A relationship with someone with a substance use disorder can feel like a love triangle. Addiction is the outsider stealing time, money, and attention away from the marriage. It erases foundational elements such as trust, security, laughter, and consistency and replaces them with suspicion, guilt, anger, and stress.
Couples have options when deciding how to deal with an addicted spouse. They can stay together in an unhealthy relationship, divorce, or do whatever it takes to overcome the addiction and heal the relationship.
Staying in an Unhealthy Relationship
Reports claim that staying in an unhealthy relationship in which one spouse has a substance use disorder can lead to adverse consequences, including the following.1
Maintaining an addiction to prescription and illicit drugs and alcohol is a priority for a person with a substance use disorder. To get money, a person will do whatever it takes, even if it means lying to or stealing from their loved ones.
Many people with a substance use disorder cannot work, leaving the financial obligations to everyone else. Doing so puts added pressure on their spouse.
Alcohol and drug misuse by a spouse will lead to a breakdown in the functioning of a relationship. Behaviors that were once ordinary and positive become challenging and often unhealthy. Examples of dysfunctional behaviors include the following:2
- Communication often involves arguing and sometimes escalates to verbal abuse.
- Disagreements may lead to aggression or physical violence.
- Time spent away from a spouse with addiction creates distance and isolation.
- Responsibilities are neglected and usually fall onto the spouse without an addiction.
- Addiction becomes a significant factor in all aspects of the marriage.
- Risky behaviors of an addict put their spouse in danger, also.
Codependency is a form of relationship dysfunction in which the partner of a person with a substance use disorder forms an unhealthy attachment. Some define codependency as relationship addiction. Someone with codependency may feel it is their job to help their loved one. Specific characteristics are common for codependents, such as:3
- Likes to feel needed by their spouse and may feel they have to help
- Goes above and beyond in helping their spouse, putting their own needs aside
- Feels responsible for their spouse’s behavior
- Covers up or makes excuses for their spouse’s behavior
- Finds it hard to say “no” to them
- Worries about what others think of them
- Fears of being alone or abandoned
- Neglects other important relationships
- Feels guilty when doing something nice for themselves
- Struggles to make important decisions without input from others
Divorcing a Spouse with an Addiction
Substance use disorders of spouses are a top reason for divorce, even among couples who participated in premarital counseling programs. One study shows drug and alcohol misuse ranked 6th out of the 11 reasons for divorce. When researchers followed up, 50% of the couples had at least one member state that substance misuse was the main reason for divorce, and in 33%, both members agreed. In addition, 12% of the couples had at least one partner say substance misuse was their final straw.4
Researchers from the University of Buffalo found that substance misuse is the third most common reason for divorce among females and eighth among male participants.5
Divorce is not an easy decision. Working with a licensed therapist in the mental health or addiction field is recommended. Hopefully, you may find that divorce does not have to be an option, especially if there are small children living in the home.
Self-Care Before Helping a Spouse with an Addiction
Many couples survive addiction and overcome obstacles that threaten to destroy their relationship. To help a spouse overcome a substance use disorder, it is crucial to understand that they are the only ones who control their recovery outcomes.
Those wanting to help their spouses overcome addiction can benefit from taking care of themselves first. Only when they are healthy can they help their spouse. Self-care tips include the following.
Learn to Stop Enabling
A codependent spouse will find it difficult to stop enabling their spouse, which will derail their recovery and encourage relapse.
Enabling is anything a person does to help their spouse continue misusing alcohol or drugs. Enablers are good people and mean well. They don’t want to see their spouse in pain, which is one reason they give in to supplying money, drugs, or alcohol to their loved one with a substance use disorder.
Other forms of enabling include:6
- Driving someone to get drugs or alcohol
- Giving someone money for “gas, food, etc.” when they know it will be used to buy substances
- Giving away their prescription medication despite needing it
- Ignoring the issues regarding a spouse’s addiction
- Lying or covering up for a spouse’s addiction
Finding Support from Peers and Professionals
No one has to go through this alone. Numerous peer groups and licensed professionals are eager to provide support. Groups like Al-anon, SMART Recovery for Families, and individual and group therapies are available. Gaining strength and knowledge and making necessary changes that support recovery will help give a spouse what they need to move forward in their relationship.
Participating in therapy and support groups will also teach them the many options their spouse has regarding addiction treatment.
Helping a Spouse with an Addiction
Specific programs are available for spouses with an addiction. Depending on the severity of the addiction, drug rehab treatment programs may include one or more of the following:7
- Drug or alcohol detox using medication to ease withdrawal symptoms
- Drug rehab inpatient or residential programs with 24-hour care
- Partial-hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs where they can live at home and attend programs during the day
- Medication-assisted treatments for alcohol or opioid addiction
- Couples behavioral therapy
- 12-Step facilitation groups
- Recovery support services
Both spouses should attend some form of treatment simultaneously to learn appropriate skills for recovery and how to provide a home environment that supports recovery.
Planning for Aftercare
Entering drug and alcohol rehab is the first step in a lifelong process. Changes must occur in all areas to prevent relapse, replacing unhealthy activities with positive ones. While in addiction treatment, therapists create recovery support or aftercare plans for spouses dealing with addiction.
Plans consist of activities that will give anyone the best chance for recovery success. Examples include:8
- Maintaining counseling appointments
- Attending recovery support meetings
- Managing physical and mental health properly
- Reaching career goals
- Furthering education
- Obtaining legal assistance
- Securing transitional housing
When entering drug rehab, at any level of care, your spouse deserves the best care, not the cheapest or the closest. The best care starts with alcohol detox, opioid detox, or help to stop using other drugs such as stimulants and sedatives. It includes treatments that help them avoid the pain of withdrawals so they can focus on learning how to live sober. Choosing a comprehensive treatment program means you and your spouse will experience a continuum of care that supports you well beyond a discharge date.
Contact Virtue Recovery Center for all your addiction treatment needs. We are here 24/7 and happy to discuss prices, programs, and the many benefits you will receive.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 2020. Chapter 2—Influence of Substance Misuse on Families. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 39.) Substance Use Disorder Treatment and Family Therapy. Rockville (MD).
- American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. 2022. Substance Abuse and Intimate Relationships.
- James Madison University. 2022. Counseling Center: Codependency.
- Scott, S.B., Rhoades, G.K., Stanley, S.M., Allen, E.S., & Markman, H.J. 2014. Reasons for Divorce and Recollections of Premarital Intervention: Implications for Improving Relationship Education.
- University at Buffalo Clinical and Research Institute on Addictions. 2014. RIA Reaching Others: Does Drinking Affect Marriage?
- Davidson, L., White, W., Sells, D., Schmutte, T., O’Connell, M., Bellamy, C., & Rowe, M. 2010. Enabling or Engaging? The Role of Recovery Support Services in Addiction Recovery. Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, 28(4), 391–416.
- US Department of Health and Human Services. 2016. Chapter 4, Early Intervention, Treatment, AND Management of Substance Use Disorders.Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); Office of the Surgeon General (US). Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health [Internet]. Washington (DC).
- Duffy, P., & Baldwin, H. (2013). Recovery Post Treatment: Plans, Barriers, and Motivators. Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy, 8, 6.