The Importance of Educating the Spouse for Successful Recovery

Did you know that some of the principal founders of the Temperance Movement in the 19th Century were spouses concerned about the dangers brought about by their husband’s drinking? One of the founders, Frances Willard, is often remembered with a fist in the air exclaiming to crowds of exacerbated spouses, “We must do everything for the women and children!” While the Temperance Movement eventually led to the failed prohibition experiment and teetered out altogether, its concerns for the spouse can still be found in the tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other 12-Step recovery programs.

For those in the healthcare industry, your immediate focus is, and rightfully should be, on the individual struggling. The attention needed to get them physically, emotionally, and mentally stable is paramount. But what happens after that stability occurs? Moreover, what happens when that individual leaves your care and heads back to their prior life? What happens when they return to their spouse after treatment?

Well, for those individuals and those spouses that have not been properly versed or educated on the damage that addiction has potentially done to their relationship, there is a chance for conflict, misunderstanding, resentment, and, unfortunately, relapse. This is why it can be critical to also address the spouse’s needs in addiction recovery. Remember, addiction is a “family disease.” Thus it needs a full “family solution.”

Understanding Addiction as a “Family Disease”

The primary text of AA (also known as the “Big Book”) is not that long. Minus some personal stories incorporated at the end, it only consists of a few forwards and 164 pages. That is why it is so important to note that of those 164 pages, 46 pages are dedicated to those around the individual’s life that are affected by their addiction (“To Wives,” “The Family Afterward,” and “To Employers”). That’s 28%. And there is a reason for that.

When an individual seeks medical, therapeutic, or clinical help for addiction, your primary focus is understandably on the person standing right there in front of you. However, when their surroundings go unchecked, unrecognized, or unacknowledged, there is a potential that your recovery efforts will be thwarted.

There is a saying often uttered in many 12-Step meetings that the dangers of relapse lie in “people, places, and things.” What that means for the spousal relationship is that if recovery is not in place for both parties, both parties may suffer, including your client’s chances of long-term recovery.

The Focus on the Spouse in 12-Step Recovery

The chapter “To Wives” in the AA “Big Book” begins its mission statement early. It states, “Among us are wives, relatives and friends whose problem has been solved, as well as some who have not yet found a happy solution. We want the wives of Alcoholics Anonymous to address the wives of men who drink too much. What they say will apply to nearly everyone bound by ties of blood or affection to an alcoholic.”

While certainly many professionals in the healthcare field are also in recovery or have family in recovery, this is not true unequivocally across the industry. This is why it can be so important to inform spouses about recovery and be able to direct them toward 12-Step programs. Just as with active members of 12-Step programs who directly relate to their peers, spouses of active members are also greatly benefited from other spouses that have had the same or similar experiences.

One of the benefits of 12-Step programs is it teaches their members to turn their greatest disappointments into their greatest assets. What we mean by that is that the program teaches them to reframe their past behaviors and actions by which they were ashamed so they can then use them to help others relate in recovery. This is the same benefit that is awarded to the spouse that actively participates in the Twelve Steps.

Understanding Recovery as a “Family Process”

Just as addiction is a “family disease,” it must be addressed with a “family solution.” No, this focus does not fall on you, the healthcare professional, directly. However, when you can connect the family (in this case, the spouse or partner) with a proven system of recovery just for them, you greatly augment the treatment work you have already put in.

Frances Willard is famously quoted as saying, “I would not waste my life in friction when it could be turned into momentum.” While recovery has progressed and surpassed any ideas that were proposed by the Temperance Movement, that statement still rings true.

As healthcare professionals, you aim to rehabilitate your guest most effectively and efficiently while also causing the least harm. Of course, you aim for a smooth journey rather than a friction-filled one. Guiding spouses toward a 12-Step program can aid in that aim.