Updated: Aug 4, 2021
In marriage, each partner contributes to the interactions that shape the marriage. The interdependent nature of the relationship means that the health of the marital relationship is the sum total of the emotional/mental/spiritual/physical health of both spouses. Hence the reason marriage is frequently referred to as a dance.
Addiction is a biopsychosocial disorder. That’s a fancy way of saying that it has biological, psychological/emotional, and social components. While marriage cannot circumvent biological predispositions and dependencies, it can mitigate psychological/emotional and social issues.
Addiction, in a terribly over-simplified nutshell, contains trauma, insecure attachment, and emotion dysregulation. Substances and processes are used to help numb the uncomfortable, i.e., pain, shame, fear, and the like.
Within the confines of marriage, addiction becomes a mistress of sorts. Rather than turning toward one’s spouse, addiction steps in and drives a wedge between the couple. Resources - time, money, energy, and affection - that should be directed to the spouse are diverted to the addiction. Deception is employed to make space in the relationship for the addiction. Thus, addiction fragments marriages (Selbekk et al., 2015).
Barnett (2017) describes addiction as a “habitual, self-reinforcing interactive pattern [that] mobilizes and commandeers the relationship.” It is a destabilizing force in the marriage that forces each partner to seek homeostasis – enter enabling.
Enabling shields the addicted spouse from the full consequences of their actions. It is a concerted effort to achieve normalcy and keep the peace. It helps the spouse feel a measure of control in an out-of-control marriage. It is also a bid for connection.
Once an addict chooses sobriety, the marriage dynamic begins to shift in a healthier direction, and healing can begin. Ongoing support is crucial, which is why I suggest support groups like AA regardless of the path taken to sobriety.
As each spouse begins to do their work, personal growth builds trust – the foundation of a healthy marriage. “Couples hold the invisible key to one another’s attachment systems” (Barnett, 2017). In other words, marriage can become a safe, nurturing place where secure attachment can be achieved, healing from trauma can begin, and emotional regulation can be learned and practiced.
Couples struggling with sobriety need support – as a couple. AA and Al-Anon are tremendously beneficial programs to support each person. Contact me for help leveraging the marriage dynamic to increase the odds of sustained sobriety.
Angela W. Startz, MAHSC, CCLC
Barnett, M. (2017). Addiction treatment at the crossroads of couple therapy using EFT attachment processes to strengthen recovery. [PDF]. PESI
Selbekk, A. S., Sagvaag, H., & Fauske, H. (2015). Addiction, families and treatment: Acritical realist search for theories that can improve practice. Addiction Research & Theory, 23(3), 196-204. https://www.doi.org/10.3109/16066359.201.954555