6 Myths About Relapse, And How They Can Hurt Relationships
Addiction and relapse cause irreparable damage to many relationships. But faulty ideas about how things—or people—“should” be are just as dangerous. Whether you’re the person in recovery from addiction or the family member with a loved one in recovery, beware the following myths about relapse. They can hurt your relationship and increase relapse risk.
MYTH #1: PEOPLE WHO RELAPSE ARE WEAK
The truth: People who “give up” drugs and then go back to them are no weaker than anyone else who struggles with a deeply ingrained habit. All habits result from doing the same thing over and over until the brain is literally programmed to automatically react in the same way to the same trigger. Addiction begins at the point where habit crosses the line into diagnosable illness, but even non-addictive habits generate “not that way” discomfort when someone attempts to do something differently.
Biological and neurological technicalities aside, the absolute worst thing to say when someone relapses (or seems about to relapse) is anything along the lines of “How could you do that?” or “You knew better than that.” All this does is convince the person with the addiction that getting clean again isn’t worth the effort because they’re too weak to stay clean anyway.
MYTH #2: PEOPLE RELAPSE OUT OF SELFISHNESS
The truth: There are many reasons why people relapse: often, they slip before they can think about it. Usually, they feel terrible about it as soon as they sober up. Laying on additional guilt by saying “I knew you didn’t really care about us” or “You just don’t want to stop” has all the negative effects of implying they’re weaklings, compounded by resentment on both sides.
MYTH #3: IT DOESN’T MATTER WHAT YOU THINK, JUST WHAT YOU DO
The truth: Fantasizing about the “good old days” of easy chemical relief is not harmless. Very few people do things they know better than to do without visualizing the imagined benefits beforehand.
Increased “I wish I could have just one drink” thoughts often manifest in relationship conflict. If you notice yourself skipping support group meetings, otherwise becoming withdrawn from others, or turning irritable and defensive (especially in situations related to personal drug-use triggers), you may be flirting with relapse. Review your relapse-prevention plan thoroughly, and make an immediate appointment with your support partner or therapist to discuss your concerns. (Remember, the less you want to talk about what you’re really thinking, the more you need to talk about it!)
MYTH #4: ANY SUBSTITUTE FOR THE PROBLEM DRUG IS A GOOD SUBSTITUTE
The truth: It’s not just in medication-assisted treatment that the solution can become a case of trading one addiction for another. Some addictions—gambling, overeating, compulsive shopping or online surfing—are non-chemical. And even healthy activities can become a problem if you use them to escape from hard discussions, apologies you owe or other confrontations of deep relationship issues
Most people who become addicted start drugs to escape the tough realities of life. Any substitute that assumes the “escape” role can be a bad substitute.
MYTH #5: RELAPSE IS INEVITABLE
The truth: Only about half of people who have detoxed from addiction will subsequently relapse. Or to put it in positive terms, half of people who detox will not relapse. Even if a 50/50 chance of relapse sounds discouraging, it’s really no worse than the chances of developing symptoms again after being treated for high blood pressure or asthma.
The best way to improve the odds is to not create a self-fulfilling prophecy by dwelling on thoughts such as “But I always fail,” or, “How can I ever trust him again?” Practice visualizing a better future instead: you can even make this a relationship-building activity, by teaming with a loved one to plan a project or make a vision-board collage.
MYTH #6: THERE’S NO RECOVERING FROM RELAPSE
The truth: Just as many people have beaten cancer more than once, many people have beaten addiction more than once. If you relapse, don’t give up. If a loved one relapses, don’t give up on them. Above all else, don’t take any more drugs and dig yourself deeper into that old hole. Get to a hospital or addiction treatment center for immediate detox. Then get your support network together for a thorough review of why you relapsed and how to keep it from happening again.
Whether or not your recovery program is 12-Step-based, Steps 8 and 9 of the classic list (“We made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all. … We made direct amends to such people whenever possible”) are worth special review after a relapse. Relapse not only hurts loved ones, it disappoints them and makes it doubly hard to rebuild trust once again. Have a long, serious talk on next steps, having a counselor advise you both on what expectations are reasonable. When managed with empathy, relapse recovery—and mutual understanding of the real facts about relapse—can help a relationship grow back stronger than ever.