Three challenges confronting recovering couples

It’s hard to be a couple in our culture, let alone a couple in recovery. There are many pressures working against relationships. Facing these challenges with realism and honesty can help us establish the priority we need on our recovery. It won’t “just happen.”

Challenge #1 The way we live today makes intimacy hard to maintain

Historically, people worked, ate, played, and celebrated together. Compared to those times, there is little support for families in our culture. Today family members simply aren’t together much.

Our culture separates adults from one another, as well as from their children, for great portions of each day. In many couples both partners need to work to support the family. The kids go off to school and unless they are close in age, they won’t even be at the same school. Everyone arrives home at dinner time (or later), exhausted. They may eat together, but many families have schedules that don’t allow this. Then Mom and Dad scramble to do house work and other projects while the kids deal with homework – or everyone plops down on the couch to watch TV, or at computers to play games and surf the Net.

It doesn’t take long before family members really don’t know much about each other’s lives, because they have few common experiences. And because intimacy is based on shared life experiences, many families have little intimacy.

Recent studies of typical American family life reveal an astounding fact. Voice-activated tape recorders set up in participants’ homes monitored all the conversations in the household. The results showed that the average couple spent less than 27 minutes a week in any kind of intimate conversation.

This is also the first time in history that we’ve asked just two people to try to raise children. Until recently, everyone in a community knew all the children who lived there – everyone knew everyone else, for that matter. If any one child was causing trouble, any adult would feel within his or her rights to discipline that child because they knew that individually and as a community, they had an investment in that child. This also meant that that the pressure for raising children wasn’t solely on their parents, as it is in our society.

Most people used to live within a few miles of their relatives. Today, it’s not unusual to live hundreds or thousands of miles from extended family members. Consequently, relatives are not available to help with child rearing. The pressures of raising children, combined with other activities, make it hard for couples to find time for themselves. Our families are torn apart because they don’t spend time together and because they do not live in true communities. Furthermore, in today’s culture the idea of divorce is generally accepted and rarely counteracted by strong encouragement to stay together.

Can you see that your struggle as a couple isn’t only about you? Much larger cultural, economic and social forces are also at work.

Challenge # 2: Partners need to balance the priority of individual and marital recovery

Another discovery has become clear: Individual emotional, mental, and spritual health in each partner will not ensure that a couple will create a healthy relaitonship.

We may have assumed that as each of us became healthier individually, our bond also would get stronger. Not necessarily. In fact, the transformation of one of the partners to individual health can be troubling and divisive in a relationship. If one or both partners begin to change and become more independent, it threatens the status quo of the partnership.

Both partners must first attend to their own problems and issues for a relationship to survive and become fulfilling. That may mean attending group meetings, seeing a counselor, or taking whatever steps each needs to heal themselves.

Then the partners need to turn their attention to the collective identity known as their relationship. We learn to have healthy relationships by practicing – by being in a relationship and working on it. As a couple, we might follow a 12 step program together, get counseling together, or take whatever steps we need to heal our relationship.

We symbolize this commitment to recovery with a three-legged stool: you, me, and us. Your health, my health, our health. Without any one of these legs, the stool topples.

Challenge #3: Both partners in troubled relationships suffer from codependency

When both partners come from families with unhealthy behaviors, they enter their relationship emotionally depleted. Unfulfilled, they don’t have a reservoir of positive feelings. They don’t even recognize such feelings. Since they don’t understand how to nurture themseles, they look instead to others for nurturing. In addition, they have little idea how to get such healthy nurturing from their partner because they never learned how to do so, either in their family or from others.

Each partner, then, looks to the other for the love, approval, and nurturing they were never able to give to themselves or recieve from others. This is an attempt by them to meet their own needs for approval through their relationship. The actions they take to get that love and approval are called codependency: what they do to get their partners’ love, nurturing and approval, while at the same time ensuring that their partner won’t leave them.

Each participant in such a relationship is codependent. In addition to unhealthy and unproductive behaviors, this often leads to feelings of shame. We feel as though we are no good, that we are not worthy of anyone’s love, attention or respect – even though we desperately want these things. A large part of our lives is concerned with trying to erase this feeling of shame, and our behaviors are an attempt to “medicate” this situation. Our relationship becomes enmeshed because each is seeking from the other the approval we can’t give ourselves.

Although we generally are not aware of it at a conscious level, each partner is deathly afraid that the other will leave the relationshp. But at a visceral level, we understand the situation – we know something big is missing from our lives.

Codependency styles vary, and for this reason people can mistakenly think that only their partner is codependent. This is not the case; it takes two to do codependency! Codependency, regardless of how it is played out, is based on a need for the partner’s approval, love and affirmation – and it includes a powerful underlying fear in both partners of losing the relationship.

The way forward: approval from within, not without

Part of the challenge of improving your relationship is to figure out how you are manipulating your partner to gain approval. How are you seeking approval from without, rather than from within?

We need to understand that we can survivie in the world without our partner, that it is possible for us to get our emotional, mental, and physical needs met without our partner. These realizations allow us to make a decision to stay with our partner because we want to, not because we need to out of fear of living without him or her.

Here is where the need for individual recovery becomes clearly important. A relationship cannot and will not progress and improve if the partners individually remain unable to affirm themselves and find support for themselves in healthy community outside their relationship. This is why we believe so strongly in the need for groups and community as part of the recovery process.

* Adapted from “Open Hearts” by Pat Carnes, Debbie Laaser, and Mark Laaser

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