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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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?