I have treated many people over the past two decades in my psychotherapy practice who have sought my help in addressing relationship issues that happen as a result of addiction. Typically there are two scenarios at play. In the first scenario, one party is an addict and the other is addicted to or enabling the other person who is an addict, making them a codependent or co-addict. In the second scenario, both parties in the relationship are addicts themselves and are dealing with their own addictions. In either situation, there are complex and difficult issues surrounding their relationship that they will have to contend with.
As a general trend, once a practicing addict commits and actively enters into recovery, lasting personal and relationship growth and change becomes a possibility for both the addict and the codependent. If both partners are addicts, each will need to hit their rock bottom and decide to commit to a new way of life as recovering individuals, as well as recovering partners in the relationship.
Change is Possible, But Not Guaranteed
When one person attempts to intervene with an addicted partner’s addiction by setting boundaries, change is possible, but not guaranteed. Depending on how deeply the addicted person is involved with their disease and how invested they are in the relationship, they may or may not be willing to seek true change in their lives.
The most effective intervention strategy typically involves the non-addict’s willingness to withdraw money, power, or support from the addict. This will force the addict to experience the consequences of their addiction and eventually hit their version of rock bottom. Providing money, power, or support whenever they request it, rescues an addict. It prevents them from feeling the full consequences of their addiction and further enables their addiction.
While money is almost always given by family members with the best of intentions, it instead enables the addict by allowing them a free pass to avoid the natural and necessary consequences of their addiction. An addict must come to a full realization of how their addiction is impacting their relationships. In a relationship where an addict does not seek treatment, it may be necessary to withdraw love and support. If the addict will still not seek help, that is a sign that the relationship is weaker than the addiction.
Addiction Recovery is Possible and Accessible
Addiction recovery is possible for anyone who truly wants it and does whatever is necessary to seek enough help. Overcoming addiction requires a rewiring of the brain. It demands a change in self-talk and processing of emotions. It also requires identifying and dealing with addiction triggers in order to decrease their power. Addiction recovery is about learning to live an honest, responsible, and accountable life.
Most addicts need to seek recovery repeatedly over a period of several years and some may experience various relapses before it finally sticks. Relapses are common and the most important thing to do in the face of a relapse is to honestly acknowledge it, talk about it, and quickly get back into recovery. It’s important to rely on the resources of loved ones and addiction professionals to get through any relapse.
Not All Relationship Issues are Solved with Addiction Recovery
Addicts are often partnered with codependents who enable their addiction in some way. While the co-addict may desperately want their partner to find recovery, that desire alone will not solve all of the problems in the relationship.
The typical codependent thinking is that if only the other person could get sober, everything in the relationship would be okay. The unfortunate surprise is that when recovery finally happens for the addict, problems and issues in the relationship still exist. If just the addict changes, the pieces of the relationship puzzle will not fit together as well as they had while the addict was using. Proper fitting will require a joint-recovery, meaning that as the addict works toward sobriety, the co-addict also recognizes their part in the relationship issues and does their own personal recovery work.
During recovery, the co-addicted couple is challenged to find a new, healthier way of communicating and being together in their new-found partnership. If both partners find some form of their own recovery, they are more likely to be able to continue to grow together and have a fulfilling relationship. Individual or couples therapy with an addiction specialist can be very helpful in this situation.
The Stages of Addiction Recovery and Psychological Growth
In my book, How to Stay Together: Whether You Want To Or Not, I discuss the stages of forming and sustaining a lasting and successful relationship from courtship to mature love. Most intimate relationships are characterized by some degree of ambivalence. Resolving this ambivalence at each stage allows each individual to progress and move forward in a relationship.
While all relationships are challenging, relationships for addicts, both active and recovering, are especially challenging. Many addicts have difficulty in sustaining intimacy and connection as a result of their addiction, but the necessary skills to have a successful relationship are available to learn and can be applied as you move through the stages of true psychological and relationship growth.
Dr. Anita Gadhia-Smith is an internationally known therapist and author of four bestselling books, From Addiction to Recovery, Practical Therapy, Live and Love Each Day: Daily Meditations for Living Fully, and How to Stay Together: Whether You Want to Or Not. As a top therapist in Washington D.C. and Maryland, Dr. Gadhia-Smith specializes in individual, family, and marriage counseling and addiction services. She also offers expert advice on relationships, spirituality, and self-esteem. For more information, visit Dr. Gadhia-Smith’s website practicaltherapy.net.