On the best of days relationships are often tough, so when you add addiction into the mix — along with its frequent companions, mental disorders and trauma — they can reach a whole new level of complexity. So there’s never just one reason why someone stays in a relationship with an addict, of course. Here, though, are some likely answers to the question you may have heard from friends and family if your partner or spouse is struggling with addiction: “Why on earth don’t you just leave?”
Leaving feels impossible.
While public speaking is often referred to as Americans’ number one fear, that “honor” actually belongs to the crippling anxiety that befalls many people when they attempt to leave a chronically traumatic relationship. The comfort in the familiar — even when the familiar is self-destructive — is a type of narcotic; it eases anxiety. But in the long run staying also stops the possibility of building a new and potentially better life. I tell my patients it’s the fear of experiencing the fear that keeps them stuck. If they can breathe, sit with the anxiety and then say, “I am so much more than my feelings. I can handle taking a step forward,” change starts to happen.
One (or both) of your parents was an addict.
It’s human nature to repeat patterns. If someone grew up with a parent who was an addict, it feels normal to get involved with one. What would feel strange and uncomfortable would be not living amid chaos and dysfunction. Often, the need to help a partner overcome addiction is born of the feeling of failure at not “saving” one’s parent.
It’s essential for this person to realize the psychological harm caused by his or her childhood, and that perpetuating the cycle is prolonging the pain. Just as it isn’t the job of a child to save an addictive parent, it is not the job of a spouse to “fix” a partner who’s addicted. We are all responsible for our own fate and that fate needn’t be tying one’s life to someone who is broken.
You’re afraid of the financial fall-out.
Divorce is not only hugely emotionally disruptive, it’s a financial earthquake as well. And if you’ve been out of the job market for decades, the prospect of trying to find an entry-level job to support yourself on your own may feel crushing and impossible. A break-up may also mean you’ll lose your spouse’s medical insurance.
These are concrete concerns, but staying in a dysfunctional relationship is not the only solution. Nor is it ultimately the right one. Once again, fear and habit keep people imprisoned in something toxic. The key to an exit is first saying, “Yes, I can!”
Your spouse is trying to get clean.
When one partner can say about the other, “Well, my partner is in AA or NA,” it gives more justification to not making a move. The message to themselves is, “I’m not a victim. I’m not leaving or changing my relationship because I don’t want to sabotage my mate’s recovery efforts.”
This is all well and good. And getting clean, especially after years of using, is among the hardest work there is. However, after months or years of watching a spouse try and fail to quit, it’s important to admit that what you are doing by staying is enabling that person and the only thing that your inaction is accomplishing is maintaining the status quo.
You love the person inside the addict.
Rachel R. knew her husband since they were 12; the couple married in August 2006. Says the 37-year-old mom of two, “You stay because you believe in the person, that the person can change and embrace a new life without relying on a substance.” That said, Rachel ultimately left; her divorce was final in January 2015. She didn’t stop loving her husband, she but stopped believing that if only she loved him enough he would stop using.