When is the time for tough love? For unconditional support? Experts offer insight and hope to partners about addiction recovery.

Men's Health, Women's Health | 3 months ago

How to Support a Significant Other Who's Dealing With Addiction

When is the time for tough love? For unconditional support? Behavioral health experts at Atrium Health offer insight and hope to partners about addiction recovery.

Editor's Note: This article is part of a mini-series devoted to helping the loved ones of those dealing with addiction. Scroll to the bottom to read more.

For additional information and resources, visit Hope for Addiction today.

At first, the pills were prescribed. Bryan Licsko began taking painkillers after a car accident left him with back pain. He liked those painkillers – too much, he acknowledges now.

After the back pain subsided, his use of pain killers did not. Bryan found opioids when and where he could, seeking to recapture the feeling of using them for the first time. Soon, his recreational use of opioids became an addiction.

“You never quite get back to that original feeling,” Bryan says. “It’s something that’s elusive – you chase after it, you take more and more, and you’re not thinking about how much you are taking, how much is healthy for you, what could be a dangerous level. When you’re searching for that high, you just don’t care anymore. You just want to do whatever you can to get back to that spot.”

His wife approached him one morning, and she asked him where so much of their money had disappeared. Bryan broke down crying, told her everything about the painkillers and how badly he wanted to stop but how much he couldn’t.

Bryan’s wife listened. Then she picked up the phone to tell his boss that he wouldn’t be coming into work that day. Together, they searched for resources to help Bryan overcome his opioid addiction. They found Atrium Health’s intensive outpatient program, and Bryan began his road to recovery.

Loving Someone with an Addiction

Being in a relationship with someone dealing with addiction creates several layers of complications. The addiction can interfere with finances, complicate family relationships and impact our very foundation: home.

Determining whether a partner has an addiction or substance disorder can be difficult. Several indicators point to a problem:

  • Physical signs: Has your partner lost weight suddenly or no longer devotes the usual effort into self care?
  • Behavioral signs: Is it hard for your partner to keep promises or schedules? Is your partner missing work or school more often than usual, spending less time with family and friends, or spending more time with a new group of people?
  • Deceitful actions: Has your partner begun to lie or hide things? Have you noticed money that’s gone missing? Are there phone calls that your partner won’t answer in your presence?

Suspecting addiction in a significant other can provoke feelings of heartbreak, anger, frustration and uncertainty. To begin to cope, it helps to learn about addiction. Accept that addiction is a disease and not a choice.

“Family and friends need to understand that the person with the addiction doesn’t have control,” Bryan says. “Once you get addicted, it literally changes the chemical balances in your brain. You cannot stop.”

Physicians classify addiction as a disease due to the neurobiological changes that occur in the brain with repeated use of drugs or alcohol, says Stephen Wyatt, DO, the medical director of addiction medicine at Atrium Health. This is not a behavior that you can fix for your partner nor one that your partner can choose to stop. If your partner had diabetes, you wouldn’t offer to treat the diabetes nor would you ask your partner to stop having diabetes. Think of addiction similarly.

Understanding addiction as a disease offers hope, however: Doctors can use a disease model to treat addiction effectively. Your significant other can get better, and you can play an important role on the path to recovery.

Creating a Safe Space

Supporting a significant other through addiction can seem like an impossible balance. When is the right time for tough love? When is the right time for unconditional support? The best approach is somewhere in the middle.

First, understand that it’s not your role to treat your partner. It’s your role to love your partner through treatment. Larry Coplin, director of addiction services at Atrium Health, urges partners to do what they do best – love – so medical professionals can do what they are trained to do – treat.

Second, create a safe space for your significant other to talk, says William Wright, MD, an addiction psychiatrist at Atrium Health. Listen to thoughts and feelings and respond with, “I hear you,” rather than accusations or punishments. Avoid using labels like “addict” that can make someone feel judged or inferior. Empathy, both for yourself and your partner, is one of the most important tools during addiction recovery for couples.

In addition to limiting your role, also set limits for what you can and can’t accept moving forward, Dr. Wright says. Seeking support for yourself is vital.

“When you’ve reached the end of your rope, it’s time for you to get help and to mirror what that looks like,” Coplin says. Seek help so that you understand how to offer support and how to love within healthy limits.

The Path to Recovery

Many people think of residential facilities when they think of addiction recovery, but there are many options. Doctors will tailor a recovery model for the specific needs of your significant other, and it may involve inpatient or outpatient treatments, individual therapy, group therapy or medical-assisted therapies. Because addictions have so many contributing factors – including mental health, genetics and traumatic events – treatment options will address what’s relevant.

Treatment models are based in research and supported by evidence, and they’ll progress as patients do, addressing the particular needs of that particular time. Oftentimes, physical and emotional improvements begin to emerge within three to four weeks of patients starting recovery. These changes can create a big impact upon relationships as well.

“I find the work I do hugely rewarding because we have the opportunity to help people,” says Stephen Wyatt, MD, the medical director of addiction medicine at Atrium Health. “How rewarding it feels to help people stabilize this disease and find hope in their lives, and to start enjoying their families, their work, their social activities.”

A New Life for Bryan

It’s been two years since Bryan stopped using opioids. Initially, he felt a strong sense of guilt and regret over his years of addiction. Now, though, those feelings have been replaced by feelings of pride and accomplishment over staying clean and regaining control over his life.

“The amount of time I used to spend finding drugs, I get to spend that time with my family now,” he says. His highs now come from days at amusement parks with his family, afternoons at the pool with his daughter and enjoying good meals.

He talks with others who are going through this struggle themselves, and Bryan offers them the best piece of advice he has, inspired his own experience: “People can get help. People can get past this.”

If you or a loved one is in need of assistance, Atrium Health’s Behavioral Health Help Line is available 24/7 at 704-444-2400.


Take the Next Step: Register for a Workshop

Atrium Health, in partnership with the Charlotte Rescue Mission, will offer Recovery Works!, workshops in September. The workshops will offer advice, support and hope to loved ones of those dealing with addiction and substance use disorders. Learn more about Recovery Works! workshops.

Three-Part Series

Read our other two stories below:

How Parents Can Support a Child Who's Dealing with Addiction

How to Support a Friend Who's Dealing with Addiction