Structure Your Time: Re-Establishing Trust in Your Romantic Relationship in Recovery

By Kyi Phyu Maung Maung (Michelle) B.A. in Psychology and Dr. Jeremy Frank PhD, Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor and Clinical Psychologist

Has addiction disrupted trust between you and your partner? Do you doubt your partner’s words and promises? Have you wondered if your partner is where they say they will be? Do you wonder whether you will ever feel it is a true partnership again? Research has shown that structure is a hallmark of recovery. Planning your time and creating the scaffolding of structure may be the missing factor in building back trust in your relationship.

Trust is the foundation of a healthy relationship. Addiction erodes trust. We compromise trust through broken promises, white lies, confusion, and sudden changes in behavior.

People say trust is like broken glass; it can never be the same if shattered. But this is not entirely true. Once lost, restoring trust can be challenging, but it’s not impossible. With effort, time, and patience, it is achievable! Trust is lost in buckets, but it’s built back in drips and drabs. Fortunately, there are practices to assist us in successfully restoring elements of trust in our relationship.

“S” Structure your Time

The second letter, “S” of The ASCENT Approach, stands for Structure Your Time. It refers to thinking critically about how we spend our time and exploring commitments and activities. This offers a kind of “scaffolding” and “support” (more “S” words), which in turn creates predictability and accountability in our relationship and our recovery.

Structure Your Time is essentially a practice of organizing activities, making a schedule, and committing to plans. Multi-faceted, it interrelates with each of the other practices in The ASCENT Approach. We structure our time to create our community, engage in our lives, nurture our spirituality, and treasure our relationship. Whether it’s attending AA meetings, picking up groceries, making dinner for your family, going on a walk with your partner, joining a yoga class, or journaling, organizing our time matters.

Trust is lost in buckets, but it’s built back in drips and drabs.

(Photo by Jazmin Quaynor on Unsplash)

How Do You Build Accountability And Predictability?

Trust is created in our relationship as we come to know our partners, and they become more predictable to us. Predictability comes with feeling secure and more responsible for our lives. It’s knowing that our behavior and actions are consistent.

Addiction causes havoc; our behaviors become erratic, and our trust in each other plummets. So, it’s especially important to create a routine that brings back predictability in our relationship in early recovery.

By structuring our time, we form new habits and commit to them, increasing predictability in the relationship. For example, if you signed up for a 4 PM yoga class every Wednesday, your partner knows where you are and what you will be doing at 4 PM every Wednesday.

With regular commitments also comes accountability. Naturally, by signing up for events or taking on a responsibility, you’ll be expected to show up and participate. A form of external supervision keeps you accountable. This can be anyone: a friend from the book club, your AA sponsor, or even your yoga instructor. If you sign up for yoga classes, your yoga instructor and maybe other yogis will expect you to attend the class.

By showing your partner that you are accountable and what you do in a day is predictable, you are slowly rebuilding trust. There’ll be fewer reasons for them to doubt where you are and what you are doing.

Showing Your Partner What You Value

Structuring your time is also a way to show your partner what is important to you. If you tell your partner you are joining a gym club, you convey that you care about your health and wellness. Structuring activities have been shown through research into couples and relationships by the psychologist Dr. John Gottman to deepen the connection and predict longevity, success, and commitment in partnerships.

Structuring scaffolding like a weekly meeting with your partner, a time to do affirmations, give hugs on arrival and departures, a six-second kiss every day or a 15-minute stress decompression conversation daily, demonstrate and practice commitment to your partner and to your recovery. Date nights, weekly planning meetings, and even planned sexual encounters can all communicate that you value your partner and prioritize them.

Why Should You Structure Your Time For Your Relationship?

In early recovery, it is common for couples to be trapped in the emotional turmoil caused by addiction. At times, it may even feel strenuous to spend time with each other. Consider signing up for and engaging in activities together, such as joining a cycling club, taking a cooking class, or hiking with a group. This gives you a chance to focus some of your energy outside your relationship instead of each other. It also creates the opportunity to see a new side of your partner and continue to get to know them as they interact with others.

Later in recovery, when you’re ready to work on joint healing, you can structure time exclusively for your relationship. By setting time aside just for each other, you’re making an effort to heal past wounds, enhance your bond, and continue to grow together.

Structuring and spending more together with your partner leads to higher relationship quality and stability. Studies show that shared leisure time is a good predictor of strengthening the bond between married couples. Spending more time together doing leisure or pleasurable activities draws couples together, helping them maintain their relationship in the now and future.

Couple hugging

(Photo by Anna Selle on Unsplash)

Addressing “People, Places, and Things” of Addiction

Recovery frees up a lot of time on one hand, but can also be a huge commitment of time and resources. You may find a sudden availability of time previously occupied by substance-related activities or the need to survey, monitor, and worry about your partner.

Idle time is recovery’s archenemy, luring us to old habits, patterns, and behaviors. It also poses a higher risk of dealing with the “People, Places, and Things”1 of addiction. Like the saying, “An alcoholic alone is in bad company,” isolation and too much available time can both be threats or risks to recovery. It’s essential to structure one’s time effectively, leaving minimal idle time and more time to engage in other activities, especially with healthy and supportive others (see Create Your Community).

Research shows that one of the four factors preventing addiction relapse is having a competing activity that we commit to regularly. Bad habits need substitutes. Since “old habits die hard,” it can be challenging to cease a habit without having something to do instead. This is the crux and curative aspect of structuring your time. Regularly engaging in new activities or those that you have previously abandoned provides the opportunity to engage in behaviors that compete with cravings for drug and alcohol use or codependent and dysfunctional partnership behaviors and dynamics.

Why Should You Have a Routine?

As you create a habit, you’re forming a routine. By repeating the same actions, the routine gives you feelings of safety, confidence, and well-being. The automaticity of routines saves us energy. For example, it doesn’t require as much energy to navigate our neighborhood. But when we navigate the streets of a new, unfamiliar neighborhood, we need to be mindful of where we are, check GPS, or scan the surroundings. This causes us to be hypervigilant and activates the flight or fight response which expends energy.

It can be tempting to fall back to the old unhealthy routines you previously had. Being deliberate about setting routines, exploring activities to engage in (see Engage in Your Life), and committing to that structure allows you to successfully follow through with new healthy routines. You will also feel growing self-esteem and self-confidence.

woman exercising on stairs

(Photo by Ev on Unsplash)

Identifying Your Discretionary Time

So, how do you make sure you have enough structured time in your schedule? One method is to identify your discretionary time.

Discretionary time is simply the time you have control over. The time during the weekends, before and after work, in your car, or during lunchtimes are good examples of discretionary time. An important distinction to make is that discretionary time isn’t necessarily alone time. It’s free time that you’re able to decide what to do with, such as getting together for coffee with friends or having a date night with your partner.

But note that there are two types of discretionary time — structured and unstructured time. Structured discretionary time is when you schedule or commit to a person or activity, e.g. taking a class, attending support meetings, or going to therapy. Unstructured discretionary time is the opposite; it’s unscheduled and uncommitted time. For example, spending time at home enjoying a hobby or making an impromptu decision about what to do between dinner and bedtime.

The key to the practice of structuring your time is to balance your structured and unstructured time. This ensures that you have enough structured time in your day to show predictability and accountability. Remember, in early recovery, you should strive to have more structured time and minimize as much idle time as possible.

Filling Up Your Relationship Marble Jar

Addiction is the garroter of relationships. Unfortunately, it doesn’t spare trust — one of the only pillars of a healthy relationship. Once shattered, trust is difficult to piece back. But it’s not impossible.

“Trust is built in very small moments.” – Dr Brené Brown

Spilled jar of marbles

(Image by SeaReeds from Pixabay)

Dr. Brené Brown, an expert in courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy, compares trust to a marble jar. It’s like a discipline and rewards system used in the classroom by homeroom teachers. We add marbles to the jar when our partner does something to build trust, e.g. making dinner for the family. Marbles are removed from the jar when the opposite happens, like not calling when they were supposed to.

By structuring your time, being where you say you will be, and doing what you say you will do, you fill your relationship marble jar, one marble at a time. As each marble is added, you scaffold, mend, and transform your relationship to be stronger, restoring trust.

Love is a verb too. If you don’t work at love, work on your relationship, structure your time, and cherish those marbles, you might as well stay in active addiction because you’ve “lost all your marbles” anyway!

1“Triggers” that can lead to a relapse of substance use or harmful behaviors.