We all know addiction is bad for the person who’s using, but it can profoundly affect the people who love the addict as well. The direct problems affecting an intimate relationship are complex when addiction is involved. Here are a few ways where addiction can affect a marriage or long-term partnership.
The term “codependency” originated in observations of addict/partner relationships. What that essentially means is that one partner over-functions for the other. There are many ways this behavior is exhibited. They cover for them when they have employment-related problems or skip out on family functions (“He/she’s not feeling well”). They clean up after them so the kids don’t see. They make excuses to others and themselves about their partner’s behavior. They rationalize it and accept unacceptable behavior. This behavior over time wears the partner out and they are often left feeling resentful and lonely.
Domestic violence is often associated with addiction. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc., 80% of domestic violence offenders abuse drugs or alcohol*. Often the anger belies the substance use, so it’s not that the substance is necessarily the cause of the domestic violence, but when inhibitions are lowered, loss of control happens more easily, arguments can escalate more quickly and aggressively, and appropriate social behavior is overlooked. Those factors become a dangerous combination.
When someone numbs themselves on a regular basis with intoxicating substances, they are not emotionally present. Although some people will claim that the drugs or alcohol make them feel “more connected” to their environment and their partner, the truth is that the partner is not getting someone who can attend to their emotional needs, nor let them feel emotionally safe. We talk about this emotional inability to attend to their partner as emotional abandonment.
Betrayals of Trust
Betrayals of trust run rampant in addict relationships. Lying becomes commonplace. It is not that addicts are liars by nature, but over the course of an addiction, lying and omitting information is the way they begin to operate. This is often because telling the truth regularly has negative consequences or causes arguments at home.
Then we have the problems caused by infidelity, which is often associated with relationships that involve substance abuse. Sex is a compulsive behavior as is drug or alcohol addiction. This problem, however, has two sides. Again, we see factors like loss of control, decreased inhibitions, and lowered social expectations as factors that play a role in infidelity for the addict. The other side of this problem is that the non-addict partner is often resentful, lonely, and contemptuous about their partner’s continued emotional abandonment. Those emotional factors playing out for the non-addict spouse are high-risk factors for infidelity in relationships.
When addiction is present, a couple often becomes socially isolated. The addict is occupied with his/her addiction, while the partner tries to keep the behavior hidden, therefore causing them to turn down social invites and withdraw from family and social activities. Other factors that can influence the level of social isolation is the addict’s paranoia, anger, jealousy, and fear that the addiction is being discovered. This isolation, while also being a risk factor for domestic violence, often results in more resentment and loneliness for the non-addicted partner.
What if you love an addict?
Because relationships are rich with multiple emotional layers, those are just some of the risks or complications that can arise. A common theme when you talk with a lot of addicts in recovery is the regret they have about things that were done and said in relationships when they were using. If they are doing the work needed to live a sober life (therapy, working a 12-Step or other recovery program) they will at some point attempt to make peace with those they hurt and forgive themselves for their past transgressions.
Recovery is a lot of work–loving an addict can be trying on your heart and soul. Try to look past the substances for the person you fell in love with and do the work along with them. If you stayed long enough for them to want or begin recovery, it’s probably worth the effort to see what life can be like clean and sober.
Dr. Colleen Mullen, Psy.D., LMFT is the founder of the “Coaching Through Chaos” private practice in San Diego, California. She specializes in outpatient addiction treatment, relationships in conflict, treating symptoms of anxiety, depression, and PTSD. You can contact Dr. Mullen through her website at CoachingThroughChaos.com.