Relationships have many positive qualities to offer, but an unhealthy relationship can threaten a person’s well-being and recovery.

Relationships are wonderful ways to find happiness, connection, and closeness with another person. When a relationship is going well, it can add enormous amounts of comfort and security to a person’s well-being, but when the relationship is going poorly, it can become a source of stress and frustration.

Being in recovery adds another layer of complexity into the situation. Sometimes leaving the relationship can improve recovery while other times, it can make sobriety more challenging to maintain. Because of the complicated nature of leaving relationships in recovery, it is necessary to assess the relationship and determine if it’s helpful or harmful to recover.

Recognizing Healthy and Unhealthy Relationships in Recovery

People usually have no issue pointing out the problems and issues in the relationships of others. It’s easier to pinpoint red flags and signs of trouble in other people’s relationships, but it can be more difficult to recognize them in your own.

In the moment, it is difficult to display the objectivity needed to assess a relationship because there are too many strong emotions involved. To separate a healthy relationship from an unhealthy one, the person should look for the signs of a strong relationship, like:

  • Obvious respect for each other’s opinions and beliefs
  • Trust and honesty to know the person is dependable
  • A willingness to compromise and be flexible
  • Open communication to clearly state thoughts and feelings as well as good listening skills
  • Appropriate anger management and communication styles to prevent emotional situations from getting worse
  • Robust self-esteem and sense of individuality so the relationship does not define the person or who they feel

Relationships could be unhealthy from the start, or they may begin in healthy ways before sliding into dysfunction over time. In either case, unhealthy relationships in recovery should be avoided to maintain sobriety and well-being.

Some indicators of an unhealthy relationship include:

  • One person needs to control the other through threats, intimidation or manipulation
  • One person feeling like they cannot live or be happy without the other
  • Patterns of hostility, dishonesty and disrespect
  • Physical, emotional or sexual abuse
  • Infidelity through physical or emotional intimacy

Most relationships have periods of dysfunction, but if the unhealthy episodes are becoming too numerous or too intense, it could be a sign that the relationship needs to end. Codependency in relationships involving recovery is common, so it’s important to be aware of early signs of dysfunction before they get worse.

Is Codependency Keeping You Around?

Codependency and enabling are major barriers to healthy relationships, especially those involving people in recovery. Codependent relationships emerge when the partners feel the need to continue the relationship despite unhealthy patterns.

In codependency, people share the responsibility for the other person’s feelings and actions. If their partner becomes angry and breaks items around the house, the person will believe it is their fault for triggering that reaction.

A concept closely tied into codependency in recovery is enabling. With enabling, the person also takes responsibility for the other person’s actions, which inadvertently rewards the person’s unwanted behaviors. In the case of an addicted man and his codependent or enabling partner, the partner may call his work to report him sick when he is too hungover to go in. This enabling behavior leads to short-term comfort but long-term problems.

A person may be codependent if they:

  • Make extreme sacrifices to meet their partner’s needs or expectations
  • Struggle to say “no”
  • Make excuses for their partner’s problematic, dangerous or illegal behavior
  • Feel trapped and hopeless within the relationship
  • Stay silent to avoid or minimize arguments
  • Worry about feeling judged

When Repairing the Relationship is Simply Not Enough

Making the decision to walk away from a relationship can be difficult. In many situations, it can feel like all outcomes will be negative, no matter the choice.

When one or both people in the relationship have a history of substance abuse, the stakes seem higher. The person may worry:

  • What if leaving the relationship leads to relapse?
  • What if staying in the relationship leads to relapse?
  • What if I can’t find another partner?
  • What will I do without my partner?

These worries will influence a person’s judgment and encourage them not to take action. Rather than seeing the unhealthy aspects of the relationship, they may focus on repairing the relationship in recovery.

To help repair the relationship, the person may:

  • Attend counseling or relationship seminars
  • Encourage their partner to attend couples counseling
  • Read self-help and relationship books and online articles
  • Seek out helpful advice from others in challenging relationships

Of course, all of these tasks may help improve satisfaction in the relationship, but they could also result in additional codependency and enabling. Too often, people want their romantic relationships to endure at all costs, so they will suppress their own needs and feelings to maintain calm and limit conflict.

At times, though, no matter how much effort the couple puts into the relationship, there is no way to continue in a healthy manner. These relationships should end for the well-being of both parties.

Ending an unhealthy relationship is not a failure. It is a success. The only failure is choosing to stay in a relationship that damages your physical or emotional health.

Tips for Developing Healthy Relationships in Recovery

Building healthy relationships in recovery from addiction is not a simple process, but in reality, building any successful relationship is difficult. Building any relationship takes a strong balance of thinking and feeling. One has to feel a powerful emotional connection to the person while being able to identify the relationship as healthy logically for a relationship to be successful in the long-term.

Some of the most significant ways to build a healthy relationship are:

  • Be honest from the beginning. Some people fear the judgment of others, so they hide certain details of their life. This pattern usually leads to problems later on.
  • Be a good listener. Feeling valued is important in all relationships, and listening carefully to the other person will establish this.
  • Be trustworthy and respectful. Reliability and consistency may seem like boring concepts, but they show trust and respect towards the partner.
  • Be flexible, not rigid or flimsy. Being too rigid or too flimsy in relationships shows a lack of self-esteem and uncertain boundaries. Feel free to compromise and negotiate.

Perhaps the most important relationship tip is to be kind. People always appreciate kindness, and as long as the person is kind, they will probably also be respectful, honest, caring and trustworthy.

If you find that addiction or recovery are standing in the way of achieving the healthy relationship you desire, you should consider professional addiction treatment at The Recovery Village. Professional addiction treatment can help reduce use and maintain abstinence, but it can also improve relationships. Reach out to a representative today for more information. 

a woman is standing with her arms crossed.
Editor – Megan Hull
Megan Hull is a content specialist who edits, writes and ideates content to help people find recovery. Read more
a man smiling in front of a brick wall.
Medically Reviewed By – Eric Patterson, LPC
Eric Patterson is a licensed professional counselor in the Pittsburgh area who is dedicated to helping children, adults, and families meet their treatment goals. Read more
Sources “Healthy Relationships.” November 2, 2015. Accessed August 28, 2019. “Characteristics of Healthy and Unhealthy Relationships.” Accessed August 28, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.