A substance use problem often leads to changes in a person’s behaviour that can be damaging to a relationship. They may be emotional and unpredictable. They may feel ashamed or fear the consequences of their addiction being discovered. They will sometimes lie to conceal the true extent of it.
Secrecy and deceit can cause a breakdown of trust in the relationship. The partner of the addicted person may feel suspicious of the reasons for their partner’s behaviour. They might also feel confused, scared, or angry at the change in their partner and the unpredictable situation.
When I discovered their addiction, the worst thing about it was that I’d been lied to.
A partner with a substance use problem may have highs and lows – one moment happy and positive, and the next anxious, irritable, or depressed. They may be preoccupied and pay less attention to their partner. This unpredictable behaviour and mood can often cause arguments.
If discussing the problem always leads to an argument, both partners may give up trying to talk, and communication can break down entirely. Then a distance grows between them. There may also be a loss of interest in sex or intimacy.
If I try to explain why I started drinking, it turns into a row. It’s easier not to talk to each other at all.
However, problematic substance use is not always hidden. Sometimes, someone knows that their partner has a problem but feels they are walking on eggshells as they try to keep the peace. They might also fear that, if they rock the boat, they will drive their partner further into their addiction.
Sometimes, people will take on more responsibility in the home, with childcare and finances, to compensate for their partner becoming unreliable. They feel they have to take control of everything and that they have become a ‘parent’ to their partner.
Children in the family can also suffer. The parent with the addiction may become withdrawn and lose interest in family activities. Their partner may be distracted because of juggling extra responsibilities. Children are often aware of arguments and tension in the home and feel scared and confused. And, if they get used to seeing addictive behaviour, they may learn and develop similar behaviour themselves.
Facing up to a substance use problem can feel hard, as it often makes the problem seem more real. But, in a relationship where one person has a problem, both partners may be in denial. If they both feel powerless to make changes, it can feel easier to pretend nothing is happening.
The partner may feel ashamed to talk to family and friends about the problem. They may blame themselves or be embarrassed that outsiders will see their partner or relationship in a negative way. They may have been told by their partner not to tell anyone. There are then two people feeling very scared, resentful, and lonely in their own relationship.
If you are experiencing problems in your relationship that are the result of addiction, it may be worth seeking professional help.
Online relationship advice such as our listening room, support, information, and counselling can be very valuable in many cases. If you are experiencing domestic violence or any form of abuse in your relationship or family, seek support from a specialist agency.
If the problem is long-term, involves cutting or physical harm, or has been triggered by traumatic life events, you may need to seek face-to-face counselling via a specialist agency or your GP.
You may find it useful to look at our article ‘Moving on from addiction as a couple’