Dealing with a partner who has substance abuse issues can be hugely complicated. It is as if you are stuck between a rock and a hard place. You love them deeply, but you cannot maintain the status quo. Every time they use it causes significant pain. You feel as if they are choosing their substance over you, and you are less important than their drug of choice. Even if he or she does get sober, or significantly reduces their use, past hurts have accumulated, making it difficult to go back to the way things were. So the emerging question is, what can be done?
To start with, is this a deal breaker? If your partner does not get sober, are you going to leave them? What do you need to see from your partner in order for you to stay? These are important questions for you to clarify.
What’s difficult about substance use is that it’s likely, your partner is going relapse. In fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines addiction as, “A chronic relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.” Being addicted is like having the proverbial carrot constantly dangling in front of you. The pursuit of the carrot occurs at the expense of everything else, and ironically, the carrot is never going to satiate one’s felt lack. This is not to let your partner off the hook, but rather for you to consider: what if they relapse? Hopefully, you will be able to discern if your partner is working to get better, or just giving lip-service to the idea of sobriety.
I mentioned above that you may feel as though you are less important than their drug of choice — you are losing to their pursuit of the carrot. In fact, there is a good chance that their brain has made their drug of choice a priority over you. When your partner uses, dopamine is released in their mid-brain. Dopamine travels up to the prefrontal cortex and it feels good. The prefrontal cortex then releases glutamate back to the mid-brain signaling, “Since this feels good, we’ll remember this.” The more this happens, the deeper the feedback loop becomes, making everything else less important, including you. If you want to begin to break this pursuit of the carrot, first you must communicate to your partner that you wish for them to stop.
This is where it gets complex. How do you go about communicating that you want them to stop? Are you the type that withdrawals and avoids confrontation while silently protesting? Or will you confront them endlessly, until you feel your partner has understood? Perhaps you’re giving mixed messages, wanting them to stop, but at the same time enabling their use so you feel needed and important – the traditional definition of codependency.
If you are doing the latter, I suggest you stop and examine your true intentions. It doesn’t really matter what your style is; just be you — and not codependent. Let him or her know you wish them to stop. There needs to be pressure for them to consider that pursuing that carrot is not in the best interest of the relationship or themselves.
When people ask me, in consultations or casually, what they should do about their using partner, I tell them they need to move the issue forward. Obviously the status quo isn’t working, or they wouldn’t be asking. People only change if they are in pain. What is your partner’s motivation for breaking the feedback loop that has distorted their priorities? Yelling or nagging may be counterproductive, and withdrawing may be equally counterproductive.
One way to move things forward is with couple therapy. With an impartial observer, couple therapy provides the space for grievances to be aired. How has substance abuse hurt you and the relationship? In how many areas has it hurt your partner? Fundamentally, substance abuse is infidelity to the foundations of a healthy relationship, such as security and trust.
As the therapy progresses, it will be important to gain insight into their substance abuse. What purpose have substances served your partner in their life? What purpose does it serve them now? How have you been inadvertently or openly contributing to your partner’s substance abuse? Do you still drink or use? Have you used shame and made it difficult for your partner to be sober? Did you two used to drink and use together previously?
These are important questions to explore. If you two are able to speak freely and form a narrative around the substance abuse – past and present – this will begin to take the shame out of the equation, as shame is not a productive motivator. If you two make it more of a problem to be addressed within the relationship, a foundation for healing can begin.
Whenever there is infidelity to security and trust in a relationship, it is the responsibility of the chief perpetrator to prove to the other that they are worthy of current and of future trust. It may take a great deal of time to rebuild trust, but the chief perpetrator’s payoff is not only being a better person, but also being in the relationship.
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