Last Updated on March 19, 2018 by Dr. Alberto Solà

In some ways, recovering as a couple simplifies things. There are many issues you don’t need to explain, and you might feel less worried about being judged or left behind. On the other hand, though, recovering together as a couple is itself a very complex process—one that isn’t easy. Here are some tips for recovering couples that may ease the process for you and your partner.

Accentuate the positive

It’s easy to focus on the negative when you’re fighting a serious problem, but that’s not productive when you’re recovering as a couple. Drug use by one or both partners in a relationship can put lots of stress on both partners; the negative part is tough enough, in other words. In the long term, it’s more productive for you to reward each other for positive behaviors, including abstinence from drugs and alcohol.

One way to do this is to make a contract you both sign. Make sure a specific, attainable goal is part of it; for example, your goal might be both of you being clean and sober for two weeks, but never using again is probably not as useful. The other half of the contract is a reward. If you both achieve the two weeks, try a new restaurant or see a first run movie you’ve both been waiting to see. The bigger the achievement, the bigger the reward; maybe one year sober means a great vacation together.

These contracts work because they are a lot like being “accountability partners.” This is a strategy athletes use for being in training and working out, and professionals use at work to meet, for example, things like sales goals. The contract also teaches you both to associate sobriety with good things happening—to both of you, together.

Remember, no one is perfect, and relapses happen. When they do, it’s stressful, and if your partner is the one who relapses, your feelings of anxiety, anger, concern, and disappointment are normal. Express those to a counselor or friend, though, and focus on the positive with your partner; further guilt and hostility can make it worse. Focus instead on sobriety successes, and getting back there again.

Fair play

All couples fight, but couples who have been battling addiction have even more conflict to negotiate. Learn to deal with conflict through healthy communication, not all-out fights. Your goal is to discuss issues in ways that lower your partner’s defenses while letting you say what you need to say.

Use “I” statements to express yourself; “you” statements often lead to attacking your partner. Instead, express your own emotions rather than rehashing the facts. For example: “Don’t do that, I hate it!” or “Why can’t you stop doing that? You’re making me want to get high!” are not productive. Instead, “I feel upset and scared when you do that, and I feel triggered. I start thinking about using again, and I want to stop this cycle. Can you help me figure out how we can fix this?”

Prioritize self-care

So many of us grow up thinking that self-care is selfish, but that’s just not so. Only by taking care of yourself can you co-exist in a healthy relationship and lower your own stress levels. Self-care includes time on your own, introspection, and often your own therapy or counseling.

Turn over a new leaf together

You probably already know that you need to avoid old situations, activities, and people that trigger you as an addict; this is also true for couples. Together, identify which situations, activities, and people you associate with using and your former lives as addicts, and eliminate them from your lives now. Come up with a plan for avoiding these triggers, and ways to replace activities and hobbies you enjoyed together.

Remember the things you liked before you were using, even if you weren’t together then, and try them together. Try entirely new things together now that you’re both clean. Try a sober living group for couples.

Try to put yourself in your partner’s shoes

Remember, even though you’re very close and are both fighting addiction, you’re not your partner. You aren’t in their place. Even so, try to put yourself in their shoes from time to time so you better understand how the process is for them.

This is especially important for recovering couples because addiction so often causes feelings of resentment and anger toward loved ones. Practicing this kind of empathy will help you remember that just like no one knows your struggle, you don’t know your partner’s. This will also remind you not to expect your partner to read your mind, and to communicate clearly instead.

Take time to really talk about how your recovery is going—even if the answer is that it’s not going well. If you don’t make time for each other even when things are tough, your relationship, and possibly your recovery, will fail. Remember, you both need to feel supported and safe.

You can do it

It isn’t easy to fight addiction and stay sober, whether you’re alone or a couple, but you’ve made the choice. Now is the time to make that choice work for you both, and enjoy the long-term rewards it can bring you. With some mindful effort and introspection, you and your partner can maintain the habits that will usher in a sustainable, sober lifestyle.