Better Than Wedding Vows: The Recovery Contract

Cartoon couple mending heart

In traditional wedding vows, partners promise to love and obey till death do they part, but who’s in a traditional relationship anymore? The CDC reports 1 in 10 people over 12 years old have used an illicit drug in the last month. Addiction changes the face of traditional relationships and families. How can today’s addiction-impacted relationships survive?

New Improved Couples Therapy

When one partner has a substance use disorder, couples often have extensive relationship problems. This creates high levels of:

  • Dissatisfaction
  • Aggression
  • Instability (Fals-Stewart, Birchler, and O’Farrell, 1999)

Problematic substance use and increased rates of relapse further strains the relationship (Maisto et al., 1988). Historically, substance use disorders were viewed as an individual problem. Even worse, patients were charged with having a moral or character flaw. As a result, patients were treated individually and in isolation. Of course, this didn’t work.

Research from the last three decades proves that partners and families play important roles in the origin and maintenance of addictive behavior. Treating the couples and families as a single unit with this new improved model of couples therapy:

  • Increases abstinence rates
  • Improves relationship functioning
  • Reduces social costs
  • Decreases domestic violence
  • Reduces emotional problems in children of the couple

Behavioral Couples Therapy works to disrupt harmful patterns and restructure couple interactions in ways conducive to long-term, stable abstinence.

Talk Is Cheap But A Contract Sticks

One hallmark of Behavioral Couples Therapy  is the ‘recovery contract.’ This contract spells out daily rituals for each partner to protect the spouse and reward the patient’s abstinence. Common components of a recovery contract include:

  • Daily affirmations of abstinence from one partner to the other
  • Daily medication ingestion witnessed and verbally reinforced by partner
  • Peer support or mutual support group meetings (AA, NA, Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, etc.)
  • Weekly urine drug screens
  • Positive weekly activities to support recovery (e.g. working out together as a couple)
  • Progress reported on a shared calendar (O’Farrell & Schein, 2000)

A sample contract is shown below.

Recovery Contract behavioral couples therapy

The goal of a recovery contract is to improve the couple’s relationship while building support for abstinence. This means increasing positive activities and improving communication between partners.

Upholding The Recovery Contract

Accountability is a critical component of many successful recovery models. In addition to merely signing a contract, couples attend 12-20 weekly outpatient therapy sessions over a 3 to 6-month period. The best news is, sessions can begin as soon as the partner suffering from addiction seeks help. Therapists typically teach partners how to:

  • Listen
  • Express emotions
  • Negotiate requests
  • Do random acts of kindness

Couples learn appreciation exercises and have homework assignments for practice, and all this hard work pays off. Couples can hope to gain:

  1. Increased positive activities
  2. A stronger commitment to the relationship
  3. Improved communication

As traditional marriages evolve, the tools couples need to survive also need to evolve. The recovery contract in conjunction with this new an improved model of couples therapy can help restore relationships.

Want to find a couples therapist who understands the impact of addiction? Visit Recovery Guidance to find help near you.