Relationships - Who Can Help With Recovery, and Who You Can Remove From Your Life


It is natural to focus on how personal choices affect recovery, but we can't forget that recovery doesn’t only require emotional and mental work.

It also requires an assessment of our external environments.

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Beyond establishing a safe home, healthy habits, and purpose, recovery can't fully occur unless we also adjust the relationships around us and develop new relationships within recovery-oriented communities. Recovery-oriented support systems are an integral part of helping people with substance use disorders, but seeking them out isn't second nature. Neither is cutting ties to people who may not be conducive to your mental health.

In this article, we identify good recovery-oriented relationships and those that could threaten recovery. From there, we look at how to build a healthy support system to sustain recovery.

How do you identify a healthy relationship?

Recovery-friendly relationships and social networks typically involve family members and friends who champion their and support one’s recovery but who also have access to intentional supports that promote your health and well-being.

A healthy relationship will make you feel safe to be yourself without fear of judgment, ridicule, or consequence. Safety within a relationship is attainable when both partners or peers feel equal, as though they give and take at a comparable rate.

A healthy relationship, either romantic or interpersonal, consists of several key factors:

Trust: The hallmark of a healthy relationship, trust establishes a foundation of assurance, compassion, and consistency. Physical and emotional safety is crucial to being in a healthy relationship with a partner or peer. Once broken, trust can be rebuilt (1), but it is not the same as forgiveness or love, and takes a lot of time and communication.

  • Communication: Honest and respectful discussion amongst partners can help to establish healthy boundaries and avoid any conflict that could derail your recovery.
  • Empathy: Understanding and learning are enhanced when you to put yourself in another person's position. This allows you to better understand their motivations, and what can be done to help and establishes healthy boundaries for each other.
  • Interpersonal patience: Everyone gets frustrated within their relationships from time to time, but actively practicing patience (2) through listening, empathy, and focusing on shared goals can help you find common ground within your relationships.
  • Compassion and comfort: Both physical and emotional support can boost your recovery process and encourage healthier relationship dynamics.
  • Boundaries: All healthy relationships need boundaries (3), these boundaries between yourself and your partner are especially important if that boundary protects your recovery.
  • Clear expectations: Clarifying one's needs and wants, and then finding healthy, assertive ways to state one's needs and wants in a relationship. For many people this process requires consultation with a counsellor, or a trusted other, as people are often unsure of their needs/wants and it's helpful to have a valued person validate them.

On the other hand, there are such relationships that can only serve to sabotage recovery. Holding onto a relationship where trust, abuse, neglect and control are concerns, will not serve as a stable ground for the foundation of a healthy, drug and alcohol-free life. In this case, the first step to removing the threat to our recovery is identifying the unhealthy relationship.

How do you identify an unhealthy relationship?

Unhealthy relationships tend to be easier to spot from the outside than when we are one of the partners engaged in the relationship. It's also challenging to listen to outside advice about an abusive relationship when we are in denial and not willing to give up what little we still get from the other person in the relationship.

An unhealthy relationship will often have one or more abusive dynamics at play, including, but not limited to, unwanted or uninvited physical contact of a harmful nature; controlling tendencies, suspicion, humiliation, pressuring, and unpredictability; and psychologically manipulative tendencies, such as gas-lighting, where a person intentionally questions and makes you doubt your own memories or perception of reality.

Unhealthy relationships can be challenging to identify in the initial stages of the relationship, so it's essential to acknowledge any potential red flags, including possessiveness, jealousy, and coming on too strongly. It is essential to cut off any unhealthy relationships, both romantic and otherwise, especially if they're negatively impacting your physical, mental, and emotional health.

One type of relationship that must be examined by anyone in recovery is that which feeds the behaviours of addiction. Anyone who continues to misuse drugs and alcohol, or who sells illicit substances, or who encourages others to misuse substances must go, at least at first. Once impervious boundaries are established - aided by time, counselling, and working a program - the relationship could be revisited in future. 

If that particular relationship is not salvageable, the recovering person will have the wisdom to recognize that, make a decision based on protecting their recovery, and they will have a support system to fall back on while grieving or contemplating the end of this relationship.

When cutting off an unhealthy or harmful relationship of any kind, it's essential to cease all contact immediately and distance yourself from people who may encourage you to get back in touch with them. It is through exercising healthy boundaries that we are able to best support our mental health in challenging times.

In regards to abusive romantic partnerships, a sound support system becomes increasingly important. Building a support system while in an abusive relationship can be challenging, but confiding in those you trust will ultimately help you feel less isolated, and offers comfort during your recovery process, once the relationship has ended.

Reliable support systems, especially when you're in an abusive relationship, can offer resources to help you become more resilient, and more motivated to pursue your recovery.

A counsellor may also help to affirm any choice you wish to make regarding your physical, emotional, and psychological safety.

In many cases, an unhealthy relationship can restrict your recovery process, and contribute to harmful behaviours that impede your overall health and wellness. Recognizing these relationships at an early stage can be the key to supporting a smoother, healthier journey to recovery.

How do you build a healthy support system?

Sound support systems help us regulate stress by decreasing the feelings of isolation or loneliness that arise when our addictive behaviours aren't masking them. The people within those support systems can help us further by modelling healthy choices and their commitment to personal development. First-line services and support are available in the form of social support, peer mentors, and recovery coaching. More intimate relationships, however, require supportive peers and partners with the following characteristics:

  • Genuine concern: An interest in your life, what you think, and how you feel.
  • Emotional support: Someone who is not just around for the good times, but also there during challenges.
  • Acceptance: Encouraging of the things that make you happy, like hobbies or interests that make you feel personally fulfilled.
  • Undivided attention: Listening when you wish to share with them, and offering honest, truthful, and compassionate feedback when requested.
  • Respect for your boundaries: Prioritizing your physical, emotional, and psychological safety above their perception of your needs or wants.
  • Joy: You always feel uplifted and loved around them, and rarely feel shameful or drained.

Support systems develop for those who work their recovery

Recovery is personal and so complex that it really can only happen one day at a time with each day building on the foundations of previous learnings. The process is one of continual personal and spiritual growth, as well as improved health, but it will also include some setbacks, which is why support is necessary to mitigate the harmful natural responses we have honed for dealing with setbacks and encourage us to make the best choices possible.

  1. Start with the healthy relationships you already have.
  2. Seek additional support through counselling and other forms of therapy.
  3. Remove those who are hurting your recovery to expedite the recovery process.
  4. Before you allow someone into your inner "circle," make sure that they possess the qualities listed in the previous sections.

If you feel secure, cared for, listened to, and are not afraid to be your true self, and can maintain boundaries between the people around you, you can be sure that you are on the right path to discovering even deeper recovery through healthy relationships. 


  1. 7 Ways to Build Trust in a Relationship. Psychology Today. Dec 12, 2018.
  2. An examination of patience and well-being. The Journal of Positive Psychology. July 2012.
  3. How to Set Healthy Boundaries: 10 Examples + PDF Worksheets. Positive Psychology.