Relapse is not uncommon among people with substance addictions. Many people who struggle with drugs or alcohol will experience more than one slip-up before eventually achieving a successful, long-term recovery. Research shows, in fact, that between 40 and 60 percent of people treated for addiction relapse during their first year.
Such realities can be cold comfort for a spouse who may have earnestly supported your recovery and thrown their all into helping you achieve sobriety— only to learn you’ve relapsed.
Regardless of what the hard facts may suggest about your addiction— (that like other chronic diseases it can entail relapse)— your spouse will likely experience feelings of betrayal and distrust when they learn you’ve slipped up.
Without trust, they may even question whether to stay in the marriage.
7 Essential steps for rebuilding marital trust
How, then, do you repair your spouse’s trust in the aftermath of a relapse? The first thing you need to know is that rebuilding trust is a process, one that requires patience and hard work.
In most cases, a relapse involved an accumulation of hurts and betrayals, lies and uncertainties, that gradually over time eroded your partner’s trust. (In other words, rarely is relapse just one traumatic event that impacted your partner.)
You, therefore, can’t expect to regain your spouse’s trust overnight; but, by taking these next seven steps, you can make strides in restoring and strengthening your spouse’s capacity to believe in you and your relationship:
1. Be honest with each other
Establish whether you and your spouse are ready to be honest. Just because you may have turned a new leaf, by coming clean about your relapse and starting over in your recovery, there may be old hurts or betrayals that need addressing.
In order for you to have a productive conversation, you and your spouse need to be willing to be open, honest and vulnerable about your feelings in relation to your relationship and relationship history.
2. Take responsibility (for what you can take responsibility for)
You need to take responsibility for what has happened. This requires both honesty and humility in admitting that what you did was wrong and that you are seeking your spouse’s forgiveness.
This is not the time to play the victim or make excuses about your behavior. Accepting responsibility for your choices and actions as they contributed to the relapse is a critical step in rebuilding your spouse’s trust.
This may also be a good time to acknowledge that your decision to drink or use drugs again did not show respect to your spouse— and to say sorry and ask for forgiveness.
3. Ask your spouse what they need from you
The injured partner in the relationship needs to be able to set the tone and expectations for next steps moving forward— assuming you both agree that you want to move forward together. One of the best things you can do to rebuild your spouse’s trust, then, is to ask them what they need from you. For example, they may want to:
- Articulate some new boundaries in your relationship
- Clarify their expectations of you
- Revisit your relapse prevention plan with a view to ensuring they’re part of it (if they weren’t before)
4. Reassure your spouse you hear them
Reassure your spouse that you’ve heard them, understand their requests and will do your best to honor those requests.
One of the ways you can reassure your spouse that you’re listening to them and respect their wishes is to repeat back to them what you’ve heard, asking them if you’ve heard them correctly. If the requests that your spouse makes are within your power to fulfill, you can also reassure your spouse that moving forward you will honor these requests.
5. Demonstrate by your actions that you will keep up your promises
Demonstrate by your actions and behaviors that you’re serious about honoring your end of the commitment moving forward. This may seem like a no brainer but remains worth mentioning.
Actions do often speak louder than words— maybe most especially in this department of rebuilding broken trust.
Do what you need to do in order to keep your word. This may mean, for example, encouraging positive connections with your spouse on a regular basis.
It also may mean finding a close accountability partner and attending a weekly 12-step group. Leaning into your own support network can help you keep doing the next right thing in relation to your recovery and your marriage.
6. Keep open lines of communication
Good communication is one of the best ways to insulate your relationship from the secrets and dynamics of mistrust that addiction breeds. Ultimately, regular and honest communication isn’t just good for your relationship: it’s good for your recovery, so make it a priority.
Remember that healthy communication can be taught. If you and your spouse are having trouble communicating with each other in positive and constructive ways, consider seeing a licensed marriage and family therapist who can facilitate your interactions and give you some helpful communication tools.
How going to rehab can rebuild your spouse’s trust
In addition to the above steps, sometimes going to rehab (whether it’s for the first time or the third, fourth or fifth time) can be the very best way to rebuild a spouse’s trust in the aftermath of recurring addiction.
A case in point, among many: a man who I worked with who had a drinking problem. He had been married for thirty years. All those years, he had continued to drink, and his drinking had only gotten more and more out of hand.
Meanwhile, this man’s wife had stayed with him, enduring his anger, the financial fallout and even the physical abuse. As a result, she had become a doormat and he— an angry, depressed man.
In the end, the man’s decision to enter treatment for alcoholism allowed his wife time away from him, and gave them both the opportunity to step back and assess their situation. During that period of separation, they both sought individual counseling, which was followed by couple’s counseling.
During this time, he had to demonstrate the changes he was willing to make, and she, too, had to learn to set healthier boundaries and meet her own needs. When he was finally sober long enough, had begun receiving treatment for underlying depression, and had learned new coping skills, he woke up to the twofold realization that his wife was the most important person in the world to him, and that he was terrified she might leave him.
Through a long-term process, he was able to earn back her trust, and they were able to find healing and stay together.
The lesson: Even after years of eroded trust, it’s possible to renew the marital bonds of trust that hold you together.