I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve met with couples, where one of them struggled with an addiction, and the issue of partnership, or lack thereof, is introduced early on in the therapy. You can imagine when an addict is fully engaged in their self-destructive behaviors, they are typically unable to give much in a romantic relationship. Instead, the addict is often taking from their spouse: their money, time, feelings of self-worth, and of course, their sanity!
Just as the addict has limited coping mechanisms to deal with life and its daily shifts, so does the partner of the addict display maladaptive coping strategies when it comes to loving someone who is actively involved in their addiction. When people are presented with a life stuation that involves a stigma, like addiction, sometimes they take it on as a project, hence the addict becomes their project. Earlier in my career, I worked with parents who were coping with a disabled child. They often would cope by becoming the advocate, fund raiser and confronting government agencies. They become consumed with the disability, often at the expense of their marriage, relations with other children and their sanity.
Partner or Project?
I see this happening time and time again with people married to an alcoholic or drug addict. Instead of exploring healthy options of living less and less with the restlessness of addiction on the mind, often the spouse will become obsessed with their attempts at recovery, their multiple rehab stays, the money they’ve spent, their sponsor, etc. etc. etc. The addicted partner becomes a project…as you imagine, this never works out well for both! The fantasy is that “if I work really hard, then maybe he will stop drinking, or using drugs.” There is nothing you can do as a spouse to end the ravages of addiction in your spouse. However, you can become more aware of what you are doing, and how you have made your spouse a project. You can begin to gain support from professionals, Alanon members, or supportive friends that you deserve having a partner, someone who both gives and takes in the relationship. As you know, there is no relationship present when addiction is active in the marriage.
I hope more spouses, partners and loved ones of alcoholics and addicts can wake up to their maladaptove coping behaviors and see that they just do not work! There are so many other more healthy strategies that helop to build self-esteem and purpose in your life, without being the project manager for your loved one who is not embracing recovery. Set clear boundaries, hang out with healthy people, attend Alanon meetings, become more spiritually attuned. These are just a few things you can do. Maybe someday your spouse will embrace recovery and they will become the partner you deserve, but don’t sit around waiting for this to happen. Fulfill your dreams, while praying for your spouse. Extend compassion towards them, but stay away from the chaos and being the “managing partner” in the relationship. Wish them well, and live your life fully and with greater satisfaction.
Dr. William Heran
CEO and Co-Founder