It is increasingly likely that there is at least one person in your life who is living with addiction. According to a recent Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) report, approximately 19.7 million people aged 12 or over in the U.S. reported having a substance misuse disorder related to alcohol or drugs. Knowing that someone you are close to is struggling in this way can be difficult, but the situation can be so much more challenging when it is your partner or spouse.
You’re likely to see every day how their addiction has an impact on their wellbeing and the trajectory of their life. You may see them taking risks as a result of their substance misuse disorder — drinking and driving, or consuming potential lethal doses. You witness the emotional toll that they experience, and how their substance needs clash with their deep desire to pull free of it. It’s also certainly not uncommon to feel conflicted; you care deeply for them, but also recognize how their actions have a detrimental effect on your own safety. The combination of all of these things, and so much more, can make it difficult to know how to support your partner through their challenges.
There’s never a single correct approach to this — individuals, and the contexts through which their addictions occur, vary significantly. However, there are some areas that can be common focuses for your support.
Perhaps the most important aspect of being supportive to your partner through their addiction is building a culture of communication at home. This is particularly important when secrecy is a feature in your partner’s illness, as it is with so many other people facing these challenges. You can only get through this together if there are open and honest lines of communication.
It’s important to consider:
Communication is two-way. This is particularly important to remember because if you put the onus entirely on your partner to talk to you about their illness, it can feel as though there is additional pressure on them. Make this honesty and communication a mutual habit. Talk about your own feelings, and fears; especially those unrelated to their addiction. You are both vulnerable people, and by making efforts to share, you can help make each other stronger.
- Third Parties
You can’t be your partner’s only confidant in their struggle with addiction. That puts a lot of pressure on you, and it doesn’t give them space to heal and grow. Regular sessions with a qualified therapist can be effective in this area. Indeed, with the outbreak of COVID-19, telehealth services — where patients connect to medical professionals remotely through their online devices — have become more accessible to most people. This method can also take a lot of the inconvenience and pressure out of traveling to a facility to see a therapist. It can be undertaken from the comfort and privacy of your own home.
As soon as possible, it’s important that both you and your partner acknowledge that you are both human. This means not only will each of you make mistakes occasionally, but also that you each have your limitations. You should make a point of discussing these limitations, and strategizing around them.
Begin with understanding what each of you understands your role in the process of their addiction recovery to be. This must be informed not just by needs, but also a sense of self-awareness. As their partner, you must be clear that you are there to love and support them, but that you are not qualified to provide them with expert guidance or therapeutic care. Indeed, make it clear that expectations on this basis puts additional stress and pressure on you. Your partner should also communicate what they don’t want your role to be, so that you don’t cross any uncomfortable or triggering lines for them.
It’s a difficult issue to broach, but it is vital for your mutual health and wellbeing that you set clear boundaries on behavior. Does abuse or certain risk-taking behavior as a result of their alcoholism mean that you will need to seek a separation or divorce? Perhaps if you have children and your spouse refuses to get professional help, you may need to take steps to keep them and yourself out of danger, not excluding separation or divorce. Nobody wants to imagine the potential for a breakdown of your relationship to occur, but hard as it is to confront the fact, addiction can lead people to breach boundaries. By establishing and communicating these, you are each able to set and understand expectations moving forward. However, you must be sure to follow through on the consequences of broken boundaries.
Overcoming alcohol or drug addiction can be scary and confusing for everyone involved. As such, one of the ways that you can support your partner through it is to seek out resources. This doesn’t necessarily mean financial support, but rather tools that can empower them to heal.
Some areas to consider here can include:
If neither of you are experts, it’s important to learn about substance misuse, and how it can present itself. This could include the consequences — such as the dangers of drunk driving — though it’s important that this isn’t approached from a shaming perspective. Look into what the symptoms of addiction are, what the common emotional effects are, and what you can both expect from periods of withdrawal during recovery. This will help you both to navigate the process.
People experiencing addiction will often have health issues as a result. Some of these might be unexpected. For instance, excessive drinking can exacerbate the effects of varicose veins, as greater activity in the circulatory system can put pressure on the affected veins. Even in areas not directly affected by their addiction, it is not uncommon for those in recovery to neglect their wellbeing. Ensure that they have access to physical and mental health resources, including checkups with their general practitioner. Consider appropriate nutritional supplements to replace the elements that substance use or recovery medication may leech from their system.
Living with an addiction can be challenging for everybody involved. As a loving, supportive partner, you must focus your efforts toward maintaining communication and establishing resources that can help them help themselves. However, it is equally important to set boundaries, and apply these firmly for your mutual wellbeing.