Couple's Recovery Workshop

Common Obstacles - Understanding Why Couples Fail in Recovery

It should be noted that failure in recovery is a relative term. Sometimes, the best outcome for a relationship and each of its participants is that it dissolves. Here though, we will assume that 'failure' is defined as the inability for BOTH of you to move beyond the addiction and re-establish a healthy, intimate partnership. Or, to establish such a relationship for the first time.

The following are common reasons why couples in recovery fail. Or, that they continue to struggle unnecessarily. Each is followed by a summary of the key points as they relate to couples. These points will be further explored in your respective individual work.

Ineffective Communication Skills

As noted in the previous lesson, developing effective communication (honesty, vulnerability, openness, mutuality, etc.) will be the determining factor in whether or not you will be able to establish a healthy, intimate partnership. The failure to do so will guarantee that your transition will never be complete. Any style that is based on inquisition, forced participation and/or obedience will lead to failure. Any style that is based on aggression and/or pacification will lead to failure. Any style that is based on deception and/or trapping will lead to failure. Any style that is based on avoidance will lead to failure.


As a policy, the use of dishonesty as a life management technique is the biggest threat to the long-term stability of your relationship. Poor communication skills will cause problems in your relationship; dishonesty will destroy that relationship.

In recovery, dishonesty is most often seen in a person's unwillingness to be completely open about their past. Only slightly less common is their unwillingness to be truthful about their present. Both have the ability to destabilize the foundation of the relationship and destroy all that has been built. Looking at that from another angle, if you maintain a policy of dishonesty to help protect you from what you have done, it will be impossible for you to fully invest yourself into the rebuilding of a healthy partnership. At best, you will be investing in maintaining a role-based relationship; not a true and intimate partnership. At worst, well…we won't go there. To see two people invest a year or more of their lives to deep and personal change; only to have that come crashing down at the discovery of a lie that occurred years prior. Nothing is more tragic or unnecessary.

From the partner's side, dishonesty is not typically so overt. It is more often seen in one's willingness to omit information than it is to provide intentionally deceptive information. The partner who knows a truth but holds that knowledge back in an attempt to trap the other is engaging in dishonesty. Even if they succeed in trapping their partner in a lie, they will have violated their own boundaries to do it. They will have used deception to catch deception. Is that a fair strategy to impose? It doesn't matter. Any behavior that intentionally violates your own boundaries is ultimately a destructive act. It will destroy your own integrity. Further, if you are going to argue that 'the ends justifies the means', then you must also be willing to apply that logic to the use of deception to protect the discovery of the addiction/salvaging of the marriage. Because that is the logic your partner uses to justify their deception.

One of the biggest threats that dishonesty poses is its ability to destroy everything that is being built. One secret. One detail intentionally miscommunicated. One lie intentionally offered can be all it takes to re-ignite the initial crisis. This shouldn't be interpreted as the foundation that you are building together is not stable; it should be interpreted as the absolute need for transparency in building that foundation. Why? Because even the most compassionate person can eventually understand the evolution of an addiction and the patterns that evolved to protect it. Very few can tolerate the continuation of those protections once the ignorance has been revoked. As a person in recovery, cherish transparency. As a partner, tolerate further disclosure. Now is the time — both of you — to root out ALL of the rot.

Partner Objectification

For the person in recovery, objectification is defined as the inability to look beyond the roles that have evolved within the relationship. Rather than seeing your wife as a unique, vulnerable and evolving human being, you instead categorize her in objective terms such as 'my wife', 'the mother of my children', 'a nag', 'sexually unavailable', etc. This isn't something that you have consciously done, it occurs because you have never learned to relate to her otherwise. In all relationships, such objectification occurs to a mild degree and it is not necessarily unhealthy. But in addiction, this objectification is palpable and keeps the relationship unequal and lacking true intimacy.

You must come to see your partner for the unique person that she is. Not as a sexual object. Not as a mothering object. Not as a household maintenance object. Etcetera.

Dehumanization/Demonizing 'The Addict'

For the partner of someone with an addiction, there is a tendency to 'dehumanize' their partner following the discovery of that addiction. Rather than seeing him as a struggling, vulnerable person; they instead attach the symptoms of that addiction to the person's identity. They no longer see the positive values that they strived to uphold; but their identity shifts to represent the perversions they engaged in. Consider the wife who discovered her heterosexual husband engaging in casual, homosexual encounters. Or spending hours online watching someone smear fecal matter over their face. It is too much to ask initially to separate those rituals from how you perceive that person; but ultimately, a separation between the rituals of that addiction and the values of that person must be processed separately. Just as it is critical for the individual in recovery to change the way in which he identifies with himself; it is also critical for partners of those in recovery to establish a perception that the rituals involved with the addiction does not define their spouse.


Slips and relapse pose their greatest threat when accompanied by one of two variables. The first variable is whether or not a boundary has been established that any slip is grounds for the relationship's immediate termination. The pressure this unrealistic boundary places on the person in recovery is so great that it may indeed serve as a temporary deterrent, but it will almost always serve as the catalyst for failure as well. The second variable is whether or not there was dishonesty surrounding the slip. Note that when the first variable is in place, it is certain that second will follow. That puts the impetus for 'establishing truth' on the partner of the person in recovery; which is not healthy and often leads to the next common obstacle to couple's recovery.

Monitoring Obsession

Whereas slips and relapse tend to be limited to those in recovery, monitoring obsession tends to dominate the partner's healing process. Such an obsession occurs when you cannot trust your partner to share things openly and so, you place upon yourself the responsibility of establishing the truth to your partner's past and present. Early in the discovery process, this fact-checking, behavior-monitoring approach is common and even necessary. But for some, the patterns evolve far beyond what is normal or healthy. These checking rituals begin to take on the same compulsive feel and fulfill the same emotional needs as the rituals involved in their partner's addiction.

Left unchecked, this monitoring obsession often leads to exhaustion, value deterioration (e.g. friends, family, personal) and emotional volatility in the obsessive partner; which in turn perpetuates even more instability and conflict in the relationship. It is not uncommon for a partner engaged in obsessive monitoring to at one point look at themselves objectively and hate what they see. They recognize that they have changed so much as a result of their partner's addiction, that they no longer want to have anything more to do with it—the addiction or the recovery.

Unrealistic Goals

It is unrealistic for a person in recovery to expect to eliminate the foundation of their addiction without putting forth a committed effort to change. By equating health to 'not acting out', they can often experience temporary success through willpower alone. But the emotions involved in producing this willpower will eventually settle. When they do, they will not be enough to manage future urges. Expecting any other outcome is to welcome failure into the recovery process.

It is unrealistic to expect that patterns that have existed for years (and decades in many cases) will suddenly end because the person now wants to end them. There are life management skills involved that will take months to develop. As these skills are being developed, they will not be capable of successfully managing every urge that comes along. Instead, there will be a diminishing intensity and frequency of these urges—and the increase in skill proficiency and experience will make them easier and easier to manage.

It is unrealistic to expect partners to heal at the same rate as those in recovery. Historically, this just isn't the case. Partners heal far slower and with more volatility than those in a healthy recovery. BOTH of you need to understand this…otherwise, frustration and disappointment will ensue.

Emotional Immaturity

One hundred percent of those with addictions have problems with being emotionally immature. That does not mean that they cannot produce the illusion of maturity, or that they cannot handle very difficult, emotionally intense situations. Many thrive in such environments. But it does mean that at their core, they lack the maturity to understand the functional role that emotions play in decision-making; they lack the maturity to understand the functional role that values play in decision-making; and they lack the structure to implement these functions into their day-to-day life.

This immaturity is not limited to addiction stimuli—it crosses into almost all life management areas and so, even with complete abstinence in place, the heath of the relationship will not be stable until emotional maturity is developed.

Emotional Volatility

That people with addictions are emotionally immature is no secret. But even in the healthiest of recoveries, there is often an increase in emotional volatility in the early recovery process. It's not hard to see why. You have a life management tool (the addiction/compulsive rituals that make up the addiction) that has been relied upon to help regulate one's emotions and then, you take that tool away. Life isn't taken away. The instability that comes with the discovery of an addiction isn't taken away. If anything, life is now more stressful…and you have removed your primary stress management tool without having developed an effective alternative. It makes sense then why emotions such as anger and sadness spike in early recovery. Or why some people completely shut down their emotions.

Learned Helplessness

Sadly, this is one obstacle to a couple's health that is actually being perpetuated by the recovery community. Any notion that addiction is a lifelong disease; that an individual is destined to manage this disease 'one day at a time'; or that they are powerless to manage it on their own is perpetuating 'learned helplessness'. It is the idea that, since no one expects me to overcome my addiction, and since I haven't yet succeeded in overcoming it…that I will never succeed. And it is nonsense.

That nobody has really been able to lay out a path for consistent success in overcoming addiction is not the same as being unable to overcome addiction. For as long as you hold on to the notion that recovery may not even be possible, you are keeping yourself from fully committing yourself to recovery and thus, facilitating failure.

Extent of Damage

For some relationships, the extent of the damage is just too great to overcome. There is very little that can be done about this, other than to painfully accept it as a consequence of the addiction and move on.

All or Nothing

In a couple's recovery, this principle is most commonly seen when the person attaches his own recovery to the reconciliation of the relationship. His motivation is directly tied to the state of that relationship. From the partner's side, this principle is most commonly seen in the overreaction to some poor decision, lack of interest and/or shortcoming witnessed within their partner's recovery.

Immediate gratification

One of the more important hurdles for the person in recovery to clear will be their 'need' to be forgiven and/or offered a 'second chance'. It will be very hard for them to look ahead to months of work and see the potential benefits as a motivator in the here-and-now. Instead, they seek the guarantee that if they invest this time and effort, they will have something to show for it in the end. This is where emotional immaturity rears its ugliest head…in the arena of immediate gratification.

Sexual pressure

Because of the hyper-sexualized lives lived by many sexual addicts (but not all), another common obstacle to a couple's recovery is the inherent pressure for sex and/or the constant sexualization of the environment. Unwanted sexual touches, sexual jokes, sexual conversations, sexual preoccupation: these all combine to create a cumulative effect on each person in the relationship. To the addict, the stimulation is processed as positive; to the partner, it is negative.

Special Section: Partners

Until now, the obstacles identified are fairly common and easy to identify and manage. These next two are directly related to the experience of the partner in healing and have the potential to be misunderstood and/or misapplied. They are not universal, nor are they even common. But, they are significant enough to be aware of and recognize as a serious threat to couple's healing.


As a recovery coach, if I ever wanted to raise the hair on the back of a partner's neck, all I would need to say is this, "You are being irrational." Venom would likely spew directly from the computer monitor. The screams would likely be heard from miles around. Understand this: there is almost nothing that can be experienced in the early wake of the discovery that would be considered 'irrational'. When dealing with severe trauma — which this is upon a relationship — there is no manual that exists to tell the discovering partner how to feel. How to act. What is 'normal'. There is no normal — sort of. And so, in terms of defining 'irrationality' as an obstacle, we are not talking about the volatile emotions that exist in the months following the discovery. We are talking instead about lingering volatility that exists long after stability has been achieved. Long after recovery has taken root.

When those same individuals can't function a year or so beyond the discovery (and healthy transition by their partner); when their thoughts have become so obsessed/intensified in relation to the initial discovery of their partner's addiction that they can no longer manage their lives; when their ongoing actions related to Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder (PTSD) are having a destructive effect on their own lives; when they feel helpless to change, powerless to change—even though they want to change; that is what would be classified as irrational. That is when the partner's issues become more destructive than the person who has engaged in the sexually compulsive behavior.

But again, it is not the symptoms themselves that dictate such classification: it is the context that they play in life management that is important. A normal, healthy response to severe trauma would be a period of utter devastation and emotional collapse that typically lasts three to six months. Longer if the deception or behavior from the partner is ongoing. But human beings by nature are highly adaptable and so, after this devastation…they begin to adapt. Hopefully, this adaptation involves a recognition of those values that have been damaged, repairing those values and strengthening the boundaries that protect them (for starters). But for some, they can't make this switch on their own. They get mired in their own trauma and it takes on a life of its own—further damaging their value system. As a guide, it wouldn't be a stretch to double the amount of time that is typically required to reach this state before considering it a significant problem. If partner's are still struggling—to the point of relationship paralysis—a year after the end of this trauma, then it needs to be addressed. For the partner's sake.

It might be easier to envision this by depersonalizing the situation. Rather than the trauma experienced through the discovery of your partner's behavior; consider the trauma experienced by a Vietnam veteran. Depending on the amount of time they were directly exposed to the threat of sudden death and the intensity of what they experienced, the trauma they endured had lasting effects on their ability to manage their lives. Most adjusted. Most experienced that trauma by experiencing the pain, the disillusionment, the destroyed foundation of what they once believed to be their life. It was indeed a traumatic experience not only while they were in Nam, but on their return to 'normalcy'. The fundamentals of their live had changed and thus, 'normal' no longer existed. But, that didn't remove them of the responsibility to adapt to their new life. Those that did, went on to live potentially meaningful and fulfilling lives. Those that didn't destroyed those lives (through addiction, isolation, emotional paralysis, etc.). The point is, while symptoms of trauma are to be expected — at some point, the individual must recognize the need to adapt or face their own destruction. A man still struggling with occasional flashbacks several years after they have returned home from war, but having otherwise moved on to rebuild a healthy, fulfilling life is reasonable. A man at that same point living in complete isolation, in constant fear of death…that is irrational. Yes, there is a rational connection that can be made from those symptoms to the trauma of war; but at some point, it no longer becomes an issue of 'the war'; it becomes an issue of that man's ability to adapt to their experiences within that war.

When Partners Become the Biggest Obstacle to Recovery

In this obstacle, the dynamics are as follows:

  • The discovery of the addiction is experienced.
  • The partner of the addict is traumatized by the discovery.
  • The person being discovered makes a sincere effort change the fundamentals of their life.
  • Real change is experienced by that person (and witnessed by their partner) several months into recovery.
  • The person in recovery detaches himself from that addictive identity and begin to manage their life with sincerity and openness.
  • The partner of this person continues to struggle with emotional volatility, rumination, mistrust, sexual apprehension, etc., and these struggles creating an obstruction to further recovery progress — both for the individual and the couple.

In such a dynamic, it is no longer the selfishness/immaturity of the person with the addiction that is the greatest obstacle to recovery; it is the partner's ongoing emotional struggles. Unlike the irrationality obstacle described above, this one is quite rational. It is based on the need for partner's to delay their own healing process within a relationship. For example, one need that partner's have in healing is to understand the extent of the problem. This can only be achieved through their partner's willingness to be honest and open about what they have done. For the great majority of people in early recovery, the maturity just doesn't exist to put their partner's healing needs above their own needs for self-preservation and so, they maintain whatever deceptions they can. "This was the only time, I swear." "All we did was engage in oral sex; we didn't have actual sex and besides, I didn't even like it." "On our kid's lives, I don't know how that got on my computer." The lies are shared with such sincerity that to tell the truth from deception is nearly impossible. And in some cases, absolutely impossible. This means that, while a person is in early recovery, the partner has only cautious access to the truth. They have only cautious access to the information that they need to heal certain parts of the trauma.

Jump ahead several months to a point where the person in recovery has established a healthy foundation and is working efficiently from that foundation. They have detached themselves from their addiction and can start to see it in their rear-view mirror as they pull farther and farther away. That is, until their partners force them to turn the car around and head back into that world. Without their partner pulling them back into this addictive world, they would continue on a fairly straight and healthy path. But understand, the partner's need to heal is NOT an obstacle to their own health or the health of the relationship. It is a need for both. It is only an obstacle to their partner's recovery.

And so, when considering that at some point, it will be the healing partner's needs that will become a bigger obstacle to recovery than the person in recovery; it must also be recognized that this healing is a necessity for the couple. It is not the partner that needs to 'move on' as is the common plea of those in recovery; it is the person in recovery that needs to refine their empathy and compassion and sacrifice on the part of their partner's needs. It is the person in recovery who must now sacrifice comfort and stability for the sake of their partner — but do so in a manner that will not jeopardize their healthy identity.

Exercise Six

Intimacy Activity: Hidden Meanings

Purpose: to reinforce how simple it is to expand the ways that you can communicate your feelings to your loved ones; to strengthen empathy/perception/anticipation skills

Rules: In whatever forms you choose (writing them out, recording them on your answering machine, etc.), hide ten compliments/meaningful thoughts for your partner in places you anticipate them accessing over the next week.

At the end of the week, share how many of these compliments were found by each of you. Share also your most creative hiding spot and/or delivery form. For example, "Christy found all ten that I hid for her. I found seven that she hid for me. The most creative was when she used soap on the mirror to write a message telling me she loved me...and I couldn't see it until I got out of the shower and the steam highlighted her words."

To date, this is one of the more creative: (note the 'I love you' mowed into the lawn!)


(image provided by Team Forgiveness during the Couple's Intimacy Challenge)

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