How do we create more space for understanding each other’s stories?

We are great believers in regularly scheduled date nights! We often recommend that a couple take these opportunities to give each partner a turn at asking the other something they never knew about the other while the other practices active listening.

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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