Addiction is often referred to as a family disease. This Aesculapian epithet immediately began to make sense as Pontsho Matlhare of Por Vida Counselling in Gaborone explained how addiction affects the addict’s loved ones: “It has long been known that romantic relationships and marriage are an unhealthy mix with alcohol and substance abuse. Having a partner that struggles with alcohol or substance abuse creates a ripple that extends out onto all those he and she comes into contact with and those that love them. In the case of a partner who abuses drugs or alcohol, the effect is felt by his or her children, relatives, friends, and co-workers.”
Matlhare further states that, “however, many would argue that, aside from the abuser, the greatest price is often paid by the abuser’s partner. Romantic relationships in which a partner abuses drugs or alcohol is often a very unhappy relationship; in fact, these partners are often unhappier than couples who don’t have problems with alcohol or other drugs, but who seek help for marital problems. As alcohol and drug consumption increases, it starts to take more and more time away from the couple, taking its toll by creating an emotional distance between the partners that is difficult to overcome.”
Matlhare’s expert opinion is shared by local author, life coach and motivational speaker, Ashley Thaba and her husband Mr Percy Thaba whose work involves saving marriages.
At a recent marriage seminar hosted by the couple, Ashley was forthright on the issue of addiction and relationships: “Think twice about linking yourself with a person with a substance abuse problem in marriage. It will bring unnecessary trouble into your marriage,” she said.
The author-cum-marriage counsellor explained that substance abuse “can make a person unreliable, irresponsible, and can use up the hard-earned money of the family as well as bring physical harm to the one on drugs.”
Ashley’s opinion is backed by a growing body of research that has revealed how addicts have a tendency to lie, mislead people and generally be dishonest about their intentions, their actions, and their feelings. In trying to protect themselves and their addiction, sometimes lying can spiral out of control. This results in false promises of quitting their drug habit while they continue doing it in secret. Many times, people continue lying about where all the money is going while it feeds their habit. Drug and alcohol addicts often resort to blaming and guilting others for their own actions and habits. They might accuse their loved ones of false things, such as not wanting them to be happy, all in an effort to manipulate their relationships into going the way they want.
Like Ashley warns, drug addiction and difficult relationships go hand in hand. It is a cycle; drug or alcohol abuse initiates conflict, that conflict causes stress, stress causes the addicted person to use, conflict ensues about drug use etc. As drug use continues, tension builds each passing day without resolve.
The take home from these experts is that, for people living with an addiction, the substance is the actual third wheel in their relationships and nothing good can come from a third wheel such as an addiction being in a relationship. It distracts a person from the values and principles of their main relationship.
Kgomotso Jongman of Jo’Speaks in Gaborone says “Once a substance user progresses from occasional use to addiction, they are likely to have a single focus: obtaining and using the substance. Most relationships often cannot compete with the euphoric experience of substance use, the user will typically put less time and energy into maintaining the relationship, allowing various damaging elements to begin to surface. Codependent individuals often get involved in relationships that are one-sided. Someone who is codependent may be frustrated by the needs and actions of their addicted loved one but may also feel a need to take care of that. Codependent relationships typically involve their fair share of enabling, as the caretaker figure will try to cover for the addicted individual or resolve their issues instead of allowing them to face the natural consequences of their substance use.”
Codependency is a dysfunctional dynamic where the addicted partner is enabled by the other partner. The “caretaker” will often devote their entire life and wellbeing into taking care of and enabling the person with an addiction, while simultaneously not helping them recover or allowing them to get sober. This kind of dynamic often happens in romantic relationships as well as between friends, parents, children, siblings and other family members. Of course, codependency is not a relationship trait that applies only to addicts, but its prevalence is mostly concentrated around those who have an addiction. This is because having a substance addiction changes a person’s entire self, the way they act towards others, and the way they move through life and function. lack of personal boundaries are also a major problem.
As Jongman explained, when substance addiction appears in relationships, the elements that once made things click begin to deteriorate. Those battling addiction begin focusing on getting the drugs to maintain their habit and their high at whatever the cost. Secrecy and deception also creep into the union. This secrecy may increase to the point where your loved ones will begin isolating and distancing themselves from their significant others. These relationships, once built on trust, mutual respect, and love become filled with doubt, mistrust, and lies. They become, in essence, relationships built on quicksand. Everything the addict does, whether or not he is aware of it, is to keep the fires of his addiction burning. How he interacts with his spouse or partner becomes a piece of that machinery. The partner’s reaction can determine a number of other factors: if she offers an ultimatum, for example, that could be the end of the relationship, if she becomes complicit in the addiction, it could spread the disease into more social circles.