Untying the knot? How to fight addiction as a couple

If you place a magnet on a table and push another magnet toward it, they will repel each other or “snap” together. People are like this—coming together by the nebulous forces of love and friendship or “repelling” each other due to disagreements or unforgiveness.

The ultimate “snap-together” relationships are the ones sealed by holy matrimony. Married couples promise lives of commitment and unconditional love. But often, it seems, that many of these commitments are as nebulous as the love that drew them together. “Divorce” is a word too easy to come by nowadays.

One disruptive force that often unties the knot of love is addiction. Marriages in which one or both partners abuse drugs or alcohol are four to seven times more likely to end in separation. 

If you find yourself in a relationship riddled with addiction, there is an escape route. And the words “divorce” or “separation” don’t have to appear on this path.

How drugs and alcohol can ruin a relationship

“We’ve been on it for two years,” an addicted couple told the photographer of Humans of New York, the famous site in in which the photographer captures every day people in New York City.

“I was a cook. Then I got hurt and got a prescription for some Oxycontins. And I gave a few to her. And before long we were crushing them up and snorting them. Then we started doingheroin cause it was cheaper. It’s the same thing, really, as the Oxycontins. Just cheaper.”

After admitting heroin has ruined their lives, the interview ended on a hopeful note, “We really do love each other and we’re trying to fix our lives.” Why do drugs and alcohol take such a devastating toll on relationships?

Sharing everything

As the flu spreads, so addiction spreads. If couples weren’t couples, there might not be such a thing as addiction. But we are social beings: we share, we sell and we collaborate—everything from the common cold to our prescription drugs, alcohol and illegal substances.

If you share a house with someone, you’re going to have influence and be influenced. And if you share your home, or your life, with an addict, you open up the floodgates of opportunity to becoming addicted yourself.


Like the couple in NYC, couples who share an addiction often do love each other. Yet, we all know happily ever after isn’t a walk in the park. Negative responses and behaviors can tear at the fabric of any relationship. And if you add drugs and alcohol to the equation, everything intensifies.

John Gottman, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington and relationship expert, narrows down what makes relationships fail into what he calls the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”

  • Criticism—blaming the partner to the point where they feel attacked

“You always . . .” “You never . . .”

  • Defensiveness—shrugging off any responsibility for the impact of one’s own behavior

making excuses, whining, shifting blame

  • Contempt—attacking the partner in a condescending manner; invalidating their experiences and feelings

insults, name-calling, mockery, sarcasm, rolling your eyes, sneering

  • Stonewalling—shutting down; withdrawing to avoid conflict

silence, changing the subject, distance and separation

Damaging effects

Whether both partners have an addiction or one is sober, the emotional impact of addiction damages both.

Emily Tucker, a couples/family therapist and mental health expert, says that “the individual struggling with addiction experiences daily challenges such as intense anxiety, fear, denial, withdrawal symptoms, impaired judgment and obsessive thoughts about their drug of choice. Similarly, a co-addict (partner of an addict) will struggle daily with these same emotions, only they are usually obsessing about the addict and how to control the addictive behavior.”

Playing the blame game

Well, whose fault is it? We’re human; we don’t like to take the blame for anything. So, we point fingers and make excuses.

Yet sometimes, the couple isn’t entirely to blame for heading down the spiral of addiction. Addiction can be a genetic predisposition or a result of associations and environments. “Typically, couples affected by addiction have been exposed to addictive behaviors through their lifetime,” says Tucker. “Lifelong patterns (of addiction) often get re-lived in adult relationships, and these patterns feed into the addictive cycle.”

Blaming your spouse or partner for your own addiction plaguing you is like blaming a teacher for a bad test grade. You’re going to get the help you didn’t want. Attributing someone else to your addiction may shift the responsibility and weight of addiction off your shoulders and onto theirs. But in the end, you still have an addiction.

“The very nature of addiction prevents addicts from seeking help,” says Tucker. So unless we’re able to admit to the power of addiction, recovery is out of reach.

Whatever cause is to blame, addiction is a disease that needs treatment. Choosing to remain in your addiction and not seek treatment is your choice.

Vicious cycle of substance abuse and violence

More times than not, substance use is the center of the argument. Then, arguments and tension can cause a person to escape through drugs and alcohol, which will cause more arguments later on. The American Association for Marriage and Family says it this way:

“Substance use causes conflict, the conflict leads to more substance use as a way of reducing tension, conflict about the substance use escalates, more drinking or drug use occurs, and so on.”

Unfortunately, blame and tension are often communicated through violence. When verbal blame and denouncements don’t suffice, you might resort to forms of physical expression, which is often intensified by substance use. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that 61% of all domestic violence is connected with substance abuse.

Thankfully there is hope, and a way out of this downward spiral.

How to deal with addiction as a couple, together and separately

The first thing to do is seek atreatment program. Treatment can get you clean and sober, but then there’s a whole new world of recovery, slightly intimidating.

The transition into recovery, especially early on, has proved difficult for many couples. According to Dr. Robert Navarra, a couple’s addiction recovery expert, difficulty early in recovery is normal.

“Moving into recovery brings its own set of problems,” he says; “it is new, unknown, and so much is going on that even though things are better in many ways since recovery, not everything seems better or easier.”

So how should you work your recovery?

Focus first on your recovery

The first step in A.A.’s Twelve Step process urges the addict to admit “that he is powerless over his addiction and that his life has become unmanageable.” This doesn’t mean, preach this message to your partner; it means speak this message to yourself.

In a situation where one partner used drugs and alcohol, the other partner often tries to navigate the early days of recovery by focusing on their partner’s addiction. This may start with good intentions, but codependency, that is controlling their situation, needs to be intentionally avoided.

In our discussion with Tucker, she emphasized the need for individual treatment first. “Address individual history, behaviors and concerns first. . . Ideally individual work will come first… Some 12 Step programs suggest each partner find a separate ‘home group’ so there is no overlap, or influence from one’s partner.” Only after both parties feel ready should you seek couple counseling.

Dr. Navarra’s process for couples in recovery is similar too:

  • Receive individual therapy and help. Individual therapy is the starting point for anyone with an addiction—married, dating or single.
  • Incorporate recovery into the relationship. You are both recovering from the same disease, addiction. Help each other. Encourage each other.
  • Receive help managing conflict. When you both feel ready, receiving “couple” help from a therapist is a good way to start mending and building your relationship.
  • Support each other’s recovery, without taking responsibility for it. Instead of controlling your partner’s recovery, be supportive.
  • Learn how to focus on your recovery without having to ignore the relationship. Your relationship should never trump your recovery, but the two need to co-exist peacefully, not exclusively.
  • Differentiate between unhealthy codependency and healthy interdependence. Interdependency is being able to express a healthy need in the relationship and expect a response from your partner. You’re not trying to control them or the situation, which would be codependency. Instead you’re simply expressing your needs, thoughts and feelings.

Incorporate recovery into your relationship

Maintaining sobriety as a couple is different from maintaining sobriety individually.

You need to find a balance between recovery and relationship.

Having a healthy relationship helps maintain a healthy recovery. Research also indicates that friendship with your spouse is essential to maintaining an intimate relationship. But how is this friendship maintained?

Gottman set off to answer this question. After more than 30 years of research involving 3,000 couples he developed a three-pronged answer:

  • Develop love maps: Good friends know something about their friend’s world. Care about your spouse and share your day-to-day experiences with each other. Keep up with each other by committing time to listening without judging.
  • Express fondness and admiration: Express what you like and appreciate about each other; this will develop trust and emotional safety.
  • Bids and the emotional bank account: Listening and responding to your partner’s little “bids” for support, affection or attention makes a huge difference in the big picture of things. The positivity in a relationship needs to outweigh the negativity; this will keep the emotional bank account balanced and out of the red.

So what does this practically mean for you and your spouse in recovery?

  • Stay curious. Your partner likes it when you ask questions and try to understand the thoughts and feelings going on inside.

In recovery, we need new hobbies and activities to replace our old habits. Build new habits together. 

  • Be patient. Don’t argue your point or try to solve the problem your way; instead compassionately listen and make an effort to understand.

Support each other as you explain what triggers you need to avoid. 

  • Be gentle. Intentionally communicate in a gentle and “soft” manner. Expressing your thoughts and feelings in a non-blaming way, without attacking your partner, is a key component to gentleness.

Learn to talk through what issues lead to your disease of addiction in the first place. 

  • Love each other. Love is easy to come by, but difficult to maintain; it will take some work, but it’s worth it in the end.

So many of the 12 Steps require sacrificial love—making amends to those you’ve harmed and sharing this encouraging message with others in their addiction. You have the perfect opportunity to work several of these steps right in your own relationship. 

Building a successful journey in recovery as a couple is a unique challenge, but you can do it. Make a promise this Valentine’s day to focus on recovery as a couple and not your addiction.