Making Relationships Work in Recovery

By Beverly Berg PhD MFT 10/20/16

If you want to give your recovering relationship a chance of thriving, you must learn when to work hard to meet your partner’s needs and when to have a hearty fight to be free from meeting unrealistic expectations.

Couple holding hands.
Find the balance of give and take.

Sustaining and nurturing a romantic relationship in the long term is challenging for any couple, but when one member of the couple is in recovery there are additional forces at play. There are often unresolved issues resulting from events and behaviors that occurred during the period in which one partner was actively misusing substances. And that partner may also be experiencing the lingering withdrawal symptoms, cravings and “highly sensitive nervous systems” that are common to those in early withdrawal. Relationship expert Dr. Beverly Berg highlights many of these issues, and others that are common to all couples, in this week’s Professional Voices…Richard Juman, PsyD

I recently watched the entire series of Mad Men (for the second time). If you have yet to watch this show, I will just say that it takes place in the 1950s and revolves around the men and women working in the world of advertising. It was an era during which husbands smoked lots of cigarettes, drank lots of whiskey, and unabashedly cheated on their spouses, while their wives stayed at home and made babies, and drank alone. Although the married couples on this show looked miserable locked into their rigid, hetero-normative roles, they at least knew what to expect from their marriages. And typically, men were raised to satisfy their own needs, while the women were raised to serve their partner’s and family’s needs.

Of course, we are no longer living in the Mad Men era. In today’s world, many couples are confused about what to expect from married life or committed partnership. This challenge is even more pronounced for those in a recovering relationship. As a result, much of the effort I make as a therapist working with couples in recovery involves helping the partners whittle down options, clarify expectations, and consciously create a feasible value system for what a partnership can offer.

If you want to give your recovering relationship a running chance of thriving and sustaining itself over time, you must learn when to work hard to meet your partner’s needs and when to have a hearty fight to be free from meeting unrealistic expectations. Knowing how to juggle these two opposing pressures cannot be attained overnight.

Invest in Doing Right by Your Partner

Although each couple has their own unique fingerprint, there are patterns of relationship that are common to recovering couples in general. Take the example of “Lucy” and “Albert.” When I asked them why they had come to see me, Lucy complained that Albert couldn’t stand up for himself during a fight, and Albert complained that Lucy wouldn’t keep her cool like she had promised to work on after getting sober. They explained that they found it nearly impossible to get to the finishing line when an argument would ensue. They would dance around and around in circles, with Lucy’s voice becoming louder and louder, while Albert would shut down completely. I could see how frustrated they both were with this dynamic; they each looked tired and wilted just trying to talk about it.

Lucy and Albert had been together for three years but were still living separately. Lucy had recently come out of inpatient treatment for alcoholism and was two months sober when I met them. Albert had visited Lucy at family week while she was in treatment. During Albert’s visit, she had made lots of promises about the things she was going to do to stay sober when she got home. One of those things was to work on how explosive she would get when she was frustrated with Albert. They claimed to love each other, and truly felt there was no one they would rather be spending their time with as long as they weren’t fighting.

Lucy described Albert as an impossible person to have even the most benign arguments with because he would withdraw to avoid conflict and internally run at the slightest display of her anger. Albert admitted to keeping his negative thoughts to himself in an attempt to avoid any potential for rejection or judgment by Lucy. I knew this was a survival tool he had learned way before he had met Lucy. I asked Albert where he learned to do that. He explained that he had always felt that his feelings were not worthy of respect or of being heard. He spoke about his childhood being riddled with neglect and disrespect by his parents. As a result, he recoiled from conflict, never learned to consider his own needs in his relationships, and had mastered the adaptive ability to disappear right before Lucy’s eyes. I glanced over at Lucy as he continued to talk and I could literally see Lucy’s face soften and her eyes well up with tears.

I suggested that he take on the responsibility of being actively aware of his feelings—both good and bad, at all times—especially when he was feeling afraid of Lucy. My goals for Albert were to help him reduce his fear of conflict and learn to feel worthy of his needs being met and his voice being heard. This way he could learn to take care of his own needs while also negotiating the needs that Lucy was bringing to the relationship.

I asked Lucy to tell me a little about her background as well. She said that she came from a background of similar disregard, but also was a victim of abuse. She said that her father had been hostile and cruel toward both her mother and her. I told her it was our mission to help her find a way to feel safe enough to show her needs to Albert without aggression, and to also lean into taking care of his. I looked over at Albert, and he appeared more sympathetic than afraid. This small step of mutual empathy was already making a change in their dynamic. Each week we worked together, Lucy appeared calmer and gentler in her self-expression when frustrated, hurt or angry, and Albert was standing taller and more confident in the face of conflict. As a result, Albert and Lucy’s individual identities became much more robust, and their ability to take care of each other’s needs was heightened greatly. They could not have been more pleased with the new pattern they carved out just by using a daily practice of conscious intent and consistent practice. Welcome to recovery!

Know Your Partner

Whether you are the partner recovering from addiction or the partner recovering from codependency, certain rules apply equally to both of you. First, to do right by each other, both of you must memorize the fundamental needs the other says he or she has to have satisfied in order to feel loved. Your partner was wired for love a certain way before meeting you, and will remain wired that way after knowing you. I recommend sitting down with your partner and writing down each other’s specific needs to feel loved.

Then commit to finding ways to give each other more of what you each feel you need. The key word here is “more,” not “all.” Each partner should write out the entire Xmas list of wants and needs of the other. For sanity's sake, take the top three wants and work only on those. With regard to the rest, you need to make peace for the time being with either not being able to get them from your partner or with not being able to give them to your partner.

If meeting some of your partner’s needs isn’t hard enough, you also have to spend time setting limits, creating boundaries, and fighting for your own individuality. The task of any hearty couple is finding ways to bring a steady flow of independent thought and the freedom to say no into the relationship, while meeting some of the most important wants and needs on both your Xmas wish lists.

Never Question What Makes Your Partner Feel Loved

If you really want to stress your partner, start acting like you live in a Mad Men world and look cross-eyed whenever your partner reveals the specifics of what makes him or her feel loved in a romantic relationship. Even if your partner’s needs cross lines with yours, are out of your comfort zone, or make no sense to you, you need to respect his or her preferences. You can always negotiate every need your partner expresses, you just can’t deny the validity of what he or she wants.

One couple I worked with had very different ways of feeling loved. The husband felt loved when his wife didn’t make a fuss about him going away on the weekend with his buddies on a camping trip. On the other hand, she felt loved when he was willing to get kinky in their sex life. This was why they came to see me. Her needs were harder for him to meet than his were for her. He kept questioning why she liked sex the way she did, and this made her feel badly about herself and deprived. After a few sessions in which the husband had the opportunity to deal with his misgivings about what his wife wanted from him, he agreed to go to classes on BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism, masochism). I heard from the wife a few months later. She emailed to thank me because she was now “one happy camper!” I don't know which she felt more loved by—his willingness to take the classes or his giving her what she wanted in the bedroom.

It’s rare for a couple to find that both partners need the same things from each other to feel loved. If you happen to be in that kind of recovering relationship, lucky for you! However, if you are like most couples, then you and your partner have some homework to do. Your recovering relationship is an ever-growing experience, so why not make a habit out of beefing up the love between you by getting better at giving your partner what he or she is asking for, while also holding onto your individual identity?

The Fight for Independence

I always know my work is cut out for me when I’m sitting with a couple who report, “We never fight.” The result of the “we never fight” stance is a couple who lose their individual identities and who live with the fear of abandonment running through their veins. Such couples collude to stay in a superficial world of false intimacy. This kind of effort leaves partners filled with loneliness from living in over-compliance and chronic suppression of their individual needs. They rarely have sex with each other. These are not bad, sick, or dysfunctional partners. They are just partners who suffer from highly sensitive nervous systems and who have catastrophic fantasies about what conflict could cause if allowed into their relationship.

My job with a couple that avoids conflict is to push them to gain mastery over effective fighting techniques and to stop the knee-jerk reaction of running from the first sign of a raised eyebrow. The idea of leaning into conflict, rather than fleeing from it, is completely counter-intuitive to the avoidant couple. Therefore, I need to approach the couple with some convincing arguments to persuade them to get into the ring with each other.

For starters, think of pearls. Do you know how they are made? When a foreign object, such as a grain of sand, invades an oyster’s shell, a process of self-defense occurs. The oyster’s body immediately begins to secrete a substance that forms layer upon layer of protection around the intruding object, encasing it until a pearl is formed. Hence, the original threatening culprit—the grain of sand—is actually the muse of inspiration that creates a beautiful gem.

Conflict can be likened to grains of sand that slip into the shell of your relationship and cause irritation. When faced with the right attitude, that conflict can become something as lustrous as an iridescent pearl. If you reframe conflict as your friend rather than foe, and truly embrace its presence as an opportunity and not a threat, you and your partner can break your fear of conflict and find your respective identities independent of the relationship.


The effort to meet your partner’s most important needs, while holding onto your own identity, is best seen as a lifelong task. Give yourself permission to find the balance between fighting for the freedom to be yourself and making your partner feel loved. When you approach this dilemma with curiosity and optimism, you will find a huge opportunity for growth, deeper intimacy, and greater happiness between yourself and your partner.

Beverly Berg, PhD, MFT, has worked in the fields of recovery and mental health since 1982. Her work is founded on the integration of the neurobiology of the brain, attachment theory, mindful meditation, EMDR, and the 12 Step programs. Dr. Berg’s passion is in helping the recovering addict, and his or her partner, create a practice that brings renewed trust, sexuality and joy to the atmosphere of the relationship.

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Beverly Berg, PhD, MFT, has worked in the fields of recovery and mental health since 1982. Her work is founded on the integration of the neurobiology of the brain, attachment theory, mindful meditation, EMDR, and the 12 Step programs. Dr. Berg’s passion is in helping the recovering addict, and his or her partner, create a practice that brings renewed trust, sexuality and joy to the atmosphere of the relationship. Dr. Berg can be found on Twitter.