Couple's Recovery Workshop

(P) Understanding Your Partner's Needs

The challenge in developing an understanding of your partner's early recovery needs is that many of these needs — especially in extreme addiction recovery — do not promote health, accountability, responsibility and/or independence. They seem to be almost counter-productive. Looking beyond their deception? Holding back your rage? Your pain? Suspending the need for details? For accountability? For responsibility? It has been the absence of such barometers that have led to the severity of the identity distortion. So why then, would you hold them back now?

That's a fair question. Especially given the logic that, if you are dealing with an adult, you treat them as an adult. If you want them to develop responsibility, you hold them responsible. If you want them to express empathy, regret, compassion, etc., you share your pain with them. You want them to be honest; you demand honesty. To the healthy person, these aren't difficult skills to engage in. But to the addict in early recovery, they are as foreign as expecting them to play the piano because they know what a piano sounds like. The concepts are meaningless without a value system to place their context into. And while your partner does have a value system established — it is based primarily on selfishness, immediate gratification and self-preservation. It is this value system that needs to change before a healthy integration of more socially-amenable values can be absorbed.

What does this mean for you? It means that, for the time being, you will facilitate your healing as a couple by seeing your partner as you would someone who has been stranded on a desert island for the past ten years. In that time, their entire value system has been rebuilt to sustain survival. Their digestive system has adapted to the island nourishment. How they perceive the world around them has been altered. For so long, they have come to meet their needs in secrecy and isolation. The way they go about their day-to-day life has become ingrained into what they perceive as 'normal'. And then, they are rescued. Expected to reintegrate into society. After eating nothing but small rations of vegetation and fish for ten years, would you take them to an all-you-can-eat pizza and pasta buffet? Offer them a dish of Indian curry? Wash it all down with a pint of ale? Of course not. They cannot process those foods so early in their return and to force them to because 'that is what normal people eat/drink' would be a grave mistake. Instead, you would likely offer small meals of blander food/drink, gradually progressing to the extremes.

Your partner — with how deeply ingrained their warped perceptions are — has existed on an emotional island for a long, long time. He has met the majority of his emotional needs through isolation and secrecy. His lies have protected this ability. His lies have further isolated him from 'what is normal'. He is now being forced to re-integrate into a healthy relationship (through the threat of losing that relationship). Sure, he can give it up; just as the castaway could choose not to be rescued. But that would be rare. Instead, the social discovery of this addiction was his 'rescue'. It has provided him with a path back to normalcy, social fulfillment and social intimacy.

So how best to integrate him into a healthy relationship? Force him into the most extreme emotional situations imaginable? Force him into openly experiencing shame? Guilt? Chastise him for how he has been meeting his emotional needs for most of his life? Degrade him for things he did under the delusion that he was acting in secrecy? Crucify him for being selfish, when selfish is all he has ever known? Of course not. Individuals this early in recovery have neither the maturity nor the skill to effectively manage such scenarios.

"But that is so unfair"

Yes, it is unfair. They threaten your emotional stability. Force you to re-evaluate your identity. They choose to engage in selfish, immoral acts. They choose to lie about those acts because they know they are wrong. They intentionally place your future and in some cases your life in jeopardy. And now you are being asked to consider THEIR FEELINGS in moving forward?! Is the rape victim asked to consider the rapist's mindset? No. Is the widow asked to consider the feelings of the drunk driver that took her husband's life? No. Is the boy who was molested asked to consider the fact that the person who molested them, themselves was once molested? No. So why then are you being asked to consider your partner's reality now?

Because he is your partner and your goal is to build a partnership.

You have chosen to heal from this trauma together and so, that requires you to look beyond your best short-term interest; but to act in the best interest of your partnership (and incidentally, your best long-term interests) — always. Does this approach come with risk? Absolutely it does. Sort of. Your partner might indeed be manipulating you. Your partner might be intentionally hiding behind their addiction and/or using 'immaturity' and 'ignorance' as a means of minimizing responsibility for their actions. Your partner might be using 'emotional immaturity' as a buffer to dictate the pace of communication or to justify further acting out. Your partner may be intentionally keeping you in the shadows because they haven't made up their mind yet as to what they want. All of these are potential risks you take in putting the partnership first. Where the 'sort of' comes in is that, you really have nothing to lose. There is no need to fear any of this. Why? Because you cannot make this partnership work on your own. It will take you both, consciously and vulnerably committed to each other, to heal. If your partner is actively seeking out such buffers, such justifications...the relationship is over anyway. This truth will come out. So don't fear that your partner may be 'getting away with something' by being afforded the opportunity to redevelop his emotional maturity and life management skills in a safe, calculated environment. Don't worry that he 'should have' learned most of what he is learning a long time ago. Just support his efforts now. Well, his sincere efforts. Well, what you perceive to be his sincere efforts. It is the ONLY approach you can take that facilitates the healing of your partnership.

"So what do I need to know about his recovery needs?"


First, realize that concepts such as emotional immaturity, egocentrism and warped perceptions aren't just descriptions of symptoms. They aren't just consequences of the addiction. They are also the cause and the perpetuators of that addiction. They are as deeply ingrained into your partner's identity as your level of maturity, compassion and perceptions are ingrained into yours. In other words, until they consciously examine these things in the context of their own life, they will have little idea of just how distorted their life has become. To them, the way they see you, their addiction, their marriage, their career, etc., it just 'is'. So, their first need is time. Time to develop insight, to learn skills, to evolve those skills. Time to apply what they are learning, to make mistakes in that application, and then to reapply. Time to mature. Time for their identity to shift from 'addict' to 'person in recovery' to 'healthy person'.


Your partner needs you to support him in his sincere efforts. This is like a child learning to swim. He needs encouragement, not pressure. He needs to feel safe to venture further and further into the deep end of the pool. If he isn't sincere, he will rebuff your support. Keep you at a distance. But the sincere person in recovery will welcome your interest, your compassion and your encouragement.


It might seem strange to think of joy emanating from addiction recovery but it is not only possible, but quite healthy when experienced. For most in recovery, the overwhelming guilt and shame they feel for what they have done translates into an almost fixation with wanting a commitment from you that they will get another chance (something you SHOULD NOT DO, by the way). And so, their focus will be more on projecting the illusion of a healthy recovery to you without truly investing themselves into that recovery. Experiencing joy is the perfect remedy for this. Not only does it allow you to at times separate the addiction/recovery from the person with the addiction; it also allows your partner to feel 'normal'. To feel humanized. Enough of these joyful experiences and the need for a commitment from you will be replaced by the desire to simply be with you. In the here and now.

Role Modeling

Your partner needs to see managing your life in healthy ways. He needs to see you making decisions through prioritized values, protecting your boundaries from threats, seeking out opportunities for growth. He needs to see you taking responsibility for your life. Integrating compassion, empathy, intimacy into real-life situations. He needs to see you generalize what you are learning and apply it consistently across a wide range of life events. He needs to see you make mistakes and handle those mistakes with integrity and compassion. He needs to see you respect your own sexuality. He needs to see you rebuild those parts of you that have been damaged — not with resentment, but with reverence.


Your partner will make mistakes in his transition from addiction to health. At times, he will panic. Revert back to self-preservation — even as his values are screaming to do otherwise. He will lose focus. He will continue to lean towards deception as an instinctive tool. He may even act out on occasion — though this should never be with predetermination or cover-up. When these mistakes are made and are met with understanding (as opposed to the guillotine); there are few more effective means for facilitating recovery. When your partner recognizes that you two are truly working together towards health; rather than waiting for failure — his own commitment will be that much more entrenched.


While this likely wouldn't be the first need recognized by your partner, it is never-the-less true: your partner needs to know that he will be held accountable for his actions. That what you say (within reason) is what you will do. That what he does has meaning. Has consequences. Like a child, your partner will likely test these initial limits. Enforce them with fairness and confidence. Take your emotions out of the equation and allow your partner to make the direct connection between his actions and the consequences that result. This is the best way to manage ongoing behavior.

For past behavior, accountability is achieved through recovery. That is the single best indicator of sincerity and remorse: the willingness to fundamentally change their life. This is sometimes processed by others as them 'getting off the hook'. And if the individual is allowed to pursue a passive, 'attend two support groups and call me in the morning' recovery...then there would be some validity to that perception. But not to the individual who commits themselves to a healthy recovery. For that person, recovery involves the rebuilding of lives, the recognition of boundary violations, the empathy/compassion to make amends — not because they have to as part of a program, but because they want to as a part of living a healthy life.


On rare occasions and especially with deeply ingrained addictions, a partner will fundamentally invest themselves into real change only to fall off of a cliff six months later. It was a temporary relapse. A loss of focus. Could have been triggered by complacency. Could have been triggered by an unprepared for spontaneous event. But for whatever reason, they temporarily abandoned all they have learned and returned to the comfort/familiarity of their past. In such times, this relapse will be met with utter devastation on the side of your partner. They will be confused. They will feel hopeless. They will feel helpless. They won't have the emotional reserves to process through the 'why' of what happened and they will be on the verge of giving up. On their recovery and possibly, their lives. What they need at this point is mercy. They need you, during these very rare times, to simply pardon them. To take into account all they have done in their recovery and to see this as an irrational, spontaneous anomaly. Indicative more of their past than their present.

Special Note: If you are considering implementing mercy as a coping strategy for a partner's spontaneous relapse, talk about it first with someone you trust. Contact a coach here at Recovery Nation. Contact your therapist/counselor. Don't just employ it. There are too many complications to consider and too many situations where offering mercy would be foolish. Additionally, review the advanced lesson on Showing Mercy in Stage Five of the Couple's Workshop.

Exercise 8

1) In your Couple's Thread, discuss ways that you can practically implement the insights offered in this lesson. For instance, how might you integrate joy into your relationship now, as a part of the healing process? How might you offer sincere support to your partner's efforts to change his life (as opposed to patronizing support, pressured support, etc.)?

2) Examining your current role in your partner's recovery, what mistakes have you made? Are there any you might still be making?

3) Describe the things you ARE CURRENTLY DOING to role model healthy partnership skills.

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