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The Role of the Spouse in Addiction & Recovery

The spouse of an addict or alcoholic can play a number of different roles not only during the active substance abuse and addiction stage, but also during recovery. In many cases the spouse completely takes care of the addict and is directly responsible for getting them into an appropriate treatment program, while other times a spouse can be an enabler of the addiction. Whatever the case may be, the spouse of a dependent drug user or alcoholic can sometimes make or break a recovery program because they are such a critical part of the patient’s life. Therefore, understanding the role of a spouse in addiction and recovery is essential to developing a treatment plan that addresses both the harmful and beneficial impact that the spouse has had – and may or may not continue to have – on the recovering addict.

The most dangerous role that a spouse can play in a relationship plagued by drug use and addiction is that of co-user. Relationships where both partners are drug addicts or alcoholics are notoriously unpredictable and sometimes result in disastrous consequences for all involved. In fact, according to Utah State University;

“Approximately 70% of all cases of violence and sexual abuse between couples involved the use of alcohol or drugs.” (1)

Figures like these are intimidating considering that it can be hard for a person to escape a physically or sexually abusive relationship when addiction is involved for a number of reasons:

1. The abusive spouse may provide or ration their drugs to them
2. The victim may fear even more violent reprisals should they take any action including getting addiction treatment 3. The battered spouse may fear being turned in to authorities by the aggressor

Additionally, relationships that are centered around drug use or alcoholism often do not survive when one or even both parties get clean. According to an article on the National Center for Biotechnology Information website;

“. . .for couples in which both partners abused drugs, a higher percentage of days abstinent was associated with relationship instability.” (2)

What this means is that the more time a couple that previously abused drugs together spent sober, the more their relationship deteriorated. This could be explained by the dramatic changes that people go through when they get clean, or it could be that drug addiction blinded them to the fact that they had nothing in common with their partner. Whatever the case may be, it seems logical to conclude that relationships based upon drug use will not survive when that binding factor is subsequently removed.

Another common role of a spouse during active addiction is that of the enabler. Enablers are aptly named as they generally display behaviors and actions that enable the drug use of their partner. According to what is widely considered one of the most successful treatment centers in the country – Recovery First’s Florida Drug Rehab – the enabler helps make addiction possible:

“Enablers have been known to directly procure drugs for the user because they assume they’ll simply acquire them elsewhere if they don’t. They’ll lie about the user’s criminal activity because they fear losing them to incarceration. And perhaps worst of all, some enablers simply pretend like there isn’t a problem at all and allow chronic addiction to continue unabated for years or even decades.” (3)

However, not every enabler is aware of their actions. Some might subconsciously enable their spouse to continue using drugs or alcohol because consciously facing the problem would be too intense or potentially present undue risk to the non-abusing spouse. In some cases the enabling may occur because the spouse simply doesn’t understand that they are making the drug use or alcoholism of their partner possible – in fact they may make excuses for their partner with statements like:

“His problem isn’t so bad.” Or; “What’s wrong with a couple of drinks at night? It doesn’t hurt anyone.”

These words are often the statements of a prolific enabler.

When it comes to recovery from addiction, the spouse plays a critical role. One of the most important of these roles is getting the addict or alcoholic into a treatment program. This may involve the assistance of an interventionist or other type of therapist, or it may consist only of the spouse helping their partner enroll in a drug rehab program. Whatever the case may be, as the most influential person in the addict’s life it is absolutely crucial that the spouse support the treatment. This is especially important considering that just getting a person into treatment is only the beginning of the role for the non-addicted spouse.

According to Pat Jones of Behavioral Medicine Associates, addiction is a family disease where all parties are affected;

“In the disease approach, the family members are treated with therapy separate from the alcoholic. This therapy encourages the alcoholic, the spouse and the family to reach outside the family for help.” (4)

This means that family members undergo therapy as well as the addict or alcoholic. This therapy can consist of individual counseling sessions and occasionally group and family sessions that help to develop better communication skills and a stronger understanding of each other’s needs within the family group. However, the spouse is never required to attend these therapies and in some cases the spouse is deemed detrimental to the recovery process and therapy continues without him or her. This is generally true of enablers that refuse to relent and co-users that are still actively using.

If nothing else, the spouse should lend support when possible during the recovery process. This can be difficult for some people as a result of abuse or other offenses committed by the user during active addiction, and it is for this reason precisely that spouses are almost always encouraged to be a part of the treatment program.

Everyone in the family is affected by addiction or alcoholism – especially the spouse. If your husband or wife is struggling with a drug or alcohol problem and you don’t know what to do, pick up the phone and call us now. We can help guide you confidentially through the process of getting help for both you and your spouse. Even if you question the viability of your relationship, don’t question the need to reach out for help – for both of you. Call us right now for a no-obligation consultation with an addiction expert.

(1) Utah State University Alcohol and Drug Abuse
http://ocw.usu.edu/Family__Consumer____Human_Development/Marriage___Family_Relationships/Things_to_Watch_Out_For_4.html
Accessed 09/19/2011

(2) Fals-Stewart W, Birchler GR, O’Farrell TJ. Drug-abusing patients and their intimate partners: dyadic adjustment, relationship stability, and substance use. J Abnorm Psychol. 1999 Feb;108(1):11-23. National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10066989
Accessed 09/19/2011

(3) Davis, Debbie Addiction and the Enabler
http://recoveryfirst.org/addiction-and-the-enabler.html/
Accessed 09/19/2011

(4) Jones, Pat MS, RN, CS The Female Partner of the Recovering Male Alcoholic
http://www.bma-wellness.com/papers/Female_Partner_Alcoholic.html
Accessed 09/19/2011

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