Heroin-Addicted Vietnam Vets Teach Us About Effective Couples Retreats.

8770844_mlOne of the effects of the war in Vietnam was a fundamental shift in our understanding of human change.  This understanding was dramatically enhanced by the famous Robins study of 1971. Nixon asked Dr. Robins to provide him with a frank and honest assessment of the extent of heroin addiction among US forces in Vietnam.
Robins famously discovered that 20% of all personnel had been addicted to heroin at some point, and 11% tested positive at the point of discharge.
The military was bracing for impact they imagined would be a sudden spike in the stateside addiction rate.

“Perhaps our most remarkable finding,” Robins later noted, “was that only 5% of the men who became addicted in Vietnam relapsed within 10 months after return, and only 12% relapsed even briefly within three years.”

What accounted for this surprisingly high recovery rate from heroin, thought to be the most addictive drug the currently available? We can rule out treatment and/or institutional rehab. It didn’t make the difference. Heroin addiction treatment was practically unknown in the 1970s, anyway.
“Most Vietnam addicts were not even detoxified while in service, and only a tiny percentage were treated after return,” Robins reported.

And it wasn’t the lack of access, since roughly half of those addicted in Vietnam had tried smack at least once after returning home…but very few of them stayed permanently re-addicted.

These findings were so controversial, that their accuracy was questioned repeatedly. But the Robins data survived every scrutiny.

  • Were we wrong about how difficult it was to detox from heroin wrong?
  • Or were the vets in the unique social situation teaching us important elements of how humans change?
  • And what does that have to do with marriage counseling intensives and how humans change?

Researchers now believe that the answers are found in how we tend to externalize parts of ourselves into our environments. Our environment cues us, establishing a syntax of automatic, sometimes even unconscious behaviors. The research uncovered the fact that the Vets compartmentalized their experiences in Vietnam. They didn’t hold that time in any serious “career context.” And it was easier to use heroin far from the disapproving eyes of their family-of-origin.

One way of looking at it is that they were in a stress-filled environment, and given no social cues about how to adapt. Their “best selves” went underground.
When they returned home, the environment brought out familiar, temporarily-dormant behavioral patterns. These patterns were incongruent with being a drug addict. They became “themselves” again, and left the “drug-user” self in Vietnam.

What Learning We Bring to Intensive Couples Retreats

Many couples in our Intensive Couples Retreats are trapped in an interactional “Demon Dance” that also lowers expectations. Often they “feel hopeless,” and as a result lose interest in holding themselves, and each other accountable.
In an intensive couples retreat, a couple leaves their familiar environment to focus on learning how to:

  • repair old wounds,
  • turn toward one other, and
  • build rituals of connection.

They return home with increased mutual understanding, and a proven effective skill set.

This is one of the reasons why it is so important to continue those skills when couples return home, in order to reinforce that learning. We do that in online follow-training.

Ready to break old habits?

Email us to schedule a session, if you’re a new client.

About the Author Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. using EFT, Gottman Method, and the Developmental Model.

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