Married to a Drug Addict: How To Deal With a Spouse with Addiction
Our intimate relationships are supposed to be safe havens, and our homes places that provide shelter from danger. Yet, being in a relationship with a partner that has an addiction to alcohol or drugs can lead to an unhealthy relationship with emotional stress and abuse.
For many Americans, a close relationship with an addicted partner can become a source of chaos, negativity, emotional upheaval, and even violence. Substance abuse can eventually destroy a couple by undermining trust, which weakens the bond between partners. If children are part of the relationship, conflicts over parental responsibilities, neglect, or abuse can occur as a result of one partner’s – or sometimes both partners’ – drinking or drug use.1
- In 2005, 7.7 million Americans, age 12 and older, reported current use of illicit drugs.
- In 2015, an estimated 27.1 million Americans, age 12 or older, were currently using illicit drug.
- There were 138.3 million Americans aged 12 or older, in 2015, who reported current use of alcohol. Out of this group, 66.7 million people reported binge drinking in the past month..
- In American, 22.2 million people, aged 12 or older, in 2015 were current users of marijuana. Out of this group 8.3% reported using marijuana in the past month.
- About 1.6 million adults ages 18-25 and 4.3 million adults age 26 and older, in 2015, reported use of psychotherapeutic drugs, which included prescription pain relievers, tranquilizers, and stimulants, for non-medical reasons.
Many of these adults are involved in some type of cohabiting relationship, and these partners are feeling the painful repercussions of alcohol or drug abuse. Whether this relationship involves marriage, a domestic partnership, or a more informal living arrangement, substance abuse affects everyone in the home, not just the individual who is addicted. Effective therapeutic interventions involve both partners as well as their children.
How Substance Abuse Affects Relationships
The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy describes a cycle of conflict that occurs in domestic partnerships, in which substance abuse leads to verbal and physical conflict, which in turn leads to further disagreements about the substance abuse itself.
Other concerns that can occur for many couples affected by substance abuse include:2
- Financial difficulties.
- Legal conflicts over child custody, drunk driving, or illicit drug use.
- Verbal, physical, or sexual abuse.
Alcohol and drugs can impair judgment, arouse feelings of anger and resentment, and create an atmosphere that leads to conflict at home.
Any experiences of abuse or potential signs of abuse must be taken very seriously in recovery. Individuals who have verbally abused or physically attacked their partners will require anger management courses and may face legal consequences, depending on the severity of the assault.
Anyone who feels that they are in danger because of an abusive partner should seek help immediately from legal authorities, a healthcare provider, or a substance abuse treatment professional. Online resources and support services on partner abuse are available through the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Supporting a Partner Without Enabling
What is the most effective way to support a partner who’s going through rehab? Offering support to an addicted partner can take a tremendous toll on your physical energy and emotional health. On top of this, the needs of the rest of the family, such as children and aging parents, and the demands of work and social commitments can quickly become overwhelming.
Examples of enabling behavior might include:
- Allowing a loved one to neglect their responsibilities.
- Letting a loved one abuse you or someone else.
- Making excuses for a loved one.
- Neglecting your own needs to help someone else.
How can you tell if you’re supporting a partner versus enabling?
If you find yourself lying, making excuses, or creating explanations for a partner that allows them to remain in denial, you are probably enabling rather than supporting.Codependency is when a loved one is depended on another in a partnership. If a couple is living with a substance addiction, codependent partners can end up enabling. In some cases, the codependent loses their sense of self in the overwhelming effort to “save” the partner from addiction; however, when that partner gets close to recovery, the codependent may undermine the process in order to retain feelings of power or self-esteem.
Partners and Spouses Ask Yourself…
- Am I setting healthy boundaries for myself?
- Am I letting the people in my life take responsibility for themselves?
- Am I seeking help from professionals outside the home?
- Am I giving myself time for my own stress management activities?
- Am I making time for my own recovery activities?
Supported by research, the benefits of a couple working together during rehab and aid in successful recovery from addiction. Behavioral couples therapy (BCT), helps to strengthen relationship that will promote and support abstinence, people in healthier relationships may experience lower risk of relapse.3
Couples can attend the same rehab program. Many treatment centers and facilities offer treatment for couples who have a strong relationship and are equally committed to recovery.
- Alcoholism, Marriage, and Rehab
- Loving an Addict or Alcoholic: How to Help Them and Yourself
- Sending Family Member to Rehab
- Together or Alone? Rehab Choices for Addicted Couples
Paying for Treatment
Your health insurance may cover treatment for addiction and mental health disorders. Plans can vary in terms of what type of coverage they provide or how long they will cover treatment, so it’s best to check with your provider or the rehab program you’re interested in attending.
Approaches to Couples Therapy
According to the journal Science & Practice Perspectives, therapies that focus on treating both members of a couple have a higher success rate at maintaining long-term abstinence than therapies that address only the individual with the substance use disorder.4
Behavioral Couples TherapyBehavioral Couples Therapy, or BCT, has evolved as an approach to treating substance abuse within a cohabiting partnership. BCT, which is typically offered to committed couples who have a strong emotional investment in improving their relationship, helps partners address the dysfunctional patterns that sustain addiction.
The therapeutic goals of BCT include enhancing relationship function and promoting recovery through the following steps:
- Improving problem-solving skills.
- Improving communication skills.
- Increasing caring behaviors.
- Developing a program for treatment and recovery.
- Creating a recovery contract.
- Supporting self-help in both partners.
BCT can be applied as part of an inpatient substance abuse treatment program or through outpatient therapy sessions. The core strategies of BCT have been applied through other therapeutic approaches to provide similar benefits.
Support for Couples in RehabSupport groups can be a critical source of emotional strength for the spouse of a person in recovery. By connecting with other individuals who have gone through the same experiences, partners can learn new coping strategies and acquire a sense of hope for the future.
You can find support groups, such as 12 step programs, in your local area and communities. These programs can focus on helping individuals and couples share their experiences with substances, support each other with struggles to stay sober, and can provide companionship during stressful times.
Here are a few 12 step programs that can aid in addiction recovery and give you and your loved one’s additional support:
In order to gain the maximum benefit of self-help support groups, both members of a partnership should participate actively. Participation can take the form of attending meetings with a partner, attending meetings alone, or volunteering for activities with the group within the community. Regardless of which approach to recovery you and your partner choose — secular or spiritual — consistent participation and commitment to the process of recovery are essential for maintaining the benefits of rehab.
- Addiction Guide for Family Members
- Guide for Families Part 1: The Addiction Problem and Approaching It
- Guide for Families Part 2: Treatment and Recovery
- Guide for Children with Addicted Parents
- Guide for Parents of Addicted Children and Teens Part 1: The Addiction Problem
- Guide for Parents of Addicted Children and Teens Part 2: Intervening and Getting Help
- Guide for Addicted Veterans and Their Families
Creating an Environment that Sustains Recovery
When a partner or spouse comes home from rehab, it is probably unrealistic to expect that they will find a completely “addict-proof” environment. Even if all traces of alcohol, illicit drugs, or potentially addictive prescription medications are removed from the house, images of alcohol or drug use in magazines, TV shows, or movies can trigger cravings.
Friends may inadvertently appear at the house with beer or wine, unaware that someone in the home has just completed substance abuse treatment. Most significantly, the partner of the recovering addict may not be ready to give up alcohol or drugs. Partners of individuals in recovery must be very honest with themselves and with their partner about their readiness to join them in sobriety.
The following checklist can be used as a guide to creating a home that supports long-term recovery after rehab:
Preparing a Recovery-Friendly Home
No alcohol, including wine or beer, in the home. If removing alcohol is not possible, keep it out of visible areas like refrigerators or kitchen cupboards.
No illegal drugs or drug paraphernalia in the home.
No easy access to prescription drugs with a high abuse potential, like narcotic pain relievers, sedatives, and stimulants. These should be locked in secure areas if they are necessary, or they should be removed if they are not being used with a valid prescription for medical reasons.
No posters, wall hangings, or other decorative items that suggest or advocate substance abuse or drinking alcohol.
Sober Living Homes
If providing a sober environment is not possible immediately after rehab, or if the recovering partner needs more structure or supervision, a sober housing program can provide an effective transition from rehab back to the home. In sober living programs, housing is provided within the community, in a home that is structured by rules and expectations about maintaining sobriety.
Residents are expected to follow specific rules in order to maintain their residency, such as:
- Attending house meetings.
- Attending therapy or counseling sessions as scheduled.
- Following house rules.
- Performing assigned chores.
- Staying sober from substances and alcohol.
- Spending a specified amount of time each week working or searching for a job.
When both members of a relationship are committed to recovery, it is possible to repair the bonds that were damaged or broken by addiction. In order to do this, couples need the guidance and support of professional marriage counselors, therapists, or social workers who have specialized training and credentials in substance abuse treatment. These professionals can address not only the issue of drug or alcohol abuse, but the sources of conflict that have been suppressed through years of focusing on addiction.
Resources for Partners and SpousesAl-Anon: One of the most widely respected 12-Step programs worldwide, Al-Anon offers strength and hope through mutually shared experiences. This 12-Step group is open to spouses, partners, parents, children, friends, and other individuals who have been affected by the disease of addiction. Couple Recovery from Addiction: Based on a recovery philosophy known as CARE (Couples Addiction Recovery Empowerment), this support organization provides a holistic model for couples seeking to overcome the damage and dysfunction caused by addiction. Nar-Anon: Nar-Anon is a sister program to Al-Anon, with a focus on individuals affected by narcotic abuse. Like Al-Anon, Nar-Anon applies the 12-Step principles to recovery to the loved ones of individuals struggling with substance use disorders. National Domestic Violence Hotline: This online collection of informational materials and resources was developed to empower the victims and survivors of domestic abuse. The telephone hotline provides immediate access to support services and crisis intervention: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Recovering Couples Anonymous: This organization is not affiliated with Alcoholics Anonymous, but it is based on the principles of 12-Step recovery. The goal of this fellowship is to create committed, lasting relationships through the shared experience, strength, and hope of members. SMART Recovery Family & Friends: SMART Recovery (Self-Management and Recovery Training) is a nonreligious support program for individuals who have a problem with drugs or alcohol and prefer a secular approach to recovery. A nonreligious alternative to Al-Anon, Family & Friends is a group within the SMART Recovery system that supports the loved ones of individuals in recovery. Substance Abuse and Intimate Relationships: This informative article from the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy provides an overview of the effects of addiction on marriages and other intimate partnerships. VAWnet: The National Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women: Created in 1995 by the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, this online network provides educational materials and resources on domestic abuse against women and gender-based violence. National Institute on Drug Abuse – Finding Treatment: This screening questionnaire from the National Institute on Drug Abuse includes 11 questions that can help you determine whether a loved one has a problem with alcohol, illicit drugs, or prescription drug abuse. Resources are also provided to help your loved one find treatment.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US). (2004). Treatment Improvement Protocol. Rockville, MD.
Lander, L., Howsare, J., & Byrne, M. (2013). The impact of substance use disorders on families and children: from theory to practice. Social work in public health, 28(3-4), 194–205.
O’Farrell, T. J., & Fals-Stewart, W. (2000). Behavioral couples therapy for alcoholism and drug abuse. Journal of substance abuse treatment, 18(1), 51–54.
Fals-Stewart, W., O’Farrell, T. J., & Birchler, G. R. (2004). Behavioral couples therapy for substance abuse: rationale, methods, and findings. Science & practice perspectives, 2(2), 30–41.
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