Addiction damages relationships. Whether you have children and alcohol has gotten in the way of being a parent, you’ve been less than a spouse to your partner, or you’ve manipulated others in your family – that becomes painfully evident as you move into sobriety. Addiction damages other’s trust in you. It damages your relationships to them. And, it deeply upsets family hierarchy and roles. The result can be that the family you have as you move out of recovery and into sobriety is not the family you had before addiction became an issue. That can be difficult to deal with, especially as you are likely heavily relying on family for support as you move through recovery.
Rebuilding those ties means rebuilding trust. It means apologizing. Most importantly, it means living that apology and living the person you want to be – so they can rebuild their trust, learn to fit you into their lives in a healthy way, and decide how to move forward with you. These 7 ways to rebuild family ties in early sobriety are some ways to start. However, it’s always a good idea to seek out professional advice from a clinical psychologist specializing in family therapy and addiction.
1. Accept Your Old Relationships Are Changed
The first step of coming out of recovery is that things will be different. You might get something close, but the relationships you had before will be changed. The people you care about know an old version of you. You are never going to be that person again. And, frankly, you don’t want to be. That version of you became addicted to drugs or alcohol – and you want to build a better, stronger, and more resilient version of yourself who can navigate the stresses and problems that you did not in the past.
That means recognizing that your relationships will be new ones. You’ll have to build your relationship on the basis of who you are now, which means getting to know yourself, getting to know your loved ones, and introducing them to who you’re becoming. Many people leave rehab and expect everything to be exactly how it was before. If you expect that, you will be disappointed. Even if you have very young kids, they will treat you differently, because you are different, they’ve experienced you as an addict, and too many things have changed.
2. Commit to Being There
Building new relationships means being there for those people. That means acknowledging how they feel about you, about your actions, and about your relationship. It means being willing to discuss and listen to them non-judgmentally, even when it’s about you and your past behavior. Being there means consistently taking time and making time to spend time, to help, to talk, and to participate in daily life. That can mean showing up at games and watching TV. It can mean taking out the trash and doing chores without being asked or nagged. It can mean being available to talk. It can mean offering your loved one space when they need a break. How “being there” should manifest will always depend on your loved one, how they feel, and what they need.
3. Continue Seeking Out Help for Addiction
Addiction treatment is an ongoing process. You cannot just go to rehab and then be fine. Committing to ongoing recovery, ongoing treatment, and ongoing change will help you to rebuild your life. That means seeking out treatment, it means going to a self-help group (AA, SMART, LifeRing, or any other option you’d like), and committing to accountability, ongoing learning, and ongoing investment in sobriety. In some cases, that will mean going back to rehab more than once. The point is that you visibly put in effort to stay clean, put in effort to stay accountable, and constantly work towards the goal of staying clean and sober.
4. Work On Yourself First
You can’t build a relationship when you aren’t in the right mindset to build one. Just like most recovery programs ask you not to start a relationship within the first year of recovery. You have to focus on yourself instead. Doing so might mean not investing as much time into your loved ones as you’d like. You have to create and stick to routines. You have to exercise. You have to eat well. You have to invest in self-improvement and learning the things that will allow you to be the person you want to be. Prioritizing family members over that does not put you in a position where you can rebuild those relationships. Focus on becoming healthy, stable, and happy – and build relationships out from that, rather than trying to base those things on relationships.
You have broken the trust of your loved ones. You might have behaved in ways that were inappropriate and even harmful. You might have used manipulation, blackmail, or gaslighting to get away with your habit. You might have dropped responsibilities, forced others to take up your responsibilities, or not been there for your kids. Alcohol changes who we are and the fallout of that can be awful. Building a new relationship with people you have hurt means apologizing.
It also means being willing to acknowledge that even though you’re trying not to be the past version of you anymore, you can’t just “say” that. It’s not an excuse and going, “That was the old me” will feel invalidating to your loved ones.
A good apology involves the following steps:
Truly listen, without interrupting. This can be difficult when things are hurtful, but it’s important.
Acknowledge that your behavior was hurtful. “I am sorry, that was awful of me”
Create steps for improvement in the future, “I am in a recovery program now and I am doing X and Y and Z to make sure I stay sober. The behavior I engaged in while addicted to alcohol was not fair to you and I will do my best to ensure that it never happens again”
Create a method to stay accountable: “I’ll check in with you every week so you can see I am still sober. I understand building up trust in me will take time”
Add your hopes for the future: “I hope that, with time, you can trust me again and we can enjoy a good relationship again. I know I messed that up and I care about you, so I am going to fight to get it back”
A good apology avoids excuses, it avoids stating reasons for why you did something, it simply acknowledges that you hurt a person, that your behavior was not okay, and how and when you will try to fix that.
6. Go to Family Therapy
Family therapy can go a long way towards helping you to rebuild relationships. That’s especially true in cases where negative behavior patterns have emerged. For example, if someone intentionally behaves in frustrating and difficult ways, that may be about behavior rather than anyone’s current actions. Similarly, if your substance use disorder dramatically changed the roles in the relationship – such as shifting the role of provider to someone else, shifting the role of cook to someone else, etc., that changes how people perceive themselves and want to be perceived. Family therapy can help you to resolve that by building new and better habits and creating boundaries that aid you in where you want to be.
In addition, it might be helpful for your family members to attend self-help groups like Al-Anon. Here, they can seek out input, support, and shared experiences from other families with an addict in the family. That can give them a better perspective, help them to understand what they went through and what you went through, and give them the grounds with which to react to that.
7. Be Patient
Nothing happens overnight. Forgiveness takes time. Building trust takes time. No relationship will magically be restored just because you went to treatment. Be patient. Expect that your loved ones will be wary. Expect that things will be time. If you can accept things as they are and expect that they will eventually move back into a comfortable and happy place, you’re well on track to being able to treat people with calm, compassion, and understanding as they navigate emotions around you.
Addiction changes who you are but it also changes those around you. Accepting that and working to build new relationships with your loved ones requires time, understanding, and patience. Hopefully these tips will help you on your way to that.