Putting down drugs and alcohol is just the beginning. Jake recounts how he’s become a better husband and partner thanks to sobriety.
After a decade and a half of recovery, including lots of experience working with other recovering men, I’ve come to understand that relationships are a place where most of us struggle. I know this was true for me, and at times it still is. In recovery, I’ve had the opportunity to look at my past through a new lens, and I do my best to clean up the wreckage left behind. Much of that wreckage was scattered through the relationships I’d been part of. I’ve had to own up to a lot of things I would have liked to deny. After this experience, I can say with confidence that I know what doesn’t work! I am continuing to learn what does.
In the summer of 2017, I married the woman of my dreams on Cannon Beach in Oregon. As I watched the waves, waiting anxiously for her to arrive, I realized the only reason a brilliant, strong, and beautiful woman like my wife would ever dream of marrying a guy like me is because I’m in recovery. Everything I know about relationships—and everything I do to keep my relationship happy and healthy—I’ve learned in recovery.
Here are the four most important things I’ve learned in recovery about being a good partner:
1. How to be rigorously honest.
In recovery, you can speak your truth honestly and give up the lies.
Honesty stands as the most important thing in any relationship. Dishonesty creates a lack of trust. Distrust corrodes the bonds that allow for healthy partnerships. Trust is not always something that is inherent in relationships, especially if one partner in the relationship has experienced betrayal in the past. More often than not, trust must be built, and the way to build trust is rigorous honesty.
In recovery, I’ve made a point to stop lying. I’ve found this relatively easy to do. When I’m living a life of recovery, I rarely have a reason to hide anything.
Beyond the surface level of “not lying,” there is a more rigorous kind of honesty. It’s being open about how I feel. This openness might be about a particular component of the relationship, about something that has happened, or something ongoing. At times, I fear that being honest about something that isn’t working for me will cause the relationship to fail, or create more problems. The opposite has almost always been true. When I face my fears and am honest about how I feel, my wife and I have the opportunity to address the problem or emotion, and find a solution. Furthermore, through this kind of honesty, my wife gets to see that she is a person with whom I can be vulnerable. This has gone a long way in building a foundation of trust. That foundation supports a more stable, better relationship in recovery.
2. How to make amends.
In recovery, you can promptly admit your wrongs. And it is just a fact that you will commit wrongs sometimes! We all do. Making mistakes is part of being human.
In a healthy relationship, we get to be human. In recovery, I’ve learned to remember that relationships are made up of two parties. Both people bring a whole host of lived experiences, a spectrum of emotions, and their own ways of seeing the world. At times in the past, I’ve struggled with this idea. Sometimes it’s been difficult to see the ways in which my words, actions, or shortcomings affect others. I need to remember that just because a comment, an action, or a failure to do something wouldn’t upset me doesn’t mean it won’t impact another person.
I’ve learned to trust my wife when she tells me something I did, said, or failed to do was hurtful. Instead of arguing about why it wasn’t really hurtful, or why she should toughen up, or how she misunderstood me, I do my best to see it from her angle. When it comes to whether or not someone has been hurt, my intentions don’t matter. What matters is what the other person experienced. Impact trumps intentions. Whether or not I think my wife should be upset, I make amends for the ways I have caused harm.
Making amends is different than saying, “Sorry.” When I make amends, I give my wife space to talk about the ways in which my words or actions have been hurtful. After hearing her side, I let her know that she has been heard. Then I ask, “What can I do to make it right?” This is the difference between saying sorry and making amends. Amends involves action. So when she tells me what I can do to make it right, I proceed to do those things to the best of my ability.
3. How to show up (even when I don’t really want to).
In recovery, you can suit up and show up for people. When I was just starting down this path, the men and women I met stood by my side no matter how messy my life got. At first, it was difficult for me to understand why people were so willing to help. In my addiction, I’d been taught to look out for myself and get out of Dodge when the going got tough. What I know now is that sticking with people through the tough stuff not only helps them, but it helps me become a better man. It works my empathy muscles and shows me that I can stay clean and sober no matter what.
My experience over my years in recovery has helped me become more of a realist about relationships. Through working with people in recovery, I’ve learned that being a partner means showing up for the relationship even when it isn’t all roses and romance. Instead of running when the going gets tough, I’ve come to see that these are the moments where I need to lean in as a partner. This was a difficult practice to develop.
As I mentioned, in my addiction, I ran from pain and from struggle. My first reaction was to wrap myself in a blanket of drugs and alcohol, and hide myself away. Like the issue of honesty, an unwillingness to show up fully when my partner needs me leads to a lack of trust. One of the defining features of my marriage is the shared belief that my wife and I will show up for each other no matter what.
When I do show up, even when I don’t want to, something incredible happens. Not only does trust increase in my relationship, but my level of intimacy with my partner grows by leaps and bounds. Developing intimacy in this way allows us to grow closer. And that makes the times when things are good so much better.
4. How to really love somebody.
In recovery, you learn to love—yourself and other people.
Along with showing up for me, the people who guided me into recovery showed me how to love. In my addiction and early on in my recovery, I didn’t understand why people wanted to help me and expected nothing in return. My idea of love was transactional—you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. I believed that in order to be loved, I needed to have something to offer back. I also wasn’t willing to invest in others unless I felt I was being fairly compensated for my effort.
Early on in recovery, I read a book by psychologist M. Scott Peck called, “The Road Less Traveled,” a classic in the self-help genre. Peck defines love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” This definition of love has stuck with me, and it completely shattered the transactional idea of love I had brought with me into recovery. I learned to love first by working with other men in recovery. Working with other men, taught me to extend myself freely for the benefit of another person, expecting nothing in return. This idea has carried over into my romantic relationships. It has been crucial in creating a loving, trusting, and healthy relationship with my wife.
In my marriage, I carry with me the idea that my primary role as a husband is to nurture my wife’s spiritual growth. The hard part of this approach to love is that, at times, my wife’s spiritual growth is inconvenient for me. Perhaps she needs to spend time with other women on a Saturday night when I’d rather watch a movie together. Maybe she wants to spend money on a retreat that I’d rather spend on fly-fishing gear. She might want to stay home and get a good night’s sleep when I’d prefer to spend time with friends.
By focusing on helping her grow spiritually, it’s easier to put myself to the side for a moment and better respect and appreciate her needs. This has been key in our relationship. When we both have our spiritual needs met and are actively participating in each other’s spiritual growth, the relationship becomes a place where we want to spend our time and energy. The relationship becomes a place where we learn and grow together.