Welcome to Relationship Helpers! You have joined us midway through our eight-part series on “How to Support a Spouse With…”. Each week we have and will continue to take a look at a mental health or relationship issue that challenges marriages and requires supportive spouses.
So far we’ve addressed how to support a spouse with PTSD, anxiety, and toxic in-laws. This week we will discuss how to support an alcoholic or addicted spouse.
Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries
One of the most difficult things you will have to do as a spouse is to create and follow through with boundaries, but it is paramount in supporting your spouse that struggles with addiction. If you have a tendency to avoid conflict, your marriage will be dysfunctional.
1.) Don’t (Finance) Enable the Addiction
You have to make the decision not to finance the addiction. This means not giving money to your spouse for random reasons. This also means not going to the store to buy alcohol for them.
Separate your bank accounts. Generally, in marriage, we encourage joint bank accounts, but when there is an active addiction occurring, the boundary of separate accounts will help to cut the finances off that feed the addiction.
Many people fail at creating and following through with boundaries. They are fearful of the pushback that comes with setting boundaries and sticking with them. You will NEED to face your spouse’s anger, even if you are someone who avoids conflict.
It’s good to be aware of your communication style, along with your spouse’s. If you are passive, it will be important to work on expressing yourself and following through with boundaries. You will need to do this in an assertive way—relaxed and confident. You would be telling them in a loving way, not yelling, not insultingly. This should be done in a very intentional way.
This is not a one-time conversation. Be prepared to have to talk about it more. After you set a boundary, they will continue to try to get around it. An addicted spouse will try to find a way to work your weakness.You will need to set your spirit or your attitude towards not bending.
Understand that avoiding conflict only pushes it til later and has an exponential effect, making it worse for waiting. Being more firm and direct helps you get much further, than pushing off potential conflict.
2.) Your Spouse MUST Seek Help
Placing an ultimatum in the situation will help to define boundaries and to help you both stick with a plan. Requiring that your spouse get help will mean that you will no longer be the only person holding him/her accountable. They will then be forced to actively work on recovering from their addiction.
If you’re struggling with the idea of communicating an ultimatum, it could be scripted as such: “I cannot continue to be in an unhealthy environment and abusive environment.”
It’s important to remember that you are living in an abusive relationship. Not only is your spouse abusing a substance, he or she is abusing you through neglect. There is no way for a spouse to have an addiction and to foster a healthy relationship with a loved one. The loved one is being neglected.
Other forms of abuse are very common in relationships where a spouse is addicted to drugs or alcohol. Seek help for yourself to remove yourself from these situations.
Resources for your spouse include: Celebrate Recovery (a Christian-based 12 step program found in many churches) and A/A (a secular-based 12 step group found in many communities and churches.) The great thing about small groups is that God can use this time for people to speak to their heart and start breaking down their wall of denial. They are able to see other people’s denial, and hold a mirror up to themselves and see their own denial. Groups are very powerful.
Be mindful that addictions have a tendency to shift. If someone is trying to overcome drinking, they may stop drinking and take on smoking or over-exercising. Being in a small group can help keep the addict alert to how their behaviors are unhealthy.
Many support groups provide the opportunity for its members to have accountability partners. When you have carried the burden of being the only person keeping your spouse accountable for so long it strains your marriage. Having an outside party to keep your spouse accountable is a healthy choice.
The accountability partner needs to be the same sex. That’s what is appropriate. They will be able to call out their b.s.—they will know when they are lying not only to other people, but to themselves. They know these things because they have done it themselves.
People who know this mindset are the kind of people that can hold them accountable. They are experts in it. It really is a mentor-type relationship where someone who is very knowledgeable about addiction behavior is able to support another who is in the earlier stages of recovery.
Support groups offer a wealth of accountability; a counselor is also helpful in providing support. Although a counselor may see your spouse less often during the week than the group, the counselor will provide a concentrated dose of attention to working on coping skills and will also aid in accountability.
3.) Avoiding Tempting Situations
You will need an understanding of your spouse’s addiction pattern. Are they weekend warriors? Does being around family tempt your spouse to drink/use?
Does your spouse drink too much at ball games? What activities or environments seem to bring out their addiction?
4.) Conversations About Their Temptations
When you initiate conversation about your spouse’s addiction with them, you are learning about what tempts them, but they are also learning about it too. This could provide the opportunity for their walls to start coming down and to see past their denial.
Be aware that one particular temptation for addicts and alcoholics is family gatherings.
It may seem cliche, but there is a reason movies will have an alcoholic or addict featured in a family gathering at the holidays. Holidays and family are very common triggers for the addict. Often there is anxiety surrounding these relationships and for someone whose coping mechanism is to partake in alcohol and/or drugs the environment is ripe for using. Many people struggling with substance abuse issues have a trauma history. Seeing the uncle who molested you at a Christmas party is obviously a trigger.
Many addicts struggle with social anxiety. Gatherings, especially family gatherings, are nerve-wracking, but they feel obligated to go leading to a possible bender. On top of that, what if they come from an alcoholic family? Are they entering a scene where there will be alcohol?
These scenarios need to be discussed and mitigated prior to the date of the events. This may mean going to “neutral grounds”, such as the park, for get-togethers. This may be a helpful boundary. Another may be tag-teaming with your spouse, meaning staying near your spouse to avoid temptation. In this particular situation, the spouse has to be the accountability partner, otherwise going to the basement with the guys could become having beers with the guys.
Another important consideration is time. Creating a limit as to how long you will be in the environment may help to offset the fear of being there. Understanding that there is a cut-off time may help to ease the tension and less tempted to drink.
Ask your spouse what seems to be a reasonable amount of time to visit and make an agreement on how long that visit will be. It’s making a plan. It’s being proactive. This also prevents making false assumptions about how long things will go.
Sacrifice To Meet Goals
You may have to make sacrifices to accommodate your spouse’s needs. This means that you may not be able to spend as much time doing the things you want to do in respect of your spouse’s temptations. You may have to sacrifice your own drinking.
You may also have to have some assertive conversations with family about your spouse’s issue. It may mean telling them that you’d appreciate them not offering alcohol because of your spouse’s addiction. It may mean opening up to other people—telling then that you’d appreciate their support as you work through this difficult time together.
This may seem daunting when you are communicating this to an alcoholic, but take heart, they could be supportive if you talk to them about it.
5.) Encourage Their Walk With God
This is not an activity that you nag them into. This needs to be approached in a gentle manner.
Questions such as, “Hey, how was your devotional?” may be helpful. Even less invasive conversation starters might include telling them how your devotional really spoke to you. You can take a topic like patience and say how your devotion on patience really spoke to you through a certain situation that occurred to you today.
If you engage them in these discussions, you may find something that they can relate to and the both of you can learn together. These discussions can invite self-reflection in an indirect way.
If you attend a small group or bible study, you could take an opportunity to show them how a topic you learned in group has impacted your life, and invite them to attend the group. If you hear a message at church that makes an impression on you, tell them about how it did and invite them to come to church.
Your spouse may see how you are growing in Christ and want that for themselves. They will be seeing how you treat them different from before. This could encourage them to seek God.
6.) Be Aware of Your Own Shortcomings
Are you passive? Aggressive? A complainer? Do you have your own compulsions?
We cannot put all of our energy into the addicted spouse being “the” problem. Often when there is an addiction in a relationship, there are dysfunctional patterns that are brought to the relationship by both parties. It’s important to take an in-depth look at yourself to see what role you play in the addiction behavioral pattern.
A Critical Wife
An example that we see play out in marriage therapy would be of an alcoholic husband who has a critical, complaining wife. No, she does not force him to drink, but her critical spirit antagonizes him, which leads him to partake in his unhealthy coping mechanism.
She needs to see that her behavior, in this case her critical spirit, is not helping the situation, it is only hurting it. In fact, critical behavior is passive-aggressive. She needs to learn more assertive ways of communicating with her husband.
Take a look at your own walk with God. Invite Him to illuminate the areas in your life that need some work to improve your relationship with your spouse.
7.) Encourage Healthy Coping Skills
These could include being assertive, learning to take breaks, self-care, slowing down your speech, deep breathing, relaxation techniques, and grounding exercises. Communication skills such as learning to say ‘no’ and having boundaries are also very healthy coping skills to learn.
It’s also important to practice rejoicing in your trials. We see it frequently in James and in Paul’s letters. It’s counterintuitive, but singing praise songs during your challenges actually helps. It’s a coping skill.
Memorizing scripture helps us write scripture on our hearts and creates a kind of “internal rolodex” of resources we can draw upon when we are in need of encouragement.