Paul Sunderland Recovery and the Couple Relationship

Paul Sunderland talks about how recovery effects relationships. This talk is a must watch for anyone who has ever been in a relationship with an addict. It provides helpful advice and incite as well as explaining the dynamics of relationships and addiction.

If you are interested in attending any of our future lectures, check out the upcoming events page.

Recovery and The Couples Relationship

Paul Sunderland Recovery and the Couple Relationship - Part 2


{slider=Transcript - Part 1}

Good evening. Hi everybody. Thanks so much for coming today. It seems like it could have been a bit of a conflict between the warm weather, hanging outside and coming here. So, I am very grateful that you've come.

I am very pleased to donate a lecture to the Life works free recovery series. I tend to do a lecture once a year. The one that I tend to do is on adoption and addiction. Which is a particular interest of mine because adoptees are so overrepresented in treatment. But actually this year it seemed like an opportunity to do something different.

And I guess I wanted to do it because…we are all fascinated in relationships aren’t we? You know we just are. They're such complicated things. It is my passion. I've trained as an addiction counselor 25 years ago. My passion is to learn what happens to people during the course of recovery. That is what really interests me. Having started my training trying to help people get into recovery right at the beginning. I then started to think about how actually this is a fascinating journey. We know a whole lot now that we just did not know back then. We know that actually it is very rare that there is only one addiction.

We know that in the course of recovery people are going to come across all sorts of addictions. Actually we know that most people are on the spectrum for all different addictions. Whether it is the food eating disorders, financial addiction, gambling, spending, debting, under earning, sex and love addictions and all of the complications that go with all of that. The work addictions, the addiction to busyness that has people managing anxiety by focusing on projects. We know that this stuff comes up all the time.

I suppose over the course of my work seeing people in the consulting room with quite mature recovery in the first fellowships, feeling really quite ashamed to be struggling with the sense of powerlessness and rather hoping that what is happening.For those of you who are 12-step fellowship members, rather hoping that what they are struggling with is what the 12-step'ers would call step a 6th and 7th issue, a bit of a character defect, but actually having to realize that "oh gosh I actually do have another addiction".

I'm also really interested to see what happens to people during the course of the recovery as they hit different points in their life cycle. Actually, a third of us can expect to get depressed and it has nothing to do with how well people work a recovery program or how committed they are. Nobody is immune. No containing fellowship or recovery process however people might do it actually stops people from going through the different phases of their life cycle. We are all going to have a bit of a midlife crisis. It is just going to happen. And equally, we're all going to get into some real difficulties around relationships. And that, I suppose, particularly interests me.

When I started my training the only bit of relationship work it was 25 years ago. Addiction was very much about alcohol and drugs. We didn’t really know co-dependency. Pia Melody was just starting to write her book. We did not know what it was. The partner who turned up at the treatment center was not the codependent, it was Mrs. Addict. It was you know kind of like the happy families or something.

And we would talk, and if we saw couples, if husbands came in, wives came in, partners came in… Actually it was all very much about “we want you to come in because we want some information about the person who we are treating.”
Which indeed is quite helpful because addiction is all about denial. Actually, you do need someone else who is there at the scene of your crime. I’m sure you’d agree with that, if you want to know what is going on.

But actually, the problem is what we missed then was understanding that actually if you're in the room with somebody who is an identified patient as an addict and their partner you are in the room with two really distressed people. And I think what we have particularly missed is that we are in a room with two people who have addictive processes.

Robin Norwood knew this was she wrote Women who love too much, that bestseller. Robin Norwood as you probably know was an addiction counselor who did all the sort of family work. In the end she just realized that what she was dealing with was an addiction. Mostly with women then and then of course a lot of men started writing in and she realized that this is not so much about the gender difference.

So I am really interested. My work as an addiction counselor change. My wife is a family therapist you can imagine what a difficulty that is. She introduced me a lot to systemic thinking, because she's not in the addiction field, I have a systemic supervisor and starting to think too about…Because recovery is so often an individual thing, isn’t it? It is about taking personal responsibility. We know, the one thing that people in recovery know, is that victims don't recover. If you’re going to get well you going to have to really own your stuff. You're going to have to take responsibility.

So actually, it’s quite difficult when you start introducing notions of systemic thinking, meaning that actually the idea, and I’ll talk about it later, that actually one partner in the couple might holds the distress that both of them have. That maybe that that’s the way that they can function. That one of them can be seen as the distressed one and the other can be seen as OK.

This is the first time that I have done this talk, so I have some anxiety too about doing it. See, I've already departed from my notes and it’s a bit of a standup routine. I am holding my notes in my hand because I am just going to have to come back to them I’m sure. I’m hoping they might edit that bit out so it just looks really smooth. And also hoping that I do not enter into one of those trauma states where brain reduces to a size of pea. You can't remember anything and do I do a runner and you’re left here, thinking “what’s happening?” Or the other one, as you probably know, with trauma, one of the things about trauma is that it actually closes down the part of the brain that mediates time. So actually I could be quite capable of sitting here and talking in two hours time, thinking I just started. So we will see what happens.

What I’m going to talk about, I want to talk about the couple relationship in general. Because it applies to everybody whether they are in a recovery or not. I want to talk about the couple relationship in general. I want to talk about the particular difficulties for people in recovery who are in a couple relationship and, I think rather importantly, I want to talk about how on Earth…how can people negotiate their way through that minefield. Because it is. I think there really are particular difficulties. Now, traditionally when we talked about the couple relationship we talked about marriage. We talked about the heterosexual marriage, didn’t we? We talked about a marriage that will probably last forever. We talked about one sexual partner for life. Things have really changed. People marry. They divorce. They remarry. They cohabit. They form couple relationships where they live separately. The do it in straight, gay, bisexual, transgendered relationships. It’s a really colorful field there is no doubt about that.

So traditionally that is what happened. Traditionally coupling was very much…the notion of falling in love was very much…it’s more of a sort of Victorian idea. I guess these guys probably took a bit too much opium and started to writing poems because they had nothing else to do, about their partners. It is very much a Victorian idea. Coupling up traditionally was about property and lineage. People coupled up because actually they wanted to know that the children were theirs. It was a very male dominated society in which men needed to know that the children were theirs and they needed to know if the children were theirs, who’s going to inherit a cow. It was about keeping things safe. It was about chastity belts. Things have really really changed.

Today it’s everything, in the sense, to do with love. And I think that's complicated because actually people form couple relationships in what they want… We want security. We want status. We want children. We want responsibility. But we also want excitement, and we want adventure, we want a best friend, we want a passionate lover. So we ask an awful lot. Because I think traditionally those things were separated. I think those things were separated. So that is quite a conflict. I will talk about that a bit later, because actually, they are in conflict, those two things.

Now, many people have theorized about relationships. Psychologists, the anthropologists, social scientists about what it's all about. We know quite a bit now about relationships. We know in the UK and the US, and you will know all this anyway, that nearly 50% of married couples will divorce. It is very hard to get data on couples who aren’t married unfortunately. But we know that nearly 50% of couples will divorce. What, interestingly, we also know, is that actually 50% of the couples that separate, that divorce, separate within 7 years.

Now, what is also interesting, Helen Fisher, the American anthropologist, she looked at the data from 60 different countries and realized that divorce peaks at four years, which is quite interesting. And what she suggests is that actually back there on the savanna it took four years to wean the child. He needed to stay around in order to guard the cave until it was safe enough till the child was weaned and they could be a bit more independent. And then he would move on. I think that is quite an interesting idea. Certainly <there’s> ought to be an explanation for why in 60 different countries that’s the case.

Time: 10:00

So the anthropologist had quite a good time with all of that. We also know that things like smell play enormous part in us choosing who we are attracted to. And when you talk to people who are falling in love, they often talk about “I love that smell”. It is not the perfume. Well it may be a mixture of perfume with that of a body odor.

We know that is the case and we also know that there is a lot of sense. You may know, in the 1970s the University of Berne they started to do some experiments about all of this. Do you know about the T-shirt experiments? Have any of you heard about them? Anyway, they are quite savory and I will tell you why. There’s a gene called that MHC-gene. It is the major histamine compatibility complex. You do not have to remember that except it is a gene which actually pretty much runs our immune system. It’s the gene that we have that when something comes in from outside to attack us as an illness, that’s the gene that fights against that. It’s the same gene that unfortunately also rejects when you have transplants and things like that. It is the same gene that can really <inaudible> that up too, because “Oh, its’ not mine, take it away!”

It is a really important gene because in all of us in our DNA we have a flaw. We just do. There are flaws. So what these guys in the University of Berne were trying to find out was how we select for all of that. What happens? Who do we choose? So they were testing and typing students of the University for their MHC genes. What they discovered was, and I’ll tell you how they discovered it, was that actually people were fancying and choosing as their mate in terms of smell people who had dissimilar MHC genes. What that meant was that if you actually had children these two dissimilar sets of MHC genes would get together and you would have better immunity. I think that is quite fascinating.

They were doing that though smell. Now I would tell you about the experiment. I think it is rather funny. They asked all these guys and girls to wear a cotton T-shirt for 48 hours. So, savory, okay? Sleep in it, wear this T-shirt all the time. No perfume, no spicy food. Just sleep in a T-shirt. They then asked them on a blind test to sniff these T-shirts that were all in a jar. Take the top off, have a sniff and rate them in order of preference.

What is fascinating about the experiment is that the ones they preferred were the ones who had most dissimilar MHC genes. Who we choose to get together with this is multi-factorial. Is not all about mom and dad. I think a lot of it is, and I shall go on and talk about that because that is my field but I am really interested in that. Things like that seem really fascinating.

We know that people mate with people within their tribe. I say tribe, but potentially it is not a cultural thing anymore. We tend to we tend to seduce partners who we work with, went to school and the people who we sort of hung out with. We rarely go outside of our tribe. We tend to choose partners who have the same sort of intelligence us.

We do know that actually there are all sorts of unconscious processes. Robert Skinner, the grandfather, he’s not alive anymore, of systemic family therapy. He had this quite interesting experiment that he did with all of his students right at the beginning of the family therapy training. He got these guys together who were all there in the room getting together for the first welcoming session. They have not met before. Couple might have just had a little chat. They didn’t know each other. He asked them straight away “I don’t really want you talking to each other. I want you to move around the room. Just look at each other. Just have a gaze upon each other. Just sort of hang, move on. And I want you to then form a group. Put a hand on a shoulder of someone who you feel like might be you sort of person.” What you end up with is a bunch of people with the hands on the shoulders...