- Jason McCarty
Letting Go of Your Partner’s Addiction
Term: I’m going to use the term “addicted relationship” to mean when one person has an addiction and the other does not.
Being in a relationship with someone who has any sort of addiction can be downright exhausting and maddening. I want to address an aspect of what happens in many relationships where addiction is present with one partner. There are other dynamics and many ways to empathize with both parties that I won’t be addressing, but I want to just focus on a particular aspect of what I see not working and why.
I have written before about the importance of responsibility in being able to take control of one’s life and stop ‘using.’ Please read my article Freedom and Responsibility (and Addiction) if you want a bit more on that, but here I want to focus on the relationship and non-addicted partner.
Most of the time, and yes, I can actually say, most of the time, when I meet with a couple who is either attempting to heal from an addiction or still working through it, the non-addicted partner has taken on way too much responsibility for the other’s work in discontinuing addictive behaviors. I spend a good bit of time actually prying that person away from the other’s addiction. It is easy to understand why they have taken control, because in the craziness of their partner’s addiction someone had to step up and try to bring a sense of order to the relationship or family. This process has been all too easily simplified as “co-dependent” as though it were another illness. I do think co-dependency can be an issue but more-so because of relational dynamics that were necessary in order to keep the system functioning, not just because of an inherent flaw in the non-addicted partner. But at some point the relationship can no longer withhold that way of coping and the non-addicted person does end up losing their self in the process. It is important to remember it was many times all for good reason, as the addicted partner was shucking responsibility. In addition, the non-addicted partner can often become very scared for two reasons: 1. their partner’s health 2. they don’t want the relationship to end so they are doing what they can to help their partner get better so they don’t HAVE TO leave.
It is all understandable and I’m not sure many people could act any different without knowing beforehand other ways of handling such a devastating and stressful situation/predicament. But what doesn’t work, is that the more the partner works hard to manage the addicted partner’s life (calling in sick for them, managing how much they use, getting on their case, telling them to get help, doing research, etc, etc.) the more the other person both loses their own space to take responsibility and two, the more they rebel against the process.
What do I mean by “lose their own space to take responsibility?” In the feedback loop within an addicted relationship, it becomes so ingrained that I, the addicted one, don’t take certain responsibilities, and you, the non-addicted one, pick up after me. I feel bad about myself which depresses me and makes me even less motivated to take responsibility. Further, because the addicted person needs to take responsibility for their addiction in order to get clean, that if another person, or other people are managing that person’s life too much, there is no more space left over for them.
When we take responsibility for our lives in general, it is like finding different ways to take off the training wheels and HAVE TO use our OWN balance in order not to fall. If someone continues to hold us while we ride a bike with no training wheels, we don’t learn balance. If someone even puts the training wheels back on because they got scared we would fall and hurt ourselves, they are not actually helping us learn our own way of balancing. So it is within addicted relationships. I am not saying that everyone in such a relationship needs to not support their partner, or that everyone needs to kick their partner out. But there are many things you can stop doing for your own sanity and so that the space becomes available for the addicted partner to take responsibility. If they don’t take any responsibility then you have some difficult and important decisions to make. No human was made to be training wheels for another human being. We can walk along side in times of need but then we must let go and allow our loved ones the freedom and ability to find their balance. They might fall. They might fall several times. We can help them up, we can help them get going, but only if we eventually let go again.
To the non-addicted partner: it is not your responsibility to get your partner clean. Let me say it again: it is seriously not your job in life to make sure your partner is not engaging in addictive behaviors. To many people this is a relief and to others it is anxiety provoking. To some it is the permission they needed as the guilt to continue told them they had to always do everything for the other. To others, hearing they cannot actually DO ANYTHING to fix their partner, makes them feel helpless and lost. But it is in these moments that we often find our way more authentically.
I have seen good things happen when the non-addicted partner takes their hands off the wheel and steps back. It is important not to just say, “well fine then, forget you if you don’t want my help.” I’m not saying don’t help, but help by supporting, not by doing “for them” the things they should do for themselves. It is just a stepping back. You support, you care for, but you don’t “do for.” I have seen the space open up for the addicted person to take over and many times I think it feels good to them. They just needed some space. Yes, sometimes people are not ready and might still use or engage. Nothing is a magic bullet, I just wanted to touch on a phenomenon that I see often. As well, and even more importantly for the non-addicted partner, you will gain more energy again as it is exhausting running someone else’s life as well as your own. Most of the time it is a letting go of the controls ‘emotionally’ more than anything.
This also applies to parenting in general and other forms of relationships where one individual takes on too much of the responsibility for another grown person’s life. Obviously the exception would be in certain developmental disabilities, but even then, yes even then, sometimes too much is done there as well and a person can become robbed of their own freedom and responsibility in the world.