It is an obvious truth that people arriving in a drug or alcohol rehab are in a low place in their life; they have reached a significant “rock bottom” and have finally sought help. They arrive in rehab vulnerable, low, often depressed and anxious. Combine this with the fact that in rehab there will invariably be other people in a similar state to them, other people that they can relate to, share “war stories” with and that they are spending a lot of intense time with- this creates a fertile and dangerous combination. No wonder that the spectre of “rehab relationships” is one that creates concern amongst the staff of all rehabs.
“Complications in relationships are the number one trigger for relapse”
Sexual attraction or lust is one of the most primitive and powerful of human drivers
Sexual attraction or lust is one of the most primitive and powerful of human drivers – it could be argued that most of the world’s great art, music, poetry and literature can be seen to be fuelled by it. From “Romeo and Juliet” to “Love will tear us apart” from “Gone with the Wind” to “I will always love you” the romantic love relationship is part of the social sea in which we all swim. So, of course, this influence will also be evident within rehabs – and yet relationships within rehabs are also fuelled by a number of other significant factors.
1. Heightened Emotions
A famous psychology experiment Dutton and Aron (1973) explored the impact of heightened emotions. Two groups of men were told to walk across a bridge and were then met by an attractive female researcher who asked them to fill out a questionnaire. Both groups of men were also given the researchers phone number in case they had any further questions. In one group 2 out of 16 called her and in the other 9 out of 18 called the woman.
Study shows interesting results
What made the difference? In the group with the higher calling rate, the bridge they were walking across was shaky and induced fear- racing hearts and sweaty palms- the very same bodily responses that occur when we are attracted to someone; it was believed that the men from the shaky, fear inducing bridge misattributed their emotions and believed that they were because they were attracted to the female researcher rather than to their anxiety on the bridge- explaining the much higher follow-up call.
How does this finding translate into the rehab environment?
So how does this finding translate into the rehab environment? In rehabs, there are many heightened emotions resulting from withdrawal symptoms, the anxiety from being in a new strange environment surrounded by unfamiliar people and the constant invitation to explore difficult and buried emotions. This provides a very potent mix of anxiety and discomfort which when combined with spending time with attractive strangers can lead to the explosive conclusion that the anxiety is actually attraction to another client.
2. Distraction from challenging emotions
Those with addiction problems have often chosen their substance of choice, whether alcohol, drugs or a behaviour, to numb and distract themselves against difficult or uncomfortable emotions. It’s very hard to be with ourselves when we feel shame, guilt or extreme anxiety or anger. One of the biggest coping mechanisms is distraction – occupying our minds with other activities rather than feeling what we feel and one of the biggest distractions possible is the arena of relationships. When we start occupying our mind with relationships there is unlimited time available to obsess, fantasise and believe that the other person is their “knight in shining armour” ready to rescue them or the princess that they will rescue.
Putting attention on anything or anyone other them themselves and their own recovery will never result in a positive outcome for those in recovery. The temptation to believe that another person will “save you” or make you “complete” is one of the oldest cultural myths of our time and one of the most destructive.
What is co-dependency?
And yet it’s not just people with addiction issues that fall under this spell – co-dependency is endemic within our world. Put simply, codependency is an unhealthy connection to another person whereby the other person becomes the sun around which the codependent person revolves; this usually happens both ways, rather than taking responsibility for themselves, their actions and behaviours the codependent person sees everything through the lens of the other person. In this way they don’t need to take responsibility for themselves or their own actions and so change is very unlikely to happen.
To see through the fantasy of the romantic relationship is necessary for those who are serious about their recovery
It’s not easy to see through the fantasy of the romantic relationship particularly when difficult feelings are being surfaced and yet it is a requirement for those serious about their recovery. So what are the main tools and techniques that can help someone in recovery for addiction who can feel the lure for intimate relationship?
What to do instead?
The only way out of distractive behaviour is to firstly recognise it and then to turn inwards towards the uncomfortable feelings, using tools such as mindfulness, CBT combined with lots of kindness and patience.
Building up a tolerance for difficult emotions
No-one likes to experience uncomfortable feelings like anxiety, shame and guilt. However, it is only by building up a tolerance for these emotions, recognising that they are a part of the human condition and meeting them with acceptance and kindness that are we able to move on in our lives towards the things that we truly want to create.
Surround yourself with the right people – the power of community
One of the benefits of living within a residential rehab is the natural community spirit that resides within it. Living within a structure that encourages and supports honesty and growth is hugely transformative in itself. Some of the most destructive beliefs that many addicts carry within themselves are ideas such as “something is fundamentally wrong with them” they are “incapable of change” “no-one is as bad as them”. It is by being within an honest environment where people openly admit to their beliefs and are encouraged to see them for the destructive thoughts that they are, that others too can breathe a sigh of relief by recognising that they are not alone in feeling the same way – and that simple realisation can be enough to free individuals of much shame and guilt.
Openness, honesty, compassion & kindness
Brene Brown, a leading shame researcher, states that in order for shame to exist it requires secrecy, silence and judgement. Living in a therapeutic community addresses all of these factors – secrecy and silence is met with openness and honesty and judgement is met with compassion and kindness. These are all powerful components that can help to transform an individuals ability to be with their own judgements about themselves and start finding compassion instead.
The most important relationship you’ll ever have is the one with yourself
In essence, the most important relationship that anyone in recovery needs to work on is not with anyone else but with themselves – with their own feelings, owning up to and taking responsibility for their past behaviours and meeting all of this with kindness and compassion. This is of course not an easy proposition if it were there would be little need for rehabs at all and yet the journey towards meeting ourselves fully, openly and honestly is undoubtedly the most important journey any of us will undergo. It will require much, but it will offer so much more.
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