Help! I’m Finally Clean, but My Boyfriend Still Uses Drugs

I am a recovering drug addict, now 15 months sober, who has worked relentlessly to rebuild my life. I was estranged from my children and had to go through a fierce legal battle to even get supervised visitation with them after I got clean. I now see them three times a week, but will have to fight in court with my ex-husband to get more time. Unfortunately, I can't afford the legal costs to do it at this time. After being unemployed for many years, I was able to get a great job where I am moving up quickly and making OK money. (I am currently paying a hefty amount of back child support as well.) With all of these accomplishments, I have one major dark cloud. The boyfriend I had while I was using is still my boyfriend. And still using. We've been on and off since we started, but now live together. Not only does he use drugs regularly, but he has serious anger issues and gets very violent and cruel with me. My family can't understand why I don't just leave him and neither can I. My kids and job are all in one city and I'm choosing to live (and commute) 70 miles each way to make it work. He says he loves me and he wants it to be different and that he's "trying," but there is no effort being put in. He's respectful enough to not do drugs around me, but that makes him gone a lot. It makes it very difficult for us to share a life or have any kind of happiness. I know what the obvious answer is here, but I just can't seem to make myself go. I don't know why my kids aren't enough for me or why I feel like I need this man to make me happy. When things are good with him, they are so good. I really do love him, but it's breaking me. What is wrong with me? —Staying Stuck
Dear Staying Stuck,

Thank you for your question, and congratulations on your sobriety! Fifteen months is great; clearly, in spite of your current woes, you’re doing something right.

I think the answer to your question is in the question itself. Very often relationships that feel “broken,” dysfunctional, and so on lead to an overall bad feeling about ourselves, or low self-worth or self-esteem that, actually, may precede the relationship itself. I have found in my clinical practice that it is not just the relationship that isn’t working; it is the negative way we have come to see ourselves that defines who we seek as partners.

If we have a negative self-concept—and I know few newly sober people who don’t—then we may seek out partners who have similar challenges with self-esteem, who then tend to act negatively toward others. Why should we act lovingly toward anyone “dumb enough” to be with us? Or, the flipside of the same coin: we feel we must treat with utmost deference anyone who would be gracious enough to come into our lives, since he or she is doing us such a tremendous favor. We therefore tend to dish out or absorb hurtful behavior that reflects a primal woundedness, unhealed and unconscious, guaranteed to keep us in relational unhappiness until squarely faced.

Your boyfriend treats you with much less than the respect and care you deserve—and you are obviously a caring soul—leaving you in a state, I would imagine, of bewilderment and pain. I would assert that abusive relationships, too, are cunning, baffling, and powerful, probably because there is an aspect of the partner that is “good” or caring and aware of the hurtful outbursts, perhaps even expressing remorse after the curses and fists have flown. We also might feel we “get” the person more than anyone else—that he or she is a sheep in wolf’s clothing, etc., and deserves a chance when everyone else is so against him or her. (Surprisingly, I see a lot of abused husbands and boyfriends in my private practice.) But then it happens yet again, similar to a person with alcoholism who rages while drunk and then makes “never again” promises or refuses to talk about it.

If we have a negative self-concept—and I know few newly sober people who don’t—then we may seek out partners who have similar challenges with self-esteem, who then tend to act negatively toward others.

It is not at all uncommon for people who have gotten clean and sober to discover a secondary “addiction” or compulsive behavior (or even relationship or some kind). What you have going for you here is a dawning awareness that there is, indeed, something wrong with this picture: an excellent place to start. Try to keep your eyes and senses open to what your actual experience is here, rather than what “ought” to happen or the “tomorrow” that might be better. I also suggest that you try one or two possible options, namely Al-Anon or CoDA (Co-Dependents Anonymous), as well as counseling, since the roots of your own relationship perceptions and beliefs probably, I venture, go very deep indeed. You might also seek out a women’s group in AA or a women’s group where you can talk about these issues (often shameful and painful to discuss with others) and find proper support and feedback from others who have walked in your shoes (or similar shoes). It can be even more difficult to “quit” an abusive (or something like it) relationship, since we so often feel a strong tie with the “caring” or more aware part of the person per the above, even if he/she can’t or won’t stop. (And don’t believe for a second, in your case, that he can’t; he can, trust me, if there is enough consequence for his not doing so—i.e., losing the relationship!)

It’s time to learn new ways to enforce boundaries, in other words, just as you have done so superbly with the drugs and booze: here again I suggest you define and then communicate to him and, if need be, enforce these boundaries against any verbal, emotional, or physical behavior that crosses the line. There’s no shame in the fact this is difficult, given longstanding beliefs and convictions about ourselves and what we do and don’t deserve, beliefs which may again be unconscious or unarticulated. If we grew up in an abusive environment, we learned that we “must” tolerate chaotic or hurtful behaviors that become commonplace.

Finally, regarding the idea that your kids “should be enough”: watch out for “shoulds”; they only make us feel worse about ourselves. A relationship with children—and congratulations on making amends in that regard, by the way—is naturally quite different than one with a partner. It’s rather like saying, “Why do I need to eat vegetables, I eat plenty of protein and grains”; holistically speaking, we seek and desire different types of love, and naturally, parental love is quite different than intimate or romantic love, which is different than having good friends, etc.

Also, try to remember that you are a role model for your children. You don’t say if you have daughters or sons, but in either event your children will look to you as a prime example of what to expect from women (if they’re male) or how/what women ought to tolerate in their lives from men (if they’re female). Also, I wonder if your ex-husband might feel more comfortable with expanding visitation times if he knew the boyfriend had stopped his acting out or (if he won’t) were out of the picture? Is it safe for your kids if he is around? I don’t know the details, but it’s something to consider. Thanks again for writing. And keep up the good work in your recovery!

Best wishes,
Darren

Darren Haber
Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT is a psychotherapist specializing in treating alcoholism and drug addiction as well as co-occurring issues such as anxiety, depression, relationship concerns, secondary addictions (especially sex addiction), and trauma (both single-incident and repetitive). He works in a variety of modalities, primarily cognitive behavioral, spiritual/recovery-based, and psychodynamic. He is certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and continues to receive psychodynamic training in treating relational trauma, including emotional abuse/neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
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  • dale

    dale

    April 10th, 2015 at 10:53 AM

    I know that this is someone that you want to be a part of your life and maybe one day he will be able to but I think that right now your own sobriety and self care have to be your number one priority. How are you ever going to take care of that when he is still using? It feels to me like this would just be too much for you to try to handle right now, as new found sobriety can be so tenuous.
    I say that this is a good time to take a time out, take some time for yourself, and maybe later the two of you can try this again, hopefully once he has gotten on track with his own sobriety.

  • Gary

    Gary

    April 10th, 2015 at 1:42 PM

    It is time right now to start learning to be happy with yourself and not so dependent on him to make you feel that way.

  • Lolo

    Lolo

    April 13th, 2015 at 9:46 AM

    I don’t know that as a former addict you can ever be strong enough to live with someone who continues to use. To me that just seems so disrespectful of the hard work that you have gone through!

  • Andre D.

    Andre D.

    April 13th, 2015 at 6:32 PM

    I don’t have children. My buddy’s were grown. something that I thought was going to last a season lasted a couple decades. Bring someone home from AA happened before. His wife ended up getting remarried and left him. The other times they sobered up or moved on. I could have threw him out and he would have landed on his feet. His stuff fit into a couple of boxes and a knapsack. He had the same potential as any alcoholic. A couple years went by and his new lady-friend started raising her grand children.

    I don’t know why this one became a keeper because he never got the program. At some point you stop basing all your relationships upon whether somebody drinks, even if they aren’t well. settling for second best is never in the best interest of the child. In alanon we say the best is yet to be. Scott was kind of like deprogramming me. Avoid extremes in life.

  • hanna

    hanna

    April 14th, 2015 at 10:29 AM

    If maintaining your sobriety is something that is important to you, and I have a feeling that it is, then it would probably be wise to let this one go and eventually find someone else who helps to celebrate that sobriety, not someone who laughs in its face.
    This means a lot to me because I have had to fight to get sober too so I know how hard it can be if you don’t have people who have your back all the time. You don’t need to have to fight that temptation all the time, even if he doesn’t do it all the time, the temptation still has to be there.

  • John

    John

    April 17th, 2015 at 8:30 AM

    It’s ok to love an addict/alcoholic. Al-Anon is a wonderful place to go to get support on an ongoing basis, and it’s free!

  • Vick

    Vick

    April 20th, 2015 at 11:28 AM

    You are right John in that it’s ok to love an addict, and Al Anon can be great for support in that. But who’s then helping her stay clean? I mean, this is tough. It doesn’t make it any easier living with someone who continues to use even though you have made your intentions clear.

  • miller

    miller

    April 25th, 2015 at 1:33 PM

    This is not a good situation for you or your kids and I think that you know that. I don’t think that you are going to find anyone on here who will say that it. I think that we can all sympathize with you and feel bad for the pain that you are going through but I also believe that you may have to draw that line in the sand and let him know that in this case it has to be your way or the highway, plain and simple.

  • sharon

    sharon

    July 11th, 2017 at 7:41 PM

    my comment would be to learn to love yourself more and hold your sobriety at a higher standard as you are hoping he would change, the amount of time and effort your putting into holding on to someone who clearly doesnt give a shit is precious time your waisting on yourself and being a better person and role model for your children. i too am in my recovery or sobriety whatever you want to call it and am fairly new in it as well only a few months for me but my partner refuses to address the fact that he has a problem as well. i have 3 beautiful children whom i am gettin myself together for, thankfully i still have all of them but unfourtainetly and am involved with children services because of my own mistakes that ive made! from me to you its best to let go and move on you would be doing yourself and you children a huge favor in the long run,,, obviously hes not a good support system if hes still using despite the obsticals you are facing right now because of you own mistakes… ive been involved with my spouse for 11 years , since i was 15 years old now have 2 children together and will be married for 4 years come this october… honestly because of my down falls im noticing hes never going to change and in order for me to move forward with my own actions and havic that ive caused myself i know now that i have no other option here but to let him go. if i dont the only thing that will happen is relapse ANd that is one thing i do not want in my life any longer.. its ashame to have so much history that even love it self cant help your partner want to help you do the right thing and by doing that and getting clean with you … mine wont either and hes been offered plenty of times to come to the programs that im involoved in and he just wont do it,, its obvious what you need to do and yes its hard, hard as fuck to let it go and let him go but honestly ask yourself would you rather deal with letting him go and it only hurt for a little while or continue hurting every day and still living in the same negative atmosphere you was in before you chose to get clean> ?? all honesty being clean and living with someone whos still using isnt getting you anywhere… in my head still being around the same lifestyle you may as well be still using yourself if thats the case… if you dont waant that lfe and you want better for you and your children then as a mother you know exactly what tyou really need to do here… best of luck to you and i hope everything works out in your favour for the best of you all.. god bless!!

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