Recovery from substance use disorder can cause many changes in your marriage — not all of them positive. But with support, your marriage can survive.

It’s well-known that substance use disorder (SUD) can negatively affect relationships. But what many people don’t realize is that even after sobriety, addiction can continue to have a negative impact.

There are over 40 million people in the U.S. alone living with substance use disorder. And many of those individuals have partners or spouses.

If your partner is recovering from addiction, the process can come with challenges, and it may take time to cope with those challenges, but you’re not alone.

By setting the right expectations and considering treatment for yourself, you can overcome addiction together with your partner.

Substance use disorder doesn’t only affect the person who’s addicted to drugs and alcohol — it affects loved ones as well, especially the partner who’s living with the person experiencing addiction.

According to the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), couples in which at least one partner lives with substance use disorder are often more unhappy than other couples.

Substance use disorder can negatively affect relationships and families in many ways, including:

  • drug and alcohol use can create an increased risk of violence and abuse within the relationship
  • substance use can be the direct cause of arguments and fights
  • buying drugs and alcohol can lead to fights about money
  • the couple can become isolated from their community to hide the partner’s substance use

Substance use within unhappy relationships can also become a downward spiral that can be difficult to get out of. One (or both) partner’s substance use can become the source of arguments.

But the stress that comes along with constant arguing can become a trigger for the person living with SUD to use drugs or alcohol.

What is codependency?

The term codependency is used often and colloquially. But originally, it was created to describe the romantic partners (usually women, although we now know that men can become codependent as well) of people with SUD.

These codependent people take care of their partners that live with a condition.

The entire relationship starts revolving around this dynamic: a partner living with a condition or disorder and the caretaking partner.

The problem is that codependent relationships are toxic for a variety of reasons. The caretaking partner typically puts their partner’s needs above their own, which can lead to:

  • poor health
  • unhealthy boundaries
  • worsening mental health

The caretaking partner in codependent relationships may also assume this unhealthy role in other relationships as well.

Codependency can also cause the non-addicted partner to unwittingly enable unhealthy behaviors, which may encourage substance use and addiction.

Many people expect life to become perfect after their partner becomes sober. You may have believed your partner’s substance use to be the root of all your relationship problems — so naturally, you assume that once the substance use is removed, life can get “back to normal.”

And this is sometimes the case. Some couples can thrive immediately after the addicted partner becomes sober.

But for most couples experiencing substance use, life after sobriety isn’t so smooth. This is because of the way long-term substance use has affected both partners as well as the relationship itself.

In addition, families can be understood as a system. When one partner decides to change their behavior (quit using drugs and alcohol), it causes ripples throughout the family system. This can be disruptive, even if the change made was positive.

The partner who has a substance use disorder

Recovery from substance use disorder can be an incredibly difficult, and sometimes painful, process. People who are walking away from long-term substance use may face physical withdrawal symptoms, including:

  • tremors and shakes
  • nausea and vomiting
  • insomnia
  • diarrhea

In addition, quitting drugs and alcohol also usually comes with mental health conditions, like anxiety or anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure). The partner in recovery may experience irritability and even have angry outbursts.

These mental health symptoms can last longer than the withdrawal period, especially if the person with SUD hasn’t learned healthy coping mechanisms to deal with unwanted feelings.

Recovery can also sometimes uncover underlying mental health conditions that have contributed to substance use disorder. For example, up to half of people with substance use disorder have also experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

If the partner living with SUD hasn’t found healthy ways to cope with the trauma or PTSD, then it could begin to affect them in negative ways.

Because of the difficult aspects of substance use recovery, the partner in recovery may not initially have the energy to commit to healing the relationship.

The non-addict partner

The supportive partner may also go through their own emotional process. SUD takes an enormous toll on intimate relationships. It’s often very difficult for the partner to let go of the resentment, anger, and fear they’ve felt over the time their partner was using drugs and alcohol.

In a relationship affected by substance use, it’s likely that trust has been broken many times. The supportive partner may have learned to walk on eggshells in an attempt to retain peace in the relationship.

It may require an intentional and lengthy process for both partners to learn how to rebuild trust within the relationship.

It’s recommended that the supportive partner seeks their own support during the recovery process. You may consider individual therapy or a peer-led support program like Al-Anon.

The relationship

Codependency can continue to affect marriages even after your partner has become sober.

That’s because codependency is a relationship trait and condition that’s independent of the substance use itself. In other words, it continues even when the substance use has stopped.

Even if your partner stops using drugs and alcohol, if the codependency itself isn’t addressed, this dynamic will continue to affect the relationship.

Codependency keeps people from having healthy relationships, so unless this dynamic is changed, sobriety may not be enough to keep the cycle from continuing.

If the person with SUD suddenly isn’t dependent upon their partner to take care of them, this can cause a disruption in the relationship as well. The supportive partner may want to be needed, and feel unhappy, lost, or confused with the new relationship dynamic.

If your partner is in recovery from substance use disorder, it’s important that you provide support in a way that doesn’t reinforce codependent behavior. Consider the following tips.

1. Take part in the treatment

Most treatment methods for substance use disorder involve the family. That means you will likely play a role in your partner’s treatment. Be engaged in their treatment, and work on healing the relationship.

According to 2018 research, supportive relationships with family, spouses, and sponsors help those working toward sobriety sustain their recovery.

2. Learn about substance use disorder

It’s beneficial for you to learn about substance use disorder, including how it affects both your partner as well as yourself. This may help you to understand SUD and how addiction works, which can help you separate your partner and the disease.

3. Try to stop enabling behaviors

Try to become aware of enabling behaviors. For example, you may feel tempted to make excuses for your loved one when they relapse. You might tell yourself (and others), “It was just one time; it’s not that serious.”

It’s suggested that you’re careful of these behaviors, as they can lead to a codependent dynamic.

4. Seek support

Addiction affects the entire family, including you. Consider seeking mental health support for yourself. A therapist can help you learn more about the role you may have played in a codependent relationship and learn healthier patterns.

If you’d like, you may consider online therapy options or support groups to find a mental health professional that can help you during this time.

5. Have realistic expectations

Although many people recover from SUD every day, recovery is often a long and complex process. Your partner may relapse one or more times before finally achieving long-term sobriety.

Make sure your expectations for their recovery are realistic. Try not to enable their substance use behaviors, but also try to release expectations of perfection.

If you’re seeking support…

Al-Anon is a 12-step based peer support group for family members of people addicted to alcohol and drugs. You can find a local or virtual support group, and access additional resources, on their website.

If alcohol or drug use has led to an abusive or violent situation, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE or text START to 88788.

Was this helpful?

Living with someone who has substance use disorder can be difficult, and also create changes in your relationship. Although recovery is positive for the whole family, it may not be as idyllic as you hope.

It can take time to recover your marriage during the recovery process, but support is available. You’re not alone. Professional treatment can help you and your partner cope with the negative effects of substance use.