Dealing with an Addicted Spouse

Image from kristenbomas.com

American culture is rife with addiction. And many people in the church like to pretend it doesn’t exist within their pews. But it does. Often, when all the ‘amen’s and ‘hallelujah’s have ceased, and the worship team has gone home for the day, a fellow church member is whispering to a trusted friend in the back corner about her struggle to live with an addicted spouse. I know, because I’m often the trusted friend.

My heart breaks for people who have to deal with a significant other’s addiction. It is almost unbearably painful and frustrating. Addiction destroys trusts and often brings couples to financial ruin. After seeing the effects of addiction within my own family, I think it’s time to address the issue for others who may be suffering. I will attempt to shed some light on addiction and hopefully provide a little wisdom in how to deal with it effectively.

(Note: Anyone dealing with addiction or an addicted family member should seek professional counseling.)

What It Means to be Addicted

Addiction is the total bondage of a person: mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually.

Mental, because the addict believes feeding his addiction is necessary for his sanity.

Physical, because performing the behavior releases a powerful wave of dopamine in the brain that makes the addict feel good. This good feeling, at the moment it is triggered, outweighs any feelings of guilt or shame, or the knowledge that loved ones will be left angry, betrayed, and disappointed.

Emotional, because the addiction is often a way of coping with past trauma.

Spiritual, because the addiction rules the addict’s life and becomes an idol to which everything else is sacrificed.

A person generally engages in an addictive behavior to comfort themselves in times of stress. After a while, the behavior becomes so ingrained that it becomes the addict’s default response to tense situations. Hardcore addicts can literally feel powerless to stop, even in the face of losing everything they care about. 

Addicts often feel intense shame about their behavior. (After all, who wants to admit that they are incapable of self-control?) This can trigger bouts of depression and rage. Addicts may even push loved ones away, hoping they will leave so the addict cannot hurt them anymore. If left unchecked, addiction becomes a vicious cycle that causes the addict’s life to spiral out of control: He engages in the behavior to cope with stress – loved ones become frustrated and angry – the addict is overwhelmed by shame – the addict engages in the behavior to cope with the shame – and so on.

Creating a Safe Place

One thing a loving spouse can do for an addict is create a safe place in the home for the addict to talk about his (or her) feelings and behavior. Lying is typical for addicts simply because they want to escape the shame of their behavior and spare their loved one’s feelings. Exploding in anger or nagging criticism at their confession will only increase their likelihood of lying. Yes, please admit your anger and hurt. But do so in a controlled manner. It is possible to express intense anger without resorting to screaming, berating or name-calling (even if you feel like punching your spouse in the throat). Your spouse needs to know that he is still loved and accepted, even if his behavior isn’t.

Whether or not your spouse is addicted, marriage should always be a safe place for confession and accountability.

Forgiving

The Bible says that love keeps no record of wrongs (1 Corinthians 13:5). That can seem impossible when it comes to dealing with patterns and cycles of behavior that cut your heart’s wounds deeper with every repeat. But there is some valuable wisdom here. If you’re going to keep your sanity while you see your spouse through his (or her) addiction, you can’t let the wrongs pile up under your skin. If your spouse confesses to a relapse, strive to forgive then and there. Acknowledge the pattern, but deal with the acts individually. Stay in the moment. Don’t rehash stuff that was laid to rest six months ago. That’s more than either of you can handle.

Communicating

Sometimes when hurt and anger piles up inside, communicating becomes too exhausting and painful.  But the war on addiction has never been won by silence. Talk to your spouse every. single. day. Talk about your day, the weather, what you plan to do on the weekend, anything. Try to engage in a positive manner. If your spouse is willing to participate, talking builds trust, intimacy and accountability. But if you’re disappointed, say so. If you’re upset, say so. Keeping quiet only enables your spouse to continue in addiction.

Being Honest

Being honest means refusing to keep up the charade that everything is hunky dory at your house. Dishonesty enables your spouse to continue in addiction. Remember, Satan is the father of lies (John 8:44). The more you pretend to the world that there’s no problem–by hiding his liquor, paying his debts, shoving his porn under the bed–the problem will only worsen. That’s how lies work.

Praying

Remember, addiction is a bondage that encompasses all facets of a person. The spiritual aspect of that bondage can only be broken off by the power of the Holy Spirit. That requires prayer. The power to forgive, to heal, to remain calm in infuriating circumstances is also found in prayer. Recognize, too, that the addicted spouse is in desperate need of emotional and psychological healing–the addiction is just a band-aid on a hemorrhaging wound. Until healing comes, the addiction will not go away.

Finding Support

Just as your spouse is powerless to overcome addiction on his (or her) own, you cannot walk the road of the supportive spouse all by your lonesome. Go to your spouse’s AA meetings. Get counseling for yourself. Join a support group. Approach a trusted friend or pastor at church and tell them what’s going on. And if they get all judgey on you, find another church. Seriously. If your church isn’t willing to support you in your greatest need, then what good is it? It’s about time the church acknowledged the real problem of addiction within its walls, anyway.

Have you had to deal with an addicted spouse or close family member? What was your experience?

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9 responses to “Dealing with an Addicted Spouse

  1. I find your comment that you are often the trusted friend, very interesting. That’s the way the Holy Spirit usually works. We don’t wear signs posting what we have gone through spiritually, but through the leading of the Holy Spirit people will seek out those who can minister to them directly. I have seen this over and over. Those that disclose to you that they are dealing with addiction have sensed a drawing to you. They may not recongnize that themselves, they may even wonder after they walk away why they disclosed that. I find it so fabulous how the Holy Spirit works in our lives to strengthen, encourage, and build us up even during our weakest moments in our lives. To bring people into our circle that can come along side of us to pray and mentor us and see us through to restoration!

    • I find, too, as I grow in the Holy Spirit, I can often sense when people (especially women) are struggling with a particular pain and feel drawn to minister to them.

  2. Okay, so you listed, “Mental, Physical, Emotional, Spiritual” and there are certain things you’ve mentioned that I’m down with…..

    but i’d say there is one element you left out;

    – Cultural –

    The simple fact of the matter is a lot of the things you might attribute to ‘mental, physical, emotional, or spiritual’ are not necessarily so…..but rather they are instead more rooted in the culture

    example: I have had a higher degree of success in working with addicts by changing their culture …..as opposed to dealing with the other four elements you mentioned.

    The way our western culture has become an entirely individualistic society ….our way of life is a breeding ground for negative addictive behaviors…..

    So here’s where I’m going; if we don’t recognize the negative impact of our particular way-of-life here in Western Society…we make the mistake of mis-diagnosing the problem of addictions.

    I’m very weary of both Christian and non-christian views of addiction that aren’t willing to admit that our-way-of life here is not the most healthy society –

    • Actually, I’m very much in agreement with your assessment. I agree that American culture is inherently unhealthy and should be addressed in regard to addiction. That said, this post was less about analyzing/explaining the causes of addiction and more about how a person can respond in a healthy, healing way to an addicted spouse. I suppose what I tire of is a gross misunderstanding of what it means to be addicted–a person can’t just “get over it” when someone tells him to. There is a healing process that must occur internally, and it often takes a long time. An addicted person requires much support in order to heal, which runs counter-culture to our Western individualism.

  3. Where do I get started to get help for
    My addiction. I can’t afford an expensive
    Rehab. What are some other ways I could
    Go about getting help and support ?

    • You can always call your local Department of Health and Human Services or hospital and ask what free or low-cost programs and support groups are available in your area. Some psychology offices have notices about such groups pinned in their waiting rooms. Another option is to reach out to a local church and see if they or another church in the area offers addiction counseling. There’s also an online 12-step program locator that you can find here: http://bit.ly/17B94kH. A close family member of mine was able to get help for virtually nothing, so it is possible. I’ll keep you in my prayers.