Helping the spouse of an addict: Do’s and don’tsWritten by Julie Holmquist
What's inside this article
A woman asks to meet with you, saying she could use some advice. At your meeting, you mention how tired she looks.
“Well,” she says, “I’ve been working two jobs because of the financial stress.”
“Oh?” you answer. “What’s going on?”
“I haven’t told anyone this yet,” the wife says softly. “I’m trying to keep my marriage together, but I just don’t know what to do anymore. It’s Ryan. I’m tired of telling people he’s under the weather. He’s not – he’s addicted to pain pills. He lost his job and drained our bank account. I’m so ashamed, and I just don’t know where to turn.”
While this particular conversation is hypothetical, the situation is all too common in marriages today.
If a person shares that he or she is the spouse an addict, what should you do? How can you help a nonaddicted spouse support their loved one without enabling the addiction?
While there are multiple types of addiction (substance, sexual, behavioural), each requiring different intervention and treatment strategies, it’s important for mentors to follow some basic guidelines as they come alongside a nonaddicted spouse. Focus on the Family counsellors offer advice on how a mentor can steer that spouse in a healthy direction while avoiding common pitfalls.
The first thing mentors can do to help a spouse of an addict is to listen well without making judgments.
“Ask them to tell you more, because there’s a strong chance they’ve been hiding this for a long time,” says Geremy Keeton, senior director of Focus on the Family’s counselling services in the U.S. and a licensed marriage and family therapist. “Listen well and let them feel safe. Let the story come out and do your best not to react in shock, because addiction runs off the fuel of shame. This is sacred ground if they’re starting to share their story.”
Many spouses hide or deny their spouse’s addiction because they think their spouse will get better, they believe their spouse’s promises to stop or they’re simply embarrassed. Other spouses might have just discovered their husband’s or wife’s addiction (for example, to pornography) and are in total shock. Both scenarios are common, Keeton explains. “Realize that they (the mentee) could be in either place. This is where you can make a very big difference just by being that nonjudgmental, listening presence.”
Once you’ve listened to their story, what’s next? How do you guide this spouse to help their husband or wife without enabling out-of-control behavioor or taking responsibility for it themselves? Keeton, along with Focus on the Family counsellors Lori Graham and Rob Jackson supply some do’s and don’ts for helping the spouse of an addict.
What mentors should not do
Don’t assume you can handle the addiction problem alone
For an addicted person to recover, he or she needs healing of body, mind and spirit. The mentor can offer spiritual support; but the professional counsellor needs to be responsible for mental health; and the doctor, for the person’s physical health, Jackson explains. Spiritual health is foundational, he says, but it’s not all an addict needs.
Keeton encourages mentors to use and rely on the Bible as spiritual encouragement and conviction for addressing sin, but to also integrate professional Christian counselling to aid in the healing. “Stand on the Word and what you know about it,” Keeton advises, “but realize that you’re dealing with a body, mind and spirit problem.” A mentor can be the influential handrailing on the stairway to recovery, he explains, but cannot act as the recovery counsellor.
Don’t minimize the issue and think it will go away
Gently but insistently encourage a full assessment of the person with addiction issues. The professional can evaluate the extent of the problem; mentors cannot.
What mentors should do
Give the spouse of an addict permission to get help
It’s vital for the nonaddicted spouse to get help immediately through therapy and support groups. The sooner that spouse taps into professional care, the better, Graham says.
“A mentor can help the nonaddicted spouse realize that they’re valuable enough to get help for themselves,” Keeton says. “Tell them that counselling will help them be all that they can be. Let them know that they are worthy, that they didn’t cause the problem. A mentor can help the nonaddictive spouse realize that they have dignity and value.”
Recommend individual counselling for both, initially; couple’s counselling at the appropriate time; and support groups for both spouses.
Share the “car crash” analogy if your mentee resists therapy
If the spouse of an addict resists starting therapy or joining a support group, use this analogy to try to change their mind. Tell him or her that being married to an addicted husband or wife is like being in a car accident. Say something such as, “You may not have been the person driving the car, but you were in the passenger seat. Maybe you have a closed-head injury or lacerations. You need to get into the ambulance, too. You were injured, you’re bleeding and you deserve treatment. So get in the ambulance. If you don’t, you’ll bleed out, and I can’t sit here and simply watch you bleed.”
Help your mentee make boundaries and stick to them
Focusing on the well-being of the healthier spouse in the marriage forces that person to set loving boundaries on their addicted spouse. As a spouse of an addict becomes healthier, they’re typically learning to set or to follow through on boundaries such as, “If you come home intoxicated, I’ll leave the house or I’ll ask you to leave the house.” As a mentor, you can support your mentee as he or she makes boundaries.
Sometimes significant boundaries, such as “If you get another DUI, we’ll have to separate,” are needed for the addicted spouse to realize the severity of the issue, Graham explains. “If the spouse still has a hardened heart, denial and no willingness to change, it’s best to not stay in a situation where the family is watching the spouse self-destruct,” she says. The spouse might need to consider what’s called a therapeutic or healing separation.
Mentors can double and even triple the effectiveness of recovery simply by asking questions, Keeton says. Mentors can ask, “What are you learning in your group and counselling this week?” and “How can I pray for you?” Keeton says that as you listen to their responses, “you’re giving them a place to work out the mess.”
Ask about the children
Always assume the situation is affecting the family’s kids. The mentee might say that their children aren’t aware of the issue, but children will be affected on some level, Keeton says. “Even if kids aren’t cognitively aware of the situation, they’re emotionally affected and aware on some level because of the dynamic of the home,” he explains.
The children’s welfare is another reason to assist the healthier spouse first, since that person will be able to ensure the kids are safe and stable. Mentors can also offer support simply by babysitting, attending a child’s school event or providing a meal.
Be available for an intervention with the addicted spouse
As a mentor, it’s not your role to design an intervention – leave that to the professionals. But do support the nonaddicted spouse however you can.
Be aware of your personality and emotional baggage
It’s important to know yourself as you attempt to deal with complex issues such as addiction. The counsellors suggest asking yourself the following questions:
Do you tend to want to rescue people? Remember that God is the Rescuer, not you, and he may work through many people and his Holy Spirit to heal someone.
Do you have such pain around the addiction issue that you become angry or reactive at a level that’s not helpful? If so, you might want to partner with your mentee to find a mentor who fits their needs in this specific area.
If you’ve experienced addiction in your past or in your family of origin, assess how far you’ve recovered from that experience before continuing as a mentor in this situation (for example, if you were a child of an alcoholic).
What the Bible says
“For all that is in the world – the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life – is not from the Father but is from the world” (1 John 2:16).
“So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (1 Thessalonians 5:6-8).
“ ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything.’ ” (1 Corinthians 6:12).
- For a free one-time phone counselling consultation, or to be referred to a counsellor in their area, the spouse may call Focus on the Family Canada at 1.800.661.9800, Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Pacific time.
- Celebrate Recovery is a Christ-centred 12-step recovery program for those seeking real and lasting freedom from addictive and dysfunctional patterns in their lives.
- Freedom Session is one of the most effective, encompassing and transferable healing-discipleship ministries available.
Julie Holmquist is a content producer for the Focus on the Family marriage team. She’s been married to her husband, Jeff, since 1986 and is also the author of A Call to Love: Preparing Your Heart and Soul for Adoption.
© 2022 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at focusonthefamily.com.
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