oneqquiz
You can’t bully, cajole, guilt or love an addict into quitting. (Image: Archi Banal)
You can’t bully, cajole, guilt or love an addict into quitting. (Image: Archi Banal)

SocietyDecember 7, 2023

Help Me Hera: Is it possible to be in a happy relationship with an addict?

You can’t bully, cajole, guilt or love an addict into quitting. (Image: Archi Banal)
You can’t bully, cajole, guilt or love an addict into quitting. (Image: Archi Banal)

I have tried supporting him the best I can and I love him so much, but I’m finding the cycles of relief, anxiety and heartache almost too much to bear.

Want Hera’s help? Email your problem to helpme@thespinoff.co.nz

Dear Hera,

Is it possible to stay in a (happy) relationship with an addict? 

When I met this person three months ago, it was by chance, and we fell in love very quickly. He’s smart, sexy, emotionally intelligent, charismatic, kind and thoughtful; I have never felt so loved and understood. Initially, I wasn’t aware of the extent of his cocaine use – I knew he used it, but not how much a part of his life it was – but as we got to know each other it became more apparent. 

His experience with addiction and recovery has been quite turbulent over the past several years: he was sober and clean for 18 months at one point; six months ago he was using multiple times a week. Now, he uses roughly every three weeks and he’s currently in therapy for substance abuse. 

Over the past few months, he’s tried sobriety in varying forms – not drinking and not using, then drinking and not using – but he has relapsed three times (always when drinking). He’s very open about it with me and feels an enormous amount of shame and guilt each time, and I feel deeply for him. I have tried supporting him the best I can and I love him so much, but I’m finding the cycles of relief, anxiety and heartache almost too much to bear. What should I do?

Sincerely,

Heartbroken

a line of dice with blue dots

Dear Heartbroken,

Is it possible to be in a happy relationship with someone in recovery? 

Yes, absolutely.

Is it possible to be in a happy relationship with someone struggling with an active addiction? 

Probably not. 

This is a really hard one, and I feel for you both. You clearly have a huge amount of empathy for this guy. I imagine your feelings of self-preservation are in direct conflict with your anxiety about hurting him. But you’ve only been together for three months, and you’re already overloaded with worry and heartache. 

Addiction is a horrible, fucked up, insidious disease. I have nothing but respect for people who take on the emotionally exhausting chore of seeking help, and overhauling their entire lives. It takes an enormous amount of courage and hard work. But it’s definitely not a pleasant experience. Not for the people suffering, and not for those who love them. 

There are lots of kind and wonderful people who struggle with addiction. Often people who have been in recovery for years make excellent partners, because addiction is so pervasive, you need to build extraordinary reservoirs of emotional insight and strength to overcome it. Unfortunately, it sounds like your boyfriend isn’t quite there yet. 

It’s great he’s had success with prolonged sobriety in the past, and that he’s currently seeking help. But it sounds like he’s still kind of in denial about the scope of the problem. If he’s relapsed three times in three months, and each time has been while he’s drinking, his strategy isn’t working. If he wants to kick his drug habit, he needs to stop drinking altogether. It sounds like he’s not ready to acknowledge that giving up drugs also means overhauling his entire way of life – including many small and mundane pleasures, such as going out for a beer after work.

I’m pretty sure this isn’t news to him. I imagine this is exactly what his counsellors will be telling him. Whether or not he’s ready to accept it is another matter entirely. And even if he does accept it, that’s only the start of the process. Good intentions are important. But it’s pretty fucking hard to maintain that resolve. 

It feels evil to prioritise your own wellbeing when someone you love is struggling. Like some shitty girlboss aphorism. After all, don’t we have a responsibility to others? People need love and support to grow and change. I hate to sound like I’m telling you to put on a strawberry face mask and live-laugh-love your way out of there. If your husband of thirty years is diagnosed with brain cancer, divorce is not, for example, an enlightened form of self-care. But I’d strongly advise against embarking on a new relationship where the dynamic is already so lopsided. I truly hope this guy gets the help he needs. But his brand-new girlfriend isn’t the right person for the job. 

I worry that this situation is going to prematurely turn you into a caretaker instead of an equal partner. Will you be able to turn to him for support when you need it? Are you prepared to be entirely sober for him? Are you going to sit at home worrying every time he leaves the house? Do you feel safe enough to leave, without worrying he’ll use it as an excuse to self-destruct? That’s a huge burden to be carrying in such a new relationship. 

Even if you want to help, there’s nothing you can really do. You can’t bully, cajole, guilt or love an addict into quitting. The truth is, if he can’t stop for himself, he’s not going to be able to stop for you. The motivation has to come from within. Otherwise you’re going to be walking on eggshells for the rest of your relationship, hoping every disagreement won’t be the catalyst for a relapse. 

This is a horrible decision to have to make, especially when you’re newly awash in romantic endorphins. But you don’t actually know this guy. Not really. People are never who they pretend to be in the first few months of dating. There’s no harm in that; we all want to show off our best sides. But even if he’s been open and vulnerable, that’s still a highly curated version of reality. 

Sometimes when relationships are emotionally turbulent, with high highs and low lows, it can be much harder to walk away, because the cycle of anxiety and relief can be intoxicating. He’s able to be so candid with you because you’re both in the honeymoon period. But that kind of intimacy can be very short lived. Will his vulnerability still be so charming when he relapses for the tenth time? Will he continue to be honest with you when he feels his honesty is no longer paying dividends? 

I can see how much you care. But you didn’t ask if it was possible to be in a relationship with an addict. You asked if it was possible to be in a happy relationship with an addict. And I can promise you that whatever heartbreak and anxiety you’re feeling now isn’t likely to get easier any time soon. 

That doesn’t mean you can’t support him as a friend, or earnestly want the best for him. But until he makes some big changes in his life and manages to sustain them, it’s going to be a long, hard road. I can only advise leaving now, before it gets even harder to walk away. 

Want Hera’s help? Email your problem to helpme@thespinoff.co.nzRead the previous Help Me Heras here.

Keep going!