Married to Misery: Living with an Addict

by Kim Johnson

There is hardly a situation more numbing than being married to an addict. Whether it’s drugs, alcohol or even porn and sex, the impact on your life and the life of your children is devastating. What starts with high hopes and sweet dreams becomes a deep, dark hole consuming everything in your life. The merry-go-round will continue to turn. But heartbreak and disappointment will make it nearly impossible to stay on the ride. 

What do you do? The answer to the question is neither brief nor easy. And, it can be different for every situation. Layers upon layers of life can cloud the truth and make it difficult to confront the issues. You love the addict, but hate the disease, and those two extremes fight you at every decision. The shame and judgement associated with addiction creates an extremely lonely place. There is no match for this fight. So, it is better to be forewarned than forearmed. Information can be helpful.

Defining Addiction

The American Society of Medical Addiction defines addiction as, “ a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences.” People with addiction use substances or engage in behaviors that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences.

For many years, experts in the field of psychology believed only alcohol and powerful drugs could enslave a person. More recently, however, research has proven certain pleasurable activities such as gambling, shopping (spending money), eating and sex can also subvert the brain. And, it isn’t a matter of having low morals or non-existent willpower. No one comes to a point in their life when they say, “I want to grow up and be an addict.” Any behavior can begin for the pleasure or the escape, but in the case of addiction, craving ignores the cost.

The pressure of living in the same house with an addict is very real. It doesn’t matter what form the addiction is taking, it impacts a family’s finances, state of peace, family roles and trust. This path is a wild ride through unhealthy relationships and emotional pain. Understanding the reasons behind the addiction, however, does not lessen the power it holds. And a reason is not an excuse. Being educated can open the door to help and healing for you. 

Enabling and Codependency

Supporting someone you can’t trust can be nearly impossible. Of course, you want to “save” them from the spiral that never stops, but these efforts can backfire. This happens when making excuses or creating explanations and keeps the addict from acknowledging the truth. Being loving doesn’t mean enabling, and you can become trapped by the codependency generated from living with an addict.

Codependency is learned, often taking root in the family of origin. Emotional and behavioral, it impacts someone’s ability to create healthy and mutually satisfying relationships. Typically, it begins in what is termed a “dysfunctional” family. Dysfunctional families ignore any problems that exist. There’s an elephant in the room, but no one talks about it or confronts it. Thus, the people within the family suppress their emotions and totally disregard their own needs. They learn to survive by denying and ignoring difficult emotions. There is no trust, no feeling and no talking about it. 

The result of this behavior can set the stage for addiction in two ways. On one hand, codependents have very low self-esteem. They try to feel better by using alcohol, drugs or other compulsive behaviors, which can escalate into addiction. On the other hand, the need to feel better emotionally can lead the codependent down another path into becoming a martyr or caretaker. It feels good to “support” and care for someone. So, instead of seeing all the problems for what they are, the caretaker can make excuses, even lying to cover up what is really happening. Rescue attempts ultimately allow the destructive course to continue. Being needed yet feeling helpless and stuck creates an entirely different direction and the caregiver becomes addicted to the addict.

Understanding addiction includes understanding what role you play in the situation. As the saying goes, “you can’t see the forest for the trees.” Many times, being so close to a problem can keep the view cloudy and covered. Taking a long, honest look at yourself is crucial. It would be worth checking out this website and reviewing the questionnaire. This isn’t about blame. It’s another way to find some answers, to be informed, to help you cope. 

Isolation and Blame

When you live with an addict, although you may feel you have a huge part in the play, your love is on the stage all alone. Think about it. Those who are drunk or stoned have no real concern for anyone around them. Even with addictions like gambling, food, porn/sex or shopping, the need for the next fix is the only worry. Your welfare is not at all on their radar. While your heart says it’s okay because you love them, your head knows you’re being used. It’s lonely and isolating and at some point, you will have to decide what you are willing to allow.

One of the most important things to remember is, you can’t change someone else.  You can only change yourself. So, putting all your efforts into getting your love clean, or making whatever changes you believe will help them become more responsible, is not going to work. The addict will not stop their behavior for the sake of others. No matter what you do, it will ultimately be their decision to turn their life around. 

Although dealing with the situation is not about blame, feeling guilty can be part of the trap. Sort through your guilt feelings. If there are ways you are contributing to the situation, be honest with yourself and own it. However, this does not mean that you take responsibility for what your loved one is choosing to do. Everyone makes choices and you control only yours. Maybe you took some wrong steps based on the information you had at the time. But that still doesn’t mean you alone bear the blame. This can become an emotional prison. Instead of being able to set boundaries and make healthy decisions, you get sucked into a cycle of regret, shame and guilt. This cycle is just as debilitating for you as the addiction is for your loved one. Let go of what could have, would have, or should have been. You can’t change what happened in the past, but you can control what is going to happen ahead. Change the focus to making good healthy choices for yourself from this point forward.

 

Self-care Is Important

In fact, it is extremely important to take care of yourself if you are living with an addict. Too often people have the misconception that self-care is selfish. That’s not necessarily true. Selfishness is being totally consumed with your own needs, wants and desires.  Self-care, on the other hand, is a healthy balance of prioritizing your physical and psychological well-being with good eating habits, exercise and sleep. There is a balance to taking care of yourself. You can easily tell if your well-being is only about you, or being better able to help others.

Self-care is especially important if your loved one’s addiction is constantly putting your safety at risk. Being under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol changes the way a person acts and often this can spiral into risky behavior and domestic violence. You’ll never be able to change what the addict is doing. However, you can change how you allow it to impact you, your children and your living situation. You are not powerless. There are professionals and organizations for these types of situations. Don’t be afraid to reach out. 

Five Universal Truths

Finally, there are some universal truths associated with living with an addict. It’s not easy to live with them and it’s not easy to leave them. So, facing the facts may give you some direction.

  1. You can’t make them change. It doesn’t matter how much you support them, how many times you issue an ultimatum, or how much unconditional love you extend, the addict must choose to change. The commitment must be their choice and it is up to them to follow through.
  2. Your loved one will be untrustworthy. Breaking promises, forgetting important dates, and being irresponsible with finances are just a few of the behaviors that will continue to abuse and destroy your trust. Suspicion, mistrust and apprehension will become your constant companions. Unfortunately, you will always be on the losing end.
  3. You can never expect honesty. The priority for an addict is their drug of choice (alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, etc.). They will say whatever they believe you want to hear, so you will back off. Sadly, this includes continuing to lie about their desire to be clean and sober. Their defense is often anger, and denial and lies are the weapons that will slowly and surely break your relationship. 
  4. You may lose friends and family. Other people who recognize your loved one has a problem, may find it uncomfortable to be around them. They may choose to just let the relationship fade. It isn’t your fault, but you will suffer the consequences of the addict’s actions.
  5. You may have to leave.  This is probably the most difficult of the hard truths of living with an addict. The impact of this disease is devastating and can be even worse if children are involved. Weighing the effects on your life and theirs, may mean you step away from the relationship altogether. You don’t want to sacrifice your life for someone who is just throwing theirs away. 

There is no easy answer or “one step fits all” approach to living with an addict. Friends and family may tell you what they would do, if they were you. But remember, they are not walking in your shoes. Research information on the addiction which is controlling your loved one. Reach out to a professional or support group to help you get some emotional balance in your life. Be willing to be honest about your role in the unhealthy behavior. If you have children, look truthfully at the impact it is having on them. Making the decision to stay and cope, or let go and leave, will determine the path you take to survive. Allow yourself the freedom to make the best choice for you and your children. Sometimes, letting go is the only control.