How to help an addicted mate become a connected partner

Addiction impacts many families in the United States. It is not only a health and survival issue but also a distancing factor destructive to partners.

According to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s report in 2006, “over 22 million individuals have a substance dependence or abuse problem in the US”. Alcohol Health & Research World states, ”nearly 14 million Americans meet diagnostic criteria for alcohol use disorders.” The 2003 National Survey on Drug Use and Health quotes, “an estimated 4.7 million Americans used prescription drugs nonmedically”. “In a given year, approximately 1% of the U.S. adults (3 million) meet criteria for pathological gambling”, reports the National Council on Problem Gambling. These are just a few of the addictive categories.

Addiction causes couples to become emotionally distanced and individually isolated. The mate of an addicted individual is often either a participant in the activity such as being a co-drinker, becomes an addict of a different substance, is a critic, or a co-dependent (a deferring mate who subjugated his/her needs to the partner’s ways and inadvertently supports the partner’s addiction). None of these choices help repair the damaged connection between the mates, – they only splinter them apart.

When both partners indulge in substances, even if not to the same degree, their emotional connection is lost. Though they are in the presence of each other – they are actually emotionally absent from each other. When the addictive substance rules both individuals, it extinguishes the possibility that intimacy can occur between them.

Often, when one partner is addicted to one substance the mate may be addicted to another. The spouse of an alcoholic may have an eating disorder, may become obsessed with exercising, shopping, socializing or other activities. Some of these actions may be less destructive or even healthy, but they still separate the mates and create an emotional estrangement between them.

Some partners of addictive mates try to alter their partner’s destructive habit by criticizing, lecturing, chastising, monitoring, reprimanding, educating and preaching. None of these well- intentioned methods are effective in altering the addict’s ways –they only serve as additional excuses for the escalation of one’s addictive behavior. This attitude further distances the mates and causes deep misery for each of them.

The co-dependent mate excuses the partner’s addictive behavior by explaining it as a response to stress, minimizing the habit’s destructive effects for the user and the family, vindicates the addict by highlighting his/her true fine nature or justifying the addiction as being an untreatable disease. The co-dependent person is usually non-assertive, and permits the addict’s conduct by normalizing the behavior while experiencing personal helplessness. Here again, intimacy is precluded as both mates are in denial about their reality and impotent in making the necessary changes for creating a healthy lifestyle and love connection between them.

If you are in a relationship with an addicted mate:

• Realize that the addictive behavior is destructive to your partner’s health, to your relationship connection and to your family’s wellbeing.
• Do not participate in the behavior that you can use in moderation but your partner cannot.
• Avoid solving the emotional distance by getting into your own addiction, even if it is not a harmful one. It still distances you from each other.
• Do not attempt to treat your partner. Accept that effective treatments are available by addiction specialists.
• Do not justify, normalize, or excuse the addicted person’s behavior. Be firm in insisting that your mate get treatment. You may need to use your love and presence to force your mate to receive the help he/she needs.
• Participate in your mate’s recovery process as advised by his/her treating professionals.
• Insist on couple’s work to reconstruct a new life patterns that are healthy for both of you. This will draw you closer and restore true intimacy to your relationship.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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