Loving Someone with a Substance Use Disorder

Loving Someone with a Substance Use Disorder

Loving Someone with a Substance Use Disorder

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By Sarah Allen Benton, MS, LMHC, LPC, AADC

Valentine’s Day- the day of “Love” is quickly approaching.  We all have our own definition of love and how we show it to those we care about– the behaviors, words we say, things we give and make, boundaries we do and do not set, etc.  

However, when a loved one has a Substance Use Disorder (SUD), we may need to change the way in which we demonstrate our love towards them.  In some cases, it may be more challenging and it may also feel uncaring.  

Loved ones are often confused about how to approach these individuals especially when there is a lack of tangible losses to point to, only emotional consequences.  They also may have developed ingrained patterns in the way that they have related to their loved one. 

Those with SUD may not realize the extent to which their substance use affects others. The fact that they may be “functioning” and able to go to work, excel in academics, provide for their family and still drink excessively feeds their denial. They believe that their drinking and/or substance usage only impacts themselves, that they deserve to use because of their hard work or stress, and that if life appears “put together” on the outside that they are entitled to keep drinking or using substances. Their belief in this distorted thinking is often what enables them to continue using, despite the harm to others, risks, and negative consequences that they may experience).

Having an SUD affects every aspect of that individual’s life—but they are often unable to see this truth until they get sober. Some friends and family may also have “secondary” denial in that they do not believe that their loved one has a Substance Use Disorder despite ample evidence to the contrary.  In terms of intimate relationships, many spouses or romantic partners have reported that they experience difficulty connecting emotionally with a loved one with an SUD. The substance is their best friend and it is hard for anyone to compete with that primary relationship. 

How should loved ones show love?

  • Redefine how they show “love” and caring by assessing if past ways have positively or negatively impacted their addiction or willingness to get help
  • Reach out to get support from other family and friends
  • Any conversation should occur when the individual is NOT under the influence of alcohol and can often be most effective when they are hungover and possibly feeling guilt or remorse. It is important to express how their drinking is negatively affecting you (emotionally, spiritually, physically) and how you perceive it is harming others as well (friends, children). In order to prevent your loved one from getting overly defensive, you can place the emphasis on your feelings and concerns—instead of stating how you think he or she should be living or acting.
  • Just because you open up about this issue does not mean your loved one will immediately get help. However, what you are doing is planting a seed that may increase the chances that they will get help in the future. 
  • If your loved one is open to your concerns and is willing to seek help, he or she should also receive a clinical assessment to determine what level of care may be appropriate.
  • Expect that your loved one may become defensive and express that they are unwilling to seek help but also be open to their being receptive. 
  • There may come a point where your loved one is unwilling to seek help and is continuing to use substances despite your efforts to offer help. Therefore, you may need to set clear limits and, for example, state that you will not spend time with them when they are using or take a break from your relationship with them (romantic or friendship) until they get help. 
  • Attending family therapy can also support you in figuring out the best ways to continue to show “love” in a way that may be different from what you were used to in the past. 

The In-Home Addiction Treatment (IHAT) model is able to support individuals with SUDs in their home environment.  This also allows for the treatment team to support and treat the family as well through Family Education and Family Systems Therapy.   For those who have struggled to remain sober at home, it can be life changing to have trained professionals who can effectively support them in recommitting to their recovery in a familiar environment.  This program also is set up to provide a parallel recovery process for families.  

The In-Home Addiction Treatment (IHAT) Institute is training healthcare professionals to support individuals in the recovery process through this unique and innovative modality.  It’s a New Year and it may be time for healthcare professionals to try something different!  The institute is training staff in CT, MA, RI, NH, ME, VA, FL and IN and coming soon to more states in the near future.  

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1 Comment

Marshall Lane
Supporting a loved one with SUD can be difficult. Especially if that loved one's behavior is causing problems in the home and in life. Even more difficult if the loved one refuses to admit that the substance use is a problem. People are highly intelligent and resourceful. We make desisions based on logic or emotion. Mostly out of emotion. At first substance use can provide pleasure or relief, but it's not long until the substance takes center stage, and once dependency develops physical illness along with psychological distress follows separation from substance use. Criticizing, belittling, blaming, and condemning people struggling with a SUD challenges their intelligence and decision making ability. People like to feel empowered, especially in an individualistic society where choice and power of will is ingrained from an early age. By talking with loved ones and using I statements around what it is you are seeing and experiencing from a loved ones substance use, along with asking questions about the substance use, and focusing on ambivalence around the substance use; a conversation can develop. Next is offering support and options such as detox, treatment, support groups, and aftercare. All situations are different, and situational Awareness always applies. A best first step is the soft approach, giving space and understanding to all parties. Like the old adage goes "a person convinced against their will, is of the same opinion still"

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