Couples in Recovery – Building a Secure Attachment Style

Do you recognize this famous couple in recovery in the photograph below? (portrayed by Winona Ryder & Barry Pepper)

*The answer is below… Small, yet SIGNIFICANT hints…

The male partner, born in 1895, had a carefree childhood in rural Vermont until, at the age of 11, his parents divorced, and more significantly, his father moved to British Columbia, which likely felt like an abandonment. His doting grandparents who raised him (while his mother was studying at Harvard) helped him bounce back and excel in high school. Tragically, he experienced another profound loss as a high school senior when the young woman he intended to marry unexpectedly died.

The female partner was born in 1891 in New York to a father who was an OBGYN and surgeon and a mother considered “a young woman of refinement”. She was the oldest of six children, and experienced one trauma as a child, which was the death of the youngest sibling in her family. The wife still described her childhood as idyllic and according to her biography on the Stepping Stones website, her assessment seemed to be accurate. This partner reported that she and her siblings were respected and deeply loved by their parents. They were also given excellent educations and sent to college.

How the couple met~ When the male partner was 18 and the female was 22, their families were vacationing in Vermont, and they got married 5 years later.

One BIG Hint…

This famous couple founded AA and Al-Anon! Their personal and spiritual growth journeys and more importantly their willingness to share their experience, strength, and hope with others has saved and improved the lives of countless individuals and their families! What is less discussed, but not less important, are the strengths and shortcomings of their intimate relationship. 

Why am I so interested in this couple’s romantic life?

  • This is one of the first couples in recovery with BOTH partners uniquely having very strong individual recovery programs. So the question begs, “Do strong individual recovery programs generalize to healthy intimate relationships?” 
  • By bravely talking about one of the most vulnerable topics- intimate relationships- we can improve our own relationships from compassionately reflecting on and understanding this couple’s strengths and areas of needed growth from an attachment theory lens.
  • And if a couple in recovery has children, a healthy couple relationship can positively affect the course of their children’s lives! Conversely, when parents constantly battle, are emotionally distant, or in some other way are not a healthy model of marriage, children and later adults can struggle unless they learn “secure attachment” relationship skills.

Bridging the Gap Between Addictions Counseling & Couples and Family Therapy

I began my career as an addictions counselor for teens and their families in 2001 and thought I had found my professional “home”. Then, in 2009, I decided it was time for me to expand my skills and began working with adult clients and immediately realized how profound and still enjoyable these “big people” were! However, I missed working with the families, which was an integral part of adolescent addictions counseling and was perplexed about why it was just a recommended or even non-existent component of the treatment program for my adult clients.

When spouses and other family members did participate in the “Family Program” AND couples and/or family therapy, I often saw relationships brought back to life and families reuniting. Thisrealization mobilized me topursue post-graduate training in marriage and family therapy at Denver Family Institute where I experienced another wonderful surprise- that couples therapy is heart-warming, deep, and effective. While many couples fly blind in their relationships, there truly are some wonderful “relationship owner’s manuals” to help guide the way of couples wishing to create a satisfying, long-lasting relationship different from their parents and unique to themselves. Frankly, my husband and I have benefited from couples therapy, a couple’s retreat, and having a well-researched manual we chose to guide us.

Working with couples in recovery is very important because this is rarely a program at treatment centers and yet is desperately needed for couples affected by addiction, codependency, and transitioning to recovery. Also, according to The Gottman Institute, “The correlation between successful individual recoveries and the health of the couple relationship is established in the research literature”. The time has come for treatment programs to support healthy intimate relationships by offering relationship education and couples therapy. This will benefit couples and their families.

How I Work with Couples in Recovery

I draw from a combination of research-based couples in recovery models, such as Navarra/Gottman’s “Couples and Addiction Recovery” and Berg’s “Conscious Couples” (see her book, Loving someone in recovery), and couples therapy models, such as Tatkin’s PACT (Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy) that incorporate attachment, experiential, and family systems theories.

While I primarily utilize experiential exercises with couples because these elicit powerful non-verbal communication, genuine emotions, and real life interactions that go much deeper than the politeness of talk therapy, attachment theory is still the foundation for my work because it gets to the heart of the matter. For example, one attachment-based question from PACT that I guide couples to ask one another is: “Am I doing everything possible to help you feel loved, emotionally safe, and secure?”

What is Attachment Theory?

According to Stan Takin,
Attachment theory refers to our biological need, throughout our lifetime, to feel attached or connected to at least one other person.”

“It is also the safety and security system of our primary relationships (the people who care for you, ex. parent & spouse). How much do you trust them? How do you feel when you signal your need for something and that caregiver responds to your need in a timely fashion, in a helpful way, and you don’t have to later pay for asking for something.  A secure attachment relationship is one in which I am reasonably secure in signaling my needs to you and expect you to respond to my signals in a timely and helpful fashion because it sets the course for:

  • how I move toward primary (adult) partners
  • how I move away from them
  • and how long I’m willing to stay in close proximity with them.

A lot of this is determined in early childhood, and it gets into our body, our nervous system.” (Tatkin, 2013, Your brain on love)

Using the famous couple (in the photograph above) as an example, the profound losses of safety and security that the male partner experienced likely shaped his avoidant attachment style because, in spite of his deep love for his wife and expressions of needing her, he possibly felt anxious and insecure when he and his wife got too close emotionally. This made him vulnerable to attaching to alcohol and later other lovers due to (unconsciously) feeling safer to be there emotionally and physically for the recovering community or other women, yet more stressful for him to be there for his wife who attachment theory describes as “primary attachment status”. Culture, religion, generational messages, etc. are other factors that influence behavior as well.

Although the female partner seemed to grow up in a securely attached home (which is unusual for spouses of alcoholics), the effects of her husband’s alcoholism among other factors (possibly her painful inability to have children) created her anxious attachment style. In the book, Wired for love, author Stan Tatkin reassures his readers that you can have an insecure attachment style and still develop a “securely functioning” relationship!

​And FINALLY, the answer to the question above…

Bill and Lois Wilson!

Lois and Bill began their relationship as a securely bonded, loving, and deeply connected couple, yet addiction and codependency created deep insecurity in their relationship. And, not uncommonly, even in their recovery, they struggled to build a secure attachment. This was evident in a powerful scene in the movie, “When Love is Not Enough; The Lois Wilson Story” when Lois tries to talk to Bill about their mortgage and the eviction notices they’re receiving, and Bill responds, “Not now Lois, I’ve got a meeting to attend.” While Lois normally would remain silent feeling she had to (& wanted to) support Bill’s recovery work, in this moment, her response was quite powerful. She said, “You have no idea what I’ve been through! I have prayed for you and fought for you. You’re my husband and I can’t depend on you at all! When is it going to be my turn? When are you going to be there for me?!”

The turning point in their relationship occurred on a train station platform in 1941, after they had lived in 51 different places in two years due to addiction in part causing them to be homeless, when Lois said to Bill, “I want a home Bill. For all these years, I’ve lived and breathed and hoped in Bill Wilson. I’ve become as addicted to you as you are to booze. I’m going to Bedford Hills (where their own new home awaited them) to stay for a while. I love you, but I have to do this.” And for once, in a long time, Bill put his relationship with Lois first again by catching up with her, embracing her, and going to Bedford Hills with her! 

In couples recovery work, I support partners to keep their recovery as their top priority in life because their recovery program keeps them alive!

I also encourage couples in recovery to prioritize talking with their spouse about their mortgage, going to their child’s baseball game, or emotionally being present when their spouse expresses a deep need they have… in order to have someone to be there for THEM with whom they can enjoy their recovery journey!

In Closing

While I encourage strong individual recovery programs in AA & Al-Anon, for example, I also recommend “couples in recovery” therapy because it is much more effective to improve your relationship skills in real time with your partner and the guidance of a trained addiction and couples therapist.

Intimate relationships are complex, and Bill and Lois Wilson are an example of a couple who were deeply committed to their own growth process as well as one another in spite of the challenges they continued to face in recovery. Fortunately, couples in recovery today have far more resources to help them in creating a securely attached relationship.

Contact Lana Isaacson, LCSW, CAC III, Certificate in Marriage and Family Therapy at: 720.432.5262 or [email protected] for “Couples in Recovery” therapy and Couples in Recovery workshops. See below and click here for more information.

  • Hone Your Relationship Skills – Interactive 60-90 minute presentation for Aftercare groups (weekday or evening)
  • “Have each other’s backs again! Couples in Recovery Workshop” –  Interactive 8 hour workshop for couples with at least one partner in recovery from an addiction) (weekend day)  – The next workshop will be held on Sunday, November 10, 2019; 8:30 am-4:30 pm.