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Married to, Living with an Alcoholic or Addict

Abstract: Living or having a close relationship with an alcoholic or a drug user causes difficulties as a consequence of their drinking. You must open your eyes to this and find solutions for yourself and any children to have a life of your own.

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Married to, Living with an Alcoholic or Addict

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Written by: Lisa Levin, student of psychology, the University of Umea, Sweden, under guidance of Gunborg Palme, certified psychologist, certified psychotherapist, teacher and tutor in psychotherapy.
First version: 22 Jul 2008.
Latest revision: 15 Jun 2009.

How can a person handle living with, or be married to, a drug addict or an alcoholic? Are some people enablers to other people's substance abuse? Are you part of the addiction when you share your life with an addictive person?


If your relationship with a close relative or friend is suffering, in one way or another, as a consequence of a person's substance abuse habits, you can be sure of the fact that you both have problems related to the substance abuse. Maybe this person is not a severe alcoholic, but the difficulties that arise as a consequence of his or her abuse have also forced you into a destructive process. It is important that you open your eyes to what is happening and are aware of the options you have in this situation. Here are the six most common behaviour patterns in persons who live with alcohol or other substance abusers, presented in the order they usually occur during the relationship process:

  • They deny the truth: Family and friends devote a lot of time and energy to hide the alcoholic's problems. An important part of this behaviour is to express apologies to employers, fellow-workers, friends, other family members and relatives for bad behaviour.
  • Acting out: Most of the close friends and relatives of persons with serious alcohol problems get into this kind of behaviour. "Acting out" is a psychological term for the impulsive, immature and sometimes irresponsible behaviour that a person uses in order to handle internal emotional stress. To drink together with the alcoholic can be one example. In later stages, the hostility that the conflict causes may begin to express itself in more negative activities, such as loud quarrels and physical attacks.
  • They demand improvement: Most people that live with an addictive person try to change the person or try to at least get him/her to improve. They can often struggle with this for months, years, or their entire life because of the belief that "everything will be all right if I only could get him or her to quit drinking". Unfortunately, the result is often that both become losers. The harder you try to change people with alcohol problems, the more they will fight your attempts. The alcoholic becomes furious because of all the nagging, and a common behaviour is to decide to drink even more.
  • They become isolated: As early as a few months after the arise of a serious addiction, the isolation from friends, family and society gradually takes over, although it can take years before you understand what is happening to you and your alcoholic friend. As the alcoholic's problems increase, the contact with neighbours and relatives instinctively decreases in order to avoid shame and embarrassment.
  • They give up: When they have lived together with a chronic alcoholic for a few years, most people get depressed. Their life has become a permanent burden with few, or none, moments of authentic joy and comfort. Apathy, aversion, physical pain and chronic fatigue may be the bodily expressions in this process.

Families with alcohol problems live in a painful chaos. It is painful to see the one you love change like this. It is painful to be lied to, to feel insecure, to be ashamed and to become disappointed. The wife or husband of the alcoholic slides into a tough situation with mutual accusations, obsession with his/her experiments to control the alcoholic, and may forget about both their own and the children's needs. The road to freedom begins with the understanding that you are powerless when it comes to the alcoholic's drinking, that you only can take responsibility for your own life and that you must refuse to suffer with the alcoholic when he or she is drinking.

"Why?" is a meaningless question. No husband or wife has ever made their partner an alcoholic - the alcoholic does it all by him/herself. However, you may contribute deepening and strengthening the addiction. Below is some advice from Al-Anon (an organisation for relatives of alcoholics, that collaborates with AA);

  1. DonĀ“t try to control your alcoholic, no one can. You will feel a lot better when you stop trying.
  2. Do not take over his or her responsibilities - the alcoholic might begin to grow up when they have to take full responsibility for their addiction and the problems it causes.
  3. Refuse to be a victim - that role is equally destructive as the role of the alcoholic.
  4. Think more about yourself - take more responsibility for yourself and the other non-addicted people around you.
  5. Refuse to be an "enabler" for continued abuse through comforting the alcoholic, calling their job, to lie etc. Instead you should say "That's your responsibility!"
  6. Don't protect your alcoholic from the consequences of his/her drinking. "Pain is the biggest gift" - many alcoholics are not willing to do anything about the alcohol problem before they reach the bottom. If you protect an alcoholic from the pain you delay the recovery.

The only persons any of us ever actually can hope to change are ourselves. If there is a change, relationships with other people will, with all certainty, also change. To change means that you will experience something new, different and unknown. Because of that we all are afraid of changes in some degree. If you accept the condition that the only person in the problematic relation that you can change is you, and if you are willing to actually make an effort in order to change, you have the power to change the direction of your life radically. The following six stages are fundamental when you want to liberate yourself from the destructive aspects of living with an addictive person:

  1. Stop taking responsibility for what your addictive relative or friend does. As long as you make it easy for the alcoholic to drink in an irresponsible manner, through covering up the tracks and carrying out his/her duties, you cannot begin to grow and change the way you want to.
  2. Stop letting yourself be abused, both physically and mentally, by your alcoholic friend or partner. To let yourself be abused means that you strengthen the feeling of indignation, but it also brings insufficient personal strength, dignity and self-respect. Therefore, it is time for you to stop being a punchbag. Each time the alcoholic tries to abuse you, you must act, in one way or another, to prevent this abuse (even if it means that you have to go to the police or stay out of those situations).
  3. Get a life outside the addictive relationship. You need to break free from the isolation that the alcoholic has put you in. In order to feel better - do interesting things, have fun - try to change despite the fact that you've chosen to continue living with the alcoholic - you have to live your life in another way. Do things together with others or on your own.
  4. Find and preserve new relationships. Closely related to stage three is the requirement that you begin to develop new relationships. This can be particularly difficult since it requires that you take initiatives on your own. You must meet and get to know new people. You probably also will be forced to re-evaluate your bonds with old friends, relatives and family. Organisations like Al-Anon can be an excellent starting point in your search for new friends who are willing to share their strength, their understanding and their sympathy.
  5. Improve your physical shape. Constructive change must include protecting your physical health and well-being. That means, among other things, diet, exercise and hygiene.
  6. Make changes every day. It is important that you work with the five previous stages every day in order to get any results. It will take time and energy, but it's worth it in the long run.
Intelligent natural language question-answering in the area of psychology and psychiatry. Ask a simple question:
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