Something as simple as speaking to each other can be a struggle in a relationship when one of you is stuck in addiction. If you are the partner of an addict, you can suffer for a very long time with your needs for love, intimacy, and connection being neglected. You may get conditioned over time to keep quiet, and not even talk about what you need or want, so you don’t even bring it up anymore.
If you are the addict, you may be in denial about how much pain you are causing your partner from your complete preoccupation with using. Even if you are aware that you have a problem, you may be unwilling to face the reasons that are driving your using, and are keeping things buried inside you.
You could both find yourselves hiding feelings from each other, either afraid or unwilling to speak them out loud. You could be out making a grocery run together, and all the pain comes bursting out sideways into a screaming fight over driving technique and parking spaces.
When addiction is in the way, it can be hard to find common ground. If you are the partner of an addict, here are some tips for making it known where you stand.
1. Do find your own quiet space to get clear on the feelings you’re having that need to be discussed when they are sober. Don’t try talking to your partner if he or she is intoxicated.
2. Do describe what he or she did, and how it made you feel. Don’t shame them.
3. Do let them experience the actual consequences of their behaviour. Don’t lecture them about life.
4. Do speak up and be heard. Don’t worry too much about how they will react. You cannot control their feelings.
5. Do take it slow. Addicts usually have under-developed skill in regulating their highs and lows, and can get overwhelmed easily. Don’t flood them.
If you are the addict, there are some things you can do to meet your partner where they stand. You can also learn how to make it known where you stand, and in these ways, find the common ground.
Most of these tips are focused on listening. With practice, you can become great at this. Giving your partner space to be heard is your chance to step up and be there. They have likely spent most of your relationship or marriage feeling neglected, unappreciated, insignificant, and unloved. This is your chance to show them that they matter, because what they feel and what they say are important. You show care when you listen, validate, and understand. With practice, you can become great at this too.
1. Do just listen to them share with you. Don’t try to solve their problem.
2. Do just take deep breaths and listen. Don’t explain or defend. It doesn’t matter if you are right or wrong. What matters is that your partner is telling you how they feel about it.
3. Do find patience, keep breathing, and listen. Don’t shift into talking about a similar problem or experience that you have had.
4. Do say (and do mean it), “I can understand how you would feel really hurt by what I did.” Don’t plan your response while they are speaking. That would be arguing. If you are actively listening, you can show this by mirroring, or repeating back what they said.
5. Do speak up and ask for a pause, with an assurance to pick up the conversation again later. Don’t shut down if you feel overloaded.
Every tip listed above can be done without screaming or shouting. Although it can be painful, partners show respect to an addict by giving them the space to see the effects of their behaviour. Addicts show respect to partners by finally giving space to be seen, heard, and valued. This is common ground. It is small, shaky, and hard to find, as long as addiction stays in the way of your relationship. Yet it can be the beginning of something better, deeper, and stronger.