Confronting a Spouse About Addiction

Every evening, when the workday is through, a couple opens up a bottle of wine. They discuss the day’s events, nibble on dinner, and watch the setting sun.

But as the evening progresses, one of those partners opens up another bottle of wine. Words slur, steps falter, and drunkenness sets in.

What started as a kind and gentle reconnection after hours spent deepens into a rift that separates the two. If left unaddressed, that gap can grow until it seems almost impossible to fix.

Sound familiar?

Addictions can tear families apart, but the family can also light the path to recovery for someone in need. Healing begins with what many consider the most difficult step: confronting the addiction.

distressed couple

How Do Substances and Relationships Interact?

A family is an organism made up of individuals. Together, they decide what is appropriate and what requires an intervention. For some couples, substance abuse is woven into the fabric of their lives together. For others, it’s the element that breaks them apart.

In 2016, researchers interviewed people ages 50 and older, and they discovered that couples with the same types of drinking patterns were happier than couples in which only one partner drank.

This research was widely interpreted as “couples that drink together, stay together.” But this catchy phrase overlooks an important part of the study. Solid partnerships weren’t defined by heavy drinking, researchers said. It wasn’t the quantity that mattered. Instead, it was balance.

If one partner uses to excess and the other does not, a rift forms. And that’s common among couples touched by addiction. When one partner uses, both face:

  • Financial difficulties. Household funds are diverted to drug purchases.
  • Legal troubles. One partner’s arrest for abuse can lead to an arrest or criminal prosecution that steals time and money from the family.
  • Emotional estrangement. Hostilities form when one person values substances more than the marriage.
  • Violence. Verbal abuse is two times more likely when alcohol is involved, researchers say. That includes drinks consumed by the perpetrator and those drunk by the victim.

Marriages are stronger when neither partner drinks. In fact, studies published by Science Nordic say that the divorce rate hovers at about 2 percent in abstinent couples compared to 27 percent in couples where the wife has an alcohol problem. 

Substance abuse doesn’t always lead to divorce. In some couples, it leads to another relationship issue that causes distress.

adderall withdrawal

Codependency Complicates Recovery

Codependency can be loosely defined as things you do to change the behavior of someone else. We all do this from time to time. But when you’re consumed with the need to control someone else, and you’ll change yourself completely to bring that about, it’s a codependent behavior.

Codependent partners tend to:

  • Anticipate needs.
  • Tackle tasks others are capable of handling.
  • Feel proud of their ability to help.
  • Experience a twinge of sorrow when there are no problems to solve.
  • Accept responsibility for how their partners think, feel, or act.

People with codependency have the best intentions, says Mental Health America. Deep down, they’re trying to help. But their actions can solidify an addiction.

If you’re the codependent half in a marriage touched by addiction, you’ll shift into overdrive after your partner binges on drugs. You’ll:

  • Soothe headaches and stomachaches.
  • Call into the partner’s workplace with excuses.
  • Keep the household quiet until the person feels better.
  • Deliver more drugs to stave off withdrawal.

You hate the addiction, but you love your partner and don’t want to encourage suffering.

Recovery begins by shifting your focus inward. Look for ways to restore your own self-worth regardless of what your partner does. You can do that by:

  • Joining a support group. Al-Anon meetings put you in touch with other people struggling with the same issues you’re dealing with. You’ll learn coping strategies, and you’ll find out more about what addiction is and how it works.
  • Rediscovering a passion. Did monitoring substance abuse leave little time for your hobbies? Reconnect with your book club, rejoin the bowling league, or make arrangements to see old friends.
  • Taking care of your body. Examine your diet, exercise habits, and sleep debt. When your body is suffering, it’s hard to have a clear head.
  • Seeking counseling. If you’re still feeling disconnected and worried, ask a mental health expert to help you.

When you’re feeling centered and healthy, you’re prepared to take the next step to repair your relationship. That step involves conversation.

ptsd concept

How to Start the Talk

You may have many things to say to your partner about substance use, abuse, and addiction. But it’s hard to know when and where to begin.

Planning can help. Examine your loved one’s patterns, and look for a moment when your partner is typically sober. When you find it, ask the person you love to take a walk with you. As Mental Health First Aid points out, it’s easier to do something together while you talk rather than sitting and staring at one another. You can watch the scenery as you discuss things, and that can reduce awkwardness.

As you talk, remember to emphasize:

  • Love. Point out that you’d like to talk because you care about this person.
  • Behavior. Talk about the things you’ve seen, not the judgments you’ve made.
  • Conversation. Your goal isn’t to lecture or badger. You’d like to discuss things openly, and you know you may need to do so several times.
  • Solutions. Research how addictions are treated, and be prepared to share the results as you talk.

One conversation may not change your loved one forever. But your talk can take root in the person’s mind, and that could begin to shift behavior.

Outside Help Can Turn the Tide

What if the person you love simply won’t change behaviors? What if your conversations always devolve into arguing matches? An outsider can help.

Trained professionals, known as interventionists, know how to conduct addiction conversations. Their training helps them discuss how addictions develop and how they’re treated. They can work with you to hold a conversation that heals rather than harms.

Years ago, interventions were scary and combative affairs. You were encouraged to sit the person you love down, tell them not to speak, and then threaten them with terrible consequences if they didn’t change.

Modern interventions are different. Professionals use techniques that can shift your behavior so maintaining the addiction is harder on the person you love. Through that transformation, you discuss what you want from your relationship and how the substance abuse is standing in your way. It’s a loving change, and it happens over months rather than days.

Your family doctor, your mental health counselor, or your peers at Al-Anon meetings could all help you find a professional to hold an intervention. If you need help, start seeking out that assistance now.

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