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The Bergand Group – November 2015 Newsletter

Couples in Recovery – Part II

Dr-Jerry-HuntBy Dr. Jerry Hunt – The Bergand Group

The Bergand Group’s August Newsletter, titled Couples in Recovery concerned challenges faced by couples with diverse recovery experiences. This Newsletter considers issues all of us face as we attempt to establish and continue close personal connections and also the effects of addictions and recovery on these relationships.

We are the Same and We are Different.

Each of us sees the world from our own particular perspective. Each of us is biologically, psychologically and socially different from one another. When we come together, we bring our history of all of these influences. We feel safer and more secure when we experience others as seeing the world as we see it. In the beginning of a relationship, while in the throes of romantic love, we often believe our partner perceives the world in the same way we do. Eventually, we discover this is not the case.

As we live closely with one another, our differences become more apparent. This requires us to simultaneously hold on to ourselves and, at the same time, attempt to make connections with the other person. How do we do this? The first step is listening with acceptance.

Listening With Acceptance.

Effective communication is more about listening than it is about talking. If we can listen to what the other person is saying with some acceptance and let them know we have heard what they have to say, the connection between us is strengthened. However, this isn’t easy.

It requires suspending, temporarily, our beliefs and judgments about right and wrong and good and bad. We just hear what the other person has to say about their experience and “get” that this is their experience. Nothing more. As we let our partner know we have heard them, closeness develops and further sharing on a deeper emotional level is promoted. Each partner takes a turn; each communication is brief. Statements beginning with the pronoun “I” are more easily heard than sharing that starts with the pronoun “you.”

As we listen we may experience a new appreciation and respect for our partner. This may deepen into feelings of caring, empathy and then compassion.

What Gets in the Way?

We all have the capacity to listen with acceptance and to share softer, more vulnerable, feelings with another. However, sometimes our experiences in our family of origin do not promote or may even actively discourages this sharing. If we experience caregivers as disinterested or unsafe, our ability to share vulnerable feelings will be covered over. An armoring develops to protect us from harm. If, in subsequent relationships we experience the same messages of disinterest or the lack of safety, the armoring will be reinforced.

Vulnerable Feelings and Emotional Intimacy.

Some feeling are more acceptable than others. Laughter, mirth, happiness and joy are seen as positive emotions and more permissibly experienced and expressed. The darker emotions such as rage, anger, frustration and irritation are threatening and their expression –even in safe ways—is often discouraged.

Yet, in couple relationships, it is not unusual for people to feel and often express irritation, frustration and anger. Often these are protective emotions, sitting on top of softer feelings such as hurt, sadness, shame, guilt, unworthiness and/or fear. Anger and frustration may serve as our armor, shielding us from feelings of vulnerability and harm, real or perceived.

When the sharing of our more vulnerable emotions is met with acceptance, we feel cared about and we are encouraged to share more. The mutual sharing at this level promotes emotional intimacy.

Addictions and Real Connection.

Addictions whether to substances or behaviors, create a narrow focus. The substance or activity becomes the center of attention for the addict. Addicts often lack the capacity to contact their own softer feelings or pay much attention to the feelings of others. They may experience anger and rage when things don’t go their way. Often the close personal relationships of addicts are severely damaged, if they still exist at all.

An Aid to Beginning Recovery.

Most of us have a deep need for connection with others. When addictions fracture our relationships with significant others, we may be motivated to take the first step into recovery. Our loved ones sometimes become more important than our “drug of choice.” Although getting sober for someone else, no matter how strong the connection, will not keep us in recovery, the pain of these damaged relationships may be a catalyst for seeking help.

Recovery and Repair of Relationships.

Those in 12 Step Programs are provided some guidance and methods for making repairs in their relationships with others, including those most important to them. Becoming aware of one’s shortcomings and character defects and the role these have played in our damaged relationships is a good beginning. Then, we are encouraged to list “all those we have harmed and become willing to make amends to them all.” Making amends – more than just saying, “I’m sorry” – is a good start at repairing close personal relationships.

However, we are now back at square one: faced with our own feelings, both positive and negative and our ability to share them with others. Experiences in meetings and with sponsors can be helpful here, since often they encourage “sharing from the heart.”

Marriage therapists who understand the impact of addictions on relationships can assist partners in learning to share their vulnerable feelings with one another. This can be very helpful in recovery from addictions and promote healing in significant relationships.

Emotional intimacy is a function of shared vulnerability. It requires: an awareness of our own inner world; a belief that it’s safe enough to share our feelings; revealing ourselves to another and receiving his or her sharing with acceptance.

This is challenging work for any couple but a process that will enrich relationships and enhance recovery.

Dr. Jerry Hunt
The Bergand Group

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