Loving someone who’s battling a substance abuse problem (or another kind of compulsive behavior, like sex, porn or gambling addiction) is an emotional roller coaster. You’ve learned too well that recovery isn’t a straightforward journey. But there are ways to make it a bit smoother for both of you:
- Sidestep the co-dependency trap. What does that mean? Put another way, don’t make your mental health dependent on how your partner is faring with his or her sobriety. It can be incredibly difficult not to take it personally when your mate is an addict. But if your mission in life is “fixing” your spouse, that’s an untenable way to live – one that leads to chronic anxiety, depression and exhaustion. And your desperation can unintentionally place pressure on an already-shaky partner. To maintain a sense of vigor and purpose, you need to put yourself first. This can involve therapy, a 12-step program (attending Al-Anon meetings), time spent with friends, partaking in hobbies — whatever makes you feel replenished, less alone and healthier. A crucial point: Make sure you have money of your own and an exit plan if your spouse becomes violent.
- Accept that alcoholism is a disease. Drinking is not something your mate indulges in to hurt you. Indeed, it is not about you. Lecturing your partner on how he or she should just develop some willpower will cause resentment and distance between you. On the flip side, educating yourself about the bumpy process of recovery — possibly including relapses and much guilt and shame — will help you understand the torturous battle the person you love is facing.
- Set boundaries. Much as you want to be encouraging and confident that your mate is safely on the sober path, be firm. Don’t enable your partner’s using by giving money or offering other resources that can be used to continue the addiction. If alcohol is a problem it’s better not to have it in the house or to attend social functions together where the temptation to drink will be nearly unbearable for your spouse. And don’t issue ultimatums unless you intend to follow through. Otherwise you’ll just be the boy or girl who cried wolf.
- Enlist professional support. Addiction affects every member of the family. You need a place to let it all out — and so does your spouse. And the children need to hear that it’s not their fault that Mommy or Daddy drinks or uses. The innocent ones deserve a safe place where they can say anything they wish without fear of hurting their parents. Couples therapy is an outlet where boundaries can be set and enforced. First, the addict can be held accountable – for example, that he or she needs to attend an AA meeting every day. In therapy, each person can be vulnerable and state how he or she really feels, saying things like, “When you don’t come home on time and don’t call I’m immediately terrified you’re drinking,” or “I know my drinking has caused havoc for everyone, but I am trying my best and sometimes I feel no one appreciates that.”
- Be patient. Your partner is engaged in the battle of a lifetime. Yes, this battle hugely impacts your life. But you’re not the one doing the heavy lifting in terms of being able to quit a habit that has been a crutch for months or years. And the crutch’s “replacement” is learning to live with uncomfortable feelings instead of dousing them with substances or problematic behaviors. This is tough, scary work; that’s why your mate needs your understanding and patience. It’s also important to understand that once your partner is in recovery, much of his or her energy must initially go toward learning to live sober. Therefore your mate won’t be capable of taking on heavy family responsibilities. Not only will it take time for you to trust that he or she can, say, pick the kids up from school every day, your significant other will also be immersed in discovering new facets to his or her personality and ways to survive. There is, of course, tremendous freedom is discovering who you can be when life is not geared around your next fix. So allow for some breathing room and hopefully the two of you can eventually form a new, healthy and true partnership.