A comprehensive guide to identifying addiction and supporting a spouse through recovery

Are you worried that your husband or wife’s drinking or drug use? Do you believe you may be living with an alcoholic husband or that your wife is an addict? Dealing with an addicted spouse can be quite difficult. Find out the ways you can best support your significant other in seeking the treatment and rehabilitation that he or she needs.

The consequences of drug and alcohol abuse in a relationship

Drug and alcohol abuse affect our nation in a big way. The consequences can be quite costly. An estimated 440 billion dollars is spent annually in the US on costs related to alcohol, illicit drugs and prescription painkillers, including related crime, lost work productivity and health care. Moreover, substance abuse can be deadly. Despite a small drop between 2017 and 2018, drug overdose death rates in the U.S. have increased nearly fourfold over the past two decades, growing from 16,849 in 1999 to 67,367 in 2018, according to the CDC. 

While many are able to regulate their consumption, indulging in the occasional alcoholic drink, for others, drug and alcohol abuse can be devastating to themselves and their loved ones. 

The consequences of drug abuse and alcohol abuse are numerous. Substance use disorders do not just affect the individual abusing drugs or alcohol. Rather, they have many real and significant impacts on those closest to the addict and alcoholic, especially on intimate relationships. When a wife or husband is an addict, it is highly likely that their partner will also suffer the negative consequences of addiction.

Source: Centers for Disease Control, NCHS Data Brief No. 356, January 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db356.htm#fig1

How does addiction affect marriage and relationships?

Drug addiction and alcoholism can have a number of negative impacts on a marriage or relationship. Research has shown an important link between alcohol use and dysfunction in families and relationships.. According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, drug addictions and alcoholism can affect a marriage in the following ways:

  • Time spent away from the marriage, as an addict or alcoholic dedicates more and more time to procuring and consuming their substance of choice
  • Increased emotional distance between partners
  • Higher levels of stress in the relationship 
  • A greater number of arguments, which, in some cases, can escalate into domestic violence 
  • Financial losses due to money being spent to feed one partner’s addiction

The distress caused by one partner’s substance use disorder can lead to more arguments about the issue, which then propels a vicious cycle in which the addict or alcoholic uses to escape the conflict their addiction has caused. This can become a downward spiral of continued conflict and followed by unhealthy coping behaviors like drinking and getting high.

The evidence supports a link between negative consequences in intimate relationships and drug and alcohol abuse. For instance, a 2000 study found that in relationships where one partner drinks significantly more than the other, there was a greater likelihood of relational distress and incidents of physical violence. Another longitudinal study that followed couples during the early years of marriage found greater marital dissatisfaction in relationships where one partner was a heavy drinker.  Similar results were found in marriages where one partner used illicit drugs. A 2007 longitudinal study examining couples’ relationships during the first four years of marriage found lower rates of marital satisfaction in pairs when one member used or abused illicit drugs.

Does my husband or wife have a problem with drugs or alcohol?

How to recognize the signs and symptoms of addiction in your relationship

Identifying the signs and symptoms of alcoholism and drug addiction can be challenging. You might have asked yourself, is my husband an alcoholic? Is my wife an addict? How can I know if he or she has a substance use disorder? The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines addiction as “a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.”  But what does this look like within a marriage?

Depending on the substance you believe your spouse is abusing, there are a number of indicators. There are specific symptoms for addiction to amphetamines, heroin, cocaine, crack, fentanyl, opiates and other prescription drugs, as each drug produces distinct physical effects.

However the following 4 signs and symptoms of an alcohol or drug problem generally apply:

1. Changes in behavior

Is your husband or wife behaving in a more secretive manner or responding to questions or issues with more extreme reactions?  Changes might include drastic shifts in mood; increased conflicts in relationships with colleagues, friends and family; preventing others from entering his or her space or looking through his or her belongings; and lying and/or being secretive about where he or she is going.

2. Unable to meet responsibilities

 Are you having to cover for your spouse with their boss or coworkers? Are they frequently missing work and or not performing as usual in the workplace? These are all telltale signs of an addiction.

3. Physical and health issues

Has your partner had a significant change in appearance? Large fluctuations in weight, red eyes, a general lack of energy and motivation, and neglecting one’s appearance can all be indicators of a substance use problem.

4. Money problems 

Maintaining a substance use disorder can be quite costly. Discovering money is missing, sudden requests for money with no explanation, and stolen or disappeared items are all indicators that your loved one may be using these items or money to support their habit. 

Signs that your spouse’s drug use is hurting you and your relationship

Drug and alcohol addiction can create many problems in a relationship, and it is important to be aware of the ways in which your partner’s addiction is affecting your relationship and knowing when to seek help. According to William Fals-Stewart, PhD, the following danger signals may mean it’s time to seek help:

  • Numerous fights over drinking, drug use, and related problems, such as money issues, staying out too late, and disappearing for long periods of times
  • Having to cover for your partner’s alcohol and drug use with friends, family, coworkers and others
  • Your partner is using drugs or drinking as a way reduce tension and stress from fights related his or her drug and alcohol abuse
  • Instances of domestic violence, “angry touching”, or emotional abuse between partners when one partner has been using drugs or drinking
  • Either or both partners must be altered (drunk or high) to talk about problems in the relationship, show affection, or spend time together
  • You or they are becoming more isolated from relationships with friends and family in order to hide their drinking and drug use

If any of these danger signals are present in your relationship, it is likely that drugs and alcohol are damaging your relationship and well-being. Consider looking towards treatment or seeking help as a next step. However, you should keep in mind that, in many cases, drug and alcohol abuse are likely not the only issues in the relationship. Other underlying issues will need to be identified and addressed to truly repair the relationship. Nonetheless, to begin to move forward, facing your partner’s addiction is an important and necessary step.

I’m married to an alcoholic or an addict. What now?

Now that you have recognized your partner’s addiction, it is time to take action to improve your situation. Even if they are in denial about their addiction, there are certain steps you can take now to help your spouse and yourself.

Set boundaries with the addict or alcoholic in your life

If you believe your loved one has a problem with addiction, you must, first and foremost, protect yourself by setting boundaries around your life, relationship, finances and home. Addiction is a disease, and while support from family and loved ones is instrumental to a successful recovery, you must know the distinction between support and enabling an addict or alcoholic. 

Creating and setting boundaries with an alcoholic or addict is not an easy feat. Nonetheless, it is an essential part of the process. Whether your significant other is already in treatment or has yet to recognize their alcohol or drug use as a problem, setting clear boundaries and rules will help protect your mental health and physical well-being. Moreover, it will benefit your partner in the long term.

These rules, and their consequences if broken, should be communicated and discussed with one’s spouse so that there is a clear understanding of what is and isn’t permitted within the relationship. Examples of positive boundaries include:

  • No alcohol or drug use in the home
  • No entering the house while drunk or high
  • Stealing of any kind will not be tolerated
  • Money will not be provided for alcohol or drugs

Once clear boundaries have been established, they should be honored and reinforced. This can be hard when dealing with a husband or wife who has a substance use disorder, as financial and emotional manipulation can be a common part of a substance use disorder. Still, in the long run, it will be beneficial to both you and your partner and help you avoid unintentionally enabling drug abuse and alcoholism.  

Are you enabling an addict or alcoholic?

Conversely, when you enable your partner’s addiction and don’t follow through, you allow them to continue their drug or alcohol abuse without having to fully face the negative results of their behaviors. Essentially, by protecting your partner from the harsh consequences that addiction has on his or her life, you are reducing your loved one’s ability to recognize how bad their addiction has become. This allows an alcoholic or addict to remain in denial about their substance use disorder and lessens any motivation he or she may have to seek treatment. Furthermore, enabling an addict can drain you physically, emotionally, and financially, while getting your spouse no closer to sobriety.

Some common enabling behaviors include:

  • Continuing to give money to drug addict or alcoholic in your life
  • Facilitating drug or alcohol use by allowing it to occur in your home, car, or on your property
  • Covering up their addiction to friends, family, or others
  • Allowing rules and boundaries to be broken without enforcing the consequences

A good question to ask yourself is, “Has my partner gotten any better in terms of their addiction?” If the answer is no, you might want to take a close look at the ways in which you may be enabling their addiction. Remember, you are not at fault or responsible for your significant other’s addiction, but you are not helping but protecting them from its consequences.

Supporting your loved one on their journey to sobriety

Seeking treatment 

If your spouse recognizes their addiction and is ready for treatment, you should try and seek help as soon as possible. This means figuring out which type of treatment is best for his or her situation and helping find a quality rehabilitation facility that follows evidence-based, data driven approaches to treatment. There are a number of different types of treatment programs that address specific populations and needs which might suit your spouse’s particular situation.

Another key decision will be figuring out whether an inpatient or an outpatient rehabilitation program is best for your loved one. This decision is personal, and will depend on his or her specific needs. 

Inpatient programs are more intensive and require the individual to live onsite in a supervised environment throughout the duration of the program. Outpatient programs do not include the residential component, allow for work and family obligations to be met while completing treatment, and are usually less costly. Liberty Ranch offers an evidence-based and cost-effective intensive outpatient treatment program, that allows clients to manage work and family responsibilities while attending part-time rehab.

Overall, identifying what type of program is best for your spouse will depend on their current situation and needs. However, if your loved one’s life has become truly unmanageable and and he or she requires 24 hour-a-day supervision, inpatient treatment might be necessary. 

How to support your spouse in rehab and after rehab

The early stages of treatment can be especially difficult for your spouse, but also for your relationship. There will be a great deal of emotional processing taking place, as he or she will have to address a number of painful underlying issues related to his or her addiction. 

This period can be challenging. Your spouse is learning new ways to cope with stressors that don’t involve the use of alcohol and drugs. This requires significant life changes for you and your partner. Addressing unhealthy patterns of behavior might also result in big changes to your relationship. A positive treatment program should integrate family counseling into your loved one’s treatment plan at some point during the process. 

Once your partner is in treatment, it is important to educate yourself on the recovery process. Peer support networks can be especially useful in helping you learn about what an addict goes through during treatment while connecting you to resources.

There are a number of ways you can support your spouse both while they are in treatment and once they leave rehab: 

  • Encourage them to follow through with all of their treatment recommendations
  • Reinforce the importance of abstinence to their sobriety
  • Avoid situations where substance use is common. This might include family events and get togethers with individuals with whom they previously used drugs or alcohol
  • Encourage them to seek out a sober communities, peer support networks and participate in sober social activities
  • Work on developing healthy communication patterns 
  • Help them cope with their stress by listening, avoiding judgement, and finding solutions
  • Patiently work with them to process their emotions by using the skills they acquired in rehab
  • Learn about their recovery and understand what may trigger a relapse
  • Create a prevention plan and know what to do and who to contact in the case of a relapse

The support of a loved one can be instrumental to your partner’s recovery. However, the road to recovery is not a short one. It may include relapses and even require both of you to reconsider whether your relationship is working for both of you. Being patient with your spouse; providing positive, non-critical support; praising his or her progress; and trying to forgive are all elements critical to your spouse’s sobriety.  Prepare for setbacks during this time. They are a natural part of the recovery process.  

Do not expect treatment alone will not solve all of the problems in your  marriage or relationship. Many find couples therapy to be an effective way to deal with problems that have resulted from their spouse’s substance use disorder as well as to address pre existing problems and conflicts in the relationship. This might be an option worth considering at some point during your loved one’s recovery journey. 

However, while it is important to know the positive ways in which you can support your spouse or loved one on their road to recovery, your physical and mental wellbeing should always be a top priority. Be able to recognize if your relationship has become harmful, toxic or abusive and practicing self care above all.

The importance of Peer Support Networks and Family Support Networks in the recovery process

Finding support through Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous

Many find going at sobriety alone to be an especially difficult task. Reintegrating back into everyday life and staying clean following an inpatient or outpatient treatment experience can be a great feat. And while it is doable, support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous can  provide a helpful outlet to those struggling with sobriety. These 12-step programs offer a supportive, peer-run environment where addicts and alcoholics can connect with others who have dealt with substance use disorders themselves.

Programs such as Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous, also known as NA and AA, allow individuals dealing with substance use disorders to share with others going through the same thing. They can help the addict in your life better understand the struggles of addiction and sobriety. Moreover, there are meetings widely available in most areas in the U.S. and membership is open to anyone. 

During meetings, AA and NA members are free to share about their experiences and challenges with sobriety and life in general.  Personal support is provided in the form of a sponsor who can offer person-to-person advice, support their sponsee in following the 12 steps, keep them accountable and provide emotional support.  Meetings are not just for those who have received addiction treatment, as some may forgo rehab and begin their sobriety journey directly with the support of AA or NA.

12 Steps of recovery 

The widely known 12 steps of recovery are a set of non-religious, spiritual principles that serve as the cornerstone for many recovery programs. Numerous peer support groups and drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers integrate the 12 step framework into their recovery approach. As a part of its rehabilitation program, Liberty Ranch creates a safe and serene space where clients can focus on a 12-step program appropriate to their chemical dependency.

The 12 steps include accepting that one is powerless over their addiction, admitting the ways in which they have wronged themselves and others, making amends, and continuing to take personal inventory, among others.

Peer support networks for families of addicts

12 step programs are not just useful to individuals with substance use disorders. The principles can also be helpful to loved ones, as they too suffer the consequences of addiction and alcoholism.  

Recovery is a process that includes and directly affects spouses and family members. It requires active participation in sharing, listening, reconciliation and rebuilding the broken relationships, trust, and family units. In many cases, families of addicts and alcoholics may also require help, advice, guidance or a space to share and process the challenges of substance use disorders. Families Anonymous, Nar-Anon and Al-Anon all provide confidential spaces for families of loved ones to meet, share and support one another. 

As the husband, wife or partner of an addict or alcoholic, it is important to seek support for yourself and family, and not just focus on the needs of the addict in your life. Having a group of peers that are dealing with similar struggles can encourage you to support the addict in your life in healthier, more effective ways while providing an anonymous, non-judgmental outlet. It is critical to take care of yourself during this difficult time, and the fellowship of peer support groups like Nar-Anon Family Groups,  Families Anonymous,and Al-Anon can be an instrumental part of this process.

Resources 

If you or your loved one are in a dangerous or emergency situation, please call 911 or contact your local emergency services. Otherwise, the following resources may be helpful to your or your loved one in dealing with their addiction. 

Peer Support Networks

If you are looking for a peer support network to provide guidance and support for the addict in your life, use the meeting locators to find an  Alcoholic Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meeting near you.

For spouses and family members with a loved one dealing with addiction, use the Nar-Anon, Al-Anon, and Families Anonymous locators to find a nearby peer support meeting. 

Treatment Resources

If you want to learn more about treatment options for your or your loved one, contact Liberty Ranch for a free consultation

Informational Resources

NIDA Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition)

NIDA Step-by-Step Guide to Finding Treatment for Drug Use Disorders

PublicHealth Addiction Resources