Thursday, March 6, 2014

When One Partner Relapses, How Do Couples Move Forward?

When I am discussing relapse, it is important to clarify that I am referring to any individual who falls back into or regresses into to a previous pattern of unhealthy thinking, behaving, or feeling. In other words, I am not speaking solely of issues of addiction;  I am talking about letting go of current healthy habits, rituals, practices, or ways of being and replacing them with thoughts, behaviors or emotions that are harmful to us. With this broad definition, it is not uncommon for most couples to struggle through a relapse episode of some kind. I'd like to touch upon two healing insights into how relapse impacts couples and then close with an informative and restorative interview I did recently with Dr. Karen Sherman, host of "Your Empowered Relationships".
Hiding in Shame

The first insight I want to share or to remind couples about is that when an individual relapses, regardless of the type or kind, there is an incredible degree of shame. This is important to note for two reasons. First, many times it is this debilitating shame that keeps the partner in relapse from disclosing the relapse. The individual is over-whelmed with self-hatred and malignant embarrassment for falling back into an unhealthy place. Thus, the individual feels stuck and helpless. Secondly, in order to lesson the pain of shame, it is very common for individuals to continue the exact behavior that created the shame. In simple terms, individuals will turn to self-soothing behaviors while actually exacerbating the relapse. If partners can realize the important role that shame plays in relapse, it can be very helpful when it comes to addressing the relapse and in communicating about it.

The second insight I want to share, I believe, will also help couples as they understand how relapse interrupts and disrupts the relationship. When one partner relapses, he typically moves into denial. Denial serves to assuage the shame and also to minimize the relapse. When the relapse partner is questioned or confronted by his partner or by loved ones, a pattern of lying and blaming starts to develop. Tensions build, excuses are made, and promises are given. Many times, although both partners are feeling fear and anxiety about their relationship, it is expressed in the form of anger and resentment.

Shortly after denial, disguise and detachment set in. As situations become more difficult to manage, the partner in relapse must disguise the truth about what is going on. A tremendous amount of energy and a myriad of resources go into pretending that everything is fine. Situations are covered up, lied about, and eventually uncovered. This, of course, creates deepened mistrust and distance between couples. Very often, arguments escalate and resentment builds as couples struggle to communicate.

Along with disguise is the presence of detachment. The partner in relapse is highly uncomfortable facing the people whom he has let down, again, or who remind him of what is true. Again, in order to numb the shame and justify the unhealthy behavior, the relapse partner pulls away from any reminders of accountability. At this point, there is an incredible degree of distrust, disappointment, and despair on the part of the healthy partner who also detaches further from their relationship. Communication breaks down as couples move further away from one another.  This is understandable.

Denial, Disguise & Detachment

By understanding how these three forces - denial, disguise, and detachment - invade and impact the relationship, it can help couples to intervene more quickly and interpret or re-frame behaviors in healing ways as they learn how to communicate effectively and to move forward. 

Dr. Karen Sherman and I discussed the insights I've shared with you, and we discussed how couples can
Heal & Move Forward

move forward in healthy ways.  Please, take a listen.  This is for adult audiences only.

                Next time - Relapse and Co-dependency: Helping Both Partners

                For more on the topic of relapse and understanding the key role 
                that shame plays, consider reading... 
                            Mountain Air: Relapsing and Finding the Way 
                                       Back...One Breath at a Time

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