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In Sickness and in Health: When Married Couples Face Addiction Together

in sickness and in health

The topic of addiction usually stimulates thoughts and conversations about the millions each year that develop and suffer from drug abuse. Most people immediately think about the physical, behavioral, economic and legal repercussions before exploring the implications for addicts’ families. It may be reasonable to consider the disease of addiction in this way—working from inside the individual to the outside—but one could argue that the direst effects of addiction can be external, referring to how the disease affects the lives of each addict’s loved ones. In particular, it’s the addict’s spouse or partner who tends to bear the brunt of these secondhand effects.

There’s no shortage of literature describing the impact of addiction on families.While this is understandable, having an addicted partner can be an incredibly intense, difficult experience; one that often spells the relationship’s demise. When an addict hits rock bottom and caused financial or legal repercussions for the family, divorce may seem inevitable. Is it possible for a marriage to make it through addiction and recovery, even after dishonesty and deception? How do you save a marriage after finding out your spouse is an addict?

When Addiction Doesn’t Result in Divorce

Choosing whether to work through addiction together or to get a divorce is a very personal decision, and it’s one that shouldn’t be made in haste. Some will decide that their spouse’s substance abuse problem is too great a betrayal to ever re-establish trust. But in other situations, a case can be made for forgiveness and perseverance. To get married in the first place is, likewise, a big decision that’s not made in haste and shows strong feelings of trust and loyalty. Moreover, the majority of married couples vow to stand by one another “for better or worse” and “in sickness and in health.”

There’s a common misconception that when a married person begins abusing alcohol or drugs, it’s because he or she was unhappy with the marriage. This can be extremely hurtful.

When deciding whether to end the relationship or work through the addiction together, it’s a good idea to first do some research and try to communicate with your partner. Research can provide an idea of what it’s like to develop an addiction and live as an addict. In addition to the many resources on the Internet—including the resources available here from Michael’s House—attending local Al-Anon meetings can be enlightening, offering the perspectives and support of others who have remained with their addicted spouses and worked through the disease together.2

An important takeaway from research is learning that an addict doesn’t abuse alcohol or drugs maliciously. Becoming an addict is not about betrayal or believing that drugs are more important than family. Becoming physically and psychologically dependent is a brain disease; an obsessive compulsion that defies rationality and forces people to knowingly act against their best interests. After seeing addiction for what it really is, a partner’s addiction may feel much less like broken vows.

For Better or For Worse

The decision to persevere through addiction together should be accompanied by a very specific mindset. Both parties must be united in fighting the disease.

This type of mindset discourages distinguishing “his problems” from “her problems,” encouraging action from both parties.

Addiction is very much a family problem and requires participation from all involved, especially from the spouse or partner. Addiction is an incurable, progressive disease that never goes away. However, like cancer or diabetes, it can be brought into remission. And like other diseases, there will be ups and downs in the process.

Preparing for recovery is the first thing to do in this situation. This means determining the best form of treatment for the addict’s specific circumstances and finding facilities that can meet his or her needs. During this time of planning, the addict may be experiencing withdrawal symptoms, and the non-addicted spouse must deal with a lack of communication, intimacy issues, emotional distance, and a general disconnect in both the relationship and the family unit.3 Considering this time is already overwhelming, it’s important for the addicted party to begin treatment as soon as possible. This minimizes the potential for the addiction to worsen or lead to any additional complications.

Light at the End of the Tunnel

light at the end of the tunnel

When treatment begins, the prospect of making it through addiction as a couple might seem slim. If the rehabilitation center is close enough for occasional travel, it’s helpful to visit and participate in the family-based therapy the facility might offer. Most facilities provide couples therapy or family therapy as part of the treatment plan. These sessions can jumpstart the healing process and help family members learn to communicate effectively again.4

Participating in your loved one’s recovery process is very encouraging and offers tangible proof of familial support.

Additionally, if the partner’s substance abuse problem was being enabled, it’s important for the enabler’s behaviors to be identified and changed.

During treatment, addicts learn how to substitute substance abuse with better, healthier behaviors. These new behaviors promote sobriety, which is important when a recovering addict is confronted with people, places or things that previously triggered substance abuse. Remaining involved in a partner’s treatment and recovery is enlightening and helps family members develop strategies that promote the addict’s abstinence. Visiting and interacting is also when the spouse’s progress can be seen, finally offering a little light at the end of this difficult tunnel.

Rebuilding the Family through Sobriety

Mother and sons hugging

It’s often said that the real work of recovery begins after returning home from rehab. This is because staying sober in a drug-free, supervised environment is much easier than it is at home. After returning home, a recovering addict becomes accountable and responsible for sustaining his or her abstinence. Although there is no way to force a person to stay sober, there are many ways to encourage it. This means being as supportive as possible for spouses, partners and family members. Not holding grudges and focusing on the past is difficult, but just as addicts are taught the importance of leaving addiction in the past, so must an addict’s spouse try to focus on the future. An encouraging, forgiving environment is more conducive to sobriety than one of blame and condemnation. Overcoming addiction isn’t easy, and the possibility that recovery would restore the family was likely a primary motivator for your loved one seeking help.

A marriage will need to heal in much the same way as the recovering addict. Couples working through addiction should take advantage of couples’ or family counseling. This type of therapy helps family members overcome feelings of self-doubt and feeling like you are the reason your loved one turned to substance abuse in the first place.5 Support groups are also effective and offer a community in which to network with others who can relate to and support a couple’s recovery journey.

Addiction recovery is a lifestyle, not something that can be completed and checked off a list. At the same time, a marriage is a partnership built on a foundation of understanding, loyalty, compromise, respect, and love. Although addiction may seem like a hurricane of unspeakably destructive proportions, a strong marriage has the foundation to weather the storm.

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  1. National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. “Family Disease,” February 24, 2016. Accessed April 14, 2017.
  2. US National Library of Medicine, the National Institutes of Health. “Social Processes Explaining the Benefits of Al-Anon Participation,” December 29, 2015. Accessed April 14, 2017.
  3. American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. “Substance Abuse and Intimate Relationships,” Copyright 2002-2017. Accessed April 14, 2017.
  4. NCBI Bookshelf. “Substance Abuse Treatment and Family Therapy,” Accessed April 4, 2017.
  5. Jim LaPierre. “Loving a Recovering Addict/Alcoholic. Tips for Navigating Your Newly-Sober Relationship,” May 27, 2013. Accessed April 13, 2017.