Self-Care for People Who Love Addicts
It can be a hard pill to swallow, but the best thing you can do to support your substance-abusing partner is to take care of yourself. You can do this by being mindful of your own needs and by diligently practicing self-care. 12-step groups for family members or loved ones may also serve as invaluable resources, as could regularly scheduled therapy visits to help you through these difficult times.
No one can change your partner’s behavior—not even you. As difficult as it may be, you have to allow them to come to terms with their problems on their own, and in the meantime, you can practice taking care of yourself.
Addiction Is a Family Disease
People refer to addiction as a family disease because the turmoil, suffering, and ups and downs involve not only the addicted person but the entire family. Partners of a substance abuser are often on the frontlines, and the effects of addiction can be especially devastating to their emotional, mental, and even physical health.
If you are the partner of a substance abuser, you are likely to experience an immense amount of heartache as you watch your loved one fall deeper into the throes of addiction. You might try to help them clean up their messes, take on the stress of their addiction, or try to solve problems (financial, legal, personal) related to their drug use.
It is tempting to try and share or carry the burden of their addiction and protect them from future harm, but your loved one is truly the only person who has control over their drug use. Of course, you can try to encourage them to accept treatment, but ultimately, they are responsible for their own life. Do not take on the extreme weight of thinking that you are in control of their addiction or you are to blame for their drug use.
The most important thing you can do as a partner is to take care of yourself. In a study of 100 family members of addicts, researchers found that those who coped with their loved one’s addiction by quietly tolerating their behavior had the lowest scores of psychological well-being.1
Let Go of Responsibility
At this point, you probably realize that addiction affects people from every walk of life; even people from privileged backgrounds can fall into the downward spiral of addiction. Understanding the power of addiction can help you come to the understanding that you can’t make it better on your own. What once was thought of as a moral failing that afflicted weak, lazy, or inherently flawed people, now is known to be a chronic brain condition. Most people assume that addicts come from torn or unloving families. But, many addicts have wonderful families and loving partners who would do anything to help their loved one get clean.
You can start working through letting go of responsibility of your loved one’s addiction through individual therapy. As a partner, therapy can be life-changing. If you have gone to therapy before, you know how impactful talking through your issues with a professional can be. If this is your first time considering or going to therapy, you will hopefully find a healthy coping mechanism you can turn to when stress or problems arise. Studies find that verbalizing your feelings can help alleviate feelings of stress, anger, and pain.2 It might be a good idea to make a regular, standing appointment with a therapist near you.
Boost Your Emotional Health
There are ways you can help to improve your emotional wellbeing while living with the high levels of stress common to loving someone suffering from a chronic disease. These include setting healthy boundaries, practicing self-compassion, and letting go of the past.
Enabling is a word that is often used when talking about how partners interact with their addicted loved ones. However, many people are unsure of what it actually means and how it manifests in a relationship involving a partner who is abusing drugs or alcohol. Enabling means that the adverse consequences of another person’s negative behavior are removed or softened, which, in turn, encourages the behavior to continue. So, if your partner stays out all night and has to wake up early to meet up with friends, enabling would be waking them up or helping them get out of bed. By letting your partner experience the natural consequences of being late and having upset friends, you are helping them face the stressful and unpleasant consequences of what it means to live a life dictated by drugs and alcohol.3 Having to face these consequences can be potentially lifesaving for the addicted person.
When your partner is abusing substances, it can be hard to know how to address their behavior. First, reinforcing positive behavior can help move your partner in the right direction. If they say no to drinking or drugs so they can make an important family function, you can praise them or acknowledge how thankful you are for their sobriety. Remember, as best you can, promote any of their positive behaviors with a corresponding positive affirmation or action.3
How you respond to negative behaviors makes a huge difference in your partner’s relationship with alcohol or drugs. In most relationships, couples have an unspoken language of punishing each other with eye rolling, scoffing, yelling, or giving the cold shoulder, but they may find it difficult to let natural consequences happen. As a partner, your instinct is probably to protect your loved one from embarrassing themselves in a public place, missing work, sleeping in, or getting sick. But letting them feel the negative consequences of their destructive behaviors is much more effective. If you are protecting your partner from feeling the uncomfortable consequences of their actions, there is no reason they should stop using drugs or alcohol and the behaviors will continue. Of course, in certain cases you should step in, for example if your spouse is trying to drive while intoxicated.3
Once you have accepted that your loved one has a problem with drugs and alcohol, you can help to better reach them by educating yourself about the disease of addiction. Although more is known about addiction today, there is still a large amount of misunderstanding. By knowing more about how addiction develops and how drugs affect the brain, you will be in a better position to empathize and understand what your loved one is going through.
The brain is designed to reward you for engaging in life-sustaining activities like eating, exercising, or connecting with others. Some substances activate these same reward pathways in the brain, which serves to reinforce continued use of them. Over time, the brain becomes used to the drug and a person will need increasingly higher doses of the drug to feel the same effects (tolerance). Chronic use can also lead to physical dependence, meaning that a person needs the drug to feel normal and will go through withdrawal when they don’t have it in their system. For a person who abuses drugs, tolerance and dependence only make things worse, fueling a vicious cycle that eventually leads to full-blown addiction.
Often, loved ones of addicts will ask questions like “why do you love drugs more than me?” but this is flawed thinking. Substance abuse creates major havoc in the brain that elevates drug or alcohol use to the top of the priority list even when the individual wants desperately to stop hurting the people they love. Understanding the overpowering nature of addiction can help you see fully what your partner is up against and give you the compassion to understand their struggle and the difficulty of ‘just saying no’.
You can look online for videos, research articles, and online forums to build up your own knowledge base. To get started, here is a video on understanding addiction.
Let Go of Regret
When your partner is using substances it’s easy to rethink the past. It is normal to also feel pain, shame, and regret and feel like something you have done or reactions you have had are part of the problem. These are uncomfortable and sometimes “sticky” emotions, meaning that they can be hard to shake off.
Feeling shame about your own actions or thoughts is one thing, but feeling shame about your partner’s feelings, experiences, or actions can introduce an entirely new set of emotions. The real experience of living with someone who is abusing substances can be intense and uncomfortable. You may feel angry (i.e., “I can’t believe you keep drinking after everything that’s happened!” or “You are a disgrace to our family”), ashamed (i.e., “only weak people have problems with drugs”).
During this time, it’s important that you practice self-compassion. Self-compassion is accepting that we are all flawed and imperfect individuals. Everyone struggles and faces hardships—it is part of being human. It’s ok to acknowledge that things are not ideal right now and that the people you love are suffering. You can ask for help and support from those around you who care about you. You can reach out to your community and to people who have gone through similar things.
You might fall into a trap of thinking that things are “supposed” to go a certain way. When things don’t go the way you planned (i.e. your partner is struggling with addiction) you might beat yourself up about it. Do not dwell on feeling shameful of whatever situation your family is going through. This can lead you to isolate and may cause further problems.
Allow yourself to acknowledge the difficulty of your position and forgive yourself for what you see as your mistakes.
Learning self-compassion takes time and practice. Below are some more ways to practice self-compassion:
- Forgive yourself and let go of the past: Forgiveness is a process, and it takes time. By accepting yourself and what you have done in your past, you are helping yourself let go and work through whatever is going on for you in the present moment. No one is perfect, and dealing with addiction is extremely trying. You may have enabled your loved one. You may have stopped enabling and feel extreme guilt about it. You may not know what to do and feel like a failure. Allow yourself to acknowledge the difficulty of your position and forgive yourself for what you see as your mistakes. Try to remain present with your emotions and practice offering yourself kindness when you feel weak.
- Write a letter to yourself: Writing can be a therapeutic exercise. Try sitting down and writing about something that makes you feel insecure or bad about yourself. Try not to overthink whatever emotions you have about it; just write down your emotions exactly as they are. Then, imagine a friend who loves and accepts you unconditionally. Write a letter to yourself from the perspective of this loving, kind, and compassionate friend. What would they say about your “flaws”? How would they remind you that we are all human? This letter is for you, and you don’t have to worry about anyone reading it. Use writing as a way to process what’s going on in your life and speak truthfully about pain, guilt, or other feelings you have.
- Think kind thoughts to yourself: Our thoughts are extremely powerful, and changing negative self-talk can have profound impacts on your health. You can begin by recognizing what you say to yourself. Your inner self-critic can cause a lot of unnecessary emotional pain. How can you reframe the messages you tell yourself? If you are having trouble thinking of positive self-talk, imagine what you would say to a good friend who is having a hard time. How would you speak to them? Approach yourself with that same kind of warmth and loving kindness.
- Spend time doing things you enjoy: If you are facing challenges in your life, the last thing you’re probably thinking about is how to incorporate more joy into your life. But, think about what brings you joy and try to include as many of those things as possible into your day. By finding more joy in your everyday life, you will become gentler towards yourself and others.
As a partner, you want to care for your significant other, and when they are suffering from a life-altering disease like addiction, this can suck all the energy you have. Take some time to recharge your batteries by:4
- Treating yourself to a massage, facial, or pedicure.
- Doing a compassionate body scan (a guided meditation).
- Going for a hike.
- Taking a yoga class.
- Taking a hot bath.
- Going to a comedy show.
- Going dancing.
- Taking a nap in the middle of the day.
- Practicing loving-kindness meditation.
- Hanging out with a friend for an evening.
- Listening to relaxing music.
Your partner may confuse your practice of self-compassion with selfishness. You can talk to them about times when you are very stressed or absorbed in self-doubt or judgment. During these times, you probably don’t have much bandwidth left over to think about anyone else or provide true, compassionate support to your loved ones. When your emotional needs are met, it can leave you in a much better place to focus on caring for others.
While there is an increasing understanding of how addiction affects individuals, there is less understanding about the impact of addiction on their loved ones. As a partner, you probably see your loved one at their worst. You might have to deal with lying, stealing, or secrecy surrounding drug or alcohol use. Your partner may be ashamed of what they are going through and act distant or closed-off as a result. No matter what your situation is, you have probably felt isolated and consumed by your partner’s substance abuse.
It is critical that while you support your partner, you take care of yourself. Be careful of falling into a pattern of putting their needs above yours. Your needs are just as important, although they are often overshadowed. A lot of partners forget to take care of themselves while they are dealing with a person who is battling addiction, but being a strong partner requires that you are in good physical and mental health.
The journey to healing is a marathon, not a sprint. Being a supportive partner can be very taxing. You may not be exercising enough, eating a healthy diet, or visiting a therapist or doctor regularly. Maintaining your own physical and spiritual health is an investment that can pay off for your partner and your entire family.
Below are some tips on how to take care of yourself throughout the process:
- Meditation: Living with the barrage of consequences of your loved one’s addiction can cause you to feel out of control. You may find yourself constantly worrying about what they are up to or where they are. In the midst of all of these ruminating thoughts, meditation can help bring a sense of calm. Meditation has been shown to bring clarity to individuals who are struggling with issues such as cancer, pain, and addiction.
- Boundaries: Outlining and maintaining clear boundaries can help you retain your sanity and may hasten your partner’s realization that they need help. While you may allow some latitude in certain areas, others may be deal-breakers. For example, if you have said they cannot abuse substances in the house where your children are living and they do not adhere, it may be time to re-evaluate some aspects of your relationship, such as whether you can continue to live in the same household.
- Exercise: Make sure that you keep a regular exercise schedule to avoid dipping into a depressed or anxious state. Studies show that exercise is a proven way to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. Most people say that they do not have enough time to exercise while taking care of an addicted loved one, but you can start small. You can exercise for 15-20 minutes a day and work up to longer periods on the weekends. This can help clear your head and keep you strong.
- Individual therapy: Talking with someone regularly can allow you to open up about the things you are going through. Therapy can help you develop healthy strategies to solve problems and move forward. Talking to a professional can also alleviate stress, depression, and anxiety, decrease the chances of separation and divorce, and reduce the risk of domestic violence. 5
Other ways to stay healthy include the following:
- Take time for yourself: One of the greatest gifts you can give yourself is time. You can take time to sit down, listen to music or a podcast, or work on an art project.
- Make healthy food choices: There are plenty of ways to shift your diet and start incorporating healthy foods into your daily meals. You can start by looking online for easy and healthy recipes or meal prep ideas. You can also download an app that tracks what you eat.
- Get good sleep: Getting adequate sleep is beneficial to your health and mental wellbeing. If you are having trouble falling asleep, here are some tips:
- Keep your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet.
- Avoid watching TV or using your phone or computer right before bed.
- Listen to relaxing music before bed.
- Drink a cup of caffeine-free tea.
- Take a hot bath with Epsom salt.
- Take deep breaths: This is an easy stress-reduction technique that you can practice throughout your day. There are also apps available that can coach you through breathing exercises.
Ask for Support
Living with addiction can be extremely isolating, but you are not alone. You can reach out for support from your network. Science shows that social support with individuals, groups, and the larger community can help build up your resilience against stress.6
It is always a good idea to see a therapist regularly and/or find a support group that can be your outlet for processing your own emotions. Plus, this can help set you up for a strong, healthy relationship when your partner is ready to seek treatment. Groups like Al-Anon are support groups for friends and families of substance abusers.
If you have children, avoid turning to them for support or saying anything negative about your partner in front of them. You want your children to have a positive view of their parents, even if they are currently addicted to drugs or alcohol. If your kids see your partner engaging in drug-using behavior or asks why they are in rehab, you can say that the parent is sick and is getting help. You can say things like, “We love Mom, and when she’s not doing these things she can act unlike herself and she can scare us. But right now, she is really sick and once she gets better this behavior will stop.”
If you have teenage children, you can consider asking them to join Alateen, the young person version of Al-Anon.
If you want to talk to someone about treatment options for your loved one, we are available any time day or night to discuss options for getting them the help they need. Reach out to one of our admissions navigators to get the support and information you need to help your loved, and yourself. Call .
- Lee, K. M. T., Manning, V., Teoh, H. C., Winslow, M., Lee, A., Subramaniam, M., … & Wong, K. E. (2011). Stress?coping morbidity among family members of addiction patients in Singapore. Drug and alcohol review, 30(4), 441-447.
- Lieberman, M., Eisenberger, N., Crockett, M., Tom, S., Pfeifel, J., & Baldwin, M. (2007). Putting Feelings into Words Produces Therapeutic Effects in the Brain. Psychological Science, 18(5).
- The Center for Motivation and Change. (n.d.). Natural Consequences: Allowing Them to Happen.
- Self-Compassion.org. (n.d.). Exercises to Increase Self-Compassion.
- Center for Substance Abuse Treatment.(2004). Chapter 1 Substance Abuse Treatment and Family Therapy.
- Ozbay, F., Johnson, D. C., Dimoulas, E., Morgan, C. A., Charney, D., & Southwick, S. (2007). Social Support and Resilience to Stress: From Neurobiology to Clinical Practice. Psychiatry (Edgmont), 4(5), 35–40.