Being in a relationship with someone who is using drugs or alcohol might leave you experiencing your own challenging feelings. Loving someone and watching them navigate something you feel powerless over can bring up much fear and pain. Though the person may be experiencing changes that impact their mood and behavior, at the end of the day you still love them for who they are authentically, outside of their addiction. While you may not be in a caretaker role, you likely still feel a level of responsibility in keeping them safe and healthy due to your love for them. You’re probably wondering: How do I help my addicted spouse or partner? What should I say? Where do I even start? Although there are no set guidelines on how to handle a loved one’s substance use disorder “the right way”, there are certain “do’s and don’ts” that you should keep in mind.
What To Do
1. Educate Yourself About Addiction
If you have never been exposed to alcoholism or drug addiction, it can be difficult to watch your partner struggle with this disease. Your partner may be displaying concerning behaviors, unlike their usual self. It might feel as though your relationship is not the priority right now. All these factors can put a strain on your mental health as well as your connection with them.
To first help your addicted partner, you need to realize that addiction is not a choice. It’s a debilitating psychological and physical condition that alters a person’s brain chemistry and controls almost every aspect of their daily life. Gaining an understanding of how addiction is a progressive brain disease, rather than a choice or moral failing, can help you move through your own hurt. Understanding that once in active addiction, a person is no longer making choices in terms of critical thinking or assessing short-term and long-term consequences can provide a new perspective into what you are seeing as well as what they are experiencing.
For example, you may be holding onto narratives such as, “why are they choosing the alcohol over me” or “if they loved me, they would just stop.” There is a lot of pain in those perspectives and that can create a barrier to being empathetic, understanding, and ultimately supportive. Being able to de-personalize your experience and reframe those narratives to take the disease into account can help you see the reality of the situation and unite with your spouse to address the problem together and make sustainable change.
There are many ways to start educating yourself about addiction. You can research free articles, talk with mental health experts, or join a support group or online forum. Here at Mountainside, we have a support group specifically for people in the role of spouse or partner to gain support and guidance around navigating their loved one’s addiction and recovery. Some additional resources to start with include the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
2. Address the Issue, Not the Person
Approaching your significant other about addiction and your concerns can be tricky, as this can be a sensitive subject. While in active addiction, your loved one may be experiencing many challenging feelings of their own, including frustration and shame. It is likely very difficult for them to share their feelings and experiences with you due to that shame as well as fear of rejection and retaliation, even if they know you are loving, caring, and supportive. You can start by addressing the situation calmly.
Instead of blaming your partner for behavior or actions that have hurt you, try focusing on sharing your feelings and informing them of the impact things have had on your closeness with them. This can be done through the use of “I-statements”. This is when a person keeps their sharing rooted in their own experience which creates an opportunity to give feedback that is clear, full, and respectful. Instead of, “you are being an xyz”, try saying, “when x happens, I feel y” to influence less defensiveness and more desire to unite as a team to address the problem at hand.
An example would be reframing “you never want to spend time with me,” which could elicit a defensive or otherwise polarizing response, to, “I feel lonely and disconnected when we go days without spending any quality time together” which will likely signal to the other person that you want more time together.
When you communicate from a place of empathy and love, your spouse may be more open to listening to your concerns. While it’s important that you lay all your feelings out on the table, it’s equally important to listen to the other person as well. Don’t assume you know everything about their addiction simply because you did research. Each person with an addiction is a unique individual with their own experience and needs. What feels supportive to each person can also differ, so try asking them questions such as, “Is there anything you need from me,” which can empower them to express their needs and gain helpful support from you.
3. Set Healthy Boundaries
Watching your significant other struggle is difficult and you probably want to do everything in your power to save the person you love most. Although you may think you are helping your addicted spouse, without even realizing it, you might be enabling them to continue their addiction. Examples of this enabling behavior might include making constant excuses for your boyfriend being absent or late, covering for your girlfriend’s financial gaps, drinking alcohol with or around them, or even doing all the household chores and responsibilities. Your over-functioning may be playing a role in their continued under-functioning. And doing this prevents your loved one from facing any consequences that could serve as catalysts for change.
While you care deeply for your partner and want the best for them, you must remind yourself that you can’t control their behaviors or cover for their shortcomings. Setting boundaries is one solution that involves communicating what you need and letting the other person know what you will do in response to a particular behavior, rather than creating walls or trying to control that person’s behavior. Although difficult, creating healthy boundaries will help your addicted spouse or partner take responsibility for their own actions. By setting boundaries, you can take a step back so that their choices and behaviors are theirs alone, and don’t affect you as they once did. This allows you to remain safe while still being present in your partner’s life.
An example of a healthy boundary would be sharing with your partner that when shouting happens in conversations you become upset and shut down. Let them know that in the future, you will need to remove yourself from conversations that include shouting and can return to speaking with them once both sides are calm enough to communicate in a quiet and respectful tone. Additionally, healthy boundaries for their drinking or substance use could look like communicating that you are uncomfortable around them when they are under the influence so you will be unable to spend time with them in that condition, rather than trying to control their use in general.
4. Research Treatment Options
If your spouse is still in active addiction, they might not be ready to accept your help just yet. It can be very challenging and potentially create additional problems if you just wait for them to reach out. Addiction is a progressive disease, meaning that in most cases, your loved one’s condition will escalate over time. You can get a head start by researching different addiction treatment centers and their services or offerings. Go online, read through their program descriptions, request brochures and pamphlets, or give them a call. Explore your options and determine what would be the best fit for your loved one.
You can’t force your partner or spouse into a drug or alcohol rehab center because they must be the one who ultimately decides to quit using substances and pursue sobriety. Even so, there is no harm in preparing for the future. The more informed you are, the more prepared you will be for when they are ready to get better.
5. Practice Self-Care
When a spouse or partner is struggling with drugs or alcohol, often the last thing on your mind is your own well-being. That said, addiction is a family disease in that what happens to one member of the family impacts family functioning as a whole. Whether you realize it or not, your loved one’s addiction takes a toll on you too. As much as you want to help the addict, you need to remind yourself that it’s not your job to “fix” them. In family recovery spaces such as Al-Anon and Nar-Anon they discuss, “the 3 C’s” which means, “you didn’t cause it, you cannot cure it, and you cannot control it.” While you love your partner, this is their journey, and supporting them means taking care of yourself just as much as it means being there for them. As the cliché says, you cannot pour from an empty cup.
Be sure to set aside time to take care of yourself ⎼ exercise, eat healthy foods, enjoy some time outside, read a book, and do things that bring you joy. If self-care practices aren’t enough, know that it’s ok for you to reach out for help, even if your spouse isn’t ready. Getting your own therapy, obtaining a Family Recovery Coach, and attending support groups for family members like Mountainside’s offerings or Al-Anon/Nar-Anon can be great resources.
Just like your loved one is encouraged to build a sober support network through fellowship like AA or NA, you deserve spaces to feel belonging and connect with people who have similar experiences. It may seem selfish to do these things while your loved one struggles, but the truth is that you can’t be there for them unless you help yourself first. The happier and healthier you are, the more support you will be able to provide them.
What Not to Do
1. Don’t Look Down on Them
Being upset with your spouse around behaviors displayed in active addiction is normal, but constantly scolding them for their mistakes might only intensify the situation. Drugs and alcohol cause impaired judgment, so your loved one might not always be behaving logically. This can be frustrating to watch because you understand that deep down, they know what is right or wrong.
Avoid judging your loved one for struggling with alcoholism or drug addiction and be mindful of the language you use when you speak to them. They don’t need to hear something hurtful such as calling them “an embarrassment” or using a derogatory term like “junkie” or “addict.” All they need from you is support and love, not judgment.
2. Don’t Ignore the Problem
No one ever imagines that addiction will happen to someone they love. So, when it turns out your partner has a substance use disorder, you may do everything in your power to deny it. You may be tempted to ignore the signs of addiction, make excuses for your loved one, or downplay the severity of their addiction. But trying to convince yourself that “it’s not that bad” or that they’re simply “going through a rough patch” keeps the problem progressing.
Another reason not to ignore your husband or wife’s struggle with substances is that they might be aware of their issue but unsure of how to ask for support. If you don’t know how to confront your loved one about their addiction, start by expressing your feelings and what you’ve been noticing in your relationship. Being open with them might be the push they need to go to treatment.
3. Don’t Force Them to Quit
When it comes to addiction, tough love rarely works. There are some states that allow court-ordered rehab if the person is a danger to themselves or others. However, ultimatums or forcing your loved one into treatment is not the best route because it usually only works temporarily. If your partner is not ready to get sober, they are likely to go right back to their old habits once they leave rehab. It’s important for them to be motivated for the process in order to sustain long-term growth and change.
As mentioned previously, you can set boundaries such as telling your loved one that you will remove yourself from their presence when they are using. Or you can tell them that you don’t feel safe with any drugs or alcohol in the house. This lets your spouse know what you expect moving forward and the boundary is for you – you are not trying to control their behavior. Demanding that your husband or wife needs to go to a rehabilitation center will likely create more division. They must be the one that wants to change.
4. Don’t Enable Them
Watching a partner’s life unravel in front of you is difficult, especially when you’re not quite sure how to help. When it comes to addiction, there is a fine line between being supportive and enabling. One common way you might be enabling their use is if you lend them money with no knowledge or control of where it’s being spent and without being paid back. Another example is covering up or making excuses for their lack of follow-through on commitments.
You often don’t consciously choose to play an enabling role and it instead unknowingly happens over time. It might happen because you are in a codependent relationship, where there is a lack of boundaries that consider each partner’s needs as equally important. If you want a healthier relationship, set boundaries, prioritize your own needs, determine what you can and cannot support and express that, and pay closer attention to your own communication, actions, and behavior. Ask yourself if you are treating your own feelings and needs as equally important as theirs, prior to taking action. That can help you step back from enabling your partner’s continued use of drugs and alcohol.
5. Don’t Give Up
You might become frustrated with your loved one if they refuse to get help or if they experience a relapse, but don’t give up. You fell in love with your significant other for who they are authentically and it’s an unfortunate reality that addiction separates a person from their authentic self. The disease may be masking their true personality, but it’s still possible for them to heal and for the relationship to move forward healthily. If you were navigating a disease such as addiction, wouldn’t you want your partner’s continued support?
Your own hope can be a powerful agent of change. Modeling that you can move from fear towards hope may inspire them to do the same. Remember that sustaining recovery is challenging but not impossible. This is a treatable disease and having a strong support system can make all the difference. In many recovery support spaces, they say, “the opposite of addiction is connection”. Your ability to be supportive and provide an outlet for meaningful connection can be a powerful motivator for their change!
While this disease can be isolating, you are never alone. There are many other people navigating a similar challenging intersection as you are right now. Don’t give up on yourself or your family. Reach out for support and remember to have hope.