Addiction & Relationships
An addiction is a relationship. When someone is addicted to a substance and/or a behavior, that person is in a relationship with their substance or behavior of choice, the same as if they were involved with a person. Further, the relationship with the object of their addiction is the most important relationship in his/her life. He or she will do anything to protect that relationship and keep it alive, i.e. deny it, lie about it, cover it up, minimize it, blame others, etc.
When a person with an addiction enters into a significant relationship, he or she is not entering into that relationship alone. Rather, he or she is bringing an already established important relationship into the new relationship. When someone who is in an already established significant relationship develops an addiction, he or she involves a third party in the relationship. In both of these scenarios the guiding principal of two’s company, three’s a crowd is impossible to uphold.
A relationship in which one or both individuals are engaged in an active addiction will be considered an unhealthy relationship. Having an addiction present in a relationship is having a toxin present in that relationship. Health is impossible. Addictions wreak havoc with our decision-making capacity. Inherent in the definition and understanding of addiction is that it is compulsive. Individuals with an addiction are no longer in control of their substance use or behavior. The substance use or behavior is controlling them.
Most of the behaviors which individuals become addicted to are normal, needed, natural behaviors. Once they become addictions, however, the behaviors are no longer being engaged in for the purpose they were intended. They are being engaged in excessively and compulsively for an entirely different purpose. For example, one is not working to earn a living, one is overworking to avoid feeling feelings or one does not eat to live, one lives to eat because the eating keeps emotional pain at bay. There comes a point where one crosses a line from engaging in a normal behavior to engaging in an exaggeration of a normal behavior which then becomes a rigid self-defeating pattern.
If someone has difficulty taking care of themselves, they may enter into a relationship with a compulsive caretaker and thereby avoid needing to develop this aspect of their personality. The catch though is that he/she then needs their partner to remain a caretaker. Any effort the partner may make to overcome this compulsive behavior will be discouraged if not outright sabotaged by the other person. This is not loving behavior.
A whole person is one who is independent emotionally, socially and intellectually. Emotional independence involves taking responsibility for one’s feelings. Though another person’s words or behaviors may trigger feelings of anger or sadness in us, we get angry or sad because of what is inside us. So, an emotionally independent individual takes responsibility for his/her pain and does not blame the hurt feelings on another person’s words or actions.
Social independence involves taking responsibility for developing and maintaining friendships separate from our significant other. This alleviates putting too much weight on our partner or significant relationship to fill all our needs for friendship and recreation. It is damaging to a relationship to carry this much weight. Intellectual independence means that we take responsibility for keeping our minds active and alert. We seek out new information in order to keep learning. We think for ourselves and form our own opinions. This goes a long way in keeping the relationship vibrant.
Relationships in which both partners are intellectually independent are not characterized by power struggles. Both individuals have accepted the reality that they do not have to think or feel the same way about all things. They have learned to agree to disagree. Addictions rob us of our capacity to be independent emotionally, socially and intellectually because addictions, by definition, involve dependence. To be addicted to a substance or behavior is to be dependent on that substance or behavior.
The addictive process begins with a desire to medicate or numb emotional pain. Once we find the substance or behavior that works to alleviateour pain we begin to use that substance or engage in that behavior with increasing frequency, increasing duration, increasing intensity, and increasing variety. These increases are necessary because we quickly develop tolerance. That is, we become accustomed to our substance or behavior of choice and need more of it to get the effect we want. As the addictive process progresses, the dependence grows and the capacity for emotional, social and intellectual independence diminishes.
A significant relationship by definition involves intimacy. Honesty about who you are and how you are feeling at any given time is a nonnegotiable ingredient of emotional intimacy. It goes without saying that if emotional intimacy is to develop and flourish in a relationship, each partner must be willing to fully and consistently share on a feeling level. If one or both partners are dependent on substances and/or behaviors to medicate emotional pain then feelings are deadened and emotional sharing is virtually impossible. Intimacy either is never established or, if it has been established, it vanishes.
As long as an active addiction or addictions are present in a relationship, the relationship will deteriorate. This process will likely continue until the consequences of the addiction hurt more than the fear of confronting it. When the pain of the addiction finally outweighs the fear, one or both partners are ready for recovery and then hope is finally possible.