How Addiction Affects Relationships & Prevents Couples From Staying In Love

 A sad couple consoling each other as they struggle with how addiction affects relationships

When I support clients suffering from addiction, I often witness firsthand how addiction affects relationships. Seeing people individually or in couples therapy, it’s clear that addiction can impact every facet of a relationship and can make creating, growing or maintaining a loving relationship nearly impossible.

What Addiction Looks and Feels Like In Relationships

When you are struggling with addiction, it can feel like a part of you sabotages relationships before they really have a chance to grow.

One way this happens is when you cannot maintain relationships for more than a few weeks or months. At first, loving relationships can feel explosively passionate. Sometimes this is called the ‘honeymoon period’ for a couple. But if you are suffering from addiction and struggle to maintain a sense of passion and trust with your partner, then it’s only a matter of time before the relationship turns sour.

You may notice that you feel a sudden urge to push your partner away or make judgments to justify ending the relationship. After a few weeks or months of dating, suddenly it seems like their nose is too big, or they’re not smart enough or they’re not good looking enough. But what’s really going on is not that the person has somehow changed and become undesirable, but rather you have a barrier to maintaining connection and intimacy.

In other words, there’s a physiological and psychological wall that’s blocking sexual desire and preventing the relationship from continuing.

What I’ve Discovered About How Addiction Affects Relationships

  1. These types of relationship issues are not unique to addicts. Even if you never considered yourself an addict it’s common to have the experience of pushing away a potential partner for seemingly mysterious reasons.
  2. Addicts often have a pattern of starting intense and passionate relationships. But even if you want to experience a loving connection, the relationship enviably ends in a predictable way.
  3. Often what’s underneath the inability to maintain a relationship is the same pain that’s feeding the addiction. You may recognize this as past trauma or relationship failures from your youth or childhood.
  4. The pattern of ending relationships becomes particularly evident when a relationship enters what I call the ‘polarity’ phase. This is the time approximately 3-months to a year in when a couple exits the honeymoon phase and starts to become more serious. It’s at this point that past traumas resurface and need to be addressed if the relationship is to continue.
  5. Couples get stuck when they become black and white in their thinking. When you learn how to end the patterns of taking righteous, immovable stances against each other, you have the ability to forgive and create a relationship that works for both of you instead of one person over the other.
  6. It helps to create simple connecting rituals that you do together. One exercise is to set time aside to take turns sharing what you feel is working and what’s not working in your relationship. Even if what you or your partner is experiencing doesn’t seem rational, allow time for it to be expressed while the other person simply listens and lends a compassionate ear without judgment. Once one person has shared, you switch and the partner who listened now speaks. In this process it’s ideal that the listener just listen. And if they feel compelled to acknowledge what was shared, they can simply say “I hear you” or “I see you” in response. The power of authenticity and non-judgment in this process can make a big difference in the quality of the relationship.
  7. Lastly, it really helps to let go of rigid beliefs about what your relationship should and should not look like. If you have a rigid picture of how your relationship should operate, it can get in the way of creating something new that works better for both of you. For example, if you or your partner is acting out of obligation to family or society’s expectations, it makes it hard to define your relationship in a way that meets both your needs.

My Story

My expertise around addiction started with my own experience with substances. I was a drug and alcohol addict by the time I was15 years old. For me, the damage of a broken home and many other deficiencies made me want to hide from others. I had secretly seen myself as damaged goods for many years and felt I was inextricably different.

At the time, substances seemed like a cure. It was an effective pain reliever for feeling like an outsider to the world. And by the time I had reached my 20s, my addiction had grown to become so dangerous that it was threatening my life.

Like many people, I wanted to have a loving relationship; one where I could connect and share my needs and desires with another person. Instead, I experienced how addiction affects relationships through the turmoil and wreckage that was left in the wake of my substance abuse.

Understanding Why Relationships Seem Doomed to Fail

The cycle of how addiction effects relationships and cuts them short before they can grow served as one of the primary inspirations for my doctoral research. I had worked with enough people to know that this wasn’t a unique flaw of a handful of substance abusers. Instead, I witnessed how widespread the problem was and how it was being experienced by thousands, if not millions of people.

Early in my career, I was also aware that despite the medical literature which said there was no known cure for substance addiction, I had seen how group and community therapy had cured people (and myself) from debilitating addictions to drugs and alcohol.

So naturally, this is what I asked myself: If we’re able to cure addiction through communal healing, an issue that we are told has no known cure, can we heal our relationship issues in the same way? This question, in that poignant moment, catapulted me into over 10 years of intense research about how addiction affects relationships. It felt like a calling and led to my PhD, my first book, and much recognition for my research.

Do you recognize these relationship patterns in yourself?

If you can look back and see how you’ve engaged in similar relationship patterns, know that there are ways to break the cycle. It is possible to create and support loving relationships even when you’ve struggled with addiction and experienced a history of challenging circumstances or trauma.

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