A person who is not the spouse of an addict may wonder how someone who is could possibly fail to immediately notice their partner’s problems with drugs or alcohol. But the truth is that addiction is not something that happens all at once. In fact, there will often be many small signals that there is something wrong if you are not specifically looking for the telltale signs of an addict.
Without the value of hindsight, it can be difficult to put the pieces together until the addiction has progressed to the point where it can no longer be concealed. This scenario, however, is also not always the case when it comes to a spouse’s addiction. There are, generally speaking, three common ways that someone can find themselves the spouse of an addict.
The first is the one that most likely comes to someone’s mind when they think about having a spouse who is struggling with addiction, where it is not until after you have been married that you find out that your partner has managed to conceal their addiction.
Discovering the extent of a problem you didn’t know existed can be an intense shock, but a spouse who is struggling with addiction becomes, often by force of habit, skilled at hiding their issues with substance abuse from others, even those closest to them.
The second way in which someone becomes the spouse of an addict is a slow process that begins with social drinking that becomes nightly trips to a bar, and then they find that they are unable to stop. Or your spouse might need to undergo surgery and be prescribed pain medication for their recovery only to grow dependent on them and eventually addicted.
Finally, many people are actually already aware when they get married that their partner has had issues with drugs or alcohol but are in recovery. People in recovery are often able to successfully maintain sobriety for years, but they are still susceptible to the possibility of relapse. In the end, it doesn’t really matter how someone ends up the spouse of an alcoholic or drug addict.
What does matter is identifying the problem and understanding what steps need to be taken next to best help your spouse, and that starts with recognizing the signs of substance abuse.
It is important to keep in mind that each couple is unique, as is each individual’s addiction, so one person’s spouse that is abusing drugs or alcohol may not be doing it in the same way as someone else’s spouse. That being said, there are various general behaviors that can act as red flags to a growing substance use problem, including:
When someone becomes dependent on drugs or alcohol, it can become the controlling force behind all of their decisions and can cause drastic changes in personality. When under the influence or struggling with the symptoms of withdrawal, your spouse can say or do things they never normally would, which can be difficult to deal with, almost as if the person you married has disappeared.
Once it has become clear that you are the spouse of an addict, it is normal to feel lost and overwhelmed, as though there is nothing you can do. Fortunately, this is not the case, as there are many ways you can help your spouse and there also many resources available to provide help for spouses of drug addicts.
First and foremost, it is crucial that you and your spouse both acknowledge their addiction and the problems it is causing not just for your spouse but in your marriage and family as well. This is often done in the form of an intervention, where friends and family can both provide support and clearly illustrate how many people are affected by your spouse’s addiction.
While it is important to be clear and candid, it is also important to avoid tactics like making threats. Threatening your spouse with divorce unless they agree to stop using will, typically, not work. This is not meant to be an indication of their lack of love or commitment, but that their addiction has progressed to the point where they no longer have any control over their drug or alcohol use.
In fact, the stress, shame, and other negative feelings that accompany the threat of divorce will most likely only drive them to further abuse. Instead, it may be more helpful emphasize how much you care about them and their wellbeing as an impetus for getting them into treatment.
According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), domestic partnerships that involve a drug-addicted or alcoholic spouse creates a cycle of conflict. In these instances, their substance abuse often leads to verbal or even physical conflicts, which start as a result of the spouse’s behaviors that are being driven by addiction and then leads to more arguments about the substance abuse itself.
If the couple attempts to deny that the problem is there or otherwise refuses to seek out therapy not only for addiction but also for their marriage, this cycle will only continue as addiction becomes the central focal point of all of the conflict within the marriage.
To break this cycle, both of these things need to be addressed, as issues within the marriage may have contributed to a spouse’s addiction. Furthermore, addiction recovery treatment alone cannot fully heal the rift an addicted spouse’s behaviors may have caused within the relationship.
There are many recovery treatment centers that offer family and couples therapy as part of their overall addiction rehabilitation treatment programs. Therapies that focus on treating both members of a couple have been found to give the spouse in recovery a significantly higher success rate at maintaining their sobriety in the long-term.
Some of the elements involved in Behavioral Couples Therapy include working to improve communication and problem-solving skills, creating a recovery contract that both partners can be held to, and learning caring behaviors on both sides that can lead to a more open and supportive home environment.
During the course of a spouse’s recovery, it can often be difficult knowing how best to support them. We have a handy list of common do’s and don’ts to remember, which not only cover supporting an addicted spouse but also support for spouses of drug addicts themselves.
This is one of the most important things the spouse of an addict can do to support their partner. Gaining a better understanding of how addiction works and affects the brain and body of those who have a substance use disorder will help you understand what your spouse is going through.
Remember that change is a gradual process. It takes time for a drug-addicted or alcohol spouse to realize the full scope of their behavior and the harm it has caused to themselves and their loved ones. It takes time for them to find the path to recovery that will work best. Understand that true change cannot happen overnight.
Dealing with addiction can be overwhelming not only for the addict themselves but the spouse of the addict as well. Do not try to shoulder this alone, reach out to family and friends for support as well as professional resources that offer help for spouses of drug addicts. We have provided many of these resources at the bottom of the page.
If your spouse is actively working to recover, do not just say that you support them, show it by attending open support group meetings with them, taking part in couples or family therapy, and encouraging them to attend recovery meetings.
Supporting your spouse is obviously critical, but this does not mean neglecting your own needs in the process. Being the spouse of an alcoholic or drug addict, even one in recovery can be exhausting, so take care of yourself and make sure you have a solid support system in place that can help with your personal needs.
No matter what your reason may be: fear, embarrassment, or something else, do not try to pretend that your spouse’s addiction is not a problem. This will not make it go away but only contribute to making it worse. In the same way that if your partner was struggling with a physical health issue you would make them see a doctor or take them to the hospital if they are struggling with addiction, help them find a recovery program.
While family and marital factors can contribute to a spouse’s addiction, it is just one of the many elements that create the perfect storm for someone with an addiction, and while you can work to help alleviate issues within your relationship that may have contributed to their addiction, you cannot shoulder the responsibility for it. You cannot control your spouse or their behavior, and therefore you also cannot blame yourself for what they do.
Again, there are many factors that lead to your spouse becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol, but blaming or judging them for it is not going to lead to any kind of productive change. More than likely, they want to stop using or drinking as badly as you want them to, but addiction has them in too strong of a grip for them to do it on their own, let alone without your support.
Supporting is not the same thing as enabling, which is encouraging negative behaviors. Examples of enabling as the spouse of an addict include lying for your spouse to help them avoid taking responsibility for their actions or otherwise helping to “cover up” their addiction. This only validates their addictive behaviors and will not prompt them to change.
Even once your spouse is in recovery and actively working to remain sober, your life and your marriage will never be what it was beforehand. There will be a new normal, and in many ways, this is a good thing, as the way things were before, no matter how good they seemed, were tainted by the presence of addiction and most likely unhealthy to a certain degree. Instead of hoping for a return to the same, allow this change and the challenges it brings to strengthen you and your partner’s relationship.
Al-Anon: One of the most well-known and respected 12-Step programs in the world, Al-Anon is a group open to those who had been affected by alcohol addiction, including not only spouses and partners but also children, parents, and friends.
Couple Recovery from Addiction: This support organization follows a holistic healing model of couple-based addiction recovery, focusing not only on the recovery of the addicted spouse but of the relationship as well.
Nar-Anon: The counterpart program to Al-Anon, Nar-Anon is a 12-Step support group for the loved ones of people with substance use disorders beyond alcohol.
National Domestic Violence Hotline: The National Domestic Violence website is both a repository of resources and informational material for the victims and survivors of domestic abuse as well as a hotline that can provide immediate crisis intervention and support: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).
Recovering Couples Anonymous: While not affiliated specifically with Alcoholics Anonymous, Recovering Couples Anonymous functions on the same 12-Step principles of recovery, modified for couples.
SMART Recovery Family & Friends: SMART Recovery (Self-Management and Recovery Training) is a nonreligious support alternative to groups like Al-Anon. The Family & Friends group is a part of the SMART Recovery system specifically geared towards the spouses, family, and friends of the person in recovery.
American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. (n.d.). Substance Abuse and Intimate Relationships. from https://www.aamft.org/AAMFT/Consumer_Updates/Substance_Abuse_and_Intimate_Relationships.aspx
Gadoua, S., L.C.S.W. (2011, September). So You're Married to An Addict: Is Divorce Inevitable? from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/contemplating-divorce/201109/so-youre-married-addict-is-divorce-inevitable
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016, January). What to Do If Your Adult Friend or Loved One Has a Problem with Drugs. from https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/treatment/what-to-do-if-your-adult-friend-or-loved-one-has-problem-drugs