Struggling with addiction while balancing a romantic relationship can be quite challenging. A substance use disorder does not necessarily stop a person from having successful relationships. However, healthy romantic relationships require communication, mutual respect, trust, individual identities and care. Having a substance use disorder can make it difficult to tick all of these boxes. For many, toxic relationships & addiction go hand-in-hand. Despite one’s best efforts, even once healthy relationships can sour when addiction is involved. So why exactly is this, and how does addiction affect romantic relationships?
According to the American Psychiatric Association, addiction is defined as “a complex condition, a brain disease that is manifested by compulsive substance use despite harmful consequences.” Addictions are usually accompanied by a set of other unhealthy behaviors that may include lying, theft, manipulation and a preoccupation with drugs and alcohol. These behaviors help the addict hide and sustain their addiction. Unfortunately, they also can take a toll on romantic relationships. Feeding one’s compulsion for drugs and alcohol can take priority over other important relationships and responsibilities.
For some, the trust in once healthy relationships erodes because one partner starts to rely on drugs and alcohol, changing their behaviors. Others may be in a toxic relationship and have underlying issues that lead them to find comfort in drugs and alcohol. Those already struggling with addiction may seek out a partner for comfort, convenience, need or company. Because they were not in a stable mental or emotional place to begin with, the relationship may quickly become dysfunctional.
What is a toxic relationship?
Relationships are difficult, to put it simply. They require a lot of work. Whether a marriage, a committed couple, or two people seeing each other casually, relationships have many ups and downs. However, sometimes they can be toxic.
Toxic relationships can be difficult to recognize as not all look the same. Some relationships have obvious red flags, while for others, the warning signs are much more subtle. There are varying definitions of what a toxic relationship is. Generally, these relationships are characterized by frequent behaviors of one partner that are emotionally and/or psychically draining to the other partner.
There are definitely bumps in the road in healthy relationships, but both partners are committed to caring, respecting, and being compassionate to the other. Romantic partners are invested in each other’s well-being, able to share control, and boost their partner’s self-esteem overall. On the other hand, toxic relationships can be draining and damaging to a person’s self-worth. One or both participants are left feeling exhausted and beaten down.
Are all relationships with addicts toxic?
In short, not necessarily. Addicts and alcoholics are subject to negative labels by society. There is still a great deal of stigma surrounding the disease. Many continue to characterize addiction as a personal and moral failure. This is not the case. Addiction is a disease that many struggle with. Like any other human, addicts seek and deserve love, compassion and emotional attachment. It is very much possible for them to have healthy, supportive relationships. Still, the compulsive use of drugs and alcohol certainly makes this much more difficult.
Similarities between toxic relationships & addiction
Addiction affects the addict and those closest to them. In order to sustain their habit, addicts and alcoholics often engage in behaviors that negatively affect both themselves and their loved ones. Just like a toxic relationship between two partners, many addicts and alcoholics find themselves in a toxic relationship with drugs and alcohol. They continue to use compulsively, despite the negative consequences drugs and alcohol have on their lives. If left untreated, the complex brain disease can cause irreparable damage to a person’s life, family, and romantic relationships.
A number of dysfunctional behaviors needed to sustain a person’s addiction are similar to those common in toxic relationships. For example, lying, manipulation and physical and emotional abuse are commonly seen in toxic romantic relationships and among addicts.
This does not mean the addict is fully at fault. This very much depends on the dynamics of the relationship. Addicts are also more likely to experience abuse in romantic relationships. For many, there is a great amount of guilt and shame surrounding their drug and alcohol use. In some unhealthy relationships, the addict is the one engaging in threatening, aggressive, manipulative or controlling behaviors. In others, a partner may capitalize on the addict’s shame and low self-worth to control and manipulate. Either way, relationships involving addiction can very quickly turn toxic.
5 ways combining relationships & addiction can turn toxic
There are many reasons why combining relationships with addiction can create toxicity. All relationships are different. However, whether you yourself are an addict, your significant other is one, or you both struggle with addiction, there are a number of reasons that your relationship may be toxic.
1. There are unresolved underlying issues
Many people who struggle with addiction also have a number of underlying traumas and issues that cause them to turn to drugs and alcohol in the first place. Some may even struggle with comorbid mental health diagnoses that require professional support. While some people are able to drink responsibly, others use drugs and alcohol to cope with life’s difficulties and self soothe.This implies a lack of healthy coping mechanisms. Turning to drugs and alcohol can numb the pain. But the emotional issues will still be there. These unresolved issues can also harm romantic relationships when not addressed. If one person in the relationship drinks or uses drugs to avoid life’s issues, they are also likely demonstrating similar behavior in the relationship. Communication is a key part of a healthy relationship. Avoiding and numbing oneself to escape these underlying issues can certainly hinder honest communication and support. These issues can allow both toxic relationships and addiction to flourish.
2. There is an codependent dynamic
When you love a person, you want the best for them. When you love an addict, usually that means them getting sober. Many people who are in relationships with addicts desperately want their loved ones to stop using and will do anything necessary to help. Unfortunately, they may be unintentionally enabling their significant other’s addiction. One partner trying to “save” the other from their addiction can be a form of codependency. Although a partner may be frustrated by the addict’s actions and behaviors, they may still feel compelled to try and rescue them
Codependent relationships are usually unbalanced, with one partner expending all of their energy to meet the other’s needs. In codependent relationships involving addiction, one partner may actually be enabling the other’s drug and alcohol use by not letting them experience the full consequences of their actions. This might mean excusing irresponsible or inappropriate behavior, covering for a partner with school or work responsibilities, or giving them money and shelter. A codependent dynamic can be quite difficult to break, because usually both parties gain something: The addict is able to keep using without their life falling apart, and the partner gains self esteem from always saving and solving their significant other’s problems.
3. Intimate partner violence is occuring in the relationship
Although not the case in all relationships, domestic violence and substance abuse have been seen to occur together. In fact, some studies have found alcohol to be involved in 67% to 93% of cases of domestic violence. Substance use is still present in an important number of cases involving intimate partner violence. Women with substance abuse issues are also more likely to be victims of intimate partner violence.
Intimate partner violence includes cases of physical violence, sexual violence, stalking, or psychological harm by a current or previous partner. There are a number of reasons why substance abuse may increase the likelihood of violence in a relationship. Some reasons include psychopharmacological effects of substance use (intoxication, craving, and withdrawal), mistrust, sexual jealousy, fights over control of drug supply and financial disputes. This does not mean that all addicts or alcoholics will commit domestic violence. Nonetheless, there is a strong documented association between the two, and the presence of one makes the other more likely.
4. Lying and manipulation may be common
There are many negative behaviors associated with both toxic relationships and addiction. This doesn’t make all addicts inherently bad people. However, the compulsion to seek out drugs and alcohol combined with the avoidance of the feelings that caused the addiction can lead addicts to behave in unhealthy ways. Two behaviors common among addicts are lying and manipulation. Some lie and manipulate to protect their addiction and themselves from the consequences of their behaviors. For instance, the addicted partner may lie about using, their desire to quit, their whereabouts, and how they are spending their money. They may also manipulate their loved one with false accusations, and by guilting and blaming the other for their issues. Both of these behaviors usually occur as a way to avoid addressing the addiction head on. Constant lying and manipulation can damage trust, a core tenet of a healthy relationship.
5. The relationship lacks a solid foundation
In some cases, relationships involving addicts may occur out of convenience or need. For instance, two addicts may get together because they have a great deal in common. Because both struggle with addiction and having a partner to do drugs and drink alcohol with can create a bond. Others may seek out a person who enables their lifestyle. The relationship can become transactional, intentionally or unintentionally. Sometimes these relationships even involve financial or emotional manipulation, whether there was real love to begin with or not. Without a foundation of trust, love and mutual respect, it can quickly become a toxic relationship and addiction can even be further enabled.
My relationship has become toxic. What do I do now?
Whether you yourself are struggling with addiction, your loved one who has a substance use disorder, or you are both addicts, if you believe your relationship has become toxic, it is time to take a hard look at things. No one deserves to be unhappy in a dysfunctional relationship, just as no one should have to continue to suffer from addiction.
Addiction and toxic relationships: Should I stay?
Repairing your relationship may be possible, but it is also okay to leave an unhealthy one. Ask yourself a few questions:
1. Is this relationship worth saving?
Think about whether or not there is a foundation of love to rescue or if the relationship has become too damaging to both parties. Ask yourself if the relationship makes you happy overall and if it is possible to work through the issues. Remember, both you and your loved one have the right to feel fulfilled, whether together or apart.
2. Are you staying in the relationship for the right reasons?
Many choose to stay in toxic relationships because of guilt, fear of being alone, or the need to fix others. Relationships should be voluntary, and you are not responsible for saving your loved one. In fact, only they themselves can do that, despite what they might tell you. You alone cannot rescue your significant other. Nor can you force them to get better. It is okay to leave an unhealthy relationship.
3. Are both parties equally invested in making changes in the relationship?
This is an important one. Constantly making excuses or saying you want to make changes is not the same as showing real and sustained effort. Both you and your partner should be taking actions such as attending treatment or therapy to make concrete behavioral changes.
4. Is the addict willing to address their addiction?
Whether the addiction itself is the source of toxicity or just a symptom, it must be addressed. It is unlikely that either the negative behavioral patterns of addiction or the underlying issues will go away on their own. Treatment is a key element in learning healthier behaviors that can improve lives and relationships. It can positively affect both the toxic relationship and the addiction.
5. Are you both willing to address your codependency?
Codependency is unhealthy, but both parties benefit in some way. The addict is able to continue to use drugs and alcohol, while their partner may gain self-esteem and feel valued as they care for them. Though the codependent partner may think they want their loved one to stop using, they may actually be supporting their addiction. This may be done by resolving issues caused by the addiction or by helping the addict out financially. By removing its consequences, the codependent partner allows the addiction to continue. To create a better relationship, both parties must be willing to identify the codependent behaviors, set boundaries and follow through.
6. Are you both willing to seek outside help?
Treatment and couples therapy can be extremely beneficial in addressing both the toxic relationship and addiction. Through evidence-based therapies, both partners can discuss and address their underlying issues and learn healthier ways to deal with conflict and manage their emotions. These issues will not resolve on their own. Sometimes couples get stuck in negative patterns of communication and can no longer hear what the other person is saying. A trained third party can help bridge the communication gap. They can also teach both individuals tools that will help them to be better partners. Treatment can provide important relief for the addict who may be stuck in a cycle of shame, trying to get clean, and blaming themselves for their failures. Seeking outside support is a huge step forward.
7. Is the relationship doing more damage than good?
All relationships have rough patches, but some relationships that cause more hurt than they may be worth. Your wellbeing should come first and foremost. Remember, you must care for yourself before you can care for another. If your relationship is not allowing you to do so, you may want to reconsider if it is right for you.
When to let go of a toxic relationship
When your relationship has become too damaging to your well-being, it may be time to move on. If your loved one’s behavior and/or addiction has become very destructive to themselves and to you, letting go may be the best thing. When leaving a toxic relationship, there are some steps you can take to ensure your emotional and physical well-being. Many times, one partner may manipulate the other to stay through false promises and claims that they will change. This is a behavior seen in people who struggle with both toxic relationships and addiction. However, they do little to actually change their behaviors or address their addiction.
If you are in a relationship where emotional or physical abuse is a factor, the most important thing is to keep yourself safe. This may require coming up with a plan ahead of time. Seek help from trained support services. Whether you are prepared to leave immediately, or just need someone to talk to before figuring out next steps, consider contacting The National Domestic Abuse Hotline, a confidential hotline. They can help you work out a plan for leaving and connect you to social support services. Abuse and control do stop on their own. No one deserves to be victimized or mistreated, including you.
If intimate partner violence is not a concern, the process can be different. Let trusted loved ones know about your intentions to leave your partner and seek support from those close to you before, during and after the breakup. When ending the relationship do your best, do your best to be clear and concise. Professional support such as therapy may also be helpful throughout the process.
Healing toxic relationships & addiction
If you do choose to continue with your relationship, creating a healthy, sustainable bond will require a great deal of work. For healing to truly take place, both the toxic relationship and the addiction must be addressed. Repairing your dysfunctional relationship will require:
- Recognizing and ending current toxic behaviors
- Acknowledging and addressing the damaged caused by addiction and dysfunctional behaviors
- Committing time and energy into healing and learning healthier behaviors
If you are both ready to make positive changes, getting treatment for addiction and alcoholism is a good first step. Even if a healthy life and a strong relationship seem far away, by seeking out a treatment program staffed with qualified professionals, you and your loved one are already taking important action.
Treatment when in a relationship
There are many treatment options available that go beyond just getting sober. A good program will take a holistic approach to addiction. It will address the addiction as well as the circumstances, behaviors and relationships that caused the drug and alcohol dependency.
Treatment programs may provide a number of services that can be helpful in healing the addict and their relationships. The Liberty Ranch offers an intensive outpatient treatment program with services including psychotherapy, family counseling, and medication management. The Women’s Treatment program is geared towards addressing the specific challenges faced by women struggling with addiction. Other possible services that can help rebuild your relationship, either as a part of treatment or on their own, include:
Many treatment programs offer some form of individualized therapy or psychotherapy. Therapists work together with their client in one-on-one sessions. The purpose of the sessions are usually to create a better quality of life for the client. This can be done by exploring the client’s behavioral patterns, emotions and traumas that may have led them to use drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism. Therapists also help their clients develop healthier behaviors and better ways of dealing with stress that don’t include drugs and alcohol.
Additionally, therapy can help diagnose and treat co-occurring issues. Many addicts struggle with comorbid mental health conditions and disorders. For some, these conditions go undiagnosed. With therapy, they can be treated or managed. Overall, individual therapy can also have important impacts on both partners. Changes made can lead to better communication, a stronger sense of self, recognition of damage caused by addiction and healthier ways of dealing with conflict. Skills gained in therapy can help with toxic relationships and addiction.
Couples therapy and marriage counseling can be extremely helpful for toxic relationships where addiction is an issue. It is a form of psychotherapy that helps partners recognize and address conflicts, create better patterns of communication and improve their relationship overall or seperate from the relationship, when it is needed. Some treatment programs may offer couples therapy or help to connect clients to counselors certified by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT). Even when the partner dealing with addiction becomes sober, there is likely a great deal of hurt and damage to be resolved. Therapy can help couples learn positive and constructive ways to support one another while rebuilding trust.
Peer Support groups
Peer support groups can be an integral part of healing, both during treatment and after. Many treatment programs offer some form of peer support. These groups allow addicts and alcoholics to give and receive non-professional advice in a supportive environment. They provide a safe space for those struggling with addictions to share their experiences with others who have been through the same thing. Those dealing with addiction may feel better understood by individuals who truly get what they are going through. Many of these groups follow the 12-step approach to recovery. Peer support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) may be an option following treatment, or for some, in lieu of treatment.
Keep in mind that these groups are not just for addicts and alcoholics. There are also family support groups for loved ones. Nar-Anon and Families Anonymous recognize the toll addiction takes on those closest to the addict. Whether your significant other is currently struggling with addiction, in treatment, or on the road to recovery, family peer support groups can be very helpful and supportive. Loved ones are able to share their experiences and learn from what others have gone through. Family groups help educate partners on addiction and how to support their significant other. Both family and peer support groups can have an overall positive impact on your relationship. They can offer a better understanding of addiction, enabling behaviors, and the recovery process.
Romantic relationships & recovery
Although addressing these issues is important, it requires that both parties are committed to changing and improving the relationship. In some cases, the relationship may not survive treatment or therapy. This does not mean that getting help was a bad choice. It just may be that through treatment one or both parties realized the relationship is too unhealthy and damaged to sustain. It could also mean that one person wasn’t ready for the work required to heal and rebuild trust. If both parties are not ready to deal with the issues in the relationship, it can further the tension and toxicity.
Additionally, if both partners are addicts but only one has sought treatment, this can be another source of conflict. The changes that committing to recovery involves may not always be accepted willingly. While one partner is trying to develop healthier behavioral responses and live drug free, the other may still be invested in finding their next fix. Although one person may be a positive influence on the other, in the end, each partner has to make their own decision to seek help.
If you or your loved one is going through treatment, there are a number of ways to help. Supportive partners should:
- Educate themselves about addiction
- Be patient with their partner
- Seek the support of others
- Attend family support groups
- Recognize small accomplishments
- Do your best to forgive if possible
- Avoid being negative
- Avoid enabling behaviors and codependency
- Set boundaries
- Take care of themselves first
If you and your partner do stay together through recovery, remember it will not be an easy process. Learning new behaviors is hard and the dynamics of the relationship may change significantly. Although these changes are usually positive, adjusting may be a challenge. Recovery takes time and commitment. It will be a long, but beneficial road for both you and your partner. Whether you stay together or not, addressing both the toxic relationships and addiction in your life will be beneficial.