Your partner has stopped drinking, or drugging, or gambling, or whoring around, or whatever. Her depression seems to have lifted. His anxiety no longer makes all the decisions. She’s up in the morning and dressed when she needs to be. The illness seems to have gone away.
Has it, really?
You will be the last person to believe that it has disappeared. Everyone else will celebrate her recovery when you’re still waiting for the next shoe to drop. There’s a reason for your skepticism. You have the most to lose.
There’s another reason. Illness takes cover sometimes when it feels threatened. It’ll hide in the bushes and come roaring out when you least suspect it. Make no mistake, illness is cunning, baffling, and very, very patient. While your partner has been collecting key rings at his NA meeting, his illness has been doing pushups in the dark.
Illness prefers the dark. It likes to perform its dirty deeds in secret. The night belongs to Michelob. However, the illness is rarely ever a real secret. It’s kidding itself when it believes it leaves no trace. You can tell when the illness is still afoot if you are willing to read the signs.
Your partner hasn’t done the things promised for his or her recovery
If the problem behavior is gone, but he still hasn’t been to see a therapist, attended meetings, written that letter of apology, changed associates, or done any of the things he promised, then the illness is just hoping you wouldn’t notice.
The behavioral changes have been minor
The longer that illness has been part of the relationship or the more serious it has been, the more excited everyone will be when there has been a slight improvement.
She was drinking every day, now you’re thrilled that she cut down to once a week. He used to gamble away all his paycheck, now he only buys a few scratch-offs. He used to beat you, now he only puts holes in the wall. The underlying attitudes towards drinking, gambling, or violence have not changed; the only thing changed is the frequency and severity.
When gardeners trim bushes back a little, they call it pruning; it doesn’t destroy the bush, it makes it grow more. The same thing happens when only minor changes are accomplished. You wouldn’t be satisfied with your surgeon if you had a mastectomy and he left some cancer behind, so don’t be fooled by minor behavioral changes.
Other problems have arisen
Sometimes the illness plays whack-a-mole by extinguishing one problem behavior, only to transfer it to another. We see this frequently with addicts who will use one drug until the heat is on, and then switch to a different drug. Instead of scoring heroin on the street and using dirty needles, they get their narcotics from a doctor. You’ll think that’s an improvement, until they start to abuse those pills, too. The underlying issue remains.
Thinking has not changed
If the rationalizations that have justified the illness are still in evidence, then the illness has not gone away. He used to say he needed to drink, so he drank. Now, he doesn’t drink, but he still says he needs to. Guess what? He will drink again. If he were truly in recovery he would no longer believe he needs it.
No fence has been built
It is not enough just to change the problem behavior to eradicate an illness. You also have to know the route that it takes before it arrives. You need to put up a gate and shut out behavior that, in itself, is not problematic, but leads up to the problem.
Illness comes masquerading as something harmless so that you will not see it coming. Pedophiles start off by making friends with a child. There’s nothing wrong with making friends with a child, right? But, then they gradually groom the child to accept more and more sexual behavior. We protect children from pedophiles by not permitting them to live near schools. This is not because it is bad to live near a school, but it is bad for pedophiles to live near schools.
Authentic recovery means that you and your partner can see through all the disguises.
History is minimized
If the story your partner tells about the illness differs significantly from your own, then the illness is still lurking about. If she talks about her depression only in terms of her suffering and leaves out how it affected others, then she has not incorporated your point of view into her own. Her limited perspective is still all she has. She has an incomplete appreciation of the costs of her choices. She should be able to tell your side of the story as well as her own.
Your partner is withdrawn
If your partner is virtually unreachable, emotionally inaccessible, or sexually uninterested, then the illness may be in hiding. It doesn’t want you to ask too many questions, know too much, or get too close.
Your partner always seems to be angry with you
The illness may be blaming you for calling it out and challenging it. It may be using anger as a way to keep you away, off balance, and uninformed. Your partner may still be taking sides with the illness, against you.
You’re working harder at recovery than your partner is
You’ve been on your partner like white on rice. Ever since he had that affair, you’ve been monitoring his phone, checking his whereabouts, scanning his emails, opening his letters. You’ve met every single female acquaintance he has and gave them all the stink eye. You’ve scrutinized his expression when every waitress approaches. You’ve tried every new position he wanted in an attempt to reawaken your sex life. You found a therapist for him, set up the appointment, gone to every session, paid, and did the homework assignments. You are working harder than he is.
If he has not taken responsibility for change, then he will not make the right choices the moment your back is turned. The recovery is yours, not his. He is still chums with his illness.
You’re careful not to upset your partner
If you still feel like you are walking on eggshells, then maybe you’re picking up on something. You’re still getting bad vibes; not bad enough to talk about, but just enough to make you uncomfortable.
Your partner declares everything is changed
Your partner is not the one to judge whether anything has changed. When the illness fools people, it fools him first.
Your partner wants to move on and not get stuck in the past
That’s the illness talking, trying to convince you to not learn from the past. Truly recovering people remind themselves of the past regularly, so that they’ll not repeat it.
Your partner wants credit for improvements
An adult straightens the house every day. He scrubs the toilets when they need it and mops the floor when it’s dirty. He doesn’t expect a medal for it. He just does it because it needs doing.
A toddler tickles the furniture with a feather duster once in a while and everyone will fall all over him, saying he was very helpful. That’s what you do for a child. Is your partner a child?
When illness takes over: the less you do, the more credit you think you deserve.
In a healthy world: you don’t earn special points for doing what you should have been doing all along.
It’s still all about him (or her)
You ought to be happy, but you’re not. There still seems to be something wrong. Not only has your partner stopped the problematic behavior, but he’s been going to therapy, attending AA, writing in his journal, and getting in touch with his feelings. These are all good things, but he’s still as self-involved as ever.
Real change means taking action to being more loving, generous, caring, and empathetic towards others.
There are no signs
You looked over this list and you did not find a single thing that indicates the illness may be lurking. There seem to be no signs. Well, that’s your sign. If you are not seeing signs, then you’re fooling yourself. There are always signs.
The road to recovery is the same road as the road to ruin; you’re just traveling in a different direction. You pass by the same markers as when you were heading to ruin. You should be seeing them now and recognizing them for what they are. You should also be seeing some signs that indicate you are heading in the right direction. You should be seeing meaningful change.