Close, strong relationships are critical to a successful recovery. The same principle applies to marriages affected by drug and alcohol addiction: A healthy relationship can be a huge source of support for a spouse in recovery. The problem is that addiction has often left that relationship weak, damaged, and dysfunctional.
Within this context, it can be hard to know how to strengthen the relationship and begin relating in healthier ways with the goal of supporting recovery. Sometimes the resulting issues seem beyond repair, or at least too difficult to muddle through as a couple. That is when a marriage counselor may be able to help.
But exactly how might marriage counseling help a person in recovery? That question is one that Dr. Sachi Ananda is used to answering in her role directing FHE Health’s “Shatterproof” treatment program for first responders. Dr. Ananda is also a clinician and therapist with a specialization in the area of sex and relationships. In a recent interview, she shared some insights for those considering marriage counseling, including tips for how to find a good couples therapist.
Addiction Damage in a Marital Relationship and Ways a Couples Therapist Can Help
Addiction creates stress in a marital relationship, and “vice versa,” according to Dr. Ananda: Stress in a marital relationship can feed the existing addiction. When a couple gets stuck in this negative feedback loop, it can be hard to find a way out on their own, even after drugs or alcohol are not in the picture.
Financial and Legal Stressors
While there are numerous ways that a drug or alcohol addiction can strain a relationship, financial stress is a major one.
“Alcohol and drugs cost a lot of money, and if you’re in a marriage you should be taking a team approach to financial goals, but often the addict will be using more money to get alcohol or drugs,” Dr. Ananda said. She said it’s not uncommon for an addict to hide how much they’re spending on their habit from a spouse.
“If there are negative financial consequences like legal issues (driving under the influence, losing jobs, etc.)—there can be stressful, financial fallout related to these issues as well.”
Stress from Unaddressed Marital Problems
As for the “vice versa part,” (as in relationship stress that feeds an addiction), Dr. Ananda explained that “when a couple has stress in their relationship, one or both of them may look for an easy fix to solve their problems by drinking the problems away, ignoring them, putting them aside, or denying the issues … When there’s a problem that isn’t being addressed—I’d call it ‘the elephant-in-the-room problem’—you can look to a substance abuse problem to distract yourself from the real issue.”
A good counselor may be able to help a couple address the stress that drug and alcohol abuse is causing and/or covering up in a relationship.
Other Areas Where a Couples Psychologist May Help in Recovery
Another area where a couples psychologist may help in a person’s recovery: Preparing both partners or spouses for the “team effort” that is part of recovery.
“Recovery isn’t an individual process—it’s a team and family process,” Dr. Ananda said. “It’s very important that the person in recovery has their loved one on board for how they are going to address the issue.”
Here are some of the ways that a marriage counselor may help strengthen a relationship and “onboard” it for the work of recovery:
- “Open up communication” – “The goal in couples counseling is to open up communication and help them talk about things that are difficult to talk about without a professional,” Dr. Ananda said. “A lot of problems they may have avoided, ignored or didn’t know they had. One of those issues may be a drug or alcohol problem; because of a lack of healthy communication skill, they’re not able to address whether there’s an alcohol problem; hopefully a therapist will be skilled to know the red flags.”
- Create a safe space for sharing difficult things – “Sometimes a spouse may feel safer bringing up concerns about their partner’s use in a counseling relationship. They may have fears about a backlash, if they were to do it on their own. Having a professional there gives them more strength and guidance to talk about these issues without the other person getting defensive.”
- Help couples cope with stress in healthier ways – One way is to help couples “find more balanced and appropriate roles for each other,” according to Dr. Ananda. “If there’s a substance abuse problem in a relationship, something has gotten out of balance. It could be that someone is doing everything or too much while the other person isn’t doing enough. If that extreme dynamic is happening, the counseling can balance that out.” When people “know what their roles and responsibilities are to each other and to self,” that clarification can help reduce stress levels in a relationship.
- Address enabling behaviors – “Enabling behaviors” are those things that a partner does when “they think they’re helping the addict but are actually minimizing their addiction or rationalizing it or covering it up.” Dr. Ananda said that a good counselor will address these behaviors by inviting both partners—not just one—to consider how they are contributing to the problem and “sustaining this addiction.” She added that “probably one of the hardest things for the other person to see is that they are part of the problem.”
- Identify and process family-of-origin issues that may play a role. “Couples can also address family-of-origin issues, such as how they learned to love another person or how they grew up.” Some of the questions that might arise during therapy: “What did you learn in your childhood that made you tolerate these behaviors? How do you protect yourself from being emotionally available to your partner?”
How to Find a Good Marriage Counselor
Some marriage counselors are going to be more helpful to your recovery than others. It is really important to find the right fit of therapist and one who is good at what they do. For those who may be wondering what to look for in a marriage counselor, Dr. Ananda recommended looking for “experience with addiction.”
“Therapists who don’t have addiction experience will often not address addiction,” she said. Since addiction is a “highly specialized” area of training and expertise, she suggested asking prospective therapists about their experience with addiction.
Another good question to ask of a prospective counselor: “What are your standards for therapy?”
“Part of the therapy is getting [the addict] to get help, and ideally it’s the partner who is asking them to go to rehab,” Dr. Ananda said. She explained that typically the “best practice” is “recommending the individual get addiction treatment” … “after a few sessions, if they are not going to treatment, then it’s a good idea [for the counselor] to say, ‘I can’t treat you until you go to rehab.’”
More often than not from Dr. Ananda’s experience, couples end up in counseling when a partner or spouse is in a rehab program or has completed treatment. A quality rehab program will include the family component and address problems in the relationship that may be contributing to alcoholism or drug addiction. When couples are able to address these issues in healthy ways, they can strengthen both their relationship and their long-term recovery.
Looking for a marriage counselor with addiction experience or a quality drug or alcohol treatment program? We may be able to help. For more information, contact us today at 1-888-675-1683.