Having a partner with an addiction to substances is devastating to a relationship. Both of you suffer from the consequences of the addictive behaviors, which makes having a healthy, thriving relationship impossible. Chances are you have already considered, threatened, or maybe even followed through on leaving your partner because of the addiction.
As the well partner, getting over the addiction may seem simple (or at least clear, if not easy): stop using the substances, get treatment, and move on with life.
Kate Thieda, MS, LPCA, NCC, is a patient advocate for Women's and Children's Services at Duke University Hospital in Durham, North Carolina. She is a licensed professional counselor associate and a National Certified Counselor who specializes in cognitive-behavioral and dialectical behavior therapies. Her book, Loving Someone With Anxiety, will be published by New Harbinger in the spring of 2013.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
The other thought going through your mind–or perhaps that has already been spoken aloud–is: “If you really loved me, you’d stop these behaviors.”
It only it were that easy.
Addiction is a progressive disease, and unless the person gets help, the direction of the spiral is always down. As the well partner, threatening to leave usually is not enough to compel the person into treatment, which can make you feel even worse.
What’s important to understand is that the inability to give up the addiction is not about you and your partner’s love for you. It’s about the grip the addiction has on them.
Threatening separation or divorce is also not effective if you don’t plan to follow through. Something I say often to my clients who complain about their partner’s behavior is, “Why should your partner change? What is uncomfortable about the situation that would make them want to change?” And the answer often is, “There is no reason for my partner to change,” because the client realizes that they are actually supporting the behavior that they hate.
Questions to ask yourself
Deciding to separate or get a divorce from your partner is rarely an easy decision. A few months ago, I did a two-part interview with a divorce expert, which you can read here for her advice about what to consider when getting a divorce from someone who is ill.
Other questions you can ask yourself to decide whether ending the relationship is in your best interest:
- Have you recognized that you are in a relationship with an addict?
- Have you received help from a trained professional to help you deal with being in a relationship with an addict?
- Have you helped your partner receive appropriate treatment for their addiction? If not, have you considered arranging an intervention to convince them to try treatment?
- Have you clearly told your partner that you will leave if the addictive behaviors do not stop?
- Are you truly prepared to follow through if your partner does not stop using?
A special note: If your partner is abusing you or your children, get out and go someplace safe, where your partner cannot find you. Obtain legal advice about how to proceed once you are in a safe place.
After the ultimatum
So let’s say your partner did heed your warning that either they get treatment or the relationship is over, and now they are sober. This is not the end for your problems as a couple. While the substance abuse definitely exacerbated the issues you had, they likely did not totally disappear just because your partner is now sober. As part of a good treatment plan–which includes ongoing outpatient therapy–you and your partner should also attend couples counseling, meetings (AA, NA, or others), and support groups to help you rebuild and restrengthen your relationship. A caring, supportive relationship is a key factor in lasting sobriety. You made it this far–don’t give up now!