Loss of trust is one of the most common issues to come up in couple therapy. It can appear in many forms, from the obvious – an affair or betrayal – to subtler, underlying feelings that take longer to identify, such as the sense that a partner never puts you first. Whatever the presenting problems may be, it’s no exaggeration to say that for the majority of couples I have worked with sooner or later identify trust as a problem.

In couples where one partner is struggling with addiction, lack of trust is often a central issue. It’s not unusual for lying to become second nature for an addict, in a mistaken attempt to avoid conflict. Inevitably, when the lie is discovered, the repercussions are worse than telling the truth in the first place would have been.

Rob and Abi are a couple I worked with for a long time. Some years previously, soon after they moved in together, Abi had become aware of a change in Rob. He had started a new job and was under pressure. His occasional Friday night drinks became more frequent, and before long he was coming home in the early hours every Saturday, very much the worse for wear. Then Abi started noticing that was returning smelling of drink on other days of the week. His behaviour became erratic, but when she asked him if he had been drinking he denied it. 

It was only when his boss gave him an ultimatum that Rob admitted he had a problem. He and Abi had a showdown. He went to his GP who referred him for help, which seemed to be successful. He stopped drinking altogether and life moved on. In time they got married and had two sons.

‘I felt as if he had been cheating on me,’ she said. ‘Like he had been having an affair. I felt duped’.

It was five years later when Abi started to feel uneasy again. Some of the old behaviour had returned. She accused Rob of drinking but he continually denied it, telling her it was her problem, that she was imagining things. Then one day she walked in to the kitchen to find him pouring vodka into his morning coffee. Rob broke down and admitted his drinking was far out of control. It was a terrible blow to Abi, who had wanted to believe his reassurances.

‘I felt as if he had been cheating on me,’ she said. ‘Like he had been having an affair. I felt duped’.

This is a comparison I have often heard from partners. While an addict’s relationship with a substance is usually a complex one, to a partner it can feel simply as though they love the substance more. The web of lies that Rob had been telling Abi slowly unravelled and left her questioning the very basis of their relationship. She felt that he had chosen alcohol over her and the children. But Rob had very little sense of making a choice. He hated himself for drinking but the urge to continue was much stronger than the knowledge that he should stop. He felt caught up in a battle he inevitably lost, and the shame of this failure was what drove him to lie to Abi.

Once the truth was out, Rob agreed to get treatment. This time he spent six weeks in rehab, and when he came out he began to attend AA meetings and admitted he was ‘powerless over alcohol’. Rob felt his recovery had a much more solid basis this time and was confident he would be able to stay abstinent. Abi, however, remained very uncertain. Her trust had been shattered and she questioned whether she could put herself at risk again.

It was at this point that Abi and Rob began couple therapy, but it was a long and far from straightforward process. Abi was clear that it would take more than just Rob’s word to convince her he was telling the truth, but at the same time she knew she could not be his ‘jailer’. Rob maintained that he was committed to regaining Abi’s trust. Alongside therapy they both attended 12-step meetings, which helped give them a shared framework of honesty. We then devised some communication strategies which helped them keep the channels of communication open, and encouraged them to be considerate and aware of each other on a daily basis. Rob and Abi worked together to identify the danger times for Rob.

Slowly things began to improve, and our focus switched to making sure they continued attending to the relationship and not letting it drift. At the end of our sessions, Abi told me that she would probably never fully recover her ‘naïve’ trust in Rob, but by taking it one day at a time and making sure they kept the communication channels open, she felt they had actually grown closer than before.

Rebecca Harris is a therapist on the welldoing directory