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Do 12 Step Programs Cause Divorce?

No two marriages are the same. Therefore, it is hard to predict how addiction and recovery are likely to affect a specific union.

However, some general rules of the thumb do apply. Addiction does not benefit healthy human relationships, romantic or otherwise. It brings out the more manipulative and self-centered sides in most people’s personalities. Therefore, all things being equal, recovery from addiction should benefit most romantic relationships.

How Recovery Can Challenge Some Marriages

However, life is not that simple. Some marriages are built around the addiction in various ways. In some cases, both parties suffer from addiction and their interaction is built around it.

In other cases, in a relationship between an addict and a non-addict unhealthy patterns of dependence can emerge. Perhaps the addicted side needs a lot of care and support, and the relationship grows around that dynamic.

The hard truth is that recovery can and probably alter the basic ways relationships operate. It may be difficult for the parties to adjust. It may be more of an adjustment when one’s spouse is undergoing recovery.

The 12-step program is designed to sustain a complete spiritual overhaul in the lifestyle of the addict. When a significant other shows substantial personality change, partners may feel threatened or as if they are losing the person they love.

The Problem of Co-Dependency

By definition, an addict is a person with unhealthy emotional tendencies. While addicts can enjoy loving and mutually beneficial relationships, they are usually quite problematic nonetheless.

One of the main problems that emerge in these types of relationships is co-dependency. Addicts often rely on their spouses to take care of them physically and emotionally. Sometimes by doing so, they enable the addiction of their spouses. This means that through seemingly supportive behavior, they can make the unhealthy lifestyle of their addicted partner possible.

Some have criticized the term ‘co-dependency’ and its use in 12-step programs. They say that the idea is to blame the victims of the addict’s behavior for the destructive behavior of the addict. However, this misses the point. There is no question that the people in an addict’s life are co-dependent largely because the addict placed them in that position. That does not change the fact that in the process, their behavior has become part of the problem.

This is an unhealthy situation for everyone involved. However, untangling the relationship and setting it on a more productive path can be difficult. It requires both parties to find new and healthier outlets for their emotional needs.

Personal Growth

Change can threaten relationships. It makes sense when you think about it. Two people fall in love based on their perception of another individual and their characteristics. Anything which changes the other person in a visible and consequential manner, can therefore substantially alter the relationship.

Change can also breed insecurity in a partner. We all spend a great deal of time and effort trying to show our strength and independence. However, even small changes can make us question ourselves and our role in other people’s lives.

When our spouse is successful at something, we are very happy for them. However, quite often we also have a nagging feeling that perhaps if they are too successful, they will not need us anymore. This can happen when our significant other gets a promotion at work, gets into good physical shape, or even when they begin to successfully recover from addiction.

However, in most cases, these positive changes do not break up marriages. People who truly love each other, often learn how to grow together. Often all it takes is some reassurance from both parties that despite the changes, they remain committed to each other.

How Recovery Can Strengthen a Relationship

As we have seen, any change can destabilize a relationship, even a solid marriage. That includes recovery from addiction. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that most of the changes resulting from 12-step programs are likely to benefit an existing marriage.

These programs encourage deep spiritual growth. It encourages members to move away from selfish and self-serving behavior, and towards a more altruistic lifestyle geared towards fulfilling the needs of others. It also encourages honest interactions with other individuals, including romantic partners.

Another very helpful element in the program is the concept of moral inventory. In the 12-step program, the addict looks at their previous behavior in life and tries to clean up the wreckage they have left behind. They then incorporate this concept into their daily lives. This encourages addicts to take responsibility for their misdeeds immediately and unreservedly.

The road to spiritual growth is long and treacherous. However, the kind of growth a 12-step program aims for is likely to lead to more honesty, accountability, and intimacy in the marriage.

Recovering Together

The bottom line is that recovery can threaten the existence of some marriages. However, many of the marriages most threatened are built on unhealthy tendencies and circumstances. If they cannot adapt to the realities of recovery, there is a good chance they are not beneficial to the partners, and both parties would be better served by moving on.

Remember, not every relationship is good for the people involved. If a marriage fares better in addiction than recovery, that is a bad sign. It may mean that too much damage was done to the marriage during the dark days of addiction for it to recover. Or it may main that the relationship is deeply unhealthy for other reasons.

However, in most cases, recovery is likely to save marriages rather than put them in danger. The addictive mindset is not conducive to trust and intimacy with others. Most marriages involving addiction have probably been harmed by it, and in many cases, they are deeply troubled and threatened.

In marriages with that dynamic, it is highly likely that, following a period of adjustment, recovery will help couples establish new levels of emotional intimacy and trust.

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