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  • Jason McCarty

Addiction in Relationships

I work with couples that are trying to mend their relationships after or during the impact of an addiction. There is a typical dance that happens in many of these relationships that does not actually help the relationship deal with the addiction. More so, it does not help the person who is not addicted and their frustrations around the other person’s behavior. As I describe this dance you will see that it is not exclusive to addiction, but to anything one person is very unhappy about in the other person.

I will use the names John and Lisa to illustrate this dance. John has developed a problem with his drinking over the years and it has impacted not only him and his jobs, but his relationships with his family members. As the drinking started to be seen as problematic by Lisa, she started to try and help control it. She would tell John not to have anymore drinks, or she would ask him where he was all night last night, or she would get really angry and upset when he hung out with certain friends, and on goes that type of list. She also started encouraging him to get counselling and the more he refused the more she started to “tell” him to get counselling. She would leave pamphlets and books on addiction for him to read and look through.

The more she did these types of things, the more John felt controlled. There was a huge part of him that knew Lisa loved him and that he did have a problem but he couldn’t help but feel annoyed and angry every time Lisa pointed these things out. He felt smothered while Lisa felt lost and distant from John. He began to resent her and started going out with his buddies more. The drinking got worse, and although he knew he had a problem, his anger toward Lisa helped fuel the “I don’t care” place that helps rationalize the addiction. Yes, addiction can stay fueled in spite of the other person, and yes, we can be that childish in our relationships.

This dance is not helpful for quite a few reasons to which I will list and briefly describe. Although it is not helpful, this type of relationship does not have black and white solutions, and it does not mean that Lisa should not try to help her husband. We will look at HOW she is trying based on John’s responses and how it is not helping.

Responsibility and Ownership

Whose addiction is it? What has happened here? Lisa has almost taken on the responsibility of John’s recovery. Lisa has started to take ownership of the process for John to get better, to get help, to stop his addiction. Do we blame her? No, she is doing the best she can, but we must realize that in this process she has “taken away” the ownership and responsibility of John’s own ability to realize his problem and do something about it. Lisa is most likely acting out of fear. “If I don’t do something, if I don’t say something, if I don’t monitor my husband’s problem, then it will never get better, and if it never gets better then I will never have…………..” Fill in the blank. What is it that Lisa really wants?

Lisa’s True Feelings Not Expressed

Instead of trying to control the addiction and pushing John away and possibly further into the addiction, Lisa needs to express and draw boundaries around John’s “behaviors” that are wearing away the relationship. Lisa needs to express the fact that when John is drunk he is not accessible and she feels lonely. She needs to express that it is not okay for him to drive drunk when the kids are in the car, or that his anger is hurting everyone in the family. It looks and feels more like this, “Look John, you are doing such and such and it is impacting us this way. I feel lonely when you are always drunk and when you get angry with me in that state I feel scared. You need to figure out how to change that. If you cannot change that then I will have to think about our future together. This is not a threat for threat’s sake, but I no longer feel safe with you. Please do something about this.”

This takes confidence and a real sense of willingness to accept the possible consequences of John not changing. Lisa could always just accept what John is doing and not let it bother her, but they wouldn’t have much of a relationship. Some people do this. It is not always this simple, but it is the focus here that matters. Lisa must focus on what John is doing or not doing that is impacting her. It is then John’s responsibility to respond or change. Lisa trying to control the addiction will not work, and even if it does in the short run, John will not have learned to make the choice for himself.

John’s True Feelings Not Expressed

John is also not communicating the fact that he feels his freedom being taken away when Lisa talks to him about how to change or what he should be doing to manage his drinking. Many times he doesn’t even know why he hates it, which leaves him unable to communicate with Lisa about his feelings. He needs to be able to realize that it is HIS problem and that he needs to do something about it. He needs to ask Lisa to step back from his problem so that he can get some space around what to do about it. How can John ask Lisa for help? How might this be a team effort and not a battle?

Negative Feedback Loop

The more they continue on in the more dysfunctional way of dancing the more they will further entrench the problem. Neither is being open in the relationship about their true feelings, but instead only enacting behaviors that are triggering the other person. This will go back and forth until someone decides to stop the dance and figure out some new steps. For Lisa, it would be to stop taking responsibility for John’s recovery because she eventually sees that it doesn’t work and only makes him more distant. For John, it would be to start taking responsibility and accepting the fact that his drinking is hurting the person he loves the most and that if he did something about it he would actually be regaining his freedom, responsibility, and autonomy. Lisa would never be able to do the work necessary for John to stay clean – it is up to him. She can be supportive and find out what he needs from her because for sure he will need her support.

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