Aside from the fact that we are substance abuse counselors working in the field, we are also folks who have had our lives touched by alcoholism, addiction, and substance use. In addition to our own recovery journeys, many of us have had to work through the process of rebuilding trust with an addict or alcoholic family member, parent, sibling, or child.
Though there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of how to trust an addict or alcoholic again, we hope to be able to provide some guidance and ways of thinking to guide you in your process of rebuilding trust with an alcoholic or addict loved one.
As we say in recovery, take what you need, and leave the rest:
So, can an addict ever be trusted again?
We would argue that yes, you can trust an addict (or alcoholic) again, but it’s contingent on a couple things. In general, both of these things need to happen in order for trust to be rebuilt effectively:
- The addict or alcoholic needs to stay sober
- The parent or family member needs to decide to build trust, and actively work on it
Since we don’t have control over what the addict does, the focus of this article will be on our side of the street – the side of the loved one who is wondering if they can ever trust their drug addict again.
First: Do you want to trust this person again?
It may seem silly at face value, but it’s a serious question. Can you trust an ex-drug addict after they sober up? We’d be remiss if we didn’t start by asking you: do you want to trust them again? As stated above, there’s no perfect answer to this question – it’s truly up to you.
However, if we don’t start at least by thinking about whether or not we want to trust this person again, we’ll get stuck in no time. After all, we need to own the decision to develop trust.
It’s easy to think that rebuilding trust is the obvious path forward to a healthy relationship, but oftentimes hurt and feelings of betrayal get in the way. It’s worth it to discuss this issue with a counselor or sponsor. Do you have feelings of anger, fear, frustration, guilt, etc. that are going to stop you from earnestly working on rebuilding trust?
If you’ve decided that you want to work on trusting your loved one again, here are some of the ways of thinking that we have used in our own lives as well as given to many parents, spouses, and family members over the years:
Understand that trust can come in layers
Remember that just as the recovery process is a journey for the drug user, the trust-building process is a journey for the family. It has many moving parts.
- For instance, you may trust your loved one to show up on time for a family event long before you trust them with your debit card.
- Similarly, you may trust them with your debit card long before you trust them with a key to your house.
- Lastly, you may trust them with physical decisions before you emotionally “feel” that you trust them again.
See what we mean? It doesn’t all come at once, and it usually comes as a result of practicing trust in the relationship. Once you’ve determined that you wish to begin trusting your loved one with little things, you must actually do so.
Which brings us to:
Trust is an action
One of the first things to understand in the journey of rebuilding trust is the saying “trust is an action.” Think about it: when your parents first “trusted” you with their car, what did they do? They probably gave you the car for the evening. In other words, they took an action.
If you proved yourself trustworthy, they were more likely to take that action again.
In rebuilding trust with your loved one, you must do the same thing. Many times, parents and spouses think they must “feel” something in order to begin trusting their loved one again. We suggest that it’s the opposite.
An old saying in recovery is: bring the body and the mind will follow. The meaning of this saying is: take the action, and the feeling will come later.
We must take the action to demonstrate trust, or we’ll never begin to feel that we trust our loved one. Additionally, our loved one will feel that we say we’re building trust, but we actually aren’t.
How to demonstrate trust in the beginning
If you’ve taken the steps to help your loved one get professional treatment, we’ve given them what they need to succeed, and now we’re letting go of their actions, we need to actually let go.
Continuing to track their behavior, monitor everything they do, and confront them repeatedly isn’t a demonstration of trust. It’s a demonstration of mistrust.
Remember that if your loved one is in treatment, their counselors and peers in recovery are already monitoring their actions and confronting them when necessary. If they’re in a 12-step fellowship, then their sponsors and friends are doing the same thing.
It’s at this point that you, as a parent or spouse, can take a back seat, begin taking care of yourself, and trust.
Is trust a guarantee that the drug user will stay sober and never violate your boundaries? No. However, it is the best setup for the most optimal outcome going forward.
Trust is a win-win
Though this way of thinking can be counterintuitive to those we share it with, we do believe it to be true. Think about trust this way:
If we decide to trust this person, and they prove themselves worthy of our trust, then everybody wins.
If we decide to trust this person, and they prove themselves unworthy of our trust by lying or breaking our boundaries, then our side of the street is still clean.
Of course, this way of thinking isn’t suggesting that we should just hand our newly sober loved ones the credit card and the keys to the car. It’s simply a way of communicating that if you decide to take the action of trusting your loved one, it’s a win-win, regardless of what the loved one does.
How long should it take to rebuild trust?
Ceasing drug use can be an overnight matter, but getting sober isn’t. There are physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental health layers to the addiction and recovery process. We’re asking our loved one to change everything about their lives in a very compressed time frame. It’s a tall order!
Similarly, we need to understand that trust isn’t a “switch” we can flip.
Though every situation is different, here are some things to look for that signify that you can safely devote higher and higher levels of trust in your loved one:
- Consistent recovery efforts: Are they holding up their end of the bargain? Going to meetings? Meeting with a sponsor?
- Demonstrated reliability: Is the person generally on-time again? Are they where they say they’re going to be? Are they following through on promises?
- Open communication: Though communication can be clouded in the beginning by guilt and shame on the drug user’s part, do you feel that their openness and honesty has improved significantly since they entered recovery?
These are some good signs that your loved one is on the right track. It may take them a few months to truly demonstrate consistent recovery efforts, and demonstrating reliability may take much longer. Being in communication with a counselor or sponsor will help you make sense of what you’re seeing and hearing from your loved one, and make decisions about how and when to demonstrate that you are beginning to trust them again.
Parent Perspective: Steps to develop trust
The journey ahead may be a long one, but if you’ve decided you’re in for the journey, there are a few steps we can recommend that will make the process of rebuilding trust smoother while mitigating potential pitfalls for yourself:
Find an appropriate fellowship or support group
One of the most helpful pieces of advice is to get involved in a support group specific to your situation. In our case, dealing with young adults and teens who use drugs, we recommend parent support groups. There are numerous parent-centric support groups out there, including our own, or something like Parents of Addicted Loved Ones if we’re not in your town.
If you’re dealing with something like a spouse or significant other, Al-Anon and Nar-Anon can also be supremely helpful.
Get a sponsor or mentor to guide you
One thing that all these fellowships will have in common is they will guide you to connect with someone who can help you make sense of everything you’ve been through. It’s impossible to foresee the circumstances that will arise on this journey and the decisions you’ll be faced with.
Having a trusted person (or network of people) in your corner to guide you will be invaluable as situations arise along the way.
If the fellowship / support group you’ve chosen to connect with is a 12-step fellowship, then this will come in the form of getting a sponsor.
Learn about substance use and its implications
One of the most helpful things we can do is to simply get some education on substance abuse. This can be accomplished by something as simple as reading the first few chapters of the Big Book or NA’s basic text. It can also be accomplished by talking with sponsors or professional counselors you’re working with in order to begin to understand what substance abuse is like.
Note that the purpose of this step is not to excuse anyone’s behavior. Lying, stealing, cheating, etc. are wrong and hurtful regardless of a person’s circumstances, level of substance use disorder, etc.
However, understanding a bit about what the person was probably thinking, why they did it, and how long it can take to feel better after sobering up can go a long way.
Set appropriate boundaries
Utilizing the sponsors, counselors, and trusted individuals you’ve connected with, we recommend thinking through some of the situations that may arise based on your loved one’s past behavior. It’s generally not hard to recall a handful of repeated ways that your loved one has violated your trust. With each of these, ask yourself:
- Where do you draw the line? (How far is too far)
- At what point is the person taking advantage of you?
- How much time, energy, money, and resources are you willing to devote to helping this person?
Though each family is different, we recommend keeping it simple and easy to remember. For example, a few boundaries could be:
- No drugs are allowed in my household
- I’ve already helped you get into rehab twice. The next time, you’ll have to get yourself into rehab.
- I will not provide you with any more money beyond your weekly allowance while you’re in addiction treatment.
Your counselors and sponsors will likely be able to help you think of a few more things, but as mentioned above, we recommend keeping it simple and to the point. It’s highly likely that once you communicate your boundaries to your loved one, you will be placed in a situation to enforce them fairly soon.
Communicate clearly with your loved one
Once you’ve decided what your boundaries are, make sure your loved one is aware of what they are. It’s easy to let up on this step, but communication is key. If you wonder if you communicated clearly, it will be much harder to go back later and remind the drug user of what the boundaries were in the first place.
One thing we remind parents and spouses of at this step of the journey is to expect that the addict or alcoholic will test the boundaries at least a few times. This is to be expected – and is generally a sign that the dynamic in the family is going to shift as long as you stick to your boundaries.
If possible, spend time with your loved one and “stay on their side”
In the world of addiction and recovery, we often run into highly emotionally charged situations that set us up to feel as though we’re against our loved ones, and they are against us. It’s important to remember that we love them. They need to know it too!
If feasible and prudent, spend time with your loved one who is getting sober. In the long term, this time spent will go a long way.
Yes, you can trust an alcoholic or addict again, it just takes work!
Trusting someone battling addiction is a nuanced and emotional journey. While past experiences may leave us hesitant, recognize that trust is an active process that involves effort, consistency, and accountability.
Trust is not rebuilt overnight, and rebuilding trust with an addict in recovery is not without its challenges, but those who have committed to the process ultimately report that it was worth it.
Please let us know if you’d like to discuss these issues further, or would like help developing a plan for yourself or your loved one!