Loving an Addict or Alcoholic: How to Help Them and Yourself
Though there are common themes and issues in a relationship with a person who has a substance use disorder, each person’s situation is different, and the solutions discussed here may or may not work in your situation.
Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorders
When someone has a substance use disorder, there are symptoms that the person displays; your loved one may exhibit a few, or even all of these, which include:1
- Using more of a substance than was originally intended.
- Trying to stop using or cut back on using substances, but not being able to do so.
- Continuing to use a substance, despite being aware that the substance causes a physical or emotional problem to get worse.
- Experiencing cravings to use a substance.
- There is interpersonal conflict due to the person’s use of a substance.
- The person’s use of a substance results in them not fulfilling their responsibilities at work, school, or home.
- The person uses substances in high-risk situations, such as driving or swimming.
- The person spends a lot of time seeking out substances and using them.
- They will give up things that were once important to them, such as hobbies, in favor of using substances.
- The person develops tolerance to a substance, which means that they need more and more of a substance to keep getting the same effects from it.
- If the person stops using certain substances, they will experience physical symptoms of withdrawal.
Codependency in Relationships
If your loved one displays the symptoms of a substance use disorder, your relationship is likely affected by their substance misuse in multiple ways, including emotionally, physically, and financially. You may even find yourself interacting with them in a manner that is called codependency.
Codependency is a pattern of interactions where you try to help the person manage their struggles with addiction, but in doing so, you also enable the person to keep using. An example of a codependent action includes attempting to rescue the person you love from the consequences of their substance misuse.2
Codependency may be further defined as over-functioning for another person while under-functioning in your own life and not caring for your own well-being as a result of these behaviors and trying to control the other person’s substance use.2,3 If you suffer from codependency, you may tend to neglect your own self-care and instead focus on the needs of your loved one, who may be a spouse, child, sibling, or any person with whom you have a close relationship.3 Codependent behaviors can include: making excuses for your loved one to other people to protect them from the consequences of their substance misuse, paying for damages to property they may have incurred under the influence, and fulfilling household or other responsibilities for them.2
Many people find themselves in a codependent relationship. Yet, to an outsider, it may appear confusing as to why someone would stay in a relationship with a person who struggles with addiction. However, codependency is nuanced, and every couple needs to address their struggles with codependency and substance use disorders in their own way.
Ending Codependency with Someone Who is Addicted
If you are in a relationship with someone who struggles with addiction and find yourself covering up for them, making excuses, and trying to control their use, it can take a toll on you emotionally. Codependency does come from a place of love and a desire to protect, care for, and help your loved one. However, it is important to understand that you may think you are doing a person a favor by covering up for them and helping them to avoid the negative consequences of their substance use, but you are actually reinforcing their substance use. If you want to treat your codependency, there are things you can try, even though these may be difficult for you to do:
- Let your loved one face the consequences of their actions, no matter how hard this may be.
- Let them handle the things that they are responsible for.
- Do not feel guilty for your loved one’s substance use, as this is their problem to solve.
- Tell them that you are concerned and that their substance use is a serious problem.
- Suggest that your loved one gets treatment.
- Make a commitment to take care of yourself first.
How Can I Find Help for Dealing with an Addict?
If you are seeking help for dealing with your loved one, there are support groups that may be helpful to you, including:
- Al-Anon, a support group for people who love someone with a substance use issue.
- Codependents Anonymous, a support group for those who want to break free of codependent behaviors.
- Go to 1-on-1 cognitive behavioral therapy, or another type of therapy that is right for you. This will help you deal with being a codependent person who loves someone struggling with a substance use disorder.
How to Leave or Let Go of Someone with SUD
Getting the courage to leave someone with a substance use disorder is never easy, and it requires changing behaviors that you have engaged in for a long time. Before leaving someone struggling with addiction, you can try to get them to seek the help they need. Sometimes, stating your concerns and asking for them to get help can motivate a loved one to go to treatment. Other times, you may need to stage an intervention, and bring together other people to let your partner know that they are also concerned and want the person to get help.4 When considering leaving your partner, you need to consider how much the situation is harming you, whether your partner may be abusive in any way, and how this person’s substance abuse is impacting other important people in your life, such as your children.
Although we cannot tell you the perfect time or way to leave a spouse suffering from a substance use disorder, speaking with a trained mental health professional, such as a therapist, might offer you more insight.
What If We Are Both Addicts?
In some cases, you and your loved one may both struggle with codependency, but also have your own issues with substance use. You may be aware of the need for getting your own treatment for a substance use disorder. There are some couples who go to treatment together, and it is possible to find rehab centers that will admit both of you at the same time to get help.
Take Our Substance Abuse Self-Assessment
Take our free, 5-minute substance abuse self-assessment below if you think you or someone you love might be struggling with substance abuse. The evaluation consists of 11 yes or no questions that are intended to be used as an informational tool to assess the severity and probability of a substance use disorder. The test is free, confidential, and no personal information is needed to receive the result.
Treatment for Substance Use Disorders & Co-Occurring Mental Health Conditions
Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Loved Ones with Substance Use Disorders
How to Help a Loved One Struggling with Addiction
The best ways to help a person who is addicted to drugs or alcohol may seem counterintuitive, especially for people who struggle with codependent relationships. Some of these methods may seem harsh, but they come from a loving approach with the ultimate goal to help the person overcome their addiction and to help all parties heal. Basic steps are outlined below.
- Remember that addiction is not a choice or a moral failing; it is a disease of the brain
- Addiction is ultimately a condition that the individual must learn to manage; no one can take the fight on for the addict.
- Set boundaries and stand by them.
- Encourage the individual to seek help; this may include finding treatment resources for them.
- Find a therapist who specializes in addiction counseling and get help. Loved ones of addicts need support too.
- Set an example for healthy living by giving up recreational drug and alcohol use.
- Be supportive, but do not cover for problems created by substance abuse. The person struggling needs to deal with the consequences of their addiction.
- Be optimistic. A person struggling with drug or alcohol abuse will likely eventually seek help due to ongoing encouragement to do so. If they relapse, it is not a sign of failure; relapse is often part of the overall recovery process.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, June 25). The science of drug use and addiction: The basics.
- Salonia, G., Mahajan, R., & Mahajan, N.S. (2021). Codependency and coping strategies in the spouses of substance abusers. Scholars journal of applied medical science, 7, 1130-1138.
- Orbon, M.C., Basaria, D., Dewi, F.I.R., Gumarao, M.S., Mergal, V.C., & Heng, P.H. (2021). Codependency among family members as predicted by family functioning and personality type. Advances in education, social sciences, and humanities research, 570, 1388-1393.
- The Partnership for a Drug-Free America. (n.d.). Intervention quick guide.