Is Substance Abuse Affecting Your Relationship?

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Is Substance Abuse Affecting Your Relationship?

By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

Photo: Wallpaper Flare


Since the pandemic began, many people have been turning to alcohol or other drugs more often and in greater quantities to help them cope. Not only has there been a significant increase in substance use disorders, but there has also been a spike in overdoses. These aren’t just disembodied trends. They are made up of real people struggling in real ways. And although COVID-19 restrictions are easing and life may be “getting back to normal,” these issues will likely persist.

It’s important to be aware of the signs of abuse. Your loved one (or you) may have a substance abuse problem if:

You often argue about topics directly related to substance use. You may argue about whether they are abusing a substance, or about whether their use is causing other problems, such as tension in the relationship.

Trust in your relationship disappears. As problems pile up, so do the excuses. There is an unending list of reasons for being late, for snapping and being easily upset, or for missing money. When the trust erodes, other related problems begin to grow. Even as you spend time with the person, you may feel alone.

Your relationship is generally volatile. The person you love may seem to be frequently on edge, be highly reactive to small disagreements or even seemingly harmless comments. If they sense that you are seeing their substance use as a problem, they might react defensively and attempt to refocus attention elsewhere. Conversations can be circular, tense, and confusing, not to mention exhausting!

You don’t have fun together the way you used to. Even when your relationship is not volatile, you may find that your loved one is not emotionally engaged in life or interested in activities the way they used to be. They may seem emotionally flat, depressed, generally anxious, or have a tunnel-visioned focus on their “substance of choice.”

You connect less with other people. Not only might they withdraw from you, but they might also pull back from others in their life. So if the two of you are a couple and friends with other couples, you might feel isolated from those friends.

You feel a pull to protect them from problems caused by their substance use. You love them and don’t want them to hurt. In an effort to help them, you might try to cushion them from the destructiveness of their use. For instance, maybe you make excuses for them when they miss work, skip social plans, or fail to pay bills because of their use. You do this because you are empathic to their struggles, but this empathy is shortsighted. You are responding to their pain in the moment without seeing the long-term pain they will endure if they don’t stop their use. Only by them experiencing this pain or difficulty can they begin to truly acknowledge that their use is a problem. By comforting them and making their life easier, you are enabling their continued use and removing their motivation to change.

If you suspect that a loved one is abusing alcohol or another substance, it is essential that you try to talk about it with them. If they deny their substance abuse problem, you will need to decide how you want to proceed – either finding a way to continue in the relationship, or stepping away from it. If they acknowledge the problem, you can work together on a plan to reduce their use and its negative effect on your relationship. Sometimes, when people cannot control their use, professional help is needed. Hopefully, though, you and your partner can find your way together toward addressing the substance use and improving your relationship.


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Important:  This article is part of the WebMD Relationships blog. The articles in the WebMD Relationships blog are for general education purposes only. They should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional diagnosis, treatment, or advice. Do not delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider because of something you have read in this article.