My Partner Is an Addict. Should I Leave?

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

First of all, my partner does not hit, abuse, or commit any acts of violence toward me. It’s the main reason I haven’t left yet. I’m writing because I’m curious whether addiction alone is a valid justification for leaving.

I’ve heard of the “three A’s” (abuse, addiction, and affairs) that are warning signs and signals a relationship is in trouble. And I know everyone probably thinks their case is special, or that their lover is different than anyone else who abuses, cheats, or develops an addiction. I am aware the cards are stacked against me. So how does an optimistic person weigh all of those “givens” and make a choice about the future of a relationship?

I have so much hope that my boyfriend will realize one day soon the strain his alcoholism puts on his health, our finances, and the plans we make. I catch glimpses of this realization occasionally when he sobers up (briefly). He has agreed to get help once or twice, but it never lasts. We’ve known each other for over a decade, and I loved the person I met all those years ago! I’m exhausted and sick of being the one person to try to remind him who he was.

Am I foolish for holding out hope that he will one day be that person again? Is there a chance I could get him the help he needs? —Hoping Against Hope

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Dear Hoping,

Thank you for writing, and I’m sorry you’re in such a difficult situation.

The short answer to your first question (is addiction a valid reason for leaving?) is yes, with this caveat: it’s not so much the “addiction,” per se, but your boyfriend’s “straining” behavior (as you put it) while under the influence.

Your excellent question also signals one of the reasons living with an addicted partner is difficult: the dual nature of the person’s personality (sober versus not sober). It’s like living with two people, but only you know it. When something this distressing is unacknowledged, a person can start to feel like they’re losing their mind. This lack of acknowledgment of your experience creates a sense of isolation that is itself is a form of abuse, where “crazy” starts to feel normalized or we become numb to it—until it grabs our attention again and we ask ourselves, “Why the hell do I put up with this?”

Except it’s hard to say “get lost” to the sober version of the person we care about. That version may show remorse, contrition, regret, etc., a stark contrast to the non-sober version’s selfish, mean, and spiteful behavior. Episodes of the latter are often forgotten or downplayed by the sober version, perhaps accompanied by an apology that rings rather hollow.

You have an extremely difficult decision to make, and for that you may need support. You can look for Al-Anon meetings—highly recommended—near you by doing an internet search. There are also online support groups, books on living with an addicted partner, and so on. There are also highly trained and skilled counselors and therapists who specialize in addiction and living with an addicted partner. I urge you to get support before you make any big decisions.

Some prefer meetings to therapy; with others it’s the other way around. I find that a combination of therapy and meetings can be most helpful. In meetings, we find others who can relate to us, to cut down on that soul-wrenching isolation, shame, and other pain.

Addiction puts everyone, including the addicted person, in a no-win situation. Just as someone with alcoholism can’t seem to live with or without the bottle, you love your boyfriend but can’t live with or without him. Leaving and staying are difficult.

Addiction puts everyone, including the addicted person, in a no-win situation. Just as someone with alcoholism can’t seem to live with or without the bottle, you love your boyfriend but can’t live with or without him. Leaving and staying are difficult. There is no “right thing to do,” necessarily. Even partners who are physically abused (men included) can find it terribly difficult to leave; it is hard to leave someone we love, especially if we have a history of tolerating emotional abuse, relational chaos, or trauma. (We often cannot help being attracted to what is familiar.)

You would not be shamefully “dumb” to stay, nor shamefully “selfish” to leave. In fact, sometimes it is such a gamble that jars the addicted person back to reality. It is usually action, not just talk, that gets a partner’s attention.

Some might suggest it’s important to have compassion for the addicted person, and I would agree—to a point. Have compassion, yes, but also set boundaries against hurtful behavior you have nothing to do with and cannot influence.

A good therapist can help you do the painful work of taking care of yourself. We can feel guilty or neglectful if we set boundaries and look after ourselves, especially when an addicted person under the influence lashes out at us for “ignoring” them. But as with a child in tantrum, consistent and firm limits are important.

My usual advice to people in your situation—barring anything life-threatening or physically injurious—is to take very small but manageable baby steps. For instance, telling your partner (while he’s sober), in as neutral a way as possible, what behaviors are hurtful to you, and what you can and cannot tolerate. Start small. Example: “I need to talk to you. Is this a good time?” If not, “When is good? Tonight at dinner?” Then, at the right time: “I don’t mean to criticize, and this is a little hard to say, but please stop lashing out at me late at night. It really hurts.” You might add, if the hint is not obvious enough, “You seem more angry and attacking when you drink.” Again, try to stay with a neutral tone with a focus on your own pain rather than your partner. Other-focused comments such as, “Boy, you’re one angry drunk,” or, “When are you going to stop drinking like a fish?” are unlikely to lead in a positive direction.

One can argue facts, but not feelings. If a partner is unwilling to listen to feelings, consistently stonewalls, or becomes defensive, then the relationship is in trouble—addictive behavior or no addictive behavior.

If your partner says, “Well, you hurt me too! Stop being so critical!” you can say, “Okay, I’m willing to hear feedback too. Can we both agree to do some work on this together?” If you are both struggling with this, relationship counseling can greatly help. The point is to work toward peace and productive communication, not the same old cycle over and over again. Some people reading this might say, “Why is it up to me? I’m not the addicted person here.” To which I would say, quoting Al-Anon, “Do you want to be right? Or do you want to feel safer and happier in your relationship?”

If these conversations go nowhere, and if efforts to get outside help fail, then perhaps leaving becomes the only realistic option. Again, sending a firm message—I cannot tolerate such hurtful behavior—is crucial. Though difficult, making such a decision may do wonders for your self-esteem and sense of empowerment. It may also trigger sadness or grief.

I wish you the best of luck, and again reiterate that you are not alone. Please seek support. Admitting a need for help—for you or for a loved one you can’t seem to get through to—is often the bravest thing a person can do.

Kind regards,

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.
  • 6 comments
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  • Jake

    Jake

    November 8th, 2016 at 1:47 PM

    You don’t have to leave but if you ever don’t feel safe then it is not a bad thing to have a safe place to go. He or she should not make you feel like you being there is what will help them to get sober. This is something that they have to be willing and ready to do on their own, You are not accountable for their actions and choices.

  • Laine

    Laine

    November 8th, 2016 at 4:16 PM

    When it actually comes right down to it “in sickness and in health” can be a tough one to stand b y can’t it?

  • TY

    TY

    November 9th, 2016 at 12:20 PM

    I know that this is a person that you want to help, but how much are you allowing yourself to be hurt in that effort?
    Is it all worth it?

  • reese

    reese

    November 10th, 2016 at 11:22 AM

    This is something that you will have to think long and hard about before making any kind of decision. I know that the pain that you feel has to be so real but think about the pain that he is feeling as well.. do you really think that he could handle going through that alone? I am not saying that you forget about your own needs and give them up for what is good for him, but he might need the very strength that you have to get through this.

  • Bob

    Bob

    November 14th, 2016 at 2:54 AM

    I was an addict and my wife sort of hung around for, we had a child together so she didn’t have much choice. Having said that she was happy to take drugs with me before she was pregnant. Anyway I eventually got of drugs . We now have 4 children and been together 17 years. I did everything I could to get clean including seeing GP, therapist. I also got into a church group, got player and let god do the rest.

  • David

    David

    November 17th, 2016 at 6:00 PM

    You are not foolish for holding out hope but he will never come to the realization without some loss. Which means YOU have to come to the realization that in order to help him you have to give him some tough love. Otherwise an addict will drain you of energy, love and hope. You dont want to wait for it to get to the point you lose love for him and never be able to get those feelings back. It will be hard but you have to separate from him. Go to a family member’s house for a few months. I would say 2 to 3 months. That should be plenty of time for him to feel loss and that he needs to change. But even then there is no guarantee. He could just end up spiraling but that is going to happen eventually anyone. But ONLY he can make the decision to change. You cant sit around and reinforce the behavior by being nonreactive to the situation. This is a drastic (Pre-Tragic) situation that calls for drastic solutions. You can start out with an ultimatum that you will be leaving if he doesn’t get help. But you can’t make a hollow ultimatum. You have to be prepared to actually do it and don’t leave it open ended. You must get help starting such as such day. I will go with you to the AA meeting if you like, etc. The more he moves toward help, the more you move to support him.

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