Patrick B. McGinnis, PhD, LMHC

Psychotherapy, Sex Therapy, Couple's Counseling, Addictions Counseling, Psychological & Psychosexual Assessment and Polygraph Testing

Home
Up

horizontal rule

INTIMACY IN RECOVERY

By Patrick B. McGinnis, PhD

 

"If you love yourself, you love everybody else as you do yourself.  As long as you love another person less than you love yourself, you will not really succeed in loving yourself, but if you love all alike, including yourself, you will love them as one person and that person is both God and man.  Thus he is a great and righteous person who, loving himself, loves all others equally."  Meister Eckhart

 

Intimacy. What does this word mean? I define it as In-to-me-see. This is the ability to sustain a relationship based on honesty. You see me as I am, I see you as you are and we both choose to be accepting of each other. Acceptance is often grounded in choice.

 

Common recovery wisdom states that it is unwise to begin a new romantic relationship within the first year of recovery. Why? Because many a relapse can be directly attributed to the emotional stress created by romantic relationships as they progress. I am not aware of the existence of any hard research on the issue of whether becoming involved in a romantic relationship in early recovery leads to relapse. However, in my therapeutic experience, I have come to believe that relapse and breakup is the usual outcome of such a relationship, especially when both partners are in early recovery. There are exceptions to the rule. Occasionally, there are relationships in which the emotional nurturing of the non-recovering person is so strong that being in such a relationship may be a real asset in the early recovery of the recovering person. However, the non-recovering person in these situations is typically extremely co-dependent. Therefore, the long-term prospects of a healthy intimate relationship are dim.

 

Good relationships take work - they don’t just happen. Relationships progress through well-known stages. Each stage has a task that must be accomplished for the relationship to grow. If the relationship gets stuck in one of these stages, growth is blocked and the relationship becomes fraught with tension. Most relationships flounder at one of these junctures.

 

Those in early recovery don’t know how to create healthy satisfying relationships. They usually don’t come from families that modeled healthy relationships. Also, since they are caught in the net of addiction, they haven’t had an opportunity to learn the lessons necessary to create a good relationship. Creating an intimate relationship with someone takes commitment on the part of both people. They must do the work and experience the pain that naturally comes from learning through mutual experience.

 

Recovery is difficult enough without adding the complication of a romantic relationship. Most people are just not up to the gargantuan task. Recovery is necessarily a selfish process. Creating intimacy often calls for compromise and, sometimes, selflessness.

 

Erich Fromm, in The Art of Loving (1956), states that most efforts to love fail unless the person has actively tried to develop his or her individual potential and personality. Fromm defines love as, “the expression of productiveness [which] implies care, respect, responsibility, and knowledge; a striving towards growth and happiness of the loved person, rooted in one's own capacity to level. A striving towards growth and happiness of the loved person.”  In The Road Less Traveled (1978), M. Scott Peck, MD defines this aspect of love as “The will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” As Fromm stated, this is rooted in the capacity to level - to be genuine, to be honest with oneself and with the beloved person. 

 

Concepts that we frequently associate with love include affection, caring, valuing, trust, acceptance, giving, joy, and vulnerability. Love is a state of being that emanates from within us and extends outward. It is energy, it is unconditional, it is expansive, and it needs no specific object. Love need not be directed toward a specific person. If it is so directed, then it may take the form of romantic and/or erotic love (Eros), and it is this type of love that is the most difficult to deal with in early recovery.

 

But there are other forms that love may take. Each of these forms of love is an important characteristic of a genuine love relationship. The five types of love that follow, create and hold the healing space that is present in good recovery programs.  

 

Altruistic love (Agape) is loving for no reason, with no conditions and not expecting anything in return. As we give and receive agape love, our self-esteem is enriched.

 

Joyous love (Ludis) begins between friends who love to be together for they have fun together. They become wonderfully comfortable together and stress, blame, shame, and guilt are replaced by joyfulness.

 

Pragmatic love (Pragma) is using wisdom to choose to be with people who are of benefit to us and to themselves - such as those working an honest program of recovery.

 

Companionship love (Storge) is a strong and enduring friendship that is amazingly comfortable.

 

Intimate love (Koinonia) is acceptance, sharing, fellowship, participation, partnership, tenderness and empathy.

 

I imagine that most readers of this article are more interested in person-specific love than in the types of love described above. Romantic (or erotic) love is admittedly more fun. It provides a high - a rush. It is highly addictive. We have bought into the 16th Century idea that love should begin with “romantic” love. In fact, even this belief began changing in the latter part of the 20th Century, when there appeared to be more emphasis on “erotic” love as a necessary first step. Erotic love has an important role in the evolution of a love relationship (but just one part). Erotic and romantic love are part of the glue that bonds two people together so that they will stay together and endure the work of maturing the relationship into a deeper kind of love. A mature intimate relationship that contains the five types of love described above is also based on the commitment to stay in the relationship and do the necessary work.

 

Fifty years ago, the divorce rate was low; now it is more than fifty percent. In the past, the divorce rate was minimal because of commitment, social pressure, and shorter life-spans. Intimacy can develop in long-term marriages, if the partners are lucky enough to be (and to attract) the right person. More often, however, something is still missing - some crucial component that adds contentment - consciousness.

 

Consciousness is based in self-knowledge. Consciousness has the opportunity to develop through honestly working a good recovery program. Bring two “conscious” individuals together in a relationship committed to the growth of both partners and intimacy can develop. It does not take fifty years to develop intimacy (as in many of the long-term marriages previously discussed). The development of intimacy is delimited by the willingness of the parties to do the work of relationship building. Ram Das called this, “the yoga of relationship.”

 

In early recovery, focus on learning how to be (and do) intimate relationships by focusing on the relationship tasks that arise when dealing with your recovery group members and your friends. It is far safer to learn these lessons in this environment than in a romantic love relationship – in other words “addictive” relationship.”

 

Many people cannot tolerate the empty feeling that comes from being alone. As difficult as it may feel, this is an important recovery task. Learn to cope with loneliness and you will learn one of the lessons of how to avoid addictive relationships. You will be better prepared to choose to attract healthier people into your life for relationships. Working on yourself will enhance your ability to eventually sustain an intimate relationship.

 

Personal growth involves a dynamic process wherein our outer reality reflects our inner reality. Our behaviors reflect our state of consciousness and other people, who know us well, may offer valuable information to help us grow - information that we may not be conscious of. When we are intimate with others and share more of who we are with them, their knowledge of us expands. This additional understanding may provide them with a better understanding of us, which they can then relay back to us. They can provide us with much needed “feedback.”

 

How do we do this in a way that both people can experience safety - another basic task in learning how to create romantic intimate relationships? One structured way of doing this is described in Getting the Love You Want or Keeping the Love You Find, both by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D. In creating safety, use a structure that all agree to maintain (12-Step programs are good examples of structured relationships), or experiment with being safe outside structure. Learn about intimacy by taking small risks and slowly revealing your “real” self to other people. Don’t immediately dump everything about yourself on someone new. Give them a piece of information, observe how they deal with it and, when it feels safe, give them a little more. Go slowly. Stretch yourself by revealing a little about who you really are and then test the safety of the other person by observing what they do with the information. Everyone you may reveal yourself to is not safe. Learn to recognize signs that indicate who is and who is not safe. This is a time-consuming process. Building safety and building intimacy is not a race but, rather, a process.

 

horizontal rule

Copyright © 2001 Patrick B. McGinnis, PhD. All rights reserved.
Revised: 01/09/09.

 
Hit Counter Last modified: 10/12/09