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The Process of Intimacy

Issue 17

Why Intimacy is Difficult for Couples in Recovery

Once a committed couple enters the recovery process, the most common concern they relate to is about finding or improving intimacy in their relationship.

While the partner with substance use disorder (SUD) may have become sober, honest with themselves, made amends, and living with a spiritual program, they may not feel they have a satisfying, close relationship. Why? Recovery is necessarily a selfish process. Early in sobriety, they may experience new feelings that can be overwhelming, including guilt and shame over past behavior. Their instinct may be to keep their partner at arm’s length. They may also be super sensitive out of fear of losing their partner.

Likewise, the partner may be reluctant “to rock the boat” once experiencing their newly sober partner. They may have learned to cover their feelings and not express their needs. Depending on their recovery status, they may believe they can sustain their partner’s sobriety by not speaking honestly about their reactions.

Few people living with SUD grew up learning how an emotionally healthy family shows closeness. Most people with SUD began their addictions early, thus missing when mature intimacy is learned. Addiction dictates not caring about others or the effects of their behavior on people who love and depend on them. The disease teaches manipulation to get what they need without taking responsibility and making sure their “secret” is sacred within their relationships. Many people with SUD also have experienced traumatic events of violence as children and have not dealt with that impact, which later affects their significant relationships.

The partner typically learns early on in life to take responsibility for others’ behaviors, cover up their feelings, keep busy, become an overachiever, submissive, or overly controlling. Major traumatic events not dealt with, including domestic violence and sexual abuse may affect their posttraumatic stress symptoms and their fear of intimacy.

Together, the couple follows the unwritten law to not talk about anything that is difficult or uncomfortable. This fear keeps them from connecting and sharing with each other on a deep level, leading to very little real intimacy.

Why Intimacy is Not Just Sex

Many of us think of intimacy as sex. Trying to find intimacy by having sex before building a close relationship creates the illusion of intimacy, which fades quickly, leaving people feeling empty and searching for something more. While a healthy sexual relationship is a component, intimacy is a feeling of closeness, safety, connectedness, and trust.

Recovering people, perhaps more than any other group, need to learn how to be intimate.

To achieve this, they must learn new behaviors and move towards closeness. Intimacy is a cooperative process that necessitates acceptance in the direction of trust.

Since each new small step involves the risk of rejection, the process develops slowly. However, as intimacy evolves, each person begins feeling genuine care and concern for the other. It is this feeling that allows them to open up to each other more and more.

Allowing vulnerability is the essence of intimacy.

The work involves becoming comfortable with each other’s discomforts and differences, being free to share feelings without shame and guilt, learning to listen and hear the other with empathy and without taking things personally, staying true to oneself in the presence of the other, and learning to apologize and to forgive.

The foundation of healthy intimacy is trust.

However, many of us have difficulty trusting others. The ability to trust develops early in life, and depends on the parents’ consistency in making the child’s world safe and comforting for them. When this is not true, the child can become overly cautious and have trouble learning to trust others. As this mistrust follows in our adult lives, intimacy becomes difficult and even small risks become impossible.

Relationship problems caused by the effects of living with SUD and complicated by a problematic childhood always become more pronounced once the recovery process begins. This is because the maladaptive behavior is no longer providing a place to hide problems. For true intimacy to begin, many barriers must be removed.

Why Self-recovery Increases Intimacy

As both recovering partners learn to open up and become more vulnerable and discover who they are, true intimacy can become available to them in relationship recovery. Twelve-step sponsorship, support groups, therapy, coaching, etc. can facilitate engaging in this process of self-recovery. It is this self-recovery that allows for intimacy in relationships with each other. When self-recovery is working for both partners, it may feel like a brand new relationship—getting to know each other all over again!

Relationship recovery is an ever-evolving journey of excitement and true intimacy.

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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