When your partner is in the grip of an addiction, you feel like your world has collapsed.
Nothing else in your life feels so important, yet nothing you try ever helps!
Keeping track of his or her use doesn’t do anything but get you branded as a nag. Cleaning up the messes by lying to yourself and others keeps you spinning in a descending spiral. Attempting to reason with your partner may be the most frustrating thing of all, because an addict will promise you anything to get you to back off.
You still love this person, though. You want things — your love! — to get better.
While calling addiction a disease may be useful in your partner’s recovery, this distinction doesn’t help you. At all.
When people are sick, you take care of them, right? If your partner had pneumonia, you’d obviously be at their bedside doing everything you could to help.
But if you look at a partner struggling with an addiction as “sick” and treat them kindly, you’re now accused of enabling their addiction. Just what you needed — another voice saying that YOU are somehow to blame!
You. Are. Not.
You are not to blame for an addict’s problem.
Unfortunately, the good news and the bad news are the same: you have played a role in the destructive cycle.
That’s bad news, because you don’t get off scot free, and it’s good news, because there are things you can do to change the dynamic.
While you can’t change your partner, here are 4 ways you can change your relationship with their disease and the grip you’ve allowed it to hold over you as well.
1. Inform yourself.
Our society has a disconcerting number of ideas about addiction, most of them not very useful. Since we see the addict behaving unlike themselves when under the influence, it must be the drug’s fault, right? Or maybe your partner just has a weak character and can’t control themselves. Or it’s the fault of their friends and their bad influence. Or they come from an alcoholic family, and learned it from them (that one, at least, has some validity to it.) Or, God help you, YOU drive them to it!
It’s only in the last 50 years or so that addiction has been studied as a condition that might be treated. Before that time, addicts, like the mentally ill, were thought of as black sheep and generally hidden from public whenever possible. An alcoholic was a Bowery Bum, not a society matron. Now we know that it is both genetic and environmental. An addict can be of very strong character and still suffer — and so does their family.
When you learn about the disease and the family dynamics involved in it, you may not like everything you find, but you gift yourself with knowledge about what you can and can’t do, as well as the risks you take for yourself by staying in the relationship.
2. Focus on yourself and your family — not the addict and the addiction.
The first of the twelve steps of Alanon is to admit that you are powerless over the disease. You “didn’t Cause it, you can’t Control it, and you can’t Cure it.” This is true, and it also does NOT mean you and your family are therefore doomed to continue on the same path of suffering.
One dynamic between addicts and enabling partners is that each believes the other causes their suffering. The addict believes their partner drives them to drink, and the enabling partner thinks the addict makes their life miserable. Each wants the other to change.
You must recognize your own part in the pattern — that you passively wait for your partner to get better — before you can have a life. You must have your own life and it must be your priority. For your own sake, and for your children’s.
This means letting go of some familiar attitudes, including fondly-held ideas about what family is supposed to be. In this family, Father (or Mother) doesn’t always know best. When you find yourself blaming your partner or their addiction for spoiling something, stop and ask yourself, “What do I need right now? What choices can I make to give myself and my children a secure, nourishing life?”
3. Establish clear limits.
I know you’ve already tried this — only what you’ve tried is to set limits with your partner by explaining what’s wrong with their behavior. The problem with that is you can’t set limits for other adults. The person you need to set limits for is yourself.
Pay attention to your own stress level. When you find yourself saying, “I’m not gonna take this anymore!,” you’ve already crossed your own limit for tolerance. This happens when you haven’t thoughtfully planned in advance what you need to do to take care of yourself when you find your tolerance limit breached.
Have a sober discussion with your partner in which you clearly outline how much will be too much, and what you will do if that line is crossed. For example, if your partner drinks (or behaves in a way that makes you strongly suspect so), you will leave and stay the night elsewhere until you feel certain they’ve sobered up.
I know it’s difficult to have to do something like that — but it is crucial to remove yourself (and your children) from the line of fire in which a drunken battle is likely to ensue.
4. Find your own joy.
There is so much suffering connected with addiction. Your partner is in pain, and you KNOW you are suffering.
It’s my firm belief that true pleasure is the best medicine for the disease of addiction. The active addict (one who is not in recovery) flails around with the drug of choice, trying desperately to find happiness.
YOU must choose to find a conscious awareness of what brings you real pleasure. There’s no reason the partner of an addict has to wait, even though the addiction remains a point of sorrow. If you can bring yourself to a place to believe (or at least suspend disbelief) that you are not the source of their problem, that you deserve to focus on what’s good for you independent of your partner’s struggles, that you can live with the limits you set for yourself, and that the pursuit of happiness is your right, you and your family will prosper no matter what your partner chooses to do.
Your entire family system — including your partner — will benefit. It’s like a mobile hanging from the ceiling: if there’s no breeze and it’s left alone, it just hangs there. But if you touch one piece, every part of it starts to move.
Anyone in the family system — including you — can be that moving piece.
And, while there’s no guarantee what choices an addict will make, the chances of a good outcome rise dramatically in a family no longer in lockstep with their disease.
Cheryl Gerson is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Board Certified Diplomate with a private practice in New York City. Call her for a free telephone consultation.