By Dr. Sarah Toler, CNM, DNP
Being married to a person who is addicted to alcohol or drugs is hard. When you entered into a marriage, you did so with the expectation of always putting each other first. When a spouse becomes addicted to drugs or alcohol, the substance takes the place where you should be.
Addiction isn’t usually a simple problem. It brings other problems into the marriage that wouldn’t be there otherwise. Would your spouse lie, cheat or put themselves in risky situations if they weren’t under the influence of drugs or alcohol? It’s hard to say, but you hope not.
You married your spouse because you loved them. You don’t want to walk away from them because they are going through an incredibly difficult time. How can you help your spouse who is addicted to drugs or alcohol without sacrificing everything?
The two of you may have once had a good time together when alcohol and drugs are involved, but now things have gotten out of hand. Or maybe you don’t use drugs or alcohol and never understood the depths of your partner’s substance abuse. Either way, addiction negatively impacts marriage.
For many spouses, there is a fine line between supporting a partner addicted to drugs or alcohol and enabling them to continue their addiction. Enabling occurs when a spouse makes it easy for the other spouse to continue to abuse substances. Usually, this means that there are few consequences for addiction and its related behaviors.
You may be enabling your spouse if you make sacrifices on your own life in order to protect their safety, reputation or substance use. For example, you might make excuses for why your spouse doesn’t attend social events when the reality is that they were too drunk or hungover to make it to the party. You might pay their bills instead of paying your own because they can’t keep a job. You might go to work late or miss work because you are attending to their needs after a night or drinking or drug use.
Addiction is hard on both partners in a marriage. In order to support your spouse, you must take care of your own needs first.
Most people find that support from a therapist, a support group like Al-Anon, or both, are critical to living with a spouse who is addicted. This support can enable to set healthy boundaries from yourself and protect yourself as much as possible from the effects of substance abuse within your marriage.
It’s also important to take care of your physical health. Make time to get exercise, eat healthy foods and have quiet time for yourself. Keep your therapy and healthcare provider’s appointments even if the behavior of your spouse gets in the way.
When your spouse abuses substances, the most critical way you can support them is by encouraging them to seek treatment. Even though many people say they will quit on their own, recovering from an addiction without help is almost impossible. Chronic substance abuse alters brain chemistry, making the brain dependent upon the substance.
With the help of trained addiction specialists, your spouse can get the tools they need to get sober. It will take commitment on both of your parts, but recovery is possible.
When your partner comes home from rehab, you’ll probably be filled with hope and excitement for their sobriety. However, it’s unrealistic to believe that they will return home “fixed” and everything will be normal, just without substance abuse.
When your partner comes home, you’ll need to make some changes. All traces of drugs and alcohol must be removed from your home. This means that if you like to indulge in either, you’ll have to join your spouse in sobriety.
Although many people have guilt and shame about their partner being in recovery, it’s best to let your friends and family know. By telling your loved ones about your spouse’s sobriety, you can enroll their support as well. They will be less likely to bring alcohol or drugs around you and your spouse and more sensitive to the issue in general.
You’ll need to try to avoid all images of drugs and alcohol, including those on TV. This is a good time to invest in a gym membership and some board games. Try to take up a new hobby with your spouse like walking every day after work or trying out a new recipe every night. The goal is to create a new environment with as few triggers as possible.
Supporting your partner through a recovery from substance abuse is one of the most loving gestures you can make. In order to support your spouse successfully, you’ll also need to take care of yourself and maintain boundaries. Seeking support from therapists and support groups can better enable you to support the person you love the most and help them stay sober. Their ability to stay sober is not your responsibility, but you can do some things to help them along the way.