How to Love and Live with an Addicted Spouse
You can learn how to set healthy boundaries with an addicted spouse. Healthy boundaries will not only help your spouse, but they will also make your life and relationship better.
With good boundaries, you don’t need to feel like it’s either settling for a bad relationship or divorcing. You don’t have to give up on your relationship and you don’t have to be mistreated or feel miserably stuck.
Nobody wants to be addicted to drugs or alcohol, including your spouse. For sure, that doesn’t justify their addiction. But realizing that can help you to have a little more empathy for your spouse. It’s part of what Christians mean by hate the sin and love the sinner.
Many addicts would like to overcome their addiction. There is a gap, however, between wanting to get off of drugs or alcohol and being able to do it. The smaller that gap, the less you are going to need to do to help your spouse to get help or quit. The larger the gap, the larger the intervention that will be necessary from you to make that happen.
For these reasons, it can be a mistake to either have too small of an intervention, or too large of one. Too small of an intervention increases conflict, but does not produce change. Too large of an intervention can damage your relationship more than necessary to get the job done. A good practice for boundaries (often called interventions when dealing with addictions) is to start off small. You can then increase the size of your boundaries until you get consistent and positive results.
If your boundaries (interventions) are getting some good results, but they don’t last, then you will need to either use larger interventions, apply them more consistently, or maintain them longer. One problem that many people have in setting boundaries is to end the boundaries as soon as the person changes.
Boundaries should not be ended until new, healthy patterns have been established and maintained for a period of at least three months, without relapses. The more severe and longstanding the problem, the longer the new behavior needs to be maintained before we can assume it has changed.
Although I help many clients to implement relationship saving boundaries, they often drop the boundaries either when they get promises to change or when change has only occurred for a short time. You must not drop boundaries too soon if you want to create a better future for you and your spouse.
Common questions for helping an addicted spouse so you can improve your marriage
“Should I help my spouse hit bottom so he or she will be motivated to get help?”
You’ve heard it said that things “have to get worse before they get better,” or that substance abusers have to “hit bottom” before they will work on making things better. This is often not the case, as most people will be willing to work on things when they get only moderately difficult.
They don’t have to go all the way to the bottom. It really depends on their current level of motivation to give up the drugs or alcohol. And, for some people, all the way to the bottom includes divorce, suicide attempt, and/or prison, so we certainly don’t want to intentionally drive people to the bottom.
Start small, but be prepared to escalate to a larger intervention
An analogy can be made with losing weight. Some people are overweight and want to lose weight, but can’t until they get a good reason like going to a school reunion. Other people, though, can’t start to lose weight until after they have had a heart attack and the doctor gives them a choice between losing weight or dying.
Most people can make changes with extreme circumstances, but there always remains a small percentage who will not, regardless of the risk. Don’t assume your spouse will need extreme measures to change, but do understand that you may need to be willing to take extreme measures if the lesser ones don’t work.
“How can I best help my spouse with alcoholism or a drug addiction?”
The best thing you can do for your spouse is to take care of yourself. Make sure you are in counseling or coaching and learning how to use good boundaries and enjoy your life more without your spouse. If you do this, then your spouse will gradually feel the weight of his or her own choices more and more and naturally become confronted with the possibility of losing you.
Hear me well, because I am not saying that you should threaten to leave your partner. I am saying to continue to express to your partner the desire to have a good relationship with him or her, but at the same time maintain healthy boundaries and live a life you enjoy. As long as your spouse enjoys your relationship and is attracted to you, he or she will be very motivated not to lose you. This is very similar to interventions for spouses who are having affairs and need to give up their affair partner.
“You often recommend agreement for connection. Should I use agreement when my spouse is verbally or physically abusive or threatening?”
Definitely not. But, neither should you argue. Your safety and your children’s safety come before any thought of intervention. And allowing violence or even disrespect harms the relationship for both of you. Keeping yourself safe, and earning respect, are the best things you can do for your marriage. Your spouse doesn’t need more things to feel guilty about.
Guilt doesn’t lead to change. It just makes people justify their behavior so that they can feel better about what they are doing.
With a very abusive person, you can start with boundaries for the most severe abuse. As that improves, you can extend your boundaries to less abusive or disrespectful behaviors.
If abuse is not severe or it is merely disrespect, then follow the principle of starting with small boundaries and progressing to larger boundaries, if needed. But never debate or argue with your spouse about your boundaries.
Never seek approval for your boundaries. By definition, your spouse will never like your boundaries.
If you want love, it is imperative that you earn respect. Allowing people to abuse you, even if it is just once in a while will lower their respect for you, their love for you, and your ability to be a helpful partner. Allowing disrespect is one reason people pleasers don’t have deep and lasting relationships.
“I am afraid my spouse will choose the drugs or alcohol over me, and I will be rejected if I set good boundaries.”
Unfortunately, this fear of rejection, which fuels codependency, is the reason that many relationships remain bad. In order to save your relationship, you have to risk losing it. If you are too fearful of that, you won’t be able to do the interventions necessary to make your relationship better. Overcoming your fear of losing your spouse will enable you to do the interventions to make your relationship better. Working in coaching can help you to become better at relationships so that you will be less fearful of losing your marriage.
Ironically, the less you fear losing your marriage, the healthier you will behave in your marriage and the longer you will keep it and enjoy it.
For example, a rich person wouldn’t fear losing his or her job at a fast food restaurant, right? But, poor people would be very afraid of that. So much so that they might let their boss abuse them. What if they learned how to survive and how to be able to get another job? Perhaps an even better job?
Then, they would be more relaxed at work, not accept disrespect, and be more valued by their employer. Being a good spouse, but not fearful of losing your marriage will get you love and commitment from your spouse. He or she is more likely to do whatever is needed to keep you–including giving up an addiction.
It’s not easy to have good boundaries with an addicted spouse
But, it’s easier than continuing to have a relationship in which you feel unimportant, neglected, and mistreated. If you want to leave your relationship, then by all means get out. Who knows? Maybe that is what is needed before your spouse will change.
On the other hand, if you want to save your relationship, you are not going to do that by being patient and submissive. It will take tough love, which is to say loving messages combined with firm boundaries. Do not blame your spouse about what he or she does until you have done all that you can. That is Christian, it is loving, and it is effective.
Don’t be afraid to get help from professionals if you need it. Many others, in happy relationships, have been where you are now and have made their lives better with just a little help.