Emotional Sobriety and Relationships: The Elephant in the Living Room

The Relational Paradigm
July 19, 2017
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Emotional Sobriety and Relationships: The Elephant in the Living Room

Do you sometimes have trouble seeing how your behavior impacts others? Do you rage at your partner and after you calm down apologize and brush it off by saying, “That was my alcoholic/addict behavior?” Do you have trouble communicating your fears, disappointments and desires to your partner? Do you obsess about your ex-partner’s and your partner’s behaviors? Do you act out in relationships?

Historically treatment and recovery approaches often neglect relationships, especially the couple relationship, encouraging separate individual work only. This leaves recovering couples floundering in dysfunction; sometimes for years, trying to manage their relationship without proper tools and guidance to live successfully both as a couple and separately as individuals in recovery.

I only know a handful of folks who are happy in recovery and in their intimate relationships. Many break-up or divorce because they don’t see a way beyond the pain, frustration and addictive patterns. Others shy away from talking openly about their relationships and struggles out of fear of being judged. The majority of folks turn a blind eye toward relationships altogether. However, sex, love, intimacy, money, and relationships are highly emotional issues for individuals and recovering couples.  It is the elephant in the living room.

After several devastating heart-breaks I became more and more frustrated with relationships in recovery because discussing and reading about “emotional sobriety” didn’t show me how to change my behavior. My emotions were suffocating me and the only way I knew how to get some relief was to isolate myself and create walls between me and other people.

The 12-steps and the amazing spiritual life I gained in recovery were masterful in helping to break the cycle of active addiction and recover the self that was lost during active addiction. But as a recovering person, I wanted to discover who I was “in-a-relationship.” In order to do that I needed a different perspective and a different way to understand relationships and committed partnership.

To continue to grow and heal as a recovering person, we are inevitably led back into relationships where we will meet the next significant challenge in recovery: moving from the individual paradigm (self) to the relational paradigm (self-in-relationships).

Personally and professionally Imago theory and processes  gave me a new, exciting and positive perspective about relationships. It was the breath of fresh air that I needed to integrate into my journey of recovery.

I found out that Imago is highly compatible with 12-step approaches. First it offers a practical step-by-step way out of addictive behaviors and patterns, which greatly improves the quality of relationships. 

Second, the Imago Intentional Dialogue parallels with the 4th and 5th steps of AA’s 12-steps. The fourth step instructs the recovering person to make a searching and fearless moral inventory. In essence, this is embodied in Imago processes: partners are asked to look inward to discover their truths, feelings, needs and desires. Then, within the safety of the dialogue, they reveal themselves fully to their partner, peeling off the layers of denial and the false self that has for so long driven dysfunction, disconnection and lack of emotional intimacy.

Third, Imago principles and philosophy are also great for deflating the egoism that can keep recovering and non-recovering couples stuck because it emphasizes the importance of understanding the uniqueness of one’s partner. In other words, neither partner is center of the universe; both bring something vital and precious to the relationship. Imago also helps recovering couples learn to comprehend differences, which ultimately leads to compassion, empathy and understanding.

After practicing Imago personally and professionally for over two decades, it continues to remind me that I may not agree with my partner, but I am capable of transcending my own point of view, so that we can become clearly defined as two separate people and stay connected. Becoming a distinct person, while remaining connected is the goal of Imago and the relational paradigm.

How do Recovering Couples Stay Connected Without Rejecting Either Themselves or Their Partner in the Process?

The first step is to embrace the relational paradigm. When the difficulties between partners are recognized as relational as opposed to separate individual issues, then that they can be removed. In other words, embracing the relational paradigm offers recovering couples a perspective about relationships that leads to building bridges, instead of turning away from each other and isolating behind walls.

Next, it is important to cease being the object of fear to our partner.  Those of us who grew up in alcoholic homes learned and practiced dysfunctional relating i.e., scaring, hurting, manipulating, physical force, silent treatment, blaming, hiding, criticizing, withdrawing and raging. This does not work, and in my opinion these behavior strategies undermine the spiritual gifts and peace of mind recovery offers.

In summary, single individuals, recovering couples and non-recovering couples who are ready to address the “elephant in the living” and learn to interact emotionally in a safe, loving way and heal their relationship, Imago has a structure and a map that can be used and integrated nicely into recovery processes and in life. The only requirement is a readiness and willingness to embrace a new perspective on relationships and committed partnership. Relationships are inevitable in recovery. Imago provides a path for the journey.

Love in Connection,

Paula M. Smith, M.Div., M.A., MFT

Certified Imago Therapist |Marriage Scholar | Seminar Leader | Published Author

Person with long-term recovery





Hendrix, H. (1993). Getting the love you want: Guide for couples. London: Simon & Schuster.

Luquet, W., & Hannah, M. T. (1998). Healing in the relational paradigm: The Imago relationship therapy casebook. Philadelphia, PA: Taylor & Francis.

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