Couples can have a difficult time trying to navigate their relationship when a partner has compulsive or addictive behaviors. In my practice, I often see such couples in a repetitive cycle of distress. The person dealing with addictive behaviors may react with denial, defensiveness, minimization, or rebellion. Their partner may respond with accusations, judgment, excessive caretaking, or attempts to control the other person’s behaviors. No matter which cycle they are stuck in, there is one thing these couples can agree on: both partners are hurting. What they often cannot agree upon is why.
As an emotionally focused couples therapist, I’m trained to see problems through an attachment lens. That is, when couples are in distress, the problem is that their relationship or attachment needs are not being met. Attachment needs are what you need to feel secure in your relationship. They can be comfort, connection, soothing, understanding, validation, appreciation, and affection. They can also be feeling heard, seen, or valued by your partner.
According to Dr. Sue Johnson, being able to express our emotions to our partners in a way that evokes sympathy and support helps us regulate our emotions. Attachment therapists know the importance of a secure and healthy connection between partners. It is a powerful antidote to addictive and compulsive behaviors. When couples find security in each other, they don’t have to look elsewhere. They seek comfort in their partner rather than in unhealthy places. Therapists who help couples who are dealing with addictive behaviors teach them to turn to each other for comfort and connection.
When working with addiction, an attachment lens brings out the compassion and empathy in all parties involved—the couple and the therapist. Therapists view addictive behaviors as a person’s way of dealing with difficult emotions such as loneliness, shame, and sadness. Instead of turning to a loved one for comfort and connection, an addicted person may turn to alcohol and drugs, sex, spending, or food.
Often, the partner of an addicted person exhibits codependent behaviors, such as enabling, justifying, or ignoring the addicted person’s behaviors. But through an attachment lens, therapists can see how the partner is simply trying to protect the relationship. The partner experiences how the addictive behaviors interfere with the connection and security of their relationship, and they respond with a variety of responses. They may try to rescue, fix, or control the addicted partner. They may become more of a caretaker, sacrificing their own needs. They may get critical, angry, and judgmental. Ultimately, they are protesting the experience of having their partner turn away from them for comfort and relief. Furthermore, when they seek out their partner for their own relationship needs, their partner isn’t there. It is the absence of the experience of seeking each other out for needs such as comfort and connection that causes such distress.
I often think of addictive behaviors as a third party in a relationship. When behaviors are compulsive, this third party regularly comes in between two partners. Just as an affair is painful, so is your partner turning to something else over and over for comfort and soothing. In some cases, the addictive behaviors are sought out more often than—or instead of—their partner. This is a painful position for a loved one.
A person’s attachment to addictive behaviors creates a competing attachment—an attachment to something other than one’s partner. When there is a competing attachment, security, closeness, and connection are harder to achieve.
Couples who start to view themselves and their partners through an attachment lens can start to shift the relationship. Instead of an addicted person thinking their partner is controlling, judgmental, or codependent, they see how the partner is desperate for closeness and connection. They see how the partner is trying to save the relationship, despite this “third party.” On the other hand, the partner can see that the addicted person is not just selfish and purposely hurting others, but rather is painfully stuck in a cycle of feeling significant distress and has been able to find relief only in things such as alcohol, food, drugs, or sex.
Emotionally focused couples therapists understand the disruption that exists when addictive behaviors are present in a relationship. At times, partners can deny these behaviors are an issue and refuse to address them. This can make couples therapy ineffective. I explain to couples that it is my job to help create space for security, closeness, and connection in their relationship. A person’s attachment to addictive behaviors creates a competing attachment—an attachment to something other than one’s partner. When there is a competing attachment, security, closeness, and connection are harder to achieve.
However, when couples can acknowledge addictive behaviors and take steps toward recovery, the cycle can begin to change. Couples can begin to have effective and transforming conversations through the perspective of attachment. The partner can empathize with the addicted person’s struggle and learn how to make themselves a safe place for their partner to turn. It becomes less about dissecting the behaviors of their partner. It becomes more about sharing the pain, hurts, and longings they feel when their partner turns toward addictive behaviors. For the addicted person, they begin to view their partner’s behaviors as a painful reaction to not feeling connected. They start to empathize with their partner’s longing for connection and emotional availability. They learn how to make themselves open to hearing the pain and needs of their partner. Through this process of being more open and sharing the vulnerabilities of their struggles, both partners start to create the experience of connection and turning toward each other for comfort, the ultimate antidote to addiction.
For help with overcoming addiction in your relationship, contact a licensed therapist.
- Furrow, J. L., Johnson, S. M., & Bradley, B. A. (2011). The emotionally focused casebook: New directions in treating couples. New York, NY: Routledge.
- Johnson, S. M. (2013). Love sense: The revolutionary new science of romantic relationships. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.
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