Like the song says, breaking up is hard to do. A breakup can be even harder when you’re leaving a relationship because your partner can’t shake off the long shadow cast by past addiction. If you are dating an addict, or married to one who is still caught up in a relapse cycle, it can be hard. It also hurts if they choose their addiction over you. You want to support them through their illness, but you also know their addiction is taking a toll on you. How do you know whether to stay or go?
Is Addiction a Deal-Breaker?
Dating is hard enough as it is. You’ve likely had more than one broken heart. You don’t set out looking for a mate who has mental health issues or who is a substance abuser. When you dream of finding love, you probably don’t imagine dating an addict. Despite your plans, you may fall in love with someone struggling with substance abuse. It’s not on your wish list to be with someone in alcoholism treatment or addiction treatment. Like most people, you want a romantic relationship that is healthy. Does dating an addict mean you can’t have a healthy relationship? Does falling for someone with a drug or alcohol history mean you have landed in a relationship with a bad person? No, it doesn’t. But it does mean that your relationship survival may require extra vigilance because drugs and alcohol can take over a person’s life. Studies show, however, that addicts with closer family ties have a stronger chance of recovery.
Pros and Cons of Loving People in Recovery
An addict in recovery may be one of the most aware people you will meet. If they’ve been in recovery for a while, they are often:
- Involved in continuing care
- Active in 12-step programs
- Aware of ways to stay clean and sober
- Experienced with treatment programs or drug rehab
- Working on their mental health, often through therapy sessions
- Practicing coping skills to stay clean
On the flip side, there are some inherent risks of being in relationship with recovering addicts:
- Drug addicts can be pulled back into using and may relapse.
- A recovered drug addict may have health problems.
- They may refuse to enter, or return to, addiction treatment.
- They may be more prone to addiction after medical problems or surgery, such as opiate addiction.
- Recovering alcoholics and former drug addicts may be more vulnerable to process addictions like gambling addiction or sex addiction.
It is important to set boundaries that keep you and your relationship as healthy as possible, especially if you are struggling with addiction yourself.
When You Should Consider Leaving an Addicted Partner
A history of addiction doesn’t have to be a deal breaker, but there are several signals that your relationship is unhealthy. This is particularly true if you’re dating someone who is in active addiction with no recovery plan in place. In these cases, you may both be better off in a different situation for a while. You’re caught up in enabling behavior. When you’re dating an addict you want to be helpful but it is possible to help too much, or in a detrimental way. Have you loaned money to your addicted partner or lied for them, over and over? Are you focusing on your addicted partner so much that you’re unavailable to others who need you? Are you paying less attention to your children, family members or friends? Are you always putting your partner’s problems and desires before yours? If you are ignoring your own needs, it may be time to take a hard look at the situation. You may feel that if you stay with your partner, you can help “save” them. You may believe you can stop them from relapse or support them in their recovery process. But it is important to ask yourself, “Am I making matters worse by sticking around to always pick up the pieces?” Your support is important to a partner who is in addiction recovery. Yet you must determine if the kind of support you are giving is healthy — for both or you. For example, are you doing things that protect your partner from the consequences of their actions? If so, your behavior may be “enabling.” This is not constructive. It may feel like you’re helping, but you may be hurting your partner. It prevents them from learning how to stand on their own. It interferes with them taking the necessary steps to become healthy and may stop them from being responsible and fulfilled. Your partner is emotionally unavailable to you. If you’re feeling neglected or unfulfilled emotionally, take stock of the situation. Otherwise it can undermine your emotional and physical health. Are you suffering health problems due to your addicted partner’s behavior? Is your overwhelming concern for them making you lose sleep? Are you finding it difficult to concentrate or work? Is worrying about your addicted partner distracting you from life? The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) reports addiction impacts all of an addict’s relationships, but the spouse or romantic partner often suffers the most. This is also true if you are a partner of or dating an addict. An addict’s drug or alcohol use can lead to emotional distance between the partners. It also leads to arguments about the addiction. These upsets can trigger relapse. Both partners get caught in a vicious cycle that is difficult to overcome. The AAMFT recommends that a partner be included in the addiction treatment plan. This is an approach that can help resolve these types of conflicts in a relationship. You’ve lost hope things will get better. You may feel fed up with a repeating cycle: relapse that has led to breakups and periods of renewed sobriety that have led to reunions. Then back to square one. Ask yourself: Do you see any possibility for change? Is your partner making any strides in changing behaviors, or do you feel stuck? Being in a relationship with an addict can be draining. Your nervous system is on high alert. You are always anticipating the return of the problem. It leaves a partner stressed, anxious and unhappy. The fact that 40 to 60 percent of addicts will relapse can be painful for partners and loved ones. If you are dating an addict this doesn’t mean the relationship is hopeless. Relapse is often preventable. But it does require vigilance, awareness and the return to treatment at the first sign of a problem. When You Should Consider Staying With an Addicted Partner In some cases, people working toward addiction recovery can be strong, emotionally aware partners. Here are a few signs your relationship is headed in the right direction. You’ve taken steps to avoid enabling. This may mean you’ve agreed to one-on-one counseling for yourself or that you have reached out to other support programs. In general, your self-care enables you to feel hopeful and you see a possible future with your partner. If you feel you are on the right track, it may be worthwhile to stay and work on your relationship. If you can’t break out of enabling or codependency, you may have to make the decision to leave or separate for a while. This may give you the space to focus on your own healing. It may also allow your partner to find their way to lasting sobriety. Then you can return to the relationship even if you must first take a break. Your partner has a solid relapse prevention plan. You may have an addicted partner who has been participating in a recovery program and is actively maintaining their sobriety. Relapses have been few and far between. Staying in the relationship is easier when your partner has a solid plan in place. This way, there is help if relapse rears its head. They must prove their commitment to their recovery. They must work with support groups and create a sober community of friends. Without a plan and an ongoing investment in recovery, relapse is likely. Triggers to drink or use can lead even the most well-intentioned person back into active substance abuse. You’re both receiving the support you need. Do you feel supportive of your partner’s recovery or are you resentful of the time they dedicate to support groups? Do you feel left out of other recovery-related commitments? Recovery needs to be their first priority, but do you feel that you’re also a priority and adequately supported and fulfilled in the relationship? Your addicted partner needs ongoing support to stay sober and free from drug abuse or alcohol addiction, and they should be vigilant about working their recovery program. Likewise, as the partner of an addict, you need to ensure your needs are met. Have you and your partner been able to strike this balance? If both of your needs are being met most of the time, your relationship is likely on solid ground, and you may decide to stay for the long term.
Get the Help You Both Need
Making the decision to stay or let go of a relationship with an addicted partner can be extremely difficult. Only you can know when you’ve reached your breaking point. Whatever you decide, give yourself permission to take care of yourself. That way, you’ll be able to let go and move on or stay and provide healthy support for your loved one in recovery, without sacrificing your own needs. Make sure you have the right mental health services and addiction recovery resources to support you both for the long haul.