Long-term success in addiction treatment does not end when you leave your initial rehab program. Maintaining sobriety is an ongoing process that is continuously impacted by a variety of factors in your life. Having strong, healthy, and supportive relationships is one such factor.
Often when you suffer from an addiction, your relationships suffer as well. It is likely that while you were addicted you developed many unhealthy relationship behaviors…or maybe you simply carried unhealthy relational patterns with you from childhood. But now that you are ready for long-term sobriety, it is time to learn a new way of relating to the people in your life. Cultivating strong, supportive, and healthy relationships is a major step in reinforcing your ability to remain abstinent even in times of stress.
What Does a Healthy Relationship Look Like?
For many people in early recovery, it is their first time learning how healthy relationships operate. A large portion of them come to addiction with poor relationship patterns that they learned in their family of origin. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), adverse childhood experiences are a significant risk factor for substance abuse throughout life. Such adverse childhood experiences may include a variety of familial difficulties and dysfunctions, including:1
- Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.
- Physical or emotional neglect.
- Witnessing either parent being abused in some way.
- Parental relationship problems, separation, or divorce.
- Incarcerated household member.
- Substance use or mental health issue within the household.
So what does a healthy relationship look like? Some of the basic tenets of a healthy relationship include:
- Good communication: Good communication skills are crucial to a healthy relationship. Healthy communication means being open and honest and taking responsibility for your thoughts and feelings. When practicing good communication, if you have a disagreement with someone you love, you do not raise your voice or call the other person names. Instead of attacking the person’s character, you address the specific behavior that is the issue. Healthy interpersonal communication involves using “I” statements in which you take responsibility for your own emotions and perspective rather than blaming others (i.e. “I feel frustrated when you don’t listen to me.”).
- Healthy boundaries: It is important to set healthy boundaries in your relationships, whether with your romantic partner, parent, child, sibling, or friend. It is your responsibility to set your own boundaries and to respect those of others. In healthy relationships, you are clear and specific about your own needs and readily honor the needs of your loved ones.
- Honesty and trust: Healthy relationships are also built on a foundation of honesty and trust. You not only want to be honest and open with people you care about, but you want to be able to trust that your loved ones will do the same.
Below are some negative behaviors that may have been present in your relationships during addiction, which can poison a relationship:
- Dishonesty and deception: Dishonesty and deception are common in the relationships of addicted people. When you are in the midst of battling addiction, it sometimes feels easier to lie and deceive than to be honest. People may lie to others about their drug use, mislead others, or even steal in order to obtain drugs. It is impossible to maintain a healthy relationship if it is filled with lies and deception.
- Manipulation: Manipulative behaviors are also common in people with addictions. You may have manipulated loved ones in a variety of ways for a number of reasons, such as to help you get drugs or to cover up for your behavior while using.
- Enabling: Enabling behaviors are common in the loved ones of addicted people. They may knowingly or unknowingly enable you simply because they want to help. Some unhealthy and enabling behaviors common in relationships impacted by addiction include:
- Making excuses for your behavior.
- Covering up, lying, or hiding things for you.
- Taking over your responsibilities.
- Giving you money that will likely be used to purchase drugs or alcohol.
- Codependent behaviors of any kind.
- Helping you at the expense of their own needs.
If you are in recovery from drugs or alcohol and need to work on building and sustaining healthy relationships, consider seeking a therapist who specializes in addiction and relationship dynamics so that you can learn the skills you need, as well as be held accountable for putting them into practice. Depending on the nature of your relationship, you may also want to get couples or family counseling so that you and your loved ones can work together on cultivating healthy relationships and strengthening your ability to stay clean.
It is likely that many of your relationships were damaged during the midst of your addiction. Making amends is an important component of addiction recovery and is step 9 of traditional 12-step programs—for good reason.
In step 8, you make a list of all the people you harmed in some way as a result of your addiction. Step 9 involves making direct amends with these people, except in cases when doing so would cause any kind of harm to the person.
But making amends is more than just a simple apology; it means righting a wrong whenever and however possible. For example, if you stole money or property from a person while you were addicted, make every effort to give it back or make it right in some way.
Making amends in key relationships may involve more than just one step, though. These relationships may have gone through years of damage as a result of your addiction and may require considerable effort in order mend them.
Below are some concrete steps you can take to begin to make amends in the key relationships of your life (parents, children, spouses, siblings, and other family members and close friends):
- Forgive yourself: Before asking for the forgiveness of others, take time to forgive yourself for your mistakes. People in recovery often feel overwhelming guilt and shame over their past actions. So be as compassionate with yourself as possible and offer yourself the same forgiveness that you would like others to give.
- Apologize and ask for forgiveness: Approach the person to whom you need to make amends and apologize for any hurt that you caused them. Be sure to tell them how much they mean to you and let them know that you are working toward a new way of life. Let each individual person know that you realize your mistakes and that you want to cultivate a new, healthier relationship with them in the future. Be sure to demonstrate this desire with positive, forward-moving action.
- Be prepared for resistance from the other person: During the lows of addiction, it is possible that you seriously hurt or neglected your loved one in some way. Depending on what you did or didn’t do, the person may have a hard time forgiving you. You may need to give the other person time and space to come to terms with your sobriety and accept you again as a loving, trusting friend or family member in their life. You may also have to come to terms with the fact that some people may choose not to be in your life anymore, even if you are sober. Be prepared for different responses from different people. But do not let someone else’s decision affect your sobriety in any way. Keep your eye on your goal and do the best you can for the future. Even if your friend or family member cannot forgive the past, you must do so in order for you to truly recover and move on.
- Make financial amends: Financial amends are often commonplace in addiction recovery. Many people will borrow or steal money from those they love and usually don’t have a means of paying it back. If you stole money from your loved ones or if they paid to bail you out jail, covered the costs of your treatment program, or helped get your belongings back from the pawn shop, try your best to make this up to them. If the person would like to have their money back, make every effort to repay it.
- Make direct amends when possible and when not, try for indirect amends: If you broke something during your addiction, make an effort to fix it. However, there may be situations when direct amends are not possible. For example, if you killed someone due to drunk driving, you cannot bring back that person’s life. But you could join a community coalition to prevent drunk driving and save lives and be active within it.
How Healthy Relationships Support Long-Term Sobriety
Healthy relationships are crucial to long-term sobriety. In fact, social connection may be an antidote to addiction. A good example of this dates back to the Vietnam War.
During the war, around 20% of US soldiers became addicted to heroin and opium. However, when they returned home to their families and communities, 95% of them were able to stop using the drugs and only 5% of these people relapsed and used again within the first 10 months of returning home.2
Many theorists, including Johann Hari, believe that addiction may be attributed to social connection, or lack thereof. According to Johann Hari, “the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, the opposite of addiction is connection.” Professor Peter Cohen, director of the Center for Drug Research at the University of Amsterdam, also believes that addiction occurs due to a lack of bonding.3
Below are some of the many ways that healthy relationships contribute to a person’s long-term sobriety:
- Emotional support: Healthy relationships with loved ones can provide the emotional support you need to stay sober. Life will continue to be full of challenges, stressors, and triggers to relapse, so cultivating healthy relationships means having someone to turn to during difficult times.
- Accountability: Your loved ones can also hold you accountable for your behavior. Knowing that people are holding you accountable can help you continue to choose sobriety even when it may be especially challenging to do so.
- Physical connection: Physical connection is in many ways just as important as emotional connection. Human beings thrive on touch. When you physically bond or connect with another, your body releases a bonding hormone called oxytocin, which has been scientifically proven to reduce stress and improve overall wellbeing.4 So when you’re feeling low, give your loved ones a hug and let the oxytocin help fight off your unwanted stress.
- Motivation to stay sober: Relationships with loved ones can provide a huge motivation to stay sober. Parents may make a promise to their children to stay sober or feel motivated to avoid relapse in order to fully be present for them. Likewise, you may feel motivated to stay sober for a spouse or even a friend. Just knowing that someone loves and cares about you can provide the motivation you need to work toward long-term sobriety and recovery.
If you or someone you love is struggling to maintain sobriety—or is ready to enter treatment—contact our recovery helpline for information about your treatment options: 1-888-287-0471 .
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2016). Adverse Childhood Experiences.
- Robins, L. N. (1993). Vietnam veterans’ rapid recovery from heroin addiction: a fluke or normal expectation? Addiction, 88(8), 1041–1054.
- Hari, J. (2015). Johann Hari: Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong. [Video File].
- Heinrichs, M., Baumgartner, T., Kirschbaum, C. & Ehlert, U. (2003). Social support and oxytocin interact to suppress cortisol and subjective responses to psychosocial stress. Biological Psychiatry, 54(12), 1389–1398.