Intimacy in The Recovery Process


By Alan Brandis, Ph.D.

The most common complaints of recovering people concern their close relationships. Those who don't have one are lonely and wish that they had someone to share their life with. Those who are in a close relationship often feel that there is something lacking in it.

Hundreds of recovering people stay sober, become honest with themselves and others, make amends, and live within spiritual principles. Yet many of them are not able to have full, satisfying, close relationships. Marriages break up, families split - or worse, they stay together, living side-by-side without really connecting with each other.

This happens because recovery from addiction is necessarily a selfish thing. At first, the newly sober person is flooded with new feelings and sensations, and has a terrible time keeping them from overwhelming him. Guilt and shame over his past behavior make it difficult to let anyone get too close. Even when sobriety is well-established this difficulty can continue to affect all of his relationships.

Intimacy . . .

Intimacy is the word that best describes the closeness that makes relationships work. Recovering people, perhaps more than any other group, need to learn how to be intimate. To achieve this, they must learn new behaviors that are the opposite of their behavior while using.

Many recovering people have trouble with relationships. First, few of us grew up in emotionally healthy families where we could learn how closeness works. Secondly, most addicts and alcoholics were busy practicing their addictions during the time in their lives when a mature type of closeness was supposed to be learned. During the worst of the addiction, the addict or alcoholic doesn't seem to care about how his behavior affects those who love and depend on him. He will do the minimum needed to keep his partner there, making sure that the partner continues taking over responsibilities and covering

up problems. Once the addict/alcoholic becomes sober, he realizes how lucky he is that his partner hasn't left him, and he is often reluctant to do anything that might change the relationship. He tends to be overly sensitive and is easily upset by anything different or unexpected.

The recovering addict's partner is also reluctant to "rock the boat," since the mere fact of sobriety seems (at first, anyway) like a dream come true. Fear of upsetting the newly-sober loved one, and perhaps jeopardizing his sobriety, looms large, which makes it difficult to speak openly about feelings and reactions.

Together, the addict/ alcoholic and the partner follow an unwritten law, which tells them not to talk about anything that might be difficult or might feel uncomfortable. Their fear keeps them from sharing with each other at a deep level. This is the same rule that they followed during the drinking and using. The price they pay is a lack of closeness and little real intimacy.

...Is Not Sex

Many of us equate intimacy with sex in the belief that an intimate relationship is, necessarily, a sexual one. The promiscuity and "sexual freedom" of recent years was caused partly by this false belief. Searching for the closeness of an intimate relationship, many people try to make it happen by having sex, before building a close relationship with the partner. This approach never works because it only creates the illusion of intimacy which soon fades, leaving the partners feeling frustrated and deprived.

Intimacy, like love and understanding, is not a thing which can be seen or measured. It is a process, something that happpens between two people, like a dance that requires the cooperation of both. Intimacy does not happen instantly (which is why sex on the first date rarely results in long-term relationships), but is the result of a series of moves made by each partner. As each move is made, acceptance of the increased closeness is sought, and without this acceptance the process comes to a screeching halt. Since a move towards closeness involves the risk of rejection, the process of intimacy usually advances slowly, as small moves are made and accepted.

... Is Vulnerability

Intimacy develops as each partner displays concern for and sensitivity towards the other. Each partner's trust in the other grows, and this allows them to open up to each other more and more. This ability to be vulnerable toward each other is the essence of intimacy. Of course, even in intimate relationships that work well, there are times of much closeness and vulnerability, and times of more distance.

... Progresses Through Layers

We can conceive of intimacy as the ongoing process of letting another person know and share more personal things about oneself. These layers of intimacy can be pictured as a series of rings.

We will call the outermost ring the public layer. It consists of information about oneself that is available to everyone: one's sex, race, clothing, the car one drives, one's weight, the sound of one's voice - anything that can be known just by observation. Anyone can know us at this layer.

The second layer is called the acquaintance layer. People whom one sees from time to time, in either causal or structured settings, will be allowed in to this layer. We have this kind of contact with people at work, at school, in a store, at the gym, at church or synagogue, or in other places which are centered on a task or a shared activity. People we know through such places will be able to know about our marital status, family size, where we live and what kind of lifestyle we have. We will probably share with them some of the high and low points of our lives, such as births, deaths, promotions, moves, and certain problems, without going into lots of details. We let people in to this layer because of a shared task or a common goal: business or study, buying or selling, pursuing a hobby, worship, or other activity.

The third layer is called the friendship layer. Deeper and more personal things are kept at this layer, and we are more selective about who we let in. More trust is neded in order to let someone in to this layer. Problems at home or at work are talked about in more detail, as well as our hopes and fears, plans for the future, and regrets about the past. At this layer of intimacy, we are more likely to let our guard down and show parts of ourself that we are not so sure about. We seek out friends because of the emotional benefits. It feels good to be with friends, because with them it is safe to be ourselves. This sense of acceptance is very important in a friendship, and without it friendship is not really possible.

... Requires Trust

The movement from acquaintances to friends requires many small steps in which one friend trusts the other enough to take a risk, and lets them in a little closer. If the other does move in a little closer, and acceptance is given, then the friendship is cemented a little more strongly. Trust always involves some risk - we don't need to trust someone who is tied up, but we shouldn't untie them until we trust them!

At this point, something must be said about the difficulty many of us have in trusting others. The ability to trust develops early in life, and depends on the parents' consistency in making the child's world safe and comforting for him. When parents have serious probles in living - depression, an addiction, marital problems, a chronic disease - their ability to respond to the child's needs, and to make the world safe for him, becomes limited. This can lead the child to be overly cautious and can prevent him from learning to trust others.

For many of us, this sense of mistrust is carried into our adult lives and makes intimacy difficult or impossible. People who cannot trust are not willing, or are too scared, to take even the small risks involved in moving towards friendship and intimacy. Some of us avoid close relationships altogether. Many of us with trust problems develop relationships which resemble intimate ones, but actually remain mostly at the acquaintance layer.

Many marriages, even some that have lasted for year, involve very little sharing or communication except what is needed to run the house or deal with the kids. Many people get involved in sexual relationships without having developed friendship and sharing first, and those relationships rarely last past the time when the sexual novelty wears off.

The friendship layer is shared with selected others because it feels good. The goal of getting together with a friend is to spend time with him. In contrast, acquaintances are seen because of the activity one shares with them. For example, if one has plans to go bowling with acquaintances, and the alley is closed, the plans might be postponed; but if the plans were made with friends, another activity would be chosen, since the real purpose of the activity is to enjoy each others' company.

The next, and most personal layer, is that of true intimacy. Only a select few people are allowed in to this layer. Our strongest feelings, our secrets, the things that make us unique, are kept here. Usually, only someone who has known us a long time will be able to share this very personal information. True intimacy is created through a series of encounters and shared feelings which bond the partners more closely as time goes on.

The last layer, the unknown, represents aspects of oneself which one keeps secret from everyone. Some of these things are not known even by oneself.

A healthy, fully-functioning person will have aspects of him- or herself at each of these five layers, and will allow fewer people in as the layers become more intimate. It is common to have many acquaintances, several friends, and only a few real intimates.

The process of becoming intimate with another person, then, consists of a movement from strangers (public layer), to associates (acquaintances), to companions (friendship), and finally to intimates (true intimacy). And it doesn't stop there. Many intimate relationships involve sharing a journey of self discovery and growth, plunging into the layer of the unknown together to shrink it.

The layers of intimacy are different for an addicted person. Notice that in the addicted person, almost no energy or attention is available to engage in friendship or true intimacy. Denial, shown by the expanded unknown, has overtaken true intimacy. Friendship has been lost to the shallow associations with acquaintances based on the addiction. The thick lines indicate the barriers to friendship and intimacy which are caused by the expansion of denial and addicted activities.

In recovery, both the addict and his non-addicted partner usually suffer from the same delusion: that their problems are all due to the practice of the addiction, and will vanish once the addicted behavior is stopped. They are in for a rude awakening.

Emotional and relationship problems which were caused by the addiction, as well as those which were there before, always become more pronounced once the recovery process begins. This is because the addicted behavior is no longer providing a smokescreen to hide the problems .

The addict resents the meddling, controlling and manipulation that the partner committed over the years, and the partner resents the irresponsibility, withdrawal, violence (emotional or physical) and deceptions of the addict. However, when they try to discuss these issues things get worse, not better. Both have impaired their ability to be intimate, and consequently the skill of listening openly to feedback, sharing deep feelings, and unconditional acceptance of the partner have been lost (or were never there to begin with). For true intimacy to begin, many barriers must he removed.

... Can Be Relearned

One of the most important functions of a support group, whether it is a therapy group in a hospital or clinic, the other recovering people in an Anonymous meeting, or kind and understanding friends, is that here the process of allowing others in can be learned or relearned. The support group is, first of all, a safe place in which one feels understood like nowhere else, since everyone there has had similar feelings and experiences. It is much easier to trust these relative strangers than it is to trust the loved one, who seems to have hurt us so often.

At first, the recovering person may seek justification for his negative feelings and reactions. As his feelings are really listened to, understood, and empathized with, a transformation slowly takes place. Resentments are channeled and resolved using the therapy sessions and the 12-Step process, which provides a specific, structured way to overcome anger, fear, and other negative emotions.

As the recovering person is able to allow members of his support group to get c1oser, the friend ship layer is expanded. The safety of the support group makes this possible. Once the recovery process is safely under way, the recovering person begins to shift his social life away from addictive pursuits and towards recovery-oriented activities. The expansion of the friendship layer proceeds, and it is strengthened.

The depth and intensity of psychotherapy helps to expand the layer of true intimacy (as does the writing and sharing of a 4th Step inventory). Not only does the intense personal sharing help to break down the barrier to intimacy, but both therapy and the 12-Step work help to reduce denial and thus shrink the layer of the unknown.

As both recovering partners engage themselves in the process of opening up, becoming more vulnerable and discovering things about themselves that they had been in denial about, the layer of true intimacy becomes available again. It is only after the recovery of both partners is solidly underway that it is safe for them to attempt true intimacy with each other. They must have cleared away some of their resentments, gained self- acceptance through participation in their support group, and rediscovered aspects of themselves that they had kept hidden.

When recovery is working for both partners, it may seem as if they are getting to know each other all over again. In recovery, they are actually different people than they were during the worst of the addiction, and they are changing rapidly. The sharing of this journey will probably be the surprise of their lives, because intimacy with one's chosen partner in recovery is more intense and fulfilling than was ever expected.