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Repairing partnerships

January 1, 2009
by Brion P. McAlarney
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A Seabrook House therapist reaches out to couples struggling in recovery

Eddie Luker serves as director of family services at New Jersey-based Seabrook House, managing one of several specialized programs that the addiction treatment facility offers. After successfully shepherding families through the treatment process and introducing recovery into the family milieu, Luker began to observe that a high number of couples were separating after the formerly addicted partner had gone into recovery.

“I was wondering why this was happening in recovery—why didn't this happen during the [partner's] active addiction?” says Luker, who noticed there often was ongoing tension in couples after treatment had ended. “Part of the reason I realized was that the couples did not know how to relate to each other now.”

The addiction had appeared to drive a wedge down the middle of these relationships, damaging if not outright breaking the bonds of the love relationship. Luker concluded that couples needed assistance working through early recovery in order to reconnect.

The result has been the introduction of two services at Seabrook. It has established married couples therapy and family counseling for families and couples as they begin the journey of recovery, helping them to address the common obstacles that occur along the way. It also has started quarterly “Couples in Recovery” workshops, gatherings designed to strengthen the relationship of recovering couples.

Typically, the recovering spouse (often male in the cases Seabrook encounters) initiates the couple's engagement in therapy. “They are getting on with things and they're trying to make things right in their relationship, yet they're coming against resistance from the spouse/partner,” says Luker.

That resistance takes the form of resentment. “The spouse or partner is feeling neglected because the newly recovering alcoholic or drug addict is now developing all of these new relationships—they're out at meetings, they're doing this, they're doing that, they have a sponsor,” says Luker. “It's an ‘AA widow or widower’ syndrome that sets in—now that they're sober, they're out of the house more.”

This resentment is compounded by the fact that infidelity is often an issue that couples in recovery encounter. It is not uncommon for the recovering person to have been unfaithful during active addiction. “The recovering person is now at meetings, out doing things, so that adds another layer to resentment,” says Luker. “There is suspicion—what is he or she really doing out there?”

Improving communication

Getting couples to overcome the suspicion and lack of trust starts with basic listening skills, says Luker. “We practice your basic communication skills 101: active listening,” he says. This includes having couples reflect about and react to what their partner is saying actually, and stating back to the partner exactly what they think they heard their partner say, and having that validated.

From there, Luker works on helping the person in recovery demonstrate to the partner that he/she is committed to the relationship. “Often, in the very first session, I will ask each individual if they're committed to their relationship,” he says. “If they are, they have to look at their partner and look them in the eye, and acknowledge and make a declarative statement about that.”

Couples then are asked to go back and re-establish what made their relationship successful initially. “I will often have them go back and recall what is it they did in the beginning of the relationship to woo their partner, to win them over, and have them start doing some of that stuff again,” says Luker.

Luker also employs a technique called a “love box.” Inside the love box are several slips of paper with various love assignments, such as holding a spouse by the hand, looking her in the eye, and saying “I love you.” These tasks are meant to be completed on a spontaneous basis.

“We're coaching them in ways to attend to and get their spouse to feel appreciated and noticed and to convey to the partner who is struggling that they are indeed loved,” says Luker.

Each individual also has to articulate what he/she views as the problem with the relationship, and to be clear about goals for the relationship. Luker says couples need to find a bridge that connects them to a common goal they can pursue together. “Having that is probably the most important piece at the start of the counseling relationship,” he says. “If they're here, they've lost touch with that and they have no idea what that is, so we have to take them back in time, flesh out what their dreams were, what their hopes were, and help them to re-envision the future for the relationship.”

The duration of therapy varies from couple to couple. Some couples need only a few sessions to fine-tune their communication, while others need more intensive work. “Many of the non-dependent partners/spouses come from chemically dependent families, so we need to flesh out what each individual brings to the table,” says Luker. The length of a therapy period can depend on the severity of the impact the addiction has had on the relationship, what the couple is presenting as its goals, and the level of conflict that is evident.

Couples workshop

Seabrook House also runs a couples therapy workshop that is open to the public as long as one of the partners is in a 12-Step recovery program. The workshop is a one-day, eight-hour session run quarterly by Luker and Seabrook House, and is open to all couples (young/old, straight/gay, etc.).

A major element of the workshops is to have fun while couples learn tools to keep their relationships strong. The day includes a gourmet lunch served in a decorated dining room, with each couple seated at its own table and served by kitchen staff.