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Can Two Addicts Have a Healthy Relationship?

This entry was posted in Addiction Recovery and tagged addict, relationships on November 24, 2023 by Justin Baksh, MS, LMHC, MCAP, Chief Clinical Officer.

When we think of a healthy relationship, we envision stability, mutual support, and a strong emotional connection. However, when addiction enters the equation, it can feel like you’re building a home on shifting sands. The unpredictable nature of addiction introduces a level of instability that can make a solid relationship seem like a distant dream.
Take, for example, Sarah and Mike, both of whom struggled with substance use. They met in a whirlwind of mutual understanding and shared struggles. Their bond was instant, fortified by the empathy they felt for each other’s battles. However, as their addictions progressed, the pillars of their relationship—trust, communication, and reliability—began to crumble. They found themselves in a constant loop of promises, relapses, and rescues. This cycle didn’t just strain their relationship; it became their relationship. Sarah and Mike’s story is a stark reminder that addiction doesn’t just affect the individual. It sends ripples through the entire fabric of their relationships, often altering the dynamics that could otherwise nurture a loving, supportive partnership.

Navigating the Rough Waters: The Impact of Addiction on Relationships

The presence of addiction can turn the calmest seas into stormy waters for a relationship, as it leads couples into a hurricane of emotional challenges. It’s like having an uninvited guest at the dinner table, one that takes over the conversation and shifts the focus away from the couple’s connection.
For instance, trust—the anchor of any relationship—can break down in the wake of addiction. Plans are forgotten, promises broken, and lies may start weaving through the day-to-day interactions as the addiction takes hold. It’s not just about the broken promises to quit, or the secret stashes found in sock drawers. It’s the creeping doubt that derails every “I love you” and every assurance that things will get better. Emotional turmoil often becomes a constant companion. The ups and downs of addiction can create an emotional rollercoaster, not just for the person with the addiction but for their partner too. Joyful moments can be quickly interrupted by episodes of despair or conflict, making it hard to find any semblance of emotional stability. Financial instability is another unwelcome side effect. Addiction is expensive, with resources that could have supported the relationship being diverted into sustaining the addiction. Bills pile up, savings dwindle, and the financial security that helps nurture a relationship is undermined.
With all this chaos, roles can become distorted. A partner might shift into a caretaker role, always on alert for the next crisis, which can lead to an unhealthy power dynamic. The other partner might feel like they’re being treated like a child, or worse, start to lean into the chaos, knowing their significant other will always be there to pick up the pieces. In addition to this, other issues can arise as time goes by and addictions worse, and alter the course of the relationship. Addiction can create a wedge in physical and emotional intimacy. The focus on substances can diminish sexual desire and emotional availability, leaving partners feeling disconnected and alone. Trying to help can sometimes hurt. One partner may unknowingly enable the addiction by covering up problems, providing money for substances, or taking on responsibilities to compensate for the addicted partner’s neglect.
As addiction takes center stage, couples often drift away from the hobbies and activities they once enjoyed together, losing an important source of connection and joy. The physical and mental health of both partners can suffer, whether it’s through exposure to risky behaviors or the stress and anxiety of dealing with addiction’s impact. Codependency is often present in relationships where addiction is present. It describes a relationship in which one person, often without realizing it, puts their partner’s needs above their own to an unhealthy degree, especially when that partner is struggling with addiction. In a codependent relationship, the partner without the addiction may take on a ‘savior’ role, constantly trying to fix problems, make excuses, or even lie to cover up their partner’s addictive behavior. They become the caretaker, the enforcer, the constant forgiver. But in doing so, they might neglect their own needs and well-being. It’s like two dancers trying to move together, but one is leading so forcefully that the other can’t find their own footing.
This dynamic can seriously interfere with recovery. If the person with the addiction knows their partner will always save them, they might feel less urgency to seek help or change their behavior. For the codependent partner, their self-worth becomes tied to their ability to care for their partner, creating a cycle that is difficult to break. Melody Beattie, in her book “Codependent No More,” explains this dynamic: “I thought I was crazy… I was suffering from a disease called ‘codependency’ which meant I had the bizarre urge to take care of people who didn’t necessarily want to be taken care of.”

What Can Go Wrong When Two Addicts Get Together?

When two individuals with addictions come together, all the obstacles and roadblocks to recovery become two-fold, making it harder for them to prioritize their recovery. These are just some of the potential issues that can arise.

Mutual Triggers

Each person may act as a trigger for the other’s substance use. For instance, if one person has a bad day and turns to substances, it can easily prompt the other to do the same.

Relapse Risk

The journey to recovery is often filled with obstacles. If one partner relapses, it significantly increases the chances that the other will follow, as they are both swimming in the same turbulent waters.

Competition in Addiction

Sometimes, a destructive form of competition can arise, with each person trying to match or outdo the other’s substance use, turning a serious health issue into a dangerous game.

Denial and Minimization

It’s easier to downplay the severity of one’s addiction when the other person is in the same boat. They may reinforce each other’s denial, making it harder to seek the help they need.

Neglecting Recovery

With both partners struggling with addiction, the focus on recovery can become lost. They may prioritize their relationship or their addiction over getting better.

Care Taking and Enabling

Similar to codependency, one partner may become the caretaker, excusing and enabling the other’s substance use, which can create a cycle that’s hard to escape.

Shared Unhealthy Lifestyle

The couple may share a lifestyle that’s conducive to substance use, including social circles or activities that reinforce their addictive behaviours.

Stress and Conflict

Substance use can lead to increased stress and conflict, which can, in turn, lead to more substance use in an attempt to cope, creating a vicious cycle. Isolation
Couples in addiction may isolate themselves from friends, family, and support systems that could otherwise help, often because they fear judgment or intervention.

Joint Health Issues

Chronic substance use can lead to shared health problems, complicating both partners’ physical and mental well-being and recovery.

Treatment: Together or Separately?

When two people in a relationship are battling addiction, walking the path of recovery together through joint treatment can be like joining forces to climb a mountain. It’s a partnership where each person supports the other, stepping forward with a common goal in mind—sobriety. This approach can be powerful when both are fully committed to the process, as it allows them to develop a new relationship dynamic based on shared experiences of healing and growth. It’s like rebuilding their bond with stronger, healthier materials. However, every individual’s journey with addiction is personal and often tangled with issues that extend beyond the relationship. Individual treatment becomes essential here. It offers a private space for each person to delve into their own unique challenges, traumas, and triggers. It’s akin to each person holding their own flashlight in the darkness of their struggles, discovering paths to healing that are meant just for them.
Despite these options, a couple might share a sense of denial about how deep their addiction runs. This collective denial acts as a fog, clouding their judgment and delaying the crucial step of seeking help. It’s comfortable, in a way, because acknowledging the severity of the problem means they also have to face the difficult changes that come with addressing it. Breaking through this denial is often the first, most formidable barrier to recovery. It’s the moment of clarity before the climb, where the mountain’s height becomes clear, but so does the possibility of reaching the summit together.

Relationships in Rehab: A Distraction?

Embarking on new romantic relationships during rehab can be like repainting a house that’s still under construction. It’s a distraction from the essential work that needs to be done on the foundation. During rehab, the focus is—or should be—on self-recovery, a time to heal wounds, learn new coping mechanisms, and rebuild from the inside out. When someone in rehab starts a new relationship, it can shift their focus away from these critical tasks. Their emotional energy is diverted into the relationship, which can be fraught with its own highs and lows, potentially mirroring the turbulence of the addiction they’re trying to leave behind. Emotional stability in rehab is like a newborn plant; it needs time to root firmly in the soil of sobriety before it can withstand the storms of a relationship. New relationships can introduce complexities and stresses that are tough to navigate even in the best of times. In the fragile state of early recovery, they can be overwhelming, increasing the risk of relapse for both parties.
It’s generally recommended to cultivate personal stability before starting a new relationship. Think of it as putting on your own oxygen mask before helping others; establishing a personal foundation of recovery is essential before taking on the challenges of a partnership. By nurturing self-reliance and stability first, individuals set the stage for healthier future relationships. This is the message to weave through the narrative—a tale not just of caution but of hope for those who take the time to heal themselves first.

Is it possible for couples to stay sober together even if they used substances together in the past?

The short answer is, yes. However, it typically requires a strong commitment to recovery from both partners and a willingness to build a new relationship dynamic that supports sobriety.

Shared Commitment to Sobriety

Both individuals must be equally committed to staying sober. This means making a joint decision to avoid situations and triggers that could lead to relapse.

New Relationship Dynamics

Couples need to develop new ways of interacting and supporting each other that don’t involve substance use. This often means learning new communication skills and ways to handle conflict.

Support Systems

Having robust support systems, such as therapy, support groups, and sober friends, can provide the necessary guidance and accountability.

Individual Recovery Plans

While working together as a couple is important, each person must also have their own individual recovery plan. Personal therapy, individual goals, and separate support groups can ensure that each person is working on their own recovery, not just the recovery of the relationship.

Healthy Habits

Developing new, healthy routines and activities can fill the void left by substance use and can be a way for couples to bond and grow together in their sobriety.

Continuous Effort

Recovery is an ongoing process, not a destination. Couples must continuously work on their sobriety and relationship, being mindful of the potential for relapse.
Success stories in couple’s rehab often share a common theme: a turning point where both partners realize that they want a better life for themselves and for each other. When both partners are on the same page and willing to put in the work, staying sober together is not only possible but can also strengthen the relationship in ways they might never have experienced during their substance-using past.

Whether You’re Single or In a Relationship

Recovery is not a myth; it’s a real, attainable state that countless couples have achieved and are living each day. Whether you’re navigating the stormy seas of addiction alone or with a partner, remember that the lighthouse of recovery is always within sight. Taking that first step towards treatment, as daunting as it may seem, is a brave leap into a world of possibility. Treatment that resonates with your unique journey, that speaks to the individual and collective challenges you face, is the vessel that can carry you towards calmer waters.
The road to recovery is not a solitary trek; it’s a path best walked with support, understanding, and care. There are hands ready to hold yours, professionals eager to guide you, and communities waiting to embrace you with empathy and warmth. Every step forward is a victory, every day in recovery a triumph. Take a moment to acknowledge the courage already within you—the courage that has carried you to this point. And when you’re ready, take that first step. A happier, sober future is waiting.

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