1. A coupleship is a oneness.
Together two people who are in a committed relationship form a coupleship, a oneness, a distinct and separate entity. This coupleship has a life of its own and needs to be nurtured appropriately. Couple recovery depends on this nurturance. Both partners in a dysfunctional relationship need individual recoveries: meetings, sponsors, therapy, a support group, spirituality, recreation, vocation, and individual interests. A coupleship needs these same elements for couple recovery. There are, then, three elements of couple recovery. Our individual recoveries are the two basic components. Our couple recovery is the third component. One of the symbols of RCA is the three-legged stool.
Each leg represents one of these components. If one leg is missing, the stool will fall. If one component is missing, the coupleship may fail.
This is why, for example, many of us know how hard it is for one partner to be identified as the addict and in recovery while the other partner has no individual recovery. One partner grows and the other doesn’t. Individual recovery for only one partner will, therefore, produce more distance in the coupleship.
2. In addictive relationships, the partner of a primary addict is referred to as the co-addict.
Addiction theory suggests that one or both partners is often a co-dependent and/or an enabler. Some co-addicts have assumed that if the addict gets sober, they will no longer be co-addicts. This is not true. Co-addiction is a disease in and of itself. Coaddicts often grow up in families where they learn to cope with addictions of all kinds. They may find that throughout their lives they have related to a series of addicts. Their current partner may be just another in a long list. They find themselves attracted to the familiar, and thus may unconsciously choose their current partner. They will not get well just because their partner is in recovery. They must learn how to break the pattern of coaddiction themselves. Co-addicts need to be in recovery for themselves.
Sobriety for co-addicts includes:
• learning about healthy self-nurturing;
• clear communication of feelings, needs, and concerns;
• respectful detachment.
Using the RCA tools of recovery, co-addicts learn to develop personal boundaries and to express their individuality. Coaddicts may have their own primary addiction(s). It is not uncommon for two addicts to be in a relationship and co-addicted to each other. For both the addict and the co-addict, lessons learned in their family of origin may be the culprit.
Sometimes current crises trigger unhealthy coping behaviors. For example, co-addicts might turn to food when feeling abandoned by the addict. The use of food as a mood elevator or a symbol for love might have been learned in childhood from a parent who filled the emptiness inside by eating. Other coaddicts might turn to work or excessive “busyness.” Both partners need to work on their individual recoveries if their coupleship is to recover, and if they wish to stop their family legacies from affecting their children and future generations.
3. Both partners must accept responsibility for the health or dysfunction of their coupleship.
Both partners bring their own addictions, personalities, familyof- origin messages, and individual dysfunctions into the coupleship. The coupleship doesn’t create dysfunctions, though it may trigger or reinforce them. It is the elements brought by both partners that contribute to the nature of the coupleship.
This does not mean that one is responsible for any of the addictive or dysfunctional behaviors of one’s partner. Those behaviors are their responsibility and reflect choices that they make in order to cope with feelings (including the feelings generated by the current state of the coupleship). Both partners are responsible for the presence or absence of intimacy.
4. Both partners may be co-dependent.
Mutual co-dependency may be an aspect of co-addiction. Partner co-dependency may be based on fear of abandonment, deep shame, or a need for approval. Enmeshed partner attachments may result, causing both partners to seek to control each other, usually to prevent their partner from leaving.
There can be two styles of control: manipulative and domineering. The manipulative co-dependents seek to secure their partners by always doing what their partners need or want. This compels these co-dependents to lose their independent identity and sometimes to almost literally die for their partners. This style, which is usually unconscious, might also include portraying themselves as victims, which projects images of being such poor, wretched, mistreated people that no one could ever leave them.
The domineering style is more directly controlling. In this style, the co-dependents use anger (or even rage), harsh orders, demands, argumentation, threats, and suggestions (in a variety of subtle and not-so-subtle ways) that they are superior and should control the behavior of their partners.
Whichever style is present, both partners fear the other’s leaving and use their own personal co-dependent style to prevent abandonment. In recovery, partners can learn how to be in the coupleship by choice. Before such recovery, co-dependent partners lack choice. They are in the coupleship out of necessity— the compulsion of their shared addiction to each other.
5. Both partners probably suffer from intimacy disorder.
Intimacy disorder is based on the individual feeling of shame that says, “If you really knew me, you would hate me.” This disorder produces a fear of intimacy and an inability to be honest and vulnerable with one’s partner.
One of the maxims of intimacy disorder is that one will be least honest with the person one is most afraid of losing. Those of us who live with intimacy disorder often experience great resentment because our partners appear able to be totally honest with relative strangers but not with us. We need to realize that being the last to know is not because our partner is willingly trying to deceive us or doesn’t care for us, but because of a deep fear of being abandoned.
Ultimately, intimacy is a matter of practicing honest risktaking. We must learn to take great risks telling the truth about ourselves—the truth about current behaviors, feelings, attitudes, preferences, and needs, as well as old behaviors when this revelation will not hurt the other. As we take these risks, we find that our partners usually don’t leave, that instead they are grateful for the honesty. Practicing honesty can build trust and intimacy; lack of honesty cannot.
6. Both partners usually have significant family-of-origin issues.
The limited amount of research that has been conducted with addicted couples suggests that both partners may be victims of some kind of neglect or abuse. Addicted couples may have learned unhealthy styles of relationships in their families of origin, where they did not receive healthy modeling of nurturing and intimacy.
Each partner may be the victim of violation of personal boundaries—emotional, physical, sexual, or spiritual. Such violations often create suppressed rage, coupled with profound fear and anxiety. Addictions may develop as ways of coping with these feelings.
Both partners also may be victims of abandonment, in which their basic needs for nurturing and security were not met by one or both of their parents (or primary caretakers). This form of abuse can leave emotional voids full of great loneliness.
Individuals may suppress memories of this abuse. The feelings, however, can be provoked without the past memories becoming conscious. Our partner may say or do something that unconsciously reminds us of our abuse. This may trigger our old, buried feelings. Our reactions of terror, despair, or rage may seem out of proportion to the current event.
Many couples, for example, fight over trivial matters. Their rage or sadness may seem totally inappropriate or unconnected to anything in the present. Unresolved arguments and “mysterious” emotional reactions can often be traced to family-of-origin issues.
Abandonment in one’s family of origin may create the codependency described in Meeting Topic 4. Co-dependency is based on fear of abandonment. Often we fantasize our partners will make us feel OK. We may think that our partner will be the nurturing parent(s) we didn’t have in childhood. Consequently, the partner expected to fulfill this role may rebel, saying, “I’m not your mother (or father).”
No partner can ever take the place of a parent. When partners realize this, pressure to be people they can never be is relieved. True partner intimacy may then become possible.
7. In order to stay together, either or both partners may need to divorce their parents.
This assumes that at least one parent has been abusive. We may need to create boundaries around the abusive parent(s), even if only in our memory of them. This can mean a variety of things, from not seeing or talking to that parent, to limits on the frequency or nature of visits. This will be particularly true if there is fear that the parent will continue the pattern of abuse with their grandchildren.
If there has been abandonment, we will need to grieve the loss. This might involve significant amounts of counseling and/ or group support. We have found that grief work needs to be verbalized. When this happens pressure is taken off our partner to be the perfect nurturer. If we can divorce ourselves from our abusive parents, we won’t need to divorce each other.
8. Couples are full of illusions about ideal relationships.
Addicted couples may have lists of requirements for what they believe makes a “Good Couple.” For example, the partners may think if they have violated their marital vows, have money problems, or are not perfect parents, they can never be acceptable as a couple.
Sometimes standards are reinforced by idealistic beliefs or religious values. For example, couples might think, “The sun should never set on our anger.” Such couples might argue well into the night trying to “get it right.”
We encourage recovering couples to make a list of these ideals, and try to determine which expectations may be totally unrealistic. For example, some couples may never obtain the happiness they thought they would have or should have. Their children will never be perfect. To prevent living a life based on disappointments, couples need to let go of those false ideals and perhaps grieve their losses.
Perhaps the addicted partners expect to have a certain amount of money. If so, they may need help to learn how to set reasonable spending plans, to balance the checkbook, or to make wise investments. For support in reaching these goals, the partners may choose specific sponsors, such as a couple with financial expertise, or they may attend a group focusing on financial health.
Reaching out for help is an essential and valuable tool for resolving these illusions. Recovering couples need to learn that they are not alone. They also need to accept that they have limitations.
9. Just as individuals have slips, so will couples.
Just as individuals in recovery know that addiction lasts a lifetime and they must continue their programs for life, so partners learn they must maintain recovery in their coupleship for life. If couples stop working their program, experience has taught us that old patterns of dysfunction will likely return. Just as individual addicts have slips, so will couples. Slips occur in coupleships when:
• Communication breaks down,
• Old fights and patterns of interaction return, and
• Partners start distancing from each other.
Couples in recovery learn to sense these patterns, and can feel when intimacy is breaking down. They can recognize that familiar feelings of isolation and loneliness are returning to haunt them. Old angers and resentments are resurrected, and fears of abandonment are elevated. Hopelessness can overcome suffering couples when they have relapsed into the old dance of dysfunction.
When feelings of loneliness return, old individual patterns of addiction may recur. In response, partners may criticize some of each other’s old addictive patterns, which in turn may cause their partners to further distance themselves. This creates a relapse into dysfunction that causes the partners to distance further and further from each other—a “couple addictive cycle.”
At times like these we need to admit again to ourselves our powerlessness and lack of control and to use the Tools of RCA to get out of the abyss by reaching out to our sponsor couples and attending meetings for couple support.
10. There may be little social support for the recovering coupleship.
When couples enter recovery, the social system around them may not comprehend or accept the changes both partners are making, and may not support the partners in their efforts. We have found RCA to be a useful support for us in our efforts to change.
Certain family members or old friends who are not in recovery may have an investment in maintaining the old ways of interaction and may discourage any changes. This unhelpful dynamic may include a couple’s children, who may not embrace their parents’ new way of life. Children may have grown accustomed to their old dysfunctional relationship with their parents. As changes in recovery alter family dynamics and power relationships, these changes can be unsettling for the children. They may also have learned to play one parent against the other, often by triangulating to “win” a parent’s approval. Too often this approval can come at the expense of maintaining healthy relationships in the family.
A healthy balance of some time together as well as time apart is the formula for creating a vibrant recovering family. The family situation will improve if members focus on their own recoveries as well as couple recovery. As the parents’ world expands, children may demonstrate behaviors that indicate their fear of abandonment. Both partners can show love by assuring their children they are loved and making sure each are given special time and attention.
Non-recovering old friends may not understand the changes in a recovering couple. Relations with these old friends may become strained. Furthermore, continuing to connect with them may lead to old addictive patterns. While no one wants to abandon old friends, it is important to be careful. Eventually both partners will find that new recovering friends likely will be the ones to whom they gravitate.
Social and economic conditions may not be supportive of couple recovery. For example, both partners typically need to earn an income, leaving time for the coupleship at a premium. If partners try to share responsibility around the home plus care for the children as well as for elderly parents, employers may not understand or accept the need for creative scheduling. Additionally, couples may feel threatened by old debts or other economic concerns. A recovering couple may find that its savings have been depleted by out-of-control behaviors. With creative budgeting, and support from their sponsors, partners may find that they can manage to live within their means.
Ultimately, a recovering couple must be ready to go to any lengths to recover. If the partners work on their own personal as well as couple recovery, they should be able to make the lifestyle changes needed to support their recovery. They may need to grieve the loss of family support, friendships, and even former jobs, houses, or communities. It may become necessary for couples to remove themselves from “slippery” people, places, and things that jeopardize their recovery.
11. Resolving underlying relationship issues supports both personal and coupleship recovery.
Divorce or separation, usually are not solutions to dealing with coupleship problems. If the partners in a coupleship don’t work on their issues in the current coupleship, these same issues will likely resurface in future relationships. We have found that accepting this premise has increased our incentive to work on our couple recovery with our current partner.
Often, as new RCA members with years of individual recovery, we find to our amazement and disappointment that our “new” couple issues are the same as the ones we experienced in previous coupleships. We may have worked to become the “healthiest” person possible, but our relationship issues will continue to be the same, unless we face certain underlying issues in couple recovery. Resolving these issues can help us heal with our partners; we can transform our coupleships, while at the same time becoming healthier, happier individuals.
However, this does not mean everyone should stay in a coupleship at all costs. If one or both of the partners are abusive it might be a matter of emotional or physical safety to get out of harm’s way and work on one’s own individual recovery in safety. In RCA, we aspire to grow by learning healthy ways to relate to our partner, our Higher Power, and ourselves. Ultimately, both partners must accept the paths revealed by their own Higher Power.
12. Couples will experience shame, just as individuals do.
We must be aware that our individual shame is doubled in coupleship when we become convinced that we are a terrible couple. Sometimes we may feel we are “terrible” friends, parents, sexual partners, communicators, managers of money—seemingly not doing as well as other couples in RCA, etc. This is called couple shame. We may think that we are in the worst coupleship imaginable. In this state of mind, it may seem to us that the only solution is to end the coupleship.
The answer for couple shame is the same as for individual shame. As we tell our story to other couples, we learn that we are not alone in our problems. In this way, we can also experience affirmation for our progress in recovery. Additionally, by getting a sponsor couple, working the Steps, and working our own individual recovery programs we will begin to heal. Gradually, over time, we can experience intimacy that few other couples know.
If we understand the dysfunctions of addictive couples, we can also reduce our shame. Since we typically come from dysfunctional families, is it any wonder that we have difficulty with intimate relationships? As a recovering couple, we need to learn to nurture our relationship. A loving, nurturing relationship is possible, but only as we as a couple practice the Twelve Steps and grow together in its recovery.