On Loving Someone With An Addiction
The Debrief: How do you know if your partner is an addict and what to do about it
Mel* sits in her kitchen, waiting alone. She invited Chris* round for dinner at 7, put on a dress and make-up, knocked up a tasty meal, and now she waits. 7:15, no show. 8:15, nothing. She texts, calls, but no response. Finally, she calls one of his friends. ‘We’re in the pub,’ he says. ‘Chris is gonna have one more and he’ll be over.’
This happened all the time. Chris would go on benders and Mel wouldn’t hear from him for days. She became so tormented waiting for his calls that she started wrapping her phone in a blanket and propping it up on a cushion. She thought that if the phone was comfortable and happy it would be more open to receiving messages. ‘That’s how bat-shit crazy I got’, she says.
Mel was in her second year of university when she met Chris, he was the pub manager in the local Wetherspoons she was working at. He was short, overweight and had a mullet: no classic Disney prince, sure, but he also had charisma and charm. The life and soul of any party, with friends everywhere he went, Chris introduced Mel to a hedonistic lifestyle where beer, wine and cocktails featured heavily. The first time he came round to hers for dinner he brought three bottles of wine. ‘I was like, that’s insane,’ Mel remembers.
Substance addiction is a pervasive problem which affects men and women across the country. Between 2015 and 2016 around 300,000 people reached out to drug and alcohol services over their problematic use of substances, and close to half of these involved alcohol. In 2015, almost 9,000 people died alcohol-related deaths.
Behind every person suffering from addiction, there are family members and partners who are suffering too, often dealing with anxiety, isolation and, even, abuse at the hands of their partner. Many wonder what causes the attraction in the first place, and why they stay. The truth is that in the end, many of them walk away - studies have shown that people with alcohol problems are about twice as likely to get a divorce.
Anxious and Alone
It was 8 years ago, when she was 19 and waiting for her 26-year-old boyfriend to call, that Mel became consumed by a deep anxiety and loneliness. She wanted to be a chilled, fun girlfriend, but the feeling of isolation was draining all of her confidence.
Mental health experts agree that one of the most persistent effects of having a relationship with someone suffering from addiction is feeling under-valued, insecure and alone. Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, a behavioural addiction specialist at Nightingale Hospital, explains that when someone is addicted to a substance they often don’t have the mental space to properly care for their partner. They might end up forgetting their girlfriend’s birthday or even fail to show up at the birth of their child.
On the anniversary of Mel’s dad’s death, Chris had promised he’d join her and her family for the memorial service. He never showed up.
Dr Paul McLaren, consultant psychiatrist at The Priory and one of the UK’s leading specialists in addiction, explained that the disease of addiction can cause a relationship to freeze and stop growing. ‘[People] can be left feeling lonely, trapped and powerless,’ he explained.
Belligerence and Abuse
Mel also found that Chris was totally unable to talk about his emotions when he hadn’t been drinking. After a bottle of wine, all his scars would be revealed, he’d pour out his sadness about his relationship with his parents and his feelings of abandonment, but the next day that would totally evaporate. ‘He was emotionally impenetrable.’
When feelings are bottled up, they often erupt in nasty ways.
It is very common for people suffering from addiction to become belligerent and aggressive, says Marian O’Connor, a relationship therapist at Tavistock Relationships who specialises in addiction. This aggression is often a ‘projection of weakness’, she says. Someone who’s addicted might end up bullying their partner, telling them they’re no fun, passing their own negativity about themselves on to the person closest to them. These behaviours can quickly escalate, and often lead to violence. The Office of National Statistics found that 36% of domestic abuse cases in 2014 involved alcohol and around 60% of murders were committed under the influence.
Sex Life (or the lack thereof)
Mel and Chris took a trip to Egypt 8 months into their relationships. It got to the final night and they hadn’t had sex all holiday. On the last night, they both got all dressed up and had a fancy meal. ‘Tonight will be the night,’ Mel thought. They got back to their hotel room and Chris poured two large glasses of vodka with a splash of coke. He passed out fifteen minutes later.
Losing your libido is a really common symptom of addiction. When a lot of alcohol or drugs are involved men can struggle to get it up, but that isn’t the only problem. O’Connor, who specialises in sexual intimacy, explained that addiction can create a mother-son dynamic where the woman takes on the anxious maternal role, moaning at her fun-loving teenage son who responds: ‘relax, chill out, everyone does this.’ And who wants to have sex with their mum? O’Connor explained how hard this can be for women, making them feel unattractive and undesirable. It’s like, ‘here I am in all my beauty and you don’t want me’.
Why Stay In The Relationship At All?
There are a whole host of reasons women stay with partners who have an addiction. Some women want to help or ‘save’ their partner from suffering, others have low confidence and a pessimistic ‘this is better than nothing’ mentality.
Specialists agree that one really common reason for the attraction is wanting to recreate a relationship dynamic they saw in the past – often their parents’. Mel was drawn to Chris because he reminded her of her dad who had died of an alcohol-related illness – the same charisma, same sense of humour and affability, even the same physical build.
O’Connor explained that women may have grown up in a home where abuse, violence and addictive behaviour are the norm. Being a victim is a familiar position and one they feel comfortable recreating. They might also want to make reparations for the past – save the dad they were never able to save. When it comes down it though, O’Connor explains, each person has their own story.
Can You Help?
Women in these kinds of relationships often find themselves feeling powerless. They’re in love, they want to help, but they don’t know if it’s really possible. Specialists say that there are ways they can support the person they love and nurture the relationship. There is one extremely important proviso though: the partner needs to accept that they have an addiction and want to get help.
McLaren from The Priory stressed the need for honest, open and caring conversations. Hostile or aggressive comments almost always make the partner shut down and switch off. O’Connor suggested creative solutions that can be approached together, like couples’ therapy, and coming up with fun ways of having fun and enjoying each other’s’ company that don’t involve booze. Walks, films, cooking, etc.
She also stressed that it’s really important to make it clear to your partner that you simply won’t put up with their abusive behaviour, even if that means walking away. Women so often accept abuse, claiming they love their partner too much to leave. ‘In a way they’re saying they love the alcoholic more than they love themselves,’ O’Connor explained. Of course, sometimes women feel unable to walk away, because of financial dependence or a lack of self-confidence. If that’s the case, there are tonnes of domestic abuse charities out there that deal with all forms of physical and emotional abuse, and therapy at places like Tavistock Relationships can be another really useful option.
All of the specialists agreed that it’s really hard to overcome an addiction without therapy, and that group support, like AA meetings, can be invaluable. Henrietta Bowden-Jones said that treatment can be reasonably rapid so long as the partner suffering from addiction sees someone regularly to prevent a relapse. There needs to be ongoing outside support.
One and a half years into her relationship, Mel hadn’t heard from Chris for six days. He wasn’t responding to her texts or calls and she felt deeply wounded and alone. When she found him drinking at a bar with friends, shaking with rage, she told him it was over for good. As she walked out of the bar, her friend Claire asked her how she was feeling. ‘Not good,’ she replied. ‘Just scream’, her friend said. Holding Claire’s arm tightly, she let it out: ‘Arrrrrrrrrggggggghhhhh’.
*names have been changed
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