There are Effective Strategies for Loving a Partner Struggling With Substance Abuse
Substance abuse is a challenge faced by people within all walks of life.
As an attorney, when I pick juries in cases involving the use of illegal substances, whether allegedly used by the defendant or the victim (or both), I have to ask tough questions on voir dire (jury selection) in order to probe prospective juror experiences in this area.
Almost everyone raises their hand when asked if they know someone (including themselves) who has struggled with this issue.
Considering how widespread and common the experience, an important question is how to best support a loved one who is struggling.
Research provides some insight:
Love and Understanding
Katharine R. Sperandio et al. (2021) examined the experiences of non‐substance‐abusing men in romantic relationships with women who were using drugs in "When a Man Loves a Woman."
They began by acknowledging the prevalence of this issue, noting that in 2017, an estimated 19.7 million individuals 12 years of age or older presented with a substance use disorder (SUD) in the past year (citing Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2018) according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.; American Psychiatric Association, 2013) criteria.
They also point out that SUDs affect not only the individual struggling but romantic partners as well as the entire family — an observation that explains why the disorder is often viewed as both a personal issue and a relational concern.
Sperandio et al. (ibid.) recognize that partner stress is inversely linked with adaptive coping skills and outside support.
Specifically, they note that the social network maintained by the non‐substance‐abusing partner (NSAP) can mediate the impact of the partner's SUD by moderating the effects of stress on the NSAP, promoting enhanced physical and psychological well‐being.
Substance Abuse Changes Relationships Dynamics
Loving a partner struggling with substance use or abuse can change the dynamics of a romantic relationship in potentially several different ways.
One common theme Sperandio et al. (supra) found in their study was relationship vulnerability, in which participants experienced:
- Diminished intimacy
- Increased mistrust
- And . . . a lack of relational safety due to the unpredictability of a partner's SUD.
A second theme reflects the unpredictable trajectory of a relationship when one partner is struggling with SUD.
The "moment of awakening" described by Sperandio et al. (supra) is consistent with other research (Naylor and Lee, 2011): female partners recognized a pivotal moment within their relationship when they became aware of a substance use problem.
The men in their study similarly recalled an exact moment when they realized their partners were struggling with a SUD, after which they experienced a shift in relational dynamics as the struggle intensified, and their family system began to organize around the issue.
Other research acknowledges that the family system functions differently when one member is actively struggling with substance abuse, in an attempt to balance family functioning with the substance user’s challenges.
A third theme Sperandio et al. (supra) found in their research involved the ways in which individuals outside the partnership impacted the experience of loving a partner with an SUD.
Participants reported that their wellness was improved through outside social support, including family and friends.
They cited the importance of the Al‐Anon community within the alcoholism arena, for example, to helping find comfort in the empathy expressed by others who had similar experiences.
Balance and Boundaries
Supportive partners need to support themselves as well in order to help a loved one. Sperandio et al. (supra) found that their study participants acknowledged the need for detachment from their partners in promoting general wellness.
When participants set boundaries through detachment, they experienced the positive effects of focusing on their own recovery and wellness — which supports previous research finding that clear boundaries are "essential adaptive coping mechanisms" for partners who are affected by their partner's SUD.
In addition to all of the ways partners can love and support family members who are struggling, professional help is available.
In many cases, through family, friends, faith, and formal counseling, individuals struggling with substance abuse can regain health, happiness, and the promise of a bright future.
This article was originally published in Psychology Today, and is used with the permission of its author.
Wendy L. Patrick, JD, MDiv, Ph.D., is an award-winning career trial attorney and media commentator. She is host of "Live with Dr. Wendy" on KCBQ, and a daily guest on other media outlets, delivering a lively mix of flash, substance, and style. Read Dr. Wendy L. Patrick's Reports — More Here.
© 2024 Newsmax. All rights reserved.