In a strong relationship, you can talk to each other about anything. But when your partner develops a substance abuse problem, suddenly, reaching out to them isn’t so simple. Finding the right words to address the situation without making them feel judged or rejected takes careful consideration and preparation, especially since you don’t want to enable their behavior.
This guide will help you find the best time, setting, and words to speak to your partner about seeking help for their substance abuse. Take your personal situation into account to determine how to best apply this advice, including your living situation, the substance in question, and any children you have together. Finally, don’t hesitate to reach out to an addiction specialist or marriage counselor for further guidance as needed.
Talking to Your Partner
First and foremost, if you feel that your life or the lives of your children are in danger, get everyone to safety before initiating a conversation. Your personal security should never be overlooked, even if you think you’ll be able to convince your loved one to enter treatment. Be sure you have a safe place to go, ideally with a loved one you trust.
Do Some Research
Before you approach your partner, do some research into addiction and the particular substance(s) he or she uses. Especially if you have limited knowledge on the way addiction can take over the mind and body, it’s important that you have at least a basic understanding of what your companion is going through. Although getting a scientific understanding is an excellent place to start, don’t limit yourself to only the facts; try to also get an idea of the emotional aspect. Visit online addiction communities and message boards to get insight into how others have coped in these circumstances, both from the addict’s point of view and the spouse’s.
Speaking to those who truly understand your situation can give you invaluable perspective as well as boost your confidence for the tough conversation ahead of you.
At the very least, it can comfort you to know there are others out there who understand what you’re going through, but you may also want to consider reaching out for support.
Prepare Evidence And Examples
Take the time to stop and really think about what you want to say.
Once you’ve built up your addiction education, take some time to stop and really think about what you want to say to your partner. You’ll want to provide them with specific evidence that their substance abuse has gotten out of control. It could be problems at work, increased fighting between the two of you, or a complete withdrawal from social activities.
It’s best if you can provide concrete examples, as well. For instance, perhaps your partner missed your child’s performance at a school concert because he or she was too hungover to get up in the morning. It might be helpful to make notes about the points you want to make so that when the time comes, you won’t forget anything and have something to keep you on track in case you become flustered.
Find A Time To Talk One-On-One
Once you’ve laid out a general plan for the conversation, look for an opportunity for the two of you to talk one-on-one. Find a weekend afternoon that neither of you has plans, or an evening when the children can stay at a relative’s. If you both lead pretty busy lives, ask your partner to schedule a time that you can sit down and discuss something important.
You’ll also want to make sure that he or she is sober for the conversation, so they will be clear-headed enough to truly listen, absorb, and consider all that you have to say. You should each be willing to silence your phones and ignore any unexpected visitors — the conversation can lose momentum if interrupted, so limit the opportunity as much as possible.
Be mindful of your physical and verbal demeanor.
When the time to talk comes, be mindful of your physical and verbal demeanor. The two of you should both be sitting — don’t insist he or she sits while you stand as this can make the conversation feel condescending or lecture-like — and do what you can to keep your body language open.
It’s completely natural for you to feel nervous, even slightly overwhelmed, but try your best to remain calm. That might mean asking your partner for a moment to collect yourself before you begin, or allowing yourself a little extra time beforehand to practice a few relaxation techniques. You’ll likely have a few butterflies in the beginning no matter how much you prepare, so take a deep breath, grab your notes, and focus on your words.
Don’t Preach – Express Concern
Try not to preach or talk down to your partner. Instead, come from a place of concern. Begin by letting him or her know that you love them and are concerned for their welfare. Note what observations you’ve made about their behavior and why it concerns you. Avoid making aggressive or accusatory statements — the goal is to have a conversation, not a confrontation. Phrase your observations carefully: “I’ve noticed that lately you’ve been drinking quite a bit more than usual. Is everything alright?” is much less inflammatory than, “It seems like every single night you come home and get drunk. What’s going on?” It’s OK to be frustrated on the inside, but the priority now is to emphasize your sincere concern for their life.
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Stop, Look, And Listen
Give your companion the opportunity to respond, and pay attention to his or her body language. Look for defensive physical reactions like crossing their arms, turning their body away from you, and reduced eye contact. If this behavior is combined with a calm denial, be wary but continue on. However, if they become extremely upset or aggressive (even just verbally aggressive), stop the conversation where it is.
Let them know that you’re looking to have a calm, constructive talk and don’t want to fight. Tell them that you love them, support them, and want them to be healthy and happy. Say that you think it would be best to wait until another time when each of you is calm to continue to conversation, and you’ll reach out again soon. Also, mention that if they’re ready to come to you in the meantime, you’ll be ready to listen.
Remember to stay as cool and compassionate as possible; there’s no point in having a screaming match where neither person will be receptive, but you want to leave the door open for them to come to you.
On the other hand, if the conversation remains calm, continue on. Hear your partner out, but don’t be afraid to call them out if something doesn’t make sense. Counter excuses with the specific examples of problems you’ve marked in your notes: your partner denies that he or she is abusing a prescription painkiller, yet you’ve found excess prescription bottles in the trash, for example. Be gentle but firm. Reiterate that you aren’t looking to pass judgment or make them feel ashamed; you want to understand and help.
Don’t just say you want to understand — truly try to. If you’ve never faced an addiction, it’s going to be difficult, but you owe it to your partner to try. They may not outright admit there’s a substance abuse problem, but they might acknowledge they’re feeling especially stressed or upset lately. Ask why and if there’s anything you can do to help. Let them know you want them to be able to find healthy ways to cope, and you worry if they continue on the same path, your family and their life could be at risk.
Discuss Benefits Of Getting Help
Once you’ve had an open, honest talk about their behavior, it’s time to talk about treatment. Even if they haven’t completely admitted they’re addicted — which might be incredibly difficult for them to do, especially to the person they love most — let them know that the best and only option for your family to move forward is for them to enter rehabilitation. Your partner may be resistant to the idea, even if they’ve been receptive up to that point.
Emphasize that there are many benefits to addiction treatment:
- they’ll be able to safely detox under the care of trained professionals
- meet others who understand what they’re going through
- receive specialized counseling to get to the root of their addiction
- address any other underlying issues, co-occurring disorders
- they’ll learn healthier ways to cope with the challenges of life
Let them know that you’ll be supporting them every step of the way, and have every intention of being there for family counseling if it’s part of the program.
Many people are quick to give an ultimatum about treatment, but you should only do so if you are completely prepared to stick to what you say. If you tell your partner he or she will not be able to live at home if they continue on this path, don’t back down the moment they get desperate. If you’re planning on staying with a friend or family member until your partner gets help, don’t return home a moment earlier.
It’s crucial that you don’t make hollow threats that will only further enable their behavior; your companion must know that you mean business, and you also don’t want to return to a potentially dangerous living environment, especially if you have children.
It helps to look up what all your insurance company will cover as far as treatment goes, as well as the kinds of programs different centers offer. However, don’t make any decisions for your partner. Provide the information you have, but offer to help them look for the best program to meet their needs. Let them know there are a wide variety of options, each with its own benefits. Your partner might be interested in a center with a music program, or one that focuses on cognitive behavior therapy. Perhaps they’d be interested in a holistic track, or a center that allows regular visits so your children can still see them while they get better.
Make sure your partner focuses on the kind of program rather than the duration of time they’ll be away — a 30-day program isn’t going to be effective if your partner just wants to “get it over with.” Remember that he or she must be willing to make that decision for themselves and can only find lasting sobriety if they truly want it.
If there are children in the picture, decide together what you’ll say to them about the entire situation. Be honest, but remember that younger children will have a difficult time understanding what it all means. There are a few things you should stress:
- The addiction is not the children’s fault
- Your partner has a disease; he or she didn’t choose to become addicted
- Both parents love their children very much
- Both parents want the best possible life for the entire family
- Your partner is going somewhere special where they can receive the best treatment and return home healthy
While In Treatment
While your partner is in treatment — or if you are still waiting for him or her to agree — consider seeking counseling for yourself (and your children) in the meantime. The fact is that both of you need to heal, and having your own therapy sessions where you can air out your frustrations without hurting your partner can ease the process along. Be a pillar of support to your children, and check in with them regularly to find out how they’re feeling about everything.
Make sure you have someone to lean on, as well; just be sure to respect your partner’s privacy. It’s OK to confide in a loved one, but don’t promote your situation to all who will listen. You might even find you prefer the anonymity of support groups for partners of addicts — not only will you be able to better guard your family’s privacy, you’ll have the unique understanding and support of people who truly grasp the challenges you’re facing.
Talking to your partner about his or her substance abuse may be the most difficult conversation of your life, but you will be thankful in the end. Helping him or her see just how much their behavior impacts your family could be just the reality check they need to seek help. If they aren’t ready for treatment, you’ll be able to walk away knowing that you truly tried to help them.
Sometimes walking away is the best choice for everyone involved, and it doesn’t have to mean forever if your companion does ultimately enter rehabilitation and find lasting sobriety. However, if your loved one accepts their problem and you’re able to weather the storm together, you just might come out of it stronger than ever before.
- National Institute On Drug Abuse – What to Do If Your Adult Friend or Loved One Has a Problem with Drugs
- Huffington Post – How To Talk To A Child About A Parent’s Addiction
- SAMHSA – Treatments for Substance Use Disorders
- Facing Addiction with NCADD – Addiction Defined
- My Family Doctor – How to Help a Loved One
- Changing Minds – Open Body Language