Every intimate relationship is a journey of discovery.
I remember the feeling I had in the early stages of getting to know the woman who became my wife. It was as if I were walking on an unknown road and each twist and turn brought me to a beautiful new landscape. Getting to know the minutiae of the landscape was a wonderful journey that brought us very close.
That is, until I realized there were thorns in some of the bushes.
And one twist wasn't quite as pretty as the previous turn. But, ugh, I had walked so far already that I wasn’t about to turn back now. Plus, I really liked the parts I knew already, and I didn’t want to throw away the whole apple because of a few soft spots.
This analogy describes the feelings I often sense from the family members of the seriously addicted individuals I work with.
If you are the friend or family member--and especially the spouse--it is important to understand how addiction develops. It is equally important to understand that there are road signs and markers along the way that provide opportunities to change course together.
In short, if you change your relationship to substances, it can have a big impact in the health of your relationship, both now and in the future.
Addiction: Am I at Risk?
Let’s take a few minutes to get a better understanding of addiction in general.
Research and experience in the addictions treatment field in the last several decades have challenged assumptions that are virtually hundreds or even thousands of years old. I want to talk about why this new information should really challenge the framework you use to understand addiction.
If someone asks you, “Are you an alcoholic? Why or why not?” what is your immediate response? I often ask my family and friends this question, mostly to see their responses. The vast majority of people who answer no to this question follow up with some variation of this reasoning:
On the surface, these are reasonable statements in support of someone having no problems with alcohol. But the reality is that these statements are based on a misunderstanding of alcoholism and other addictions.
We need to factor in the way our psyche is ingenious at protecting itself from pain (denial) and also understand predisposition to addiction in the first place.
(And by the way, congratulations to those of you who, without hesitation, respond “YES!” If you’re answer was “maybe,” then I want you to pay extra close attention to the rest of this article.)
Addictions Don't Play Fair
To understand how addictions develop, we need to understand our own starting point.
Imagine everyone in the world is standing at the starting line of a 100 meter race. In this case, the end of the race is not a good thing: it represents full blown addiction.
Before the race starts, a judge comes out and asks anyone with a parent or grandparent of an alcoholic or drug addict to raise their hand. Then she tells those people to start 20 meters ahead of everyone else.
She also asks for anyone who started drinking or using drugs before age 16 to raise their hand. Those people have to move 10 meters ahead.
Many people are now 30 meters ahead of the initial pack.
Finally, she asks if there is anyone in the crowd who knows already that they have a naturally high tolerance, meaning they can drink or use more than other people with seemingly fewer affects. Those people, too, must move 10 meters forward.
Maybe not, but this is exactly how the idea of “predisposition” plays out when it comes to addiction.
We are not exactly sure why this is so. Is it nature or nurture? We still have plenty to learn about that. But we have a pretty solid idea that if you answer “yes” to the factors I mentioned above, then you are starting well ahead of the pack and could be on your way toward addiction.
“But I’m Not a Drunk, I Just Drink to...[insert verb here]”
The reality is that most people are not in full-blown addiction. But this nevertheless demands your attention if you want to avoid relationship problems.
So let’s say you or your partner are one of the many people who can best be described one of these two ways:
1) You imbibe now and then, perhaps even occasionally having a really good time and drinking way more than “the recommended amount,” perhaps on special occasions or with certain friends. But overall there doesn't seem to be any harm.
2) You’re in a relationship. You hold a job with a steady income. You’ve never been arrested for anything involving alcohol.
Both scenarios have one thing in common: Your partner disapproves of your drinking.
Who’s right? Your partner, or you?
I'm not going to even try to get into the middle of this debate. Why?
Because the key to dismantle addiction is to compassionately target areas of least resistance; quiet the urge to challenge denial head-on and aim to build respect for the self-protective role that the addiction has reliably served. Don't try to talk an addict out of using unless you are prepared to love and nurture the vulnerable, shaking, or traumatized pieces--like lost and forgotten orphans-when they come unglued.
It All Comes Back to Listening
Ask a few questions:
What is the perception of “normal drinking?
Where did this perception come from?
What messages did family and friends provide as a kid about alcohol?
The goal of listening is not to launch a counter-attack. Listen to understand. Be curious and suspend your judgement and your agenda.
Now think about and answer for yourself another set of questions:
What role do I want alcohol to play in my life? In my relationship? What are my top 5 priorities? How does alcohol fit into these priorities? Does it support them? Does it ever come into conflict with them?
Again, talk with your partner about your answers. Don’t debate or argue about whether drinking. That is the fastest way to take your relationship into a death spiral of disconnection where you have even less influence with your partner.
Just listen, and understand.