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Guide: How to Approach the Topic of Relapse with a Non-Drug-Using Partner


This guide has been written by Harm Reduction Circle, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting harm reduction practices and supporting individuals and families impacted by substance use. We understand that relapse is a common and often distressing experience for people in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction. It can be especially challenging to approach the topic of relapse with a non-drug-using partner, as the conversation may be emotional and complex. Therefore, this guide is intended to be used by individuals in recovery who are seeking guidance on how to communicate effectively with their non-using partner about a relapse, and how to work together toward a healthier future. We hope that this guide provides helpful tips and strategies for approaching this sensitive topic with empathy and openness.


Approaching the topic of relapse with a non-drug-using partner can be a difficult and sensitive conversation. It's important for both individuals to understand how to navigate this situation in a supportive and compassionate way. This guide provides talking points and strategies to help the partner who has experienced a relapse to communicate effectively with their non-using partner. It also offers guidance for the non-using partner on how to best support their partner through the recovery process. By following these best practices, couples can strengthen their relationship and work together towards a healthier future.

Step 1: Have a Plan

When approaching the topic of relapse with a non-drug-using partner, it's important to have a plan in place. As a partner who has relapsed, it's important to take some time to prepare for the conversation with your non-using partner. This can involve setting clear goals and expectations for the conversation and developing a plan for how to approach the discussion.

Consider what you want to achieve from the conversation. Do you want to apologize for your behavior, seek forgiveness, or work together to find a solution? Be clear about your goals and communicate them to your partner. This will help to ensure that you're both on the same page and working towards a common outcome.

Think about how you want to approach the conversation. Do you want to have an open and honest discussion, or do you need some time to collect your thoughts before talking to your partner? Consider the best time and place for the conversation and try to minimize distractions or interruptions.

If you feel unsure about how to approach the conversation or need some additional support, consider reaching out to a professional or peer support group for guidance and advice. Talking to others who have been through similar experiences can help you gain perspective and develop effective communication strategies.

Overall, having a plan can help ensure that the conversation is respectful, productive, and compassionate. By setting clear goals and expectations, both partners can feel more prepared and less anxious about the discussion.

Step 2: The Conversation

As a partner who has relapsed, it's important to take ownership of your actions and approach the conversation with honesty and openness. Start by acknowledging that you have relapsed and providing details about the situation. It's important to avoid minimizing the situation or making excuses for your behavior.

It's also important to be truthful about the impact the relapse has had on the relationship and the non-using partner. Be prepared to listen to their feelings and concerns, and validate their emotions. It's important to approach the conversation with empathy and to understand that your partner may feel hurt, angry, or betrayed.

Seek out professional or peer support to help you process your emotions and develop coping strategies. This may include attending support group meetings, seeing a therapist or counselor, or talking with a sponsor or mentor. It's important to prioritize your own recovery while also taking responsibility for the impact of your relapse on your relationship.

Step 3: Discuss the next steps:

As a partner who relapsed, it's important to take ownership of your recovery and work collaboratively with your non-using partner to identify the next steps to prevent future relapses. Some steps you might consider discussing with your partner include:

  • Identifying Triggers: Identify triggers that may have led to the relapse and develop strategies to avoid or cope with them in the future. This may involve avoiding certain people or situations, learning new coping mechanisms, or developing healthy habits to replace old ones.

  • Seeking Professional Help: Consider seeking professional help such as therapy, counseling, or rehab to get support and learn new skills to help prevent future relapses.

  • Creating a Support System: Establish a support system that includes family, friends, or peers who are in recovery. This can help provide accountability and encouragement throughout the recovery process.

  • Creating a Safety Plan: Develop a safety plan that outlines what steps you and your partner will take if you experience another relapse. This may involve having emergency contacts, identifying warning signs, and setting boundaries to protect your relationship.

  • Maintaining Open Communication: Keep an open line of communication with your partner about your recovery journey. This can help build trust and understanding between you both, and ensure that you're working together towards a common goal.

By discussing these next steps with your partner, you can work together to establish a plan for preventing future relapses and maintaining a healthy relationship.

Step 4: Discuss the needs as you go through recovery:

From the perspective of the partner who relapsed, it's important to prioritize your recovery and take the necessary steps to get back on track. This may include seeking out additional support or treatment if needed, such as therapy or a support group. It's also important to be open to feedback and suggestions from your partner, as they can be a valuable source of support and insight. However, it's also important to set boundaries and communicate your needs clearly, so that you can take care of yourself while also working towards your recovery.

During this step, you can also discuss any specific needs or challenges you may be facing during your recovery. For example, if you are struggling with cravings or triggers, you can discuss strategies for managing these challenges. You can also discuss how your partner can support you during this time, such as by providing encouragement or accountability. By discussing these needs and working together to address them, you can strengthen your relationship and increase your chances of success in recovery.

Be open to feedback and suggestions from your partner, but also set boundaries and communicate your needs clearly.

Step 5: Discuss the needs of your partner:

It's important to acknowledge that the non-using partner may be going through a lot of emotions in response to the relapse. Recognize that your partner may be experiencing a range of emotions and may need support and understanding. They may feel disappointed, hurt, angry, and scared, among other things. It's important to be empathetic and understanding of their feelings and to listen to their needs and concerns.

Encourage your partner to prioritize their own self-care and seek support if they need it. This might involve taking time for themselves, talking to a therapist or support group, or reaching out to trusted friends or family members. Make sure to communicate that you are there for them and willing to provide support in any way you can.

Be open to discussing concerns and needs in the relationship and working together to address them. This might involve setting boundaries around drug use, establishing trust-building behaviors, and developing a plan for how to support each other through difficult times. Remember that recovery is a journey and that it may take time to rebuild trust and repair any damage that has been done to the relationship.

Step 6: Detail the next steps & create a timeline

Immediately After Relapsing:

As a partner who has relapsed, it's important to take responsibility for your actions and seek help from your support system immediately after the relapse. This involves being honest about the situation and taking active steps toward recovery. It's important to avoid blaming or shaming your non-using partner, as this can create a rift in the relationship.

During the 1st Week:

Within a week, it's important to schedule a time to talk more in-depth about the relapse and the recovery process. This allows both partners to share their thoughts and feelings, and to come up with a plan moving forward. The non-using partner can educate themselves about addiction and recovery, which can help them better understand what their partner is going through.

The drug user should actively seek professional help within the first week, whether that involves scheduling an appointment with a therapist, attending a support group, or speaking to a medical professional. This shows a commitment to recovery and can provide valuable guidance and support.

During the 1st Month:

Within a month, it's important to work together to develop a plan for preventing future relapses. This may involve identifying triggers or high-risk situations, creating a relapse prevention plan, and setting boundaries and goals for the future. Attending therapy or support groups together can help strengthen the relationship and provide ongoing support for both partners.


Communication is essential to maintaining an ongoing healthy relationship during recovery. Both partners should continue to communicate openly and honestly about their feelings and concerns. The non-using partner should continue to educate themselves about addiction and recovery, which can help them provide support and understanding. The drug user should prioritize their recovery and continue to seek professional help as needed, recognizing that recovery is an ongoing process. By working together, both partners can create a supportive and healthy environment for long-term recovery.

Step 7: Maintaining communication:

Maintaining open and honest communication is crucial in repairing the relationship and rebuilding trust. It's important to make a conscious effort to stay connected with the non-using partner and to check in regularly. This can be done by setting aside time to talk about how you're feeling and what progress you're making in your recovery.

During these conversations, it's important to be open and honest about your thoughts and feelings, as well as any challenges or setbacks you may be experiencing. However, it's also important to listen actively and empathetically to your partner's perspective and to be willing to make compromises and adjustments as needed.

It's important to remember that rebuilding trust takes time and that the process may be difficult and painful for both partners. However, with patience, understanding, and a commitment to open communication, it is possible to heal the relationship and move forward together in a positive direction. Moving forward, be open and honest about thoughts and feelings, but also be willing to listen.

  • Discuss the triggers and warning signs of a potential relapse: It's important for both partners to understand the warning signs of a potential relapse and how to address them. Identify the triggers that may lead to a relapse and create a plan for how to manage them together.

  • Consider couples therapy: If the relationship has been significantly impacted by the addiction or the relapse, couples therapy may be beneficial to work through any issues and rebuild trust.

  • Be mindful of language and attitudes: Language and attitudes towards addiction can greatly impact the recovery process. Avoid stigmatizing or judgmental language and attitudes and focus on empathy, understanding, and support.

  • Celebrate small victories: Recovery is a journey, and small victories should be celebrated along the way. This can include reaching a certain number of days sober, attending a support group meeting, or taking steps toward rebuilding the relationship.

  • Address any underlying issues: Addiction is often a symptom of underlying issues, such as trauma, mental health issues, or relationship problems. It's important to address these underlying issues in order to achieve long-term recovery and healing.

Step 8: Provide Ways Your Partner Can Support:

Supporting a partner through recovery from addiction can be challenging, but it's an important role to play in their journey towards sobriety. Here are some best practices for a non-using partner to support their partner through recovery:

  1. Educate yourself about addiction and recovery: By learning more about addiction, you can better understand what your partner is going through and how to support them. Attend support groups or therapy sessions with your partner or read books and articles about addiction and recovery.

  2. Encourage and support their recovery plan: Work together with your partner to develop a plan for preventing future relapses and staying on track with their recovery goals. Encourage them to attend therapy or support groups, and offer to attend with them if they need support.

  3. Offer encouragement: Let your partner know that you believe in their ability to overcome addiction and that you are there to support them along the way.

  4. Be patient: Recovery is a process and it takes time. Be patient and understanding as your partner works through the ups and downs of their journey.

  5. Practice active listening: Be present and engaged when your partner talks about their struggles, fears, or successes. Listen without judgment or interruption and offer supportive feedback.

  6. Set boundaries: It's important to establish healthy boundaries to protect yourself and your relationship. This might include not enabling your partner's addiction or setting limits on how much support you can provide.

  7. Encourage healthy habits: Encourage your partner to prioritize self-care and engage in healthy activities like exercise, meditation, or hobbies.

  8. Celebrate successes: Recovery is a journey with ups and downs, so it's important to celebrate milestones and successes along the way. This can help your partner feel supported and motivated to continue their progress.

  9. Attend therapy or support groups: Consider attending therapy or support groups with your partner to gain insight and tools on how to better support them in their recovery.

  10. Practice forgiveness: Forgiveness is an important aspect of moving forward after a relapse. It's important for the non-using partner to practice forgiveness, but also for the partner who relapsed to take responsibility and make amends.

  11. Stay positive and focus on progress: Recovery is a journey with ups and downs. Encourage each other to stay positive and focus on progress, rather than dwelling on setbacks.

  12. Take care of yourself: Remember that it's important to take care of your own well-being as well. Make sure to engage in self-care activities and seek support for yourself if needed.


Relapse is a part of the recovery process for many people struggling with substance use. We also recognize the impact that relapse can have on both the person using and their non-using partner.

If you have relapsed, we encourage you to take time to reflect on what led to the relapse and what you can do differently moving forward. It's important to seek support from trusted friends, family members, or professionals who can help you navigate this difficult time.

For your non-using partner, we recommend open and honest communication. It's important to acknowledge the impact your relapse may have had on them and to express your commitment to your recovery. We encourage you to work together to establish boundaries and support systems that will help you both through this challenging time.

Remember that recovery is a journey, and it's not always a straight line. Be kind to yourself and take the necessary steps to get back on track. With dedication and support, you can move forward toward a healthier, happier future together.

How to Approach the Topic of Relapse with a Non-Drug-Using Partner
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