A young couple drinking at a bar

Substance Abuse in Romantic Relationships

Being romantically involved with someone who struggles with substance abuse, whether or not you struggle with it yourself, can be incredibly challenging. Drugs and alcohol alter our emotions and judgment and take your interactions with your partner out of reality - a small disagreement suddenly blows up into a huge argument, bills pile up as money disappears into a bartab or a dealer’s wallet, and time your partner spends using takes away from your shared joys and responsibilities till the house, your finances, and your emotions are a wreck.

Fighting about these issues doesn’t help either - as conflict escalates your partner will likely seek drugs and alcohol to relieve the tension, leading to more fights and more consequences for their using. If your partner is in denial about their problem, there is little you can do without the input of a professional. Addiction is essentially a computer virus your partner has downloaded to their brain that changes the logic of their system, and they are living in a virtual reality created by their disease. They may no longer be able to tell friend from foe, and no matter how strong your relationship has been in the past, your efforts will not be enough to break through the barrier of that altered reality. 

Try not to take this personally - this is a physical as well as mental disease. If your partner had a broken leg you would not expect to be able to help them without a doctor’s care. While it’s true that some people afflicted with addiction cannot recover, we now have more understanding and more tools than ever before to address and potentially alleviate the symptoms of substance abuse. To begin healing, the alcohol/drug use has to stop, and some difficult conversations have to start. If your partner is willing to make things better, here are a few things to keep in mind as they begin recovery.

Staying Safe

Having a loving, stable caregiver around can have a huge impact on someone’s attempt at sobriety, but the important question to ask yourself now is, “Does that caretaker have to be me?”

Longer term relationships can provide more interconnected networks of support, and more resources for your partner’s recovery. If one or both of you have a strong network of friends and family who can pitch in when things get difficult, you have a better chance of preserving your relationship through the storm and contributing positively to your partner’s recovery. If your relationship with this person is fairly new, it may be wise to take a step back. Recovery can take a lot of time and many false starts, and sometimes things get worse before they get better. It could be time to enlist people who have known your partner longer than you to take a more active role in supporting them. 

It’s ultimately your choice whether or not to stay with a partner during recovery. Keep in mind that regardless of your willingness and ability to help, you will not be able to kick your partner’s habit for them - only they can. The only thing you have responsibility for is your own safety and wellbeing. If your partner’s addiction puts you in any dangerous situations, or if you feel personally threatened by your partner when they’re using, it is your responsibility to keep you and your loved ones safe. This can mean separation which is difficult, but you may be a more supportive partner if you have enough space to take care of yourself.

Drawing Boundaries

You may wish to be as expansive and generous as possible with your partner to ensure they have enough support to kick their habit. While your empathy and sympathy make a huge difference, if you keep giving without counting the cost, you’ll find yourself pouring from an empty cup. Decide now what you’re willing to accept from your partner and make it clear what you expect from them. Even if your partner is unable to respect these boundaries, articulating them can be empowering for you. Getting everything in the open gives you the opportunity to come up with a game plan so that you’re not completely without resources or recourse.

Some topics to discuss may include:

  • Not bringing substances into the house, or inviting people who are in addiction themselves, and planning what to do if they end up there (pouring alcohol down the drain, redirecting an old friend to give your partner space to recover, etc.)
  • What it looks like to temporarily take time and space from one another if things get heated.
  • Identifying emergency contacts you can call for help in tough situations - these can be friends, family members, or people from your partner’s twelve step program who are willing and able to step in if you and your partner have trouble managing.

Take note of which boundaries your partner is unable to maintain during their recovery, and be willing to talk openly about it without passing judgment. Don’t be surprised if your partner becomes defensive in these conversations. Recovering from addiction is an emotional rollercoaster and your partner may not be thinking clearly. Do your best to be patient with them, but give yourself permission to step away if the conversation stops being productive.

Healthy boundaries are important in any relationship, and a healthy relationship is mutually supportive. Sometimes one partner needs more help than the other, and you can provide that support when it’s needed and appropriate, but if it comes at the cost of your own mental and physical well being, you’ll burn out too quickly to make a positive impact on them.

Avoiding Burnout 

Supporting someone when they’re struggling with addiction or in recovery, will require a huge personal investment of your time, energy, and resources. This could look like waiting for your partner to get out of rehab, taking them to group therapy or twelve step program meetings, providing them with a safe place to stay, and staying patient in case they relapse and try to recover again. 

Be sure to seek the support of a professional who can help you and your partner take care of yourselves. It may be wise to seek individual therapy for you and your partner, in addition to couples counseling to mediate difficult conversations. Even after the substance abuse subsides, the problems it caused can leave wounds that you need to heal from. You may struggle to trust your partner again, and they may have a hard time accepting accountability for what happened when they were using. While you’re both healing, reach out to your emergency contacts early and often and ask for help. Help can take the form of a phone conversation, a homemade meal, or anything that takes the pressure off you and your partner.

The advice of a medical doctor can also be useful, and even life saving. Doctors can refer you to the resources described above, and can intervene quickly if your partner’s addiction takes an unhealthy physical toll. Your doctor will likely recommend exercise and a healthy diet to bolster your physical and mental wellbeing and give you a good foundation upon which to start the work of recovery. Rest is also essential to the recovery process - getting good sleep gives you the mental and physical stamina you need to take care of your partner while also caring for yourself. 

Supporting someone through recovery is a huge undertaking that will require a lot of you. If you decide to stick with it, know that you can be kind and loving while also taking care of yourself.