Addiction is a cunning and insidious enemy. It is no respecter of persons. Once it takes hold, it does not care who it hurts. And like a virus seeking to take hold of its victim, the disease of addiction will systematically destroy every healthy and meaningful relationship in the addict’s life until, eventually, nothing remains but the addict and their addiction – unless something is done to stop the downward spiral and reverse the damage. This article examines the impact of addiction on relationships and explores the role of trust and accountability in early recovery.
Relationships, Addiction, and Recovery
For all the casualties that the disease of addiction inflicts, the first and most destructive are the harms that the addiction causes to one’s relationships. Studies show that both the emergence of substance use disorder (SUD) and the likelihood of relapse are strongly associated with dysfunction in one’s personal relationships (1, 2, 3). If addiction has touched your life, you certainly don’t need research studies to tell you how the disease erodes even the most important relationships in your life, erecting walls of mistrust, resentment, guilt, and shame between you and the people you love.
However, there is hope, because while the loss of healthy relationships is often both the first significant symptom of addiction and a potent catalyst for the progression of the disease, the restoration of healthy relationships can be an equally powerful tool for recovery. Indeed, studies show that it is frequently the intervention of a beloved friend or close relative, often a sibling, that motivates those with SUD to seek treatment and to remain in recovery (1, 4, 5, 6, 7). However, rehabilitating relationships that have been damaged due to addiction doesn’t just happen overnight. It takes time to rebuild trust and accountability and release shame and resentment.
One of the most pernicious–and lethal–aspects of the disease of addiction is how it shifts both the way you see yourself and the way that others see you. In the process, it changes the nature of your relationships.
Even among those who understand the disease of addiction, those who intellectually and emotionally appreciate the physiological and psychological roots of the disorder, relationship ties can easily become strained and bonds of trust readily severed. Addiction, by its nature, is progressive, systematically decimating the individual’s ability to function normally. But it is also a disease that feeds on secrecy and silence, a reality that is only amplified by the stigma so often attached to it. The more the disease escalates and you try to hide it; the more the lies mount, the disappointments pile up, the pain loved ones experience intensifies, and trust evaporates.
This is the trajectory of SUD, and it’s one that is all too familiar to those who have been touched by addiction. Reversing the course of the disease begins with confronting–and repudiating–the stigma and with cultivating, and living up to, a new identity, a sober self-concept based on trust and accountability (1, 2, 3, 7, 8. 13). Indeed, studies such as that of Johansen et al. (11) found that the formation of a positive self-identity distinct from the addiction identity is instrumental to recovery, particularly when that identity is rooted in a sense of usefulness, empowerment, self-efficacy, and personal responsibility and trustworthiness. Similarly, Stokes et al. (12) have found that the construction of positive self-narratives helps to break the dysfunctional social dynamics borne of addiction, helping to rehabilitate addiction-damaged relationships through the gradual restoration of trust and accountability.
Practical Strategies for Rebuilding Trust and Accountability
There’s practically no disputing that your personal relationships can play a make-or-break role in your recovery, especially in the early stages, when you are just beginning to develop the skills you need to live a life free of dependency (1, 12, 14, 15) But when your relationships have been damaged by addiction, you can’t just command your loved ones to trust you again now that you’re in recovery, nor can you claim that you have determined to hold yourself accountable for past and present actions without putting those words into action.
Acknowledge and Make Amends
If you are working the 12 Steps of Alcoholic Anonymous, then you are probably already quite familiar with the important requirement that you make amends to those you have hurt while in the thralls of addiction. Even if you are pursuing a different path to recovery, it is still imperative that you acknowledge the pain that those around you have suffered as a result of your addiction. Having open, honest, and ongoing conversations with your friends and loved ones about their experiences and emotions in the face of your illness and recovery is the first step in rebuilding trust and accountability. This, though, will require you to listen actively and without judgment or defensiveness.
If you’ve experienced addiction, then you know that the hallmark of your disease is secrecy. After all, secrecy is what allows you to be alone with your addiction; it’s what allows your disease to flourish–for a while. But your friends and loved ones have also learned what secrecy means in the context of addiction, and they know that it is nothing good.
So to rebuild trust, you’re going to need to embrace transparency, especially at the beginning. Remember that those around you are in the process of healing as well. And that means that, while they are learning to trust, they will also need to verify, probably a lot, especially at first. Your first instinct may be to recoil from this seeming invasion of privacy. After all, you have probably spent your entire addiction in hiding. That is precisely why you must resist that impulse, especially with those closest to you, such as your spouse or adult children.
Be prepared to account for yourself. Be an open book. Allow your spouse to see your phone, to have access to your email and your digital devices. Let them see the bank statements. Above all, be where you say you will be, do what you say you will do, and let them see it all. The more you demonstrate your trustworthiness through not just words but actions, the more rapidly you will regain the trust you lost before sobriety.
We are all human. We all make mistakes. And no one but ourselves is responsible for those mistakes, past, present, and future, So a part of rebuilding relationships is to take accountability for your actions and their consequences, without making excuses, without placing blame, and without minimizing or invalidating the issue. As difficult as this can be, it’s also tremendously healing, both for your relationships and for your own spirit. Because once you take responsibility for your own life, you also, inevitably, discover your own power.
Taking responsibility also means having the courage to own up when you fall short. None of us are saints. You’re going to flub up. That’s life. But facing mistakes without evasion or deflection, showing that you can confront your shortcomings and course-correct without using your mistakes as an excuse to flee to the familiar, self-destructive path of addiction, is how you prove not only to otters but also to yourself that you do, indeed, have the strength and the skills to be accountable for your life.
When you are in early recovery and you are just beginning to repair the relationships damaged by your addiction, it may not always be easy to find people to be accountable to. Certainly, a top priority will be to begin rebuilding trust and accountability into your most intimate relationships, such as the ones with your spouse, your children, your siblings, and your parents. But even before this happens, you may need to find someone outside of your immediate circle to whom you can be accountable. This may be a sponsor, an addiction counselor, or some other trained specialist who will have the tools needed to consistently and productively hold you responsible for the choices you make and the consequences you create in your new life of sobriety. In this way, your sponsor will guide you through the process of developing and practicing accountability in your new sober identity.
How Bayshore Can Help
The road to recovery is a long one, and every path to sobriety is unique. At Bayshore, we offer individualized care that treats the whole person, not just the disease. Through that holistic approach, we excel in developing treatment strategies that prioritize your overall quality of life while in recovery, an integral component of which is the restoration of healthy relationships built on trust and accountability. Our multidisciplinary team of experts can help you develop the skills you need to establish a healthy, happy, high-functioning sober identity. If you are battling addiction, please contact us today to explore how Bayshore can help you rebuild the life and loving relationships you want and deserve.