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Conflict in Couples with Substance Misuse
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In the last section, we discussed stage three of family addiction, hopelessness, and the four important aspects of hopelessness. These aspects are negative attachments, unbridgeable gulfs, living in a state of trauma, and connections no longer hold.
In this section, we will discuss the three ways the addictive process affects a couple. These three effects are, the initial agreement of the relationship breaks down, anxiety is created due to the breakdown, and the co-addict becomes the sole keeper of the initial agreement.
3 Effects of the Addictive Process on Couples
♦ Effect # 1 - Break Down of the Initial Agreement
As you know, when a couple comes together in a romantic relationship, they form an agreement that being together serves them better than being apart. As you have probably seen, as addiction enters the relationship, the addict changes from having their partner as their primary relationship, to having the addiction as the primary relationship. Sasha, 32, had been living with David, and alcoholic, for 7 years. The first effect of addiction I observed in Sasha and David was that the initial agreement of the relationship broke down.
The first breaks were small- David stopped calling Sasha when he was going to be late, for example. At this point, the David still felt that the relationship was strong, but Sasha, the co-addict, began to sense that the David was living less like a partner and more like a completely independent individual.
♦ Effect # 2 - Creation of Anxiety
The breakdown of Sasha and David’s initial agreement lead to the creation of anxiety, the second effect I observed when addiction entered their relationship. This anxiety caused David to fall further under the spell of addiction, suffering more consequences from his behavior, and increasing the breaks in the initial agreement. David’s denial increased, and he became more defensive and argumentative when Sasha questioned his illusion of normalcy.
Do you find, like I, that although an addict may be subconsciously aware that he or she is fighting for his or her life against addiction, they externally fight against the person they love, who wants the substance abuse to stop? Since the Sasha did not find anxiety relief in substance use, she turned to seeking power and control.
Sasha stated, "I’m so tired! I spend all my time and energy chasing after David to keep him sober! When I’m not searching the house for his hidden stashes, I’m paying fines he got or cleaning up his blood and puke from the bathroom, or running him to the doctor to get stitches put in or taken out! I gave up going out with my friends to help him, but if I even suggest he drinks too much, he calls me crazy or worse, and tells me to get off his back. You should have heard the fight we had when I took his credit card away!"
Are you treating a client like Sasha, who had made profound sacrifices to try to keep their partner sober, and maintain control?
♦ Effect # 3 - Co-Addict becomes the Sole Keeper of the Agreement
The third effect of addiction on Sasha and David’s relationship was that Sasha became the sole keeper of the initial agreement. Sasha was desperate to have the partner she remembered back. She began ‘chasing after’ David, although her efforts are met with ridicule as David ran further in to his addiction. Sasha reacted to David’s ridicule by remembering every word and promise the couple have made to each other.
Sasha asked repeated questions such as:
-- Why do you treat me and yourself like this?
Why don’t you treat me like you used to?
Why do you act like you don’t care?
Don’t you love me anymore?
Clearly, the broken agreements between Sasha and David are embedded in each of these questions. Sasha was fighting to restore the we of the relationship, and the ‘rightness’ of their goal became her release for anxiety. Do you find, as I do, that partners like Sasha run the risk of becoming self-righteous?
Having treated addicted couples, you have probably observed that at some point the co-addicted partner becomes so frustrated and beaten up by the addictive process that they secretly give up on meaning and love. Sasha came to believe that power and control were all that could protect her.
Sasha stated "I just couldn’t take it anymore! The drinking, lying, bills- I was just sick of it! I was the one who fought for this marriage, I was the one who held on to our dreams, and there I was wishing David would die just so the pain would stop. I kept begging David to do things for the sake of our marriage- but I wanted out! I felt so ashamed… I couldn’t tell anybody! not even my best friend Sue, who was the first one to ask me if I should be staying with David…"
I told Sasha, "addiction puts a gun to a couple’s head. If there’s a gun pointed at you, you don’t try to start a meaningful dialogue. You submit. It’s understandable that being married to an addict, you submit, and feel like quitting." Sasha had tried many times to patch the relationship, and reconnect with David, and each time was drawn into a power struggle instead, which made her feel even more distant from the man she loved.
♦ "Shame Tracker" Exercise
Because Sasha was struggling with feelings of shame, I recommended that she try the "Shame Tracker" exercise. Although we had already determined that the main source of Sasha’s shame was her feelings about her marriage, I asked her to keep a journal to record the ‘shame attacks’ she experienced throughout the day.
I encouraged Sasha to look for patterns, for example in which areas she felt most vulnerable to her shame:
-- Talking about her feelings?
Thinking of having fun without David?
Or making a mistake and being imperfect?
I also asked her to keep track of which people, other than David, triggered her shame attacks. Early on, Sasha was able to identify that speaking with her best friend Sue brought on shame attacks, since she was concealing her doubts about her marriage from Sue.
In this section we have discussed the three ways the addictive process affects a couple. These three effects are, the initial agreement of the relationship breaks down, anxiety is created due to the breakdown, and the co-addict becomes the sole keeper of the initial agreement.
In the next section, we will discuss the effect addiction has on children. The four aspects of the addictive process affecting children are: consequences of addiction affect children differently, the innocence of children, the attachment of the child to the addict, and the age and development status of the child.
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Crane, C. A., Testa, M., Schlauch, R. C., & Leonard, K. E. (2016). The couple that smokes together: Dyadic marijuana use and relationship functioning during conflict. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 30(6), 686–693.
Eddie, D., White, W. L., Vilsaint, C. L., Bergman, B. G., & Kelly, J. F. (2021). Reasons to be cheerful: Personal, civic, and economic achievements after resolving an alcohol or drug problem in the United States population. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 35(4), 402–414.
Ennis, E., & Trearty, K. (2019). Attachment orientations and adult alcohol use among those with childhood adversities. Journal of Individual Differences, 40(4), 187–193.
Papp, L. M. (2010). Prescription drug misuse among dating partners: Within-couple associations and implications for intimate relationship quality. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 24(3), 415–423.
Solomon, D. T., Nietert, P. J., Calhoun, C., Smith, D. W., Back, S. E., Barden, E., Brady, K. T., & Flanagan, J. C. (2018). Effects of oxytocin on emotional and physiological responses to conflict in couples with substance misuse. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 7(2), 91–102.
What are the ways the addictive process affects a couple? To select and enter your answer go to .