What to do when your partner has an addiction

Are you worried that your partner is becoming increasingly distant in your relationship? Do they continually make excuses for unacceptable behaviour? Have they become increasingly irritable and moody? If you are answering yes to these questions it is likely that your partner is in active addiction and you need help and support.

Addicts often justify their behaviour as a lifestyle choice. However, you will know addictive behaviour when you start to see adverse effects on other parts of their life and on their relationship with you. There will be times of great enthusiasm for couple activities but this will increasingly become stop/start. Over time they will have less and less willingness, and ability, to engage emotionally in any kind of meaningful way in the relationship.

You will know when active addiction is present when they are living in contradictions. They will talk about monogamy and commitment, for instance, but will have affairs. They will like to be seen as generous but will become mean with their money. They will take pride in how reliable they can be but will start to miss appointments and engagements.

Active addiction is a form of altered state of consciousness when cognitive alertness and feelings are lost in the biological intensity of the arousal offered by the substance or the behaviour. So, it doesn’t matter if its alcohol, drugs, porn or gambling. This altered state of consciousness is a form of tunnel vision, as there is little consideration for anything else. That is why people seem obsessed in search of their fix, as they appear oblivious to anything else or anyone else around them. They will appear to be in their own world and will become increasingly distracted, moody and secretive. They will rage if someone, or something, blocks their pursuit of engagement with their addiction.  

Here are some tips in surviving a relationship with an addicted person:

1. Accept there is a problem

It may seem obvious but acknowledging that there is a problem is the first step in survival as you may be unwilling to accept that there is a real problem. This is quite common as addicted people can often be skilled in rationalising and excusing their behaviour as a temporary blip in an otherwise colourful lifestyle. However, once you accept that there is a problem, it is easier to take action and the quicker it can be for you to begin a journey of recovery.

2. Detach with love

Addicts can be extremely creative in seeking to find ways of maintaining their addiction. Try to see their addiction as separate from them the person. They are not a bad person as they invariably have good intentions. However, it is important to not enable them by excusing their bad behaviour, offering loans or bailouts and failing to hold them to account. Detaching with love is when you remove yourself from being around their active addiction and avoiding the pitfall of succumbing to their manipulation.

3. Work on your own psychological health

You may have been suffering alone for a long time whilst wondering what to do. It can be scary assessing what course of action to take. You might be nervous of making tough decisions in the future concerning the viability of the relationship. Having someone to confide in will be a useful source of emotional comfort.

4. Avoid collusion

It is common that people in relationships with addicts may be unconsciously colluding in their dysfunctional lifestyle. It is helpful to see your dependency needs as distinct from the needs of the relationship. Is your feeling of esteem and self-worth associated with being with them at any cost? It could be worth looking at why you were attracted to them in the first place as well as why you have continued in the relationship.

5. Acknowledge you can only control yourself

You can suggest how an addict can gain support and professional help but there is little benefit in making them go. You can only control what you do yourself.  It can be heart breaking to see someone torture themselves in active addiction but the initiative to stop and seek help must come from them. Pushing someone into rehab or forcing them to attend 12 step meetings usually backfires. They need to want to go themselves.

6. Set firm boundaries

Boundaries invariably become blurred when dealing with active addiction as poor behaviour is often excused or personal values are compromised. You could have a more healthy relationship when you acquire the assertiveness skills to say “yes” when you mean yes and “no” when you mean no. Once you start to set firmer boundaries you can start to help them in a more productive way.

7.  Focus on your own life

The most effective way to avoid enabling behaviour is to concentrate on the things that make you feel better. Doing esteemable things will help to boost your self-worth and self-confidence. When you are in a relationship with an addicted person the focus can tend to shift onto them, at the expense of you. It is important to reclaim the focus for your own life, hopes and dreams.

Getting support

Al-Anon is a 12 step fellowship that provides a meeting network to help anyone whose life is, or has been, affected by someone else's alcohol consumption. Nar-Anon is the equivalent for families and friends of compulsive drug users. GamAnon offers information, resources and contacts for those who are affected by another’s gambling problems. S-Anon is a programme of recovery for those who have been affected by someone else's sexual behaviour.

Counselling and psychotherapy can help you to set firmer boundaries, review your past decisions and take stock of your future direction. It may be helpful to examine your attachment style, assess your relationship history and work out your goals and expectations. Speaking to someone who is impartial in a private and confidential setting can be transformative as you decide what to do next.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London SE1 & SE26
Written by Noel Bell, MA, PG Dip Psych, UKCP
London SE1 & SE26

Noel Bell is a UKCP accredited psychotherapist based in London who has spent the past 20 years exploring and studying personal growth, recovery from addictions and inner transformation. Noel draws upon the most effective tools and techniques from the psychodynamic, cognitive behavioural (CBT), humanist, existential and transpersonal schools.

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