Building Healthy Relationships in Recovery

3 min read · 5 sections
Misuse of drugs and alcohol can have a detrimental impact on relationships in every area of a person’s life. Building healthy relationships in recovery can play an important role in supporting sobriety.
What you will learn:
Understand how addiction impacts relationships
Recovery and relationships
The impact of unhealthy relationships on recovery
The importance of healthy relationships in recovery
Tips for building healthier relationships
How mutual-help groups can foster healthy relationships

How Addiction Impacts Relationships

Addiction doesn’t just impact the person who misuses substances, it can have a harmful effect on everyone in that person’s life.1

Addiction can negatively affect family relationships in many ways. For example, addiction can lead to economic hardship, legal problems, emotional distress, negative emotions, family instability and breakups, and, in some cases, violence. Parental substance use can result in the unmet developmental needs of their children or cause the children to feel an insecure attachment with their parents. 2,3 Additionally, addiction may put these children at an increased risk of developing a substance use disorder (SUD), the clinical term for addiction, themselves.2

Substance use disorders can also adversely impact a person’s social circle and relationships with friends. Conversely, having friends or peers, who use substances, can negatively impact the individual’s recovery and contribute to the cycle of addiction.4,5

Those who have substance use disorders often lack the same social supports that those without substance use disorders have. As a result, they may experience social isolation, lose friendships, or only associate with others who use drugs or alcohol.4,6

In all relationships, substance misuse and addiction can contribute to feelings of unhappiness, frequent arguments, and other conflict.1

Addiction Recovery and Relationships

Supportive relationships, however, can play a beneficial role in helping someone enter or maintain recovery. One study found a link between better family relationships and decreased substance use.4

Additionally, establishing positive social networks within the community can provide individuals in recovery with the support, acceptance, friendship, love, respect, and hope they need to sustain abstinence, improve their health and well-being, and feel more meaningfulness in their life.7

Impact Unhealthy Relationships Can Have on Recovery

Unhealthy or dysfunctional relationships, such as associating with others who use drugs or alcohol, or being isolated from others and the resulting stress this can cause, can negatively impact recovery and may contribute to the cycle of addiction.4

One study found that relapse often occurred as a result of negative psychological issues caused by family influence—such as lacking goals and hopes in life, a negative approach to family events, and difficulty recovering from failure.8

Therefore, it’s important to be able to spot unhealthy relationships so that you know when it might be time for a change. Some characteristics of an unhealthy relationship might include:9

  • Controlling behaviors.
  • Disrespect.
  • Hostility.
  • Dishonesty.
  • Co-dependence.
  • Intimidation.
  • Violence.

The Importance of Healthy Relationships in Recovery

Healthy relationships are an important part of addiction recovery because they can support a person’s efforts in achieving and maintaining abstinence, help them stick with an aftercare treatment program, and exert an overall positive social influence. In fact, individuals in recovery report that receiving help from supportive people is the most important factor in their personal recovery journey.10

A healthy relationship can also provide monitoring and feedback that may discourage unhealthy behaviors and encourage behaviors that are conducive to a person’s health.5

Additional benefits of healthy relationships in recovery can include reduced stress, an improved sense of purpose, and better personal control—all of which can encourage healthy habits, relapse reduction, and improved mental and physical health.5

Healthy relationships can also help an individual stay in recovery. One study found that individuals who participated in a social recovery network displayed higher rates of abstinence than those who just sought professional help.10

Therefore, it can be beneficial to seek out healthy relationships in recovery. Some of the characteristics of a healthy relationship include:9

  • Mutual respect.
  • Trust.
  • Honesty.
  • Support for individuality.
  • Open and honest communication.
  • Anger management.
  • Fighting fair.
  • The ability to solve problems together.
  • An understanding of each other’s feelings.
  • Self-confidence.

Tips for Building Healthy Relationships in Recovery

Building healthy relationships doesn’t always come easily. There are, however, steps you can take to help foster positive, supportive relationships in recovery, including:3,4,9

  • Taking responsibility for your actions and apologizing for past wrongs.
  • Seeking relationships that involve honesty and avoiding lying or cheating.
  • Developing healthy boundaries, which includes being assertive about your needs and saying no to people, behaviors, or things that don’t serve you in recovery.
  • Disengaging from or limiting contact with people who don’t respect your sobriety.
  • Being honest and open about your feelings with people you trust.
  • Respecting the feelings and wishes of others and asking for the same in return.
  • Learning to compromise.
  • Fighting fair and taking a break when things get heated, instead of blowing up or exchanging insults.
  • Entering individual, couples, or family therapy to help you or your family work on underlying issues and repairing past damage.
  • Participating in mutual-help groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), or Cocaine Anonymous (CA).

Support Groups and Healthy Relationships

Research shows that participation in mutual-help groups like AA or NA is associated with an increased likelihood of abstinence, better psychosocial functioning, and improved feelings of self-efficacy. These groups can serve an important social function in recovery by providing community and fellowship with others, who are also in recovery.11

Mutual-help groups can promote the development of healthy relationships by: 3

  • Helping people make amends.
  • Teaching ways to avoid or minimize contact with high-risk people, places, or situations.
  • Aiding in resolving relationship issues.
  • Encouraging the development of healthy, new friendships that do not involve the use of substances.
  • Fostering the cultivation of a recovery network of sober and supportive peers.
  • Strategizing ways to avoid peer pressure.
  • Teaching people how to ask for help and support from others.

There are different support groups to suit a variety of needs, including 12-Step and non-12-Step groups.

12-Step groups like NA, CA, or AA involve working through the 12 steps of recovery with the support of the group and a sponsor. These groups emphasize the idea that addiction is a disease that can be managed but never eliminated, and there is a focus on the concept of a higher power.11

People who prefer a secular approach to recovery may be interested in non-12-Step groups, which can include groups like SMART Recovery or LifeRing, both of which do not require an acceptance of a higher power but rather focus on social-cognitive change strategies informed by cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), and motivational enhancement therapy, among others.13

Many substance use rehabs, including American Addiction Centers (AAC) offer mutual-help groups as well as family or relationship counseling to address underlying issues and help you begin the process of rebuilding or repairing relationships that have been impacted by substance use and addiction. For more information, call .

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