Ready to build a healthy relationship with your partner?
By Kyi Phyu Maung Maung (Michelle) B.A. in Psychology and Dr. Jeremy Frank PhD, CADC
Sometimes, in drug and alcohol recovery, we find ourselves stuck and frustrated, unable to move forward in our romantic relationship. This is so common for couples, but it does not have to stay that way.
People often expect sobriety to automatically resolve the issues created during active addiction. It’s normal for couples to fall out of sync as they heal and tackle recovery at different paces. Do not despair. You can learn skills and techniques to repair the ruptures in your connection with increasing ease. The goal is not to avoid conflict but to know how to navigate the temporary rift. The journey is far from linear, but it is definitely worth the travel.
Healthy Relationship For Long-Term Recovery
Intuitively, we know that having a healthy and satisfying relationship is a significant contributor to achieving long-term recovery. Research in social relationships backs up this hunch. The opposite of addiction is connection, and connection is the antithesis to the isolation of addiction. Building and nurturing our relationship with our partner is as equally important to attending fellowships, support groups (AA, Al-Anon, SMART, Recovery Dharma, etc.) and treatment. Where best to create a healthy connection than in our romantic relationship?
The challenge is figuring out how to grow together and not forget ourselves in the process. How to recover as a couple when recovery requires intense personal and sometimes even selfish navel-gazing analysis? Fortunately, there are techniques to guide us through the process. This blog article will briefly introduce The ASCENT Approach then focus on the first practice, “Assess Your Readiness to Change.” Subsequent blogs will cover the rest of the practices in ASCENT. We’ll briefly describe these techniques here and feel free to contact us to learn more.
The ASCENT Approach
The ASCENT Approach was developed based on the habits of couples in successful long-term recovery combined with clinical experience and research in the field of addiction treatment and recovery. The six practices of The ASCENT Approach are guideposts created by those who have walked the road before us and backed by empirical support and evidence-based research.
ASCENT is an acronym and mnemonic to help us remember each of the six practices:
A – Assess Your Readiness to Change
S – Structure Your Time
C – Create Your Community
E – Engage in Your Life
N – Nurture Your Spirituality
T – Treasure Your Partnership
“A” Assess Your Readiness to Change
The first letter, “A,” stands for Assess Your Readiness to Change. In recovery, growth and change are essential. We first need to accept that active addiction has affected us, our partner, and our relationship. The patterns of behaviors we developed during active addiction are no longer helpful. We must create new habits which may feel counterintuitive.
We can transfer our energy away from the reflexive counterproductive blame game of “who is wrong” and “find the bad guy,” to instead “what has become wrong with us?”. Additionally, making a new collaborative effort to identify and address the dynamic that has caused this rupture, disconnection and isolation.
In the process, we begin to focus on the present and what we can do to improve the situation. For example, the accusation of “You never tell me how you feel,” becomes “We need to learn to talk about our emotions and share our thoughts and feelings more. How can you and I create a safe space to discuss how we are feeling with one another?”
Identifying Areas for “Us” To Grow
This practice also encourages us to identify areas that “I,” “You,” and “We” believe need to change for “Us” to grow. At first, we tend to name broad categories: trust, finances, communication, time together, sexual intimacy, etc. But being more specific over time will be key. Instead of generally indicating we want to increase “sexual intimacy”, for example, we should begin by narrowing the scope to parameters within our comfort range and finding ways to discuss specific possibilities. We may start by finding time to explore touch or massage by candlelight without expecting more to come (no pun intended). Once we are successful with this on a smaller, simpler scale, we can increase intimacy in incremental steps as we determine that we are ready.
It is essential to note the difference between “not yet ready” and “unwilling or unable” to change. When we are not yet ready, we can at least communicate growing readiness and that we will need more time… and that is OK. However, when we are faced with “unwillingness or inability to change,” we will require outside assistance. In such circumstances, our task is just to identify better whether we’ll need individual or couples counselling, treatment or support groups, financial assistance, or other resources rather than ignoring what is blocking our readiness to change.
How We Know We Are Ready to Change?
To help us think about and assess our readiness to change, researchers have discovered and created The Transtheoretical Model of Change,1 or the “Stages of Change” which is presented as a continuum of stages. While this might seem sexy to social scientists, it can be a bit dry for some so feel free to skip to the Traffic Light Method below. We’ve included this discussion here so that you understand it comes from solid empirical research. We can learn to use this continuum of change model to identify where we stand individually and as a couple on a host of issues relating to recovery whether intimacy, finances, childcare, friends or family.
The Transtheoretical Model of Change
The Transtheoretical Model of Change identifies five stages: Precontemplation, Contemplation, Preparation, Action, and Maintenance.
The Stages of Change
The Stages of Change are:
- Precontemplation: I don’t see the problem, or I am not ready to address it.
- Contemplation I recognize there is a problem.
- Preparation: I am beginning to think about how to tackle it.
- Action: I am now ready to take action to effect change.
- Maintenance: I am integrating this change and learning how to maintain it.
It looks like this:
Where Are You Both On The Continuum of Change?
It is common for couples to be at different places on the continuum of change. Frequently, couples have different perceptions of what needs more immediate attention. For example, our partner may suggest they want to make love with us more often, but we aren’t ready for that yet. One of us might be more interested in focusing on having an emotionally intimate conversation, finding shared intellectual stimulation or comparing and collaborating on hopes and dreams. One partner may be so consumed with feelings of lack of trust and betrayal that they are not ready and in one of the first two stages.
One partner may not be prepared for the vulnerability of expressing emotions and instead wants to feel more physically connected first. The other partner might feel the opposite at first. When our perceptions of our troubles are so much at odds, it is vital not to judge each other. The first step is to understand what support each of us needs to be open to addressing this challenge in our relationship.
It is also normal to move back and forth along the continuum of change. Moving back on the continuum of change does not mean we are falling behind! It is simply a warning signal that we have encountered a hurdle or that progress is proceeding too fast for one of us. This is a good time to regroup and figure out what is needed to support progress and continue nurturing it.
The Traffic Light Method
A helpful yet straightforward tool to communicate how ready we are to tackle an area of growth is the Traffic Light method. Everyone is familiar with the meaning of the three signals — “green,” “yellow,” and “red.”
Think of each color as representing your degree of readiness to change:
- “Green” indicates I am ready.
- “Yellow” indicates that I am almost ready, but I still need support, resources, or time to reflect to become green.
- “Red” indicates that at this time, I am not ready to address this particular area of change.
There is no need to justify why you’re at a particular color. What’s important is to communicate your readiness without engaging in an emotional debate or rational argumentation. Your partner’s responsibility is to accept your assessment of your readiness. We’re not saying don’t be emotional and not talk about it. Quite the contrary, we’re just saying there is something magical about identifying and communicating where you are at as your car moves towards the traffic light.
If you’re both signaling “green” in an area, you’re both ready to tackle the problem at hand. The next step is to set time aside to address the challenge specifically. Then, in a collaborative effort, you determine how, when and what resources you will need to develop an action plan. Each of you should participate and share accountability for this effort to focus on “what” you are addressing.
For example, if you agree that you need to improve your communication, what is each of you undertaking to change to grow? If you ask your partner to share more, you may need to be less critical or refrain from trying to fix everything. Healthy growth requires new behavior from both parties. Accountability for sharing, in this case, could be as simple as deciding to share three feelings each day with each other. Or it could be choosing to have a weekly or daily meeting focussed on sharing things designed to destress you. It might involve couples counseling to help you share. What matters is that you create this with your partner, decide and agree to it, whether one of you finds the plan or exercise or you both find it through reading, a workshop or couples therapy.
If one of you signals “yellow” and the other “green,” there are two approaches to address this.
The first approach is deferring to discuss again after a mutually agreed period of time. The partner at “yellow” should indicate a reasonable time frame of when they want to revisit this matter. Linking the future conversation to a commitment to do something such as talking the matter over with a therapist, meeting with a sponsor, or journaling first is a great way to demonstrate a willingness to move towards green.
Equally necessary is for the partner at “green” to take their emotions, arguments, hopes, and disappointments to their support network. Pressuring, guilting, or any other attempt to “push” your partner to “green” will lead to a disconnect between you. If a partner doesn’t have an adequate social network, this should be explored in the “C” practice of The ASCENT Approach, “Create Your Community.” While our partners are integral to our recovery, when we are not ready to even talk with our partners, we will need to forge relationships with other healthy people. This can be with a therapist, new understanding friends or re-establishing better relationships with current or past friends.
Another approach when there is a green-to-yellow match is to narrow the area of change to see if you can identify one small step that you can take towards one another. Returning to the example above, in the search for sexual intimacy, you could ask, “Would you be willing to hold a hug for longer?” “Would you be willing to just sit closely on the couch while we watch a show?” “Would you be willing to describe the tension or sensations you feel in your body when you are experiencing an emotionally charged situation?” Then, working together, you see if you can gently move from “yellow” to “green” on a narrower focus in the spirit of the growth you are seeking in your relationship. But, if you are still unable to find a green-to-green match after such exploration, you must be patient and accept the green-to-yellow match.
If one of you is at “red,” then it is crucial that this partner talks with their individual therapist or external support network. Attempting to address change when one partner is not ready and the other is fully prepared is wrought for conflict in the relationship. For example, your partner may be unable to express their feelings because they are still learning how to feel their emotions. As mentioned earlier, the betrayal and lack of trust salient in addiction recovery can be so traumatic that some partners are easily triggered by any conversation or even the sight of their partner! This must be respected, but it won’t change unless both partners are minimally engaging in their individual therapy.
When you have a red-to-green match, the key to growth is to be very conscious to avoid slipping back into the blame game and “finding the bad guy.” The most critical work you can do to change together is to acknowledge the different places where you stand on the continuum of change and respect your positions.
Communication is Key
Communication is the essence of a healthy relationship. According to The Gottman Institute, the leading institute for couples’ research, silence is detrimental to your relationship. Couples research has also found a positive link between communication in partners on one hand and relationship satisfaction, emotional intimacy, and sexual satisfaction on the other hand. When couples are open to discussing their vulnerabilities and mutually validating each other’s disclosures, they are more likely to be intimate, which leads to a greater feeling of fulfillment in the relationship. Assessing Your Readiness to change and learning to communicate your level of readiness to change in your partnership will allow you to determine the speed of the journey. The brakes and the gas are as important as the steering wheel.
The continuum of change and the traffic light method are practical tools to help you “Assess your Readiness to Change” and communicate it more effectively to your partner. By working together to identify which changes you are both ready to tackle at this moment, you build a healthier pathway to growth in your relationship. This work will also create a solid foundation for the other five practices of The ASCENT Approach2.
Change is growth
“I cannot say whether things will get better if we change; what I can say is they must change if they are to get better.”
— George C. Lichtenberg
Recovery is change. Change favors growth. Growth requires patience and support. Whether it’s as mundane as jointly deciding to redistribute housework or as deep as deciding whether to separate or engage in couples therapy, deciding when and what you are ready to change as a couple helps you answer the call of adventure3 in your relationship. That adventure can be the beauty of recovering together.
1A model used to understand a person’s readiness to change and act on a new behavior.
2Please see the other articles of this six-part ASCENT Approach series.
3Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is a circular 12 stages myth-based journey which a hero goes through to live a fully realized life. The central notion is that a painful journey is a prerequisite to greatness. “Call to adventure” is the second stage where the hero is presented with a challenge in their journey to follow bliss.