Talking About Addiction | Right as Rain by UW Medicine

Having a partner who is going through addiction is extremely difficult to deal with, not just for them, but for you.

It can be frustrating, infuriating and disappointing — and hard to deal with those emotions while you’re also trying to be empathetic with your partner.

There’s only so much you can do to help them. After all, it’s ultimately their decision if they seek help or ignore their problem. However, there are ways to create more opportunities for open conversation that may enable them to get the help they need and enable you to prioritize your own self-care.

The pandemic’s impact on addiction

First off: If your partner is addicted, know that this experience is becoming more common and you are not alone.

Mental health worsened for a lot of us during the pandemic — and one consequence of that has been an increase of using substances to cope.

Addiction has risen during the pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), putting people at increased risk of health issues.

In particular, opioid and stimulant use — and overdose — have gotten worse.

“People are more anxious and depressed from the pandemic. Combined with our coping skills being reduced or limited, that’s a recipe for disaster. A lot of people may have found substance use to fill that void,” says Mandy Owens, an assistant professor in the University of Washington School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences plus a clinical psychologist who studies substance use with the UW Addictions, Drug and Alcohol Institute (ADAI).

Substance use vs. addiction

Like any other issue, people experience addiction at different levels of intensity. Someone can use substances and not be addicted, either by using more often than is healthy or using in a way different than intended, such as overusing prescribed medications.

Use of drugs or alcohol in these ways may not significantly impact someone’s life. They may be able to function and fulfill their responsibilities. Or their use may make them unreliable or irritable, impacting their relationships with others. At this stage, they may not recognize their use as a problem — and other people may not, either.

Using substances can lead to addiction, where someone’s brain chemistry changes and makes them rely on the drug to get through daily life. They no longer have control over their use and their life seems to revolve around it. They may need more and more of the drug in order to feel its effects, because their body has developed a tolerance to it.

For Owens, whether or not someone’s substance use is veering toward addiction boils down to one question: Is the person’s use causing problems in their life?

In order for someone to be diagnosed with substance use disorder — the clinical name for addiction — they must meet at least some of the following criteria:

  • Taking a drug more often, for longer or in larger quantities than they should
  • Not being able to decrease use, even if they want to
  • Spending most of their time using or procuring the substance
  • Experiencing cravings for the substance
  • Being unable to fulfill responsibilities at home, work or school
  • No longer doing activities they used to enjoy
  • Using even when it causes problems or puts them in danger
  • Needing to use more to feel the substances’ effects and developing withdrawal

People can develop substance use disorder using legal drugs, such as alcohol, nicotine or opioids (or even caffeine), or illegal drugs, such as cocaine or LSD.

Helpful things to say about your partner’s addiction

Before you approach a conversation, take a moment to recognize that, while your partner’s use may be causing problems, there is also a root reason why they’re using. Maybe drinking helps numb their severe anxiety or doing drugs helps them sleep during a stressful time in their life, Owens says.

“Ask with genuine curiosity and as best you can without judgment. That will open the door to understanding what that use is doing in someone’s life,” Owens says.

Persistence and patience are key. Bring the subject up, then let them open up to you at their own pace. Sometimes, this may mean they aren’t ready to talk when you first ask — and that’s OK. If they trust that you’ll be ready to listen when they’re ready to talk, they may bring the subject up later.

“You can expect that this will be a process of planting seeds,” Owens says.

To get the conversation started, Owens has a few suggestions for things you can say:

  • “I noticed you drank/used a lot again this weekend. Do you want to talk about it?”
  • “I’m here for you if you want to talk.”
  • “What do you like about drinking/using? What don’t you like?”
  • “I care about you and I’m worried.”
  • “If now isn’t a good time to talk about this, can I check in with you in the future?”
  • “What can I do to help you?”

Unhelpful things to say about your partner’s addiction

Addiction is stereotyped and stigmatized, and because of this many people avoid talking about it. At the same time, the word is often trivialized. People use it in casual conversation — we’re “addicted” to avocado toast or Netflix or houseplants.

It’s important to recognize this stigma before approaching your partner about their addiction, Owens says. Trying to understand their experience for what it is — versus how addiction is portrayed in pop culture — will help avoid your partner from shutting down the conversation.

“You can really see internalized stigma where people feel so much shame about their use but also what they do because of their use,” Owens explains. “That causes a lot of spiraling, where people use more to cope with that shame, then feel more shame. That shame is a huge barrier to reaching out for help.”

There are a few things to avoid doing or saying when talking with someone about their addiction.

  • Don’t assume they are unaware of the negative impact of their use. Many people know on some level that what they are doing is unhelpful or unhealthy.
  • Don’t insinuate they don’t care about you. They don’t use substances because they don’t care, they use them because they have come to rely on them.
  • Don’t blame them or act like their addiction is a personality flaw. They are not wrong as a person; their behavior is wrong.
  • Don’t use a confrontational tone or mannerisms. This will only trigger their defensiveness.
  • Don’t talk about their addiction when you are in an emotionally heightened state, such as being very angry. Wait until you’ve had some time to cool off and think about your approach.

Setting boundaries when your partner is addicted

You’ve probably heard that metaphor about putting your own oxygen mask on before helping someone else with theirs — and that principle definitely applies in this situation.

That means taking care of yourself first, whatever that looks like for you, such as eating well, moving your body, sticking to a sleep schedule, meeting up with friends and doing activities you enjoy.

Setting boundaries is a key part of self-care, though it can be difficult to do when your partner’s addiction creeps into and affects your own life.

What boundaries you set depend on your circumstances, but Owens recommends being up front about them so everyone is on the same page.

When communicating a boundary, Owens suggests using a ‘boundary sandwich’: offer a compassionate statement, then communicate a clear boundary, then offer help.

Here’s an example of what this might look like:

“I care about you so much and I know you are trying to cut down on your drinking. But I can’t have you texting and calling me all day while I’m at work. Would it help if we explored getting you a therapist or some other kind of help?”

Professionals who treat substance use disorder and support groups exist for a reason. They have more time, training and resources to help the person you care about. Encouraging your partner to get professional help is one of the best things you can do for them, even if it takes time.

Seeking support for yourself is a good idea, too, whether that’s confiding in someone close to you, seeing a therapist or going to a support group for people whose loved ones overuse.

“There is so much stigma around addiction that it often is a secret. You may worry that you are spreading someone else’s secret if you try to get your own support, so you don’t – you don’t tell anyone. This leaves you cut off and is not sustainable,” Owens explains.

And don’t wait until you’re feeling burnt out to seek help — that doesn’t help you or your partner. Not only will you be unable to support them, you’re also more likely to experience negative emotions around their use that are more difficult to manage. It’s normal to feel anger, resentment or sadness but if you start feeling it to the point that you’re yelling at them all the time, are feeling like giving up, or are giving them the silent treatment, that’s a sign you’re burnt out.

Ultimately, remind yourself that you are not responsible for changing your partner’s behavior — but the actions you take and things you say (or don’t say) might help them choose to make changes.

Resources for people with substance use disorder and their loved ones

Leave a Comment