If you have an alcoholic spouse, you may be making one of these four mistakes. Changing even that one thing can give your relationship a real boost.
Everyone wants to have a good marriage or relationship. People who have an alcoholic spouse want to have a good relationship. Even alcoholic spouses, want to have good relationships. It may not seem that way because of the behaviors they use to protect and justify their addictions. These are behaviors you must deal with while still connecting with the person. Many well meaning people try to do just that, but often lack the experience or knowledge to have the right combination of love and boundaries. This can make problems worse. Today, I want to tell you about the four most common mistakes spouses of substance abusers make, and what you can do instead.
Mistake #1: Abusing alcohol to try to connect with your alcoholic spouse.
This is the path of least resistance, but it does not lead to a better relationship. The main problem with this approach is that it builds connection without building respect. You will become a buddy to your spouse, but your spouse’s love for you will actually diminish. And, when it comes time to work out any of the many practical problems that come along with a relationship with an alcoholic spouse, you will be both blamed and rejected. It will seem so unfair because you were joining your spouse and doing the same thing as him or her, but then get all the blame.
Solution: Use boundaries to build respect, before seeking to connect with your spouse.
There are a few unalterable principles for building lasting relationships, guidelines for living with an alcoholic or addicted spouse. One of these is, boundaries come before respect; respect comes before good communication; good communication comes before cooperation; and cooperation comes before connection. These steps must be achieved in order. Using drugs or alcohol to try to jump to connection with your spouse skips over respect, communication, and problem solving, which are vital for dealing with the realities of a long term relationship. When people fail to improve their relationships, it is usually because they are trying to accomplish a good relationship in one step, or are putting the steps in the wrong order.
Mistake #2: Making excuses for your spouse’s alcohol or drug abuse.
Every alcoholic spouse has a reason for what he or she does. Often they use drugs or alcohol to deal with various stresses, physical pain or discomfort, or to socially connect with others (“I’m a musician–it’s expected”). The problem is that the drugs or alcohol is destructive. It is destructive on a physical level, but also on a social and personal one. Because there are other, healthier ways available to deal with their problems, using drugs or alcohol is a bad choice. Agreeing with their need for drugs or alcohol is essentially agreeing with doing long term harm to your spouse. Not a loving thing to do. Also, if you make excuses to others (such as your spouse’s employer), it will delay their getting help. He or she may need to lose the job, friends, or even your marriage before being willing to admit to the addiction. Learn how to share the problem with any adult children to make your spouse out to have a problem rather than making your spouse out to be a villain.
Solution: Don’t be so afraid of losing your relationship that you are willing to harm your partner to keep it.
Start working on being able to support yourself financially and emotionally. Put supports in place for yourself by having an income and friends so that you can stop being codependent for your spouse. If you are unable to take care of yourself, you are more likely to keep making excuses for your spouse because of your fear of losing your relationship if you don’t. Don’t be willing to be comfortable while your spouse continues to poison himself or herself. You need to make sure that your spouse does not have the security of knowing that you would never leave whatever he or she does. Prepare to leave, but never threaten to leave. Threats damage a relationship. If you need help knowing how to use the intervention of separation and still maintain your relationship, get professional help.
Mistake #3: Denying how serious the alcohol or drug abuse problem is.
I had an alcoholic professor in graduate school. He was a good teacher and I don’t doubt that he was a good provider for his wife and children. Although he was functioning, he had a serious problem. Those around him denied that to themselves because he was functional. But, one day he wrapped his car around a tree. It only takes one mis-function to put an abrupt end to your relationship. I don’t doubt that he had many mis-functions in his relationship with his wife before that. We tend to overlook the problems of people who are otherwise doing well. But, many of them need help, too.
Solution: Get the facts.
Look at the bills, receipts, number of bottles in the garbage can, and so on to determine just how much your spouse is abusing alcohol or drugs Do not depend on your husband or wife to accurately report that information to you. Learn what safe levels are. Discuss it with your medical doctor or anonymously with the drug and alcohol section of the police department. Don’t live in denial because you think it is easier on you or your spouse. It isn’t. It just keeps the time bomb ticking a little longer. It needs to be defused instead. That can only happen when the reality of the alcohol or drug abuse comes out.
Mistake #4: Allowing yourself to be verbally or physically abused or threatened.
Not only does this present a danger to your physical and mental health, it also harms your spouse and your relationship. The more your spouse hurts you (emotionally or physically), the less he or she will love you. It’s simply too painful for people to continually hurt someone they love. So, they either hate themselves more and more (and may commit suicide), or they devalue the person they are hurting (the usual case). If you allow the abuse, your spouse will make you the reason for the abuse. And, you are likely to also get blamed for whatever other problems your spouse has, including the substance abuse.
Solution: Have a zero tolerance policy for abuse.
If you are in danger, this must be done with professional help. But, it must be done if your relationship and emotional connection with your spouse are to survive. Allowing yourself to be abused (even a little) is the fastest road to a loss of respect. And, as mentioned above, without respect, you can’t get to good communication, let alone emotional connection. If it is hard to see the abuse to you as bad, just think of how you would feel if your daughter or best friend were treated this way. What advice would you have for them? Would you want them to just take it? Do you think it would help their relationship? If they didn’t know what to do, would you urge them to get help?
There is only one guarantee I can give you. If you continue to make any of the above relationship mistakes, I can guarantee that your relationship will end badly. Even if you don’t divorce, there will be nothing left. No emotional connection at all. I share this with you today, because it is not too late to start building your relationship. You can love your spouse better by learning how to help him or her better. When your spouse has an addiction, that way is going to involve tough love. Not just toughness, not just love, but tough-love. Learning to do that will make all the difference in the world. You may wish to start this relationship building process by learning how and when to agree with an alcoholic spouse. This is covered in my book, Connecting Through “Yes!”