Setting boundaries with an alcoholic or addicted spouse can be confusing. Setting them correctly will help you to live with and help your addicted spouse. You don’t need to give up on your relationship.
Nobody wants to be addicted to drugs or alcohol, including your spouse. 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 a one. Best practice is to start off small and then increase the size of your intervention until you get consistent and positive results. If your interventions are getting some good results, but they don’t last, then you will need to either use larger interventions or apply them more consistently. Here is some guidance that can help you to help your spouse for the sake of your relationship.
“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 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, and/or prison, so we certainly don’t want to intentionally drive people to the bottom.
Start small, but be prepared to escalate your interventions
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 an 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. 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 forever.
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 productive life. Then, it won’t be your decisions that result in your leaving your partner. It will be your spouse’s decisions that result in him or her being less and less a part of your life.
“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. That is because when violence occurs, not only can people be hurt or killed, but it also drives another spike into the heart of your relationship. Keeping yourself safe is one of the best things you can do for your alcoholic or addicted spouse. Your spouse doesn’t need more things to feel guilty about.
Regarding verbal abuse, this is also not something to put up with. I recommend that my clients have a “zero tolerance policy” for verbal abuse. What this means is that the first time and every time thereafter that verbal abuse occurs they should immediately end the conversation without further comment, and preferably leave for at least an hour. This is a simple yet effective way to end verbal abuse.
“Why zero tolerance for verbal abuse, why not give a warning after abuse happens?”
Would you respect someone who lets you abuse them one time, each time you are together? I wouldn’t. The other reason to have a zero tolerance policy is that your spouse will learn to self-monitor what he or she is about to say. If you use a warning system, then instead of learning to self-monitor, your spouse will monitor for your warning. That means the verbal abuse will continue to occur.
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.
“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. But, in order to not fear losing it, you must believe in yourself and have the resources to be able to live independently of your spouse if necessary. Going to counseling can help you to become strong enough to stop being codependent.
For example, a rich person wouldn’t fear losing his or her job at a fast food restaurant, right? But, a 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? Then, they could stand up to their bosses, and improve their working conditions. And, if their bosses continued to mistreat them, they would leave. That part about being able to improve their working conditions is analogous to your being able to improve your relationship with your spouse.
You have to be able to survive without your spouse in order to be able to be strong and improve your marriage. Learning to be more independent doesn’t mean learning to be alone. It means that you can improve your relationship, or if necessary get another relationship. Never does it mean, however, cheating on your spouse. That is not learning to stand on your own. That is just transferring your dependency from one person to another.
It’s not easy to live with an addicted spouse.
But, it is not as difficult as 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. But, if you want to save your relationship, you are not going to do that by being patient or by being threatening. It will take tough love, which is to say loving messages combined with firm boundaries. Do what you can. Get help if you need to, but don’t just adjust to an addiction which is preventing both you and your spouse from enjoying your relationship.