5 Questions to Ask When Your Spouse Struggles with Addiction

3 min read · 3 sections

Living with Your Spouse’s Addiction May Be Giving You PTSD

When the person you care about and count on seems lost in a burning desire to drink or take other substances, it can wreak destruction on your emotional health.

Have no doubt, you are being impacted physically and psychologically, and the effects can be long lasting. First of all, your spouse’s substance-related behaviors can fire up your fight or flight chemistry. He or she may come home late… or you may sense they’ve been lying. Suddenly your hormonal system begins releasing adrenaline and norepinephrine, and eventually some 30 other chemicals. Your body is saying you need to react – and yet, everything you do seems to make the behavior worse.

15-time author Dr. Tian Dayton says these experiences set you up for PTSD-like symptoms over the long term. You become hypervigilant, like a soldier or police officer, expecting addiction-related danger around every corner.

We constantly try to read the faces of those around us so that we can protect ourselves against perceived pain or humiliation. We “wait for the other shoe to drop” as we say in the rooms. – Dr. Tian Dayton
Eventually, you will most likely begin to feel powerless. Congratulations, you are now co-dependent in the disease of addiction.

At this point, even after the person in your life is in Recovery, it will take much care and time for you to work through the effects of addictive interactions. In other words, you will go through a kind of recovery of your own. For example, when you hear your spouse is “going out for a walk,” you might have to work on trust or learn how to calm the physical symptoms of old suspicions.As our spouse’s addiction progresses, we may come to realize that we have tolerated addictive behavior early on by shielding ourselves with denial. From denial, we may have found ourselves perpetuating or enabling the addictive behavior. The more we try to control our spouse’s addiction, the more our lives are consumed by this interplay. When we come to the point of feeling powerless, whether we recognize it or not, we need recovery ourselves.

When we feel that nothing we can do will affect or change the situation we’re in, we may develop learned helplessness. We may lose some of our ability to take actions to affect, change or move a situation forward. – Dr. Tian Dayton

Together Always?

It would be nice if at the moment we reached this point of exhaustion, our partner also sought treatment for addiction and went into recovery. Treatment Centers know how sorely the family is affected by addictive behavior, and many include family counseling as part of an individual’s treatment. This ideal “two-for” plan would allow you to get the help you need while your spouse is also getting help to overcome addiction. The two of you could then learn and strengthen your recoveries together.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen that way. If you reach the exhaustion point before your partner, you should probably consider seeking help for just you. Sometimes when you get treatment, your enabling patterns begin to change, and your spouse will feel the wake-up call. In many of the stories of addiction, you will hear former substance abusers talk about how an addictive individual was driven to change by the changed behavior of those around him or her.

This can’t be your reason for seeking help, but hearing these stories can help you to take a more positive approach to what you may think of as “selfish” or “abandonment.” Even with your changed behaviors and renewed focus on your own needs and boundaries, your partner may not respond by getting clean or sober.

No matter your spouse’s behavior, at some point an “it’s all about me” recovery plan becomes your best option. How do you know you’ve reached that place?

Usually, you know. You have denied, enabled, made excuses, gotten angry, felt helpless – and repeat. You are not only exhausted by your and your spouse’s behaviors, you are exhausted by the vicious cycle of same behaviors, same reactions, same outcomes.

Both the addicted person and the spouse start out thinking “I can handle this.” But when the feeling of powerlessness sets in, it is your warning sign.  If you are busy trying to help an addicted spouse, and you have started to feel defeated, take a look at how feelings of powerlessness may be driving your life.

Ask Yourself These 5 Questions

Am I feeling so powerless that I

  1. Threaten “consequences” that I can’t or won’t follow through on? Even if your answer is “I mean to follow through, but some desperate circumstance comes up and forces me to renege on the promise” – that’s a “yes.”
  2. Blame myself for the person’s substance needs? These behaviors generally begin with “it’s not their fault” and connect to your sense of failure or dereliction of duty.
  3. Let my spouse call the shots, rather than set and enforce my boundaries? When we have promised to love, honor, cherish, and “be there” for someone, it’s difficult to create and consistently defend personal boundaries. The support of someone who has been there can be very useful here.
  4. Start behaving on the idea that “I’d rather they stay close when they are using than have them using or drinking out ‘there’”? If you have trouble answering yes to this one, remember, it’s quite a wily one that camouflages easily. Look at #5 to flesh out its sneaky ways.
  5. Have I gone through a lot of “enabling” behavior with my spouse – calling in sick for them, making excuses for acts they’ve committed while under the influence, expecting more from them by denying the power of the disease (and facing disappointment)?

If you answered yes to some, most, or all of these questions, you are probably well en route, passing through denial, enabling, and vicious cycle on your way to exhaustion.

Your exhausted condition can manifest as depression, PTSD, and a host of other challenges.

Sometimes seeking help for ourselves is the last thing we think of when our partner is wracked with addiction and its fallout. But in answering yes to these questions we’re getting a clear signal: it’s time for outside help.
The 12-Step group known as Al-Anon is a great place to start. It’s anonymous and you can attend without committing funds or making long-term decisions. Like its partner program, AA, Al-Anon has meetings in almost every city across the country, but it is designed for the loved ones of those struggling with addiction. You can “take what you like and leave the rest,” meanwhile receiving much-needed support from members going through experiences with their spouses much like your own.

Another option is to speak to a nearby treatment facility. Occasionally, treatment facilities such as the AAC facility in Rhode Island, CSRI, offer free family groups that can put individuals on their way to healthier emotional wellbeing, even when their spouses have not yet decided to go into treatment.

If you are in the vicinity of CSRI, give them a call. If not, look for similar programs near you.

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