Recovering Couples: When You Take the FUN Out of DysFUNction

Are We Having Fun Yet?

Margaret and James used to have a good time together – that is when they were both drinking. They had quite a ritual, with both coming  home from work around the same time they would begin their daily pattern of  happy hour. For many alcoholic couples, happy hour doesn’t stay happy as alcohol begins to change moods, temperaments, and judgement, all leading to unhappy hour. This wasn’t the case for James and Margaret.  They rarely fought during their happy hour and often had lively conversations filled with laughter. They both saw this time  as a time to bond. Drinking time was a fun time for them, often lasting several hours. After dinner, well not so much fun, with both falling asleep usually watching television. Drinking wasn’t so fun always at other times either as health issues for Margaret and escalating work-related difficulties for James led to poor performance reviews. James sales position required some evening and at home work which simply wasn’t happening.

Remarkably, both Margaret and James decided to stop drinking at just about the same time, and both began working a recovery program. They both went to AA and eventually found sponsors.  What surprised them both was that their relationship satisfaction dropped after they stopped drinking. James had about 8 months of sobriety and Margaret with 10 months when they started couples therapy.  James discouraged, commented, “Boy is recovery a buzz kill, literally! Aren’t relationships supposed to get better? Why aren’t we having more fun?” Margaret nodded her head in perplexed agreement. This was a great question, and not an uncommon issue or concern for couples in early and in ongoing recovery.

The couples that do best over time find ways to establish new rituals of connection and find ways to celebrate and have fun that don’t involve drinking or drugging. This is especially difficult when couples have relationships with their families of origin, and one or both of those families have highly ingrained rituals around drinking , with no model of how to be together and have fun without substances. Un-recovered family alcoholism presents a major issue to confront when individuals try to establish recovery in their lives and still be a part of their familiy where drinking is central.

“What do you two do for fun now that you no longer drink?” I asked after hearing about their former happy hour (or two) nightly get together. “Well,” Margaret replied,” We tried continuing our happy hour time with non alcoholic drinks”. “How has that gone?”, I asked, kind of knowing what the answer would likely be. James chimed in, “I don’t know what to talk about. We just sit there like we don’t have anything in common anymore. Sorry honey…” as he looked at Margaret, “…but it’s really kind of boring”. Margaret started to get defensive, but then had to admit that she really wasn’t having a good time either.

Time to Establish Some New Rituals for Fun

Trying to establish a non alcohol happy hour just didn’t work, too many associations with their drinking. They both needed to learn how to be together having fun in ways that didn’t involve drinking. Both coming from alcoholic families, neither one had family experiences to draw on, both families maintained drinking as a central activity at all family gatherings and celebrations.  As we continued our work in therapy, Margaret and James discussed new activities that they were willing to try together. For years they both expressed an interest in taking yoga, but drinking always would win out with mutual promises of “Next time”.  Now that they could, they decided to take a yoga class together, and found that the socialization following class really opened up their friend network, something long neglected. Margaret and James began attending parties hosted by the yoga class instructor and other members of the class. They found themselves open to new ideas about other things they had long talked about doing but never quite got to. James got his keyboard out the closet and began to practice again, entertaining ideas of trying to get his old group together . “Who knows, maybe we can actually play some gigs again now that I won’t be so loaded that I insult the club owner”.

It turns out that play is an important drive, hard wired into all brain circuitry.  Dr. Jaak Panksepp, noted psychologist and neuroscientist, writes about the emotional command systems in the sub cortical structures in our brains that when activated predictably lead to specific behaviors; play is one of them.

All couples really need to make play a part of their relationship. It doesn’t really matter what activities you choose as long as you both enjoy it. Also, taking time for yourself to develop interests, nurturing a playful self is an important part of every individual recovery program that all too often is overlooked.

Think about the things you might want to do with your partner that could be a fun, shared experience, as well as finding or getting back to your own individual interests.

Taking the FUN out of dysFUNction means putting the FUN back in FUNctional recovery.

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