As noted in the The Effects of Addiction on Families, addiction is a family disease. Those who live with a person who is actively abusing or addicted to alcohol or other drugs are at risk of a number of problems, including codependency, poor boundaries, faulty beliefs and issues related to self worth.
Give up the Illusion of Control – the popular 12-step programs for people with addictions and their family/friends all begin with Step 1 – admitting that you are powerless over alcohol/drugs/food/other people. For the loved ones of a person with an addiction, the work in Step 1 is to accept that you can control nobody but yourself. No amount of overt or covert attempts to control, manipulate or change a person with an addiction is successful long-term.
Threats of divorce, commitment to rehab or psychiatric facilities, loss of children, termination from employment, etc. are usually futile. Unless and until the person with the addiction is ready to make the very difficult changes required to live life without their drug of choice, the changes are usually temporary. The work required to learn new coping skills, change your habits, give up your friends, repair damaged relationships and live life in a totally different way is daunting.
Try to imagine what it would be like to make all these changes – develop empathy for your loved one rather than contempt. Realize that you need to focus your energy on yourself to heal your own hurt and pain. Admit defeat (surrender) – just give up trying to control things that are beyond your reach.
If you love someone who is addicted to alcohol or other drugs, you will eventually realize that the addiction comes before you and everything else – most of the time. Those brief periods when s/he is able to put you first provide a fleeting glimpse of hope that each time s/he quits will be the last. Unfortunately, for most people these experiences are short-lived and result in disappointment time and again.
It is critical to understand that your loved one’s addiction is more powerful than his/her best intentions. It truly is not about you, but an internal daily struggle within your loved one that only s/he can overcome.
While it is tempting to believe that your loved one is weak-willed or simply doesn’t love you enough to put down the drug of choice, the reality is addiction is far more complicated than willpower or love. It is a very real physical, psychological and social condition that often requires medical care to overcome.
Coping strategies: Cognitive behavioral therapy can be very helpful in managing the faulty beliefs and automatic negative thoughts that are inherent in living with someone with an addiction. Al-Anon is also very helpful in challenging these ways of thinking.
Enabling and Overprotection – many people who are well-intentioned and want to be helpful inadvertently set up scenarios that permit people with addictions to continue on a path of self destruction. Efforts to help, a desire to protect the person with the addiction, your own self interest and the wellbeing of your family often factor into these decisions – for example, lying to prevent your spouse from being fired so you can feed your family. While your actions may make things easier temporarily, they may only prolong the inevitable and prevent the person with the addiction from facing the consequences of his/her actions. This is a catch-22 that keeps many families entangled in the cycle of addiction.
Coping strategies: Every change you make in yourself and your behavior (less enabling, less attempts to control or protect, etc.) will affect your relationship. Save yourself – and be there to support your loved one if/when s/he is ready to do the same. You can do this while still in the relationship, if you learn to put the focus on yourself. Ask yourself in the decision making process “Is this choice helping or hurting me/my loved one?’
Detachment with Love – as a person who has spent some time in Al-Anon, I can honestly say that the most difficult thing to learn is detachment with love. Detachment without love often comes first, and for those who have difficulty setting boundaries, may simply be part of the learning curve. There is often very much pain, resentment and anger for those who have been living with an active alcoholic or other drug addict.
Coping strategies: Detachment requires that we withdraw the emotional energy invested in the person with the addiction and the addiction itself. We must redirect that energy, channeling it properly into our own self care. Spend time with people who understand addiction and how it affects individuals and families. Get help for yourself – focus your energy on your own healing.
"Step One." Paths to Recovery: Al-Anon's Steps, Traditions and Concepts. N.p.: AlAnon Family Groups Headquarters, n.d. 7-17. Print.
"Detachment with Love Gains New Meaning." Detachment with Love Gains New Meaning -- Hazelden. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Sept. 2013.