Should You Have a Lapse/Relapse Contract With Your Loved One After Rehab?

It can be an exciting time when a loved one returns home after drug rehab. Fresh from the positive and nurturing environment of treatment, many new to recovery are happy to be home. They are appreciative of all that their family members have done for them and ready to make a solid effort toward making amends for past mistakes while also creating positive changes with the goal of building a better future.

Unfortunately, rehabilitation is not a cure for addiction. Good intentions are not enough to sustain someone in recovery, and if the person does not continue to actively engage with his treatment – that is, continue to attend personal therapy sessions and receive treatment for ongoing mental health symptoms while working on the underlying issues that drove his use of substances – then relapse may not be far off.

What do you do if your loved one relapses after treatment? Can a lapse/relapse contract help?

A Contract

An actual written contract that identifies all that you and your loved one agree to in terms of what you will do to support him in recovery, and what he will do in terms of addressing his past in addiction and building a stronger future in recovery, is an excellent therapeutic tool. The act of writing it all out and discussing everything point by point can clarify issues that might otherwise be murky and cause problems later.

For example, in the case of an addicted wife returning home to her husband and children, a written contract may discuss:

  • Who will manage the finances
  • What each person’s specific responsibilities will be around the house and regarding the children
  • What therapies and treatments she will engage in
  • Whether or not he will attend any of her aftercare treatments with her
  • The specifics of their relationship (e.g., are they separated and seeing other people, or together and monogamous?)
  • How relapse will be handled
  • What each wants and needs in terms of working through past issues
  • What each wants and needs from the relationship going forward

In this way, there is no backtracking and saying that something was unclear or not agreed to. Everyone is on the same page and knows what to expect going forward – no secrets, no surprises.

Lapse/Relapse Contract

In addition to the “contract” created to support everyone getting what they need going forward, a lapse/relapse addendum can address specifically what will happen if the addicted person in recovery drinks or uses drugs purposefully or accidentally. Specifically, this can outline:

  • What is defined as a lapse or a relapse (e.g., Is inadvertently sipping champagne instead of apple juice at a wedding or using Novocain at the dentist considered a lapse or relapse?)
  • What consequences will occur after a first relapse or lapse
  • What consequences will occur after a second relapse or lapse
  • What consequences will occur after a third relapse

It is recommended that the two people writing the contract work together with a therapist to fill out the lapse/relapse contract early on in the addiction recovery process. It is also important to note that consequences are important. There are no “free passes” or the ability to escape consequences for the behavior. For example, a first relapse may mean that the addicted person agrees to attend a 12-step meeting every day for a set period of time or submit to drug tests at home or at the doctor’s office for a period of time. A second relapse may mean more serious consequences – that is, in the example of a married couple, the person who relapses may be asked to move out pending separation or divorce if there is a third relapse. A third relapse may signify the end of the relationship or further cutting of ties to reduce any chances that the supportive person is enabling the addicted person’s return to addiction.

Setting Boundaries


Though a contract sounds formal and controlling, it can actually be very freeing if it is done in advance together and in an therapeutic environment. The goal is to protect both people involved, and certainly, now one is bound to it; it’s not a legal arrangement. If at any point the addicted person simply chooses to move on – or the supportive person does – then they are free to go. The contract does not force anyone to stay involved in a relationship but gives them tools to negotiate getting their needs met in a way that is healthy and assists the addicted person in recovery by giving them structure and clear boundaries and consequences in advance.

Is a Contract Right for You – Both of You?

Putting words on paper may be a good way to get your thoughts in order and communicate with your loved one as he or she prepares to return from rehab, but before you start drawing up contracts, make sure your family member is on board. A contract will be largely ineffectual unless both people are not only involved in creating it but also committed to allowing it to offer structure to the relationship. If you are unsure where your loved one stands on the matter, this could be a good topic for discussion at a family therapy session prior to his or her return home. If your loved one agrees tentatively, then working through the process with your family therapist will allow you both to test the waters in order to avoid agreeing to anything that makes either person feel uncomfortable.

Do you think a contract would help you to define your expectations and hopes for your loved one’s return home after rehab?

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