Candice Rasa is the clinical director of Beach House Center for Recovery, a drug and alcohol addiction rehabilitation center in Juno Beach, Fla. With more than 10 years of experience in the mental health and substance arena, Candice supports healing in the clients she serves from a perspective of spirituality and alternative Eastern methods.
If a spouse's suspected addiction is the proverbial "elephant in the room," you can either pretend the elephant isn't there — and try to adjust to the new normal of living in a zoo, in hopes the elephant will one day leave on its own — or you can deal with the elephant in the room, preferably in a loving way. The first option may work for a time. So long as an addiction is operative, however, not responding to an ongoing pattern of drug abuse for the sake of not rocking the boat, or because of fear or denial, rarely proves beneficial to either partner in a marriage or to their relationship.
But how do you respond to a spouse's suspected addiction in a loving way? That's the question many partners ask when their significant other's drug or alcohol problem has begun to function like a gigantic third player in the relationship.
Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. The dynamics of every relationship and your individual needs, strengths, and context are too unique, and that's one reason individualized couple's therapy with the right professional can be helpful. What follow, then, are some general suggestions for how to respond constructively, and from a place of love and concern when your partner's drug or alcohol use seems out of control.
Identify the signs of addiction that describe your spouse and specifically how they describe your spouse. Before even broaching your concerns with your partner, be sure you are aware of the signs and symptoms of drug abuse and addiction. This short list from the National Institute on Drug Abuse can help you identify what to look for. For each of the signs that describe your spouse, you may wish to jot down one or more specific examples. For instance, you may note that your spouse is spending more time alone — but how, specifically: is your spouse avoiding you over meal times or only coming to bed after you've fallen asleep? Are they spending a lot of time alone in their study? Write these observations down, so that you have concrete specifics. You don't have to mention a long laundry list to your spouse — it's best to keep what you actually verbalize simple and to the point, unless you are asked for specific instances. The process of writing these things down is itself helpful preparation for a conversation with your spouse.
Remind yourself you have options. It can be easy as the spouse of someone with a suspected addiction to begin to feel trapped in the relationship. Depending on how long the substance abuse has gone on, you may find yourself trying to shoulder far more than your fair share of the marital workload. This stress and resentment can take a toll over time, eroding any recognition of your power to choose what you want for yourself and for your relationship.
Reminding yourself that you are not trapped and that you have multiple options is a way of extending love and compassion to yourself — but it's also how you can show love to your spouse. The more you are able to recognize and reflect on your own options, the less you will feel compelled to react to your spouse's problem from a place of panic; your spouse will be better able to hear and process your concerns when these are delivered calmly and directly, rather than when you are pushing the panic button. The reality is you do have options, and there are people who can help you work through them, too.
Avoid judgment statements; stick to first-person feeling statements instead. You understandably may feel hurt, angry, and exhausted from watching your spouse engage in the same seemingly senseless and self-destructive behaviors. These feelings are important: keep your focus there when you talk with your spouse and when you reference how their behaviors are affecting you. The less your spouse gets the impression that they are being lectured about what they "should" or "should not" be doing, the more receptive they will be to talking about problem-solving options.
Do your best to empathize. Genuine empathy and your expressions of it will tell your spouse they are not alone in their addiction. That can be a turning point in the direction of recovery. In your exasperation, the temptation may be to point out all of the ways your spouse's behavior is outlandish and crazy. That can amplify their shame and despair about their condition, however, so that hope of recovery seems even more distant (when hope is the very thing they need more of in order to get help).
One helpful tool for empathizing is the "Stop, shh, and listen" rule articulated by the writer and empathy expert Roman Krznaric, in a November 2014 article for Time magazine. To gain empathy, Krznaric advocates shutting up and listening for two things: what the other person is feeling and what they need. Silencing that inner compulsion to speak is the first step. Listening with a view to learning what your spouse is feeling and what they need is the next.
Cover photo: Beach House Center for Recovery