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Loving and Helping an Addicted Spouse
Posted On August 11, 2012
If your spouse is addicted to drugs or alcohol, you will need to deal with that before your relationship can improve.
Trying to build a relationship with an addicted spouse is like trying to build your relationship with someone who is having an affair. Just when you think you are making progress, you will find your spouse with the bottle or drugs again. Your trust will be broken, your spouse will either self-blame or blame you, and your relationship will become distant again. There is an effective way to stop this cycle, but it is going to take more than being nice or patient on your part.
Arguing is not an effective way to help an addicted spouse
Arguing just creates more distance between partners, which then either results in increased substance abuse and/or a decrease in communication between the partners. The problem remains or is worsened. Substance abusers generally do not become motivated to work on overcoming their abuse until they experience severe negative consequences from the addiction. Arguing, although unpleasant, is not a severe consequence as long as the relationship remains. People can get used to arguing.
Arguing makes other interventions less effective
Sometimes a partner does work on overcoming substance abuse following an argument. It is not the arguing that does it, however, but rather it is the partner of the abuser reaching their limit. They will then threaten to separate or divorce or take actual steps to. In these cases, it is not the arguing which has helped, but rather the separation boundary. A separation boundary will be much more effective if it can happen without the arguing. That is, if you are consistently loving toward your spouse, but still use a boundary such as separation, it will have more impact and be more effective. Threats to separate or divorce are not helpful. Never threaten to do something you can’t actually follow through on or your situation will become worse.
Love and boundaries go together a whole lot better than fighting and boundaries
If you want to live with an addicted spouse and make your relationship better, you will need to both maintain a good emotional connection and use good boundaries. This helps your spouse to care enough about your relationship to not want to lose it. You may need to separate or divorce if things are bad enough, but if you maintain an emotional connection with your partner he or she will be more motivated to work on overcoming the abuse so as not to lose you. People who abuse drugs or alcohol may have experienced many rejections in their life and being rejected by one more person might not make much difference. It might just prove something they already believe about themselves (that they are defective or unlovable). They may have never experienced being loved and rejected at the same time.
“Tough love” means being tough and loving at the same time
Some people confuse a tough love approach with a tough approach. Tough love is actually a combination of being tough and being loving. Simply being tough won’t do it. To give your partner the experience of tough love, you must maintain your verbal messages of love and desire for connection, even as you use good boundaries. Compare the following two messages:
“I’m moving out of here because I can’t stand your drinking and selfish behaviors anymore.”
“I love you and want to be with you, but I can’t while you are drinking. It hurts too much.”
The first message is tough, but it is not loving. The boundary used is separation. The second is loving, with the same boundary of separation. The first is blaming. The second takes responsibility. No doubt the second one would be harder to say when you are angry and hurt, but our love and commitment to our spouse demands that we not intentionally do them harm. We may have to leave them, but we don’t have to kick them at the same time. Knowing exactly what to say can be confusing. Here are some other answers to questions people have about addicted spouses.
It can be hard to know where to turn when you have an addicted spouse
I am not a drug and alcohol counselor. But you are not abusing drugs or alcohol. Your problem is a relationship problem. Your spouse’s problems are both a problem with an addiction and a problem with your relationship. Often the best place to start is by you getting help with your relationship, which will include doing the interventions that help your spouse to get treatment for the addiction. Your spouse is not likely to get help until you are able to set and keep the correct boundaries while still being loving. If you would like to start this process with me, I recommend that you get a consultation session for us to create a plan you can follow to end your spouse’s addiction and build your relationship.