A therapist’s guide to identifying, addressing, and supporting a partner who has an addiction.
Addiction is complicated. It comes in many shapes and sizes, and affects different people in very different ways. Whether you’re dating an someone who identifies as an addict , are in recovery yourself, or are concerned that your partner’s substance use may turn into addiction, knowing the signs of substance misuse — and understanding how to deal with them — is paramount.
Benjamin Seaman is a therapist, the co-founder of the New York Center for Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples, an adjunct lecturer at New York University, and an expert on romantic relationships. He sat down with us to talk through how to spot addiction, how to address it, and how to modify your own behavior to help your partner recover.
Identifying And Confronting Addiction
While there are some cases in which there’s no doubt as to whether someone is an addict, what constitutes addiction can ultimately be subjective. For those who are unsure whether their partner has a problem with alcohol or other substances, Seaman suggests looking for the following signs:
– Missing daily activities or work due to substance abuse (including hangovers)
– Friends bringing up your partner’s habit
– Changes in behavior due to substance abuse
“Any time there’s a concern, it has to be taken seriously,” says Seaman. “At the same time, it’s very easy for people to throw around terms like ‘addict’ or ‘alcoholic’ in times of upset, and it’s important to distinguish between pathologizing your partner and a true professional evaluation.”
Fix Behavior, Not Identity
If you are concerned that your partner is misusing alcohol or drugs, it’s crucial that you start by approaching the problem by addressing behaviors, not identity. Rather than blurting out “You have a drinking problem,” offer an example of behavior that negatively impacted you, such as saying, “I feel hurt by how you acted at that party — your behavior felt rude”.
“The temptation for it to turn into name-calling can be powerful,” says Seaman. “But when the conversation becomes a matter of outright shaming your partner’s behaviors, that can trigger a cycle in which your partner feels parented or put down, and so they react by rebelling and continuing to engage in the addictive behavior — sometimes to an even more extreme degree.”
“Until someone is in a state of recovery and resolution, throwing around labels only serves to shame your partner,” says Seaman. “The fantasy is, ‘if I shame you, you’ll stop,’ — but that’s actually an unhealthy way to confront someone.”
In reality, when people feel shame they tend to avoid those who provoke the feeling. Shaming your partner will typically result in them steering clear of you immediately afterward, and often returning to their addictive behavior as a result.
Seaman recommends “joining” conversations, wherein you engage in healthier behavior together. For instance, you could say “Do you think we can moderate at the party tonight? Let’s each have two drinks, and bring some Kombucha along so we have something to do with our hands if we feel like getting a third.” If these initial attempts don’t lead to better interactions, then it might be time to seek professional help.
Avoid tense, finger-pointing conversations about your partner and focus on the behavior you are seeking.
How To Support Your Partner Through Addiction
If your partner is assessed as having addiction issues: Helping a partner work through their addiction usually means making major adjustments in your life as a couple. Seaman often sees his non-addict clients being unwilling to make these changes, and even exhibiting flippant or hurtful behavior towards addict or recovering addict partners, simply because they don’t understand addiction. “I see people say things that are really brutal, like ‘you’re not any fun’ — completely dismissing the personal journey of recovery.” It’s important to not only respect your partner’s new boundaries, but also embrace them as your own when you’re with your partner. This doesn’t have to mean complete abstinence, but it usually does mean cutting down significantly on alcohol consumption.
Many couples have to reevaluate their social lives. Perhaps crazy weekends on Fire Island or all nighters at Alegria can’t happen anymore if one partner is trying to stay sober or avoid party drugs. “The LGBTQ population has specific risk factors for drinking,” says Seaman. “Historically, bars and clubs have been the only places where we could socialize.”
Support isn’t limited to physical choices — oftentimes, a partner is the only person who can address feelings of loneliness, isolation, social anxiety, and other factors that could trigger substance use. Having a supportive partner can make an enormous difference in how quickly and effectively a person recovers from addiction and maintains a healthy lifestyle. Encourage your partner to open up about the problem with you, and really take the time to listen instead of quickly suggesting solutions or shaming.
When To Leave
There are different levels of addiction. For many of his clients, Seaman advocates a harm reduction model. Partners can sometimes be cautious around trusting harm reduction models — with good reason — but it’s important to remember that there’s no one size fits all for recovery. Take the time to learn about your partner’s addiction, and form your own thoughts about how different models of recovery are working for them.
“Setting your days back to zero after a slip up is actually psychologically unhealthy — it’s just disheartening,” he says. “A lot of people will benefit more from a harm reduction model, wherein there may be slip ups and that’s OK. There are certainly cases in which moderation is acceptable and healthy, but the community also needs to create space for people who won’t be shamed for moderating or abstaining.”
That said, Seaman also believes that for some addicts, it’s absolutely unsafe to even consider moderation. He notes that there is a hierarchy of substances — for example, meth addiction is much different than alcoholism. Depending on the substance in question, the severity of the addiction, and the behaviors that result from it, it may be necessary to consider leaving a partner in order to protect yourself — no matter how painful the separation may be.
At the end of the day, leaving is a judgement call, one that is different for everyone. If trust has been irrevocably lost, then even total abstinence can be insufficient for saving the relationship.
Seeking Help Through Therapy
Getting a professional perspective on your partner’s addiction can help both the recovery process, and your relationship. “Often, the substance abuse is just a symptom of something underneath,” says Seaman. In the queer community especially, factors like minority stress and internalized homophobia can leave people particularly susceptible to substance abuse.
Seaman recommends both couples therapy and individual therapy for people struggling with addiction. To find an LGBTQ-affirming therapist or psychiatrist near you, visit lighthouse.lgbt. For additional resources to help you or your partner with addiction, visit drugabuse.gov.