Many of the discussions surrounding addiction tend to focus on the physical and psychological effects of substance use. The effects of drug addiction, however, expand beyond these issues and further encompass one’s social health and well-being. Social health refers to one’s relationships and the ability to maintain healthy, rewarding connections. Social health and a healthy support system are correlated strongly with individual’s success, self-esteem, and happiness in life.
Unfortunately, substance abuse and addiction can damage social health. All types of relationships – family, friendships, and romantic relationships — can be put under enormous strain when someone becomes addicted.
THE ELEMENTS OF SUCCESSFUL RELATIONSHIPS
Even without the presence of an addiction, relationships are complex issues that take work to maintain. Successful relationships:
- Use honest, assertive communication based on respect.
- Are fun and rewarding.
- Have the goal of compromise, trust, and understanding.
- Have an absence of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, violence, and aggression.
- Can thrive with times of individuality and times of togetherness.
- Allow for all members to feel good about themselves.
The Damage Associated with Addiction
When addiction enters the mix, many of the elements that make for successful relationships become much more difficult to maintain. Once a substance user progresses from occasional use to addiction, they are likely to have a single focus: obtaining and using the substance.
Since relationships often cannot compete with the euphoric experience of substance use, the user will typically put less time and energy into maintaining the relationship, allowing various damaging elements to begin to surface.
Someone that begins using alcohol or other drugs excessively may not be outwardly open about their use due to strong feelings of shame, guilt, and fear of judgment. They may think others will not understand or accept the situation, which breeds the tendency to be secretive with their loved one. They may lie about:
- Where they are.
- Who they are with.
- The events of the day.
- Why they are behaving differently.
- Why money is missing.
At times, secrecy will increase to the point of the complete distancing or isolation. This can put enormous strain on any relationship.
With increased lying and deception associated with secrecy, it is only a matter of time until the significant other begins to notice differences between fact and fiction.
The loved one may begin to develop trust issues due to the perceived lack of respect, honesty, and loyalty. Trust is essential to feelings of safety and care in a relationship and reduced trust often leads to the emergence of a number of relationship-damaging issues like jealousy, anger, fear, and resentment.
Anger and Abuse
Anger and violence can become concerns as a relationship deteriorates. Frustrations will be high, but if someone is using a substance that is known to cause aggression, the situation may be even more dangerous. Drugs known to increase anger, irritability, and violenceinclude 1:
- Methamphetamine (crystal meth).
- Ritalin and other prescription stimulants.
Living with an addict or alcoholic can put the loved one at greater risk of victimization. Additionally, the loved one living with an alcoholic or addict may have an increase in their own frustration, causing them to express anger or act out violently against the substance user.
If you are experiencing domestic violence in your relationship, you can always reach out to a domestic violence hotline.
Anger is not the only way substance abuse can impact the user or a loved one. At times, in a flawed attempt to help the addict, a loved one will transition into an enabler. Enabling includes:
- Taking on responsibility for the behaviors and feelings of the addicted loved one.
- Working hard to minimize their negative consequences.
- Accepting blame.
- Making excuses.
A classic example of enabling is providing money on a consistent basis so that the user is able to retrieve drugs. He or she may ask for money for gas or groceries, and while their loved one may suspect it is going to drugs, they provide it anyway. The line between helping and enabling is often extremely difficult for those who love someone struggling with addiction to discern.
Codependency shares some traits with enabling. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration(SAMHSA), codependent people:
- Control others because they do not think the other person can function independently.
- Have low self-esteem and overly focus on their loved one.
- Are willing to compromise their own needs, wants, and beliefs to keep their loved one calm and content.
- Are very cautious and aware of the emotional changes of others.
- Maintain loyalty and commitment to their loved one despite lack of reciprocation.
Codependent individuals often get involved in relationships that are one-sided. Someone who is codependent may be frustrated by the needs and actions of their addicted loved one but may also feel a compulsive need to take care of that person. The codependent needs the addict as much as the addict needs the codependent. Their identity may become wrapped up in the “martyr” role, feeling compelled to “serve” or “sacrifice” for their partner, yet simultaneously acting to fulfill their own needs for attachment and closeness.
Codependent relationships typically involve their fair share of enabling, as the caretaker figure will often try to cover for the addicted individual or resolve their issues instead of allowing them to face the natural consequences of their substance use.
Repairing the Damage
REPAIRING THE RELATIONSHIP
- End the current dysfunctional habits.
- Acknowledge the damage of the past and develop strategies to better deal with these issues in the future.
- Reinvest time and energy towards a healthy, successful relationship.
Individual therapy for the addicted individual. Ending substance use is the first key element in repairing the relationship. It will be very difficult to begin or maintain a functional relationship during a period of active addiction. Addiction counseling and psychotherapy will allow the individual to gain a better understanding of the impact of substance use on their mental, physical, and social health — in addition to learning coping mechanisms for substance use and developing healthier interpersonal skills.
Individual therapy for the significant other. The non-addicted person in the relationship can also benefit from therapy by:
- Gaining education surrounding the nature of substance abuse and addiction.
- Understanding their role in relationship struggles and patterns.
- Addressing their own mental health and “self-care” needs related and unrelated to the addiction.
Family/couples counseling for both. Family/couples counseling can be very helpful as both partners can simultaneously learn and practice skills that promote a more desirable relationship by learning healthier ways to interact with each other.
Support group meetings for both individuals. People in healthy relationships are able to function well together and apart. Support groups are a good way to spend time apart while still being in an inviting, empathetic environment. For the person in recovery, Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and SMART Recovery are good options. For the loved one, Al-Anon, Co‐Dependents Anonymous, Families Anonymous, and others are available.
Regardless of the form of treatment, several relevant themes will be crucial to the future of the relationship, including:
- Communication. Certain care must be made to engage in productive communication that shows a level of respect. The communication should be encouraging, clear, and concise. A reciprocal exchange of thoughts and feelings is the goal. Active listening with good eye contact in a calm, distraction-free environment will increase the productivity of the conversation.
- Limit-Setting. Unhealthy relationships frequently involve poor or absent limit-setting. Limit-setting includes a clear description of expectations paired with the consequences of specific actions. Equally important is follow-through and consistency. If a loved one says that continued substance use is unacceptable but continues to tolerate the actions, the limit is negated. Limits require consequences to be effective.
A loved one may find it too challenging to modify their behaviors as outlined in individual or family/couples counseling. They may begin to acknowledge that they are causing more harm to their significant other. Likewise, the person with an addiction may realize that continuing to be in this relationship is too destructive to the other person or himself.
If the decision has been made to end the relationship, consider these tips to move forward in the safest, most effective way:
- Make a plan to ensure safety if domestic violence is a factor. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your support network or other forms of support and safety, like your local police station or a domestic violence hotline.
- Share your plans for moving on with people you trust for support.
- Seek continuous social support during and after the breakup.
- Be clear, concise, and consistent with your communication.
- Be wary of promises for change and forms of manipulation. Remember to look out for yourself, first, and do what will benefit you most on the long-run.
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