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Counselor's Corner: The Heavy Lifting: Helping Clients Develop Healthy Relationships in Recovery

November 9, 2020

Relationships are one of the main causes of relapse (Daley & Douaihy, 2015); thus, an essential part of recovery is helping clients develop healthy relationships. One definition of a substance use disorder is “a relationship with a chemical (drug) that serves as a substitute for true human intimacy.” (Sanders, 2019). Once clients learn to develop healthy relationships in recovery, they no longer need chemicals the same way they needed them in the past. 

Some strategies counselors can share with clients working to develop healthy marriages or other relationships in recovery include: 

  • Develop a healthy relationship with yourself. This can involve activities that you enjoy doing alone and self-care activities. The ability to spend time alone teaches people how to get comfortable in their own skin, making them less likely to emotionally smother a partner.
  • Strengthen your spirituality.  Exploring spirituality helps assure that the person in recovery will not substitute a chemical addiction for an addiction to a partner or other person. Focusing on spirituality can also safeguard the person in recovery from turning a spouse or partner into a “deity.”
  • Develop healthy friendships. Healthy friendships aid in recovery and help ensure that all energy in recovery is not directed towards a person. In abusive relationships, one partner may attempt to separate the other from friends. Some clients need help in identifying the qualities of healthy friendships.
  • Create your own community of recovery. Having recovery support is important since relationships often trigger substance use reoccurrences.
  • Strive for your goals in recovery. Setting and achieving goals elevates self- esteem and creates balance from relationship obsession. As self-esteem increases, a social network can also increase. Individuals striving to reach their potential often seek out others who are also striving towards similar goals.
  • Couples counseling. Marriages and partnerships that have survived years of active addiction become vulnerable to disintegration in recovery. Couples therapy can help fortify relationships for the challenges that accompany the recovery journey. 

Many clients benefit from counselor patience and non-judgement as they learn to develop healthy relationships in recovery. The transition from the all-consuming preoccupation with drug use to a new focus on healthy relationships and friendships is the heavy lifting in recovery. Clients will need steady support from a counselor as they learn to build the strength, insights, self-compassion, and resilience required for this heavy lifting.


Daley, D. & Douaihy, A., Relapse Prevention Counseling: Clinical Strategies to Guide Addiction Recovery and Reduce Relapse (2015). Pesi Publishing. Eau Claire, WI.

Sanders, M. Helping Clients Develop Healthy Relationships in Recovery. (2019). Winds of Change. Chicago, IL.

About the author

Mark Sanders

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Mark A. Sanders, LCSW, CADC; Illinois State Program Manager, Great Lakes ATTC, MHTTC, and PTTC
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