How Can I Explain Addiction To My Spouse?

Struggling with how to tell a spouse you are facing addiction?We explain how to make the conversation more comfortable. More here.

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ARTICLE OVERVIEW:  They know you need help. You might feel defensive. But how can you open up the conversation to talk about addiction in a non-judgmental way? We explore what addiction really is so that you are well prepared and informed first.


What Is Addiction, Really?

Before we begin, we think it’s a good idea to review just what addiction is. If you’re caught up in too much drinking or drug use…you are not a bad person! Addiction is a medical condition. It is treated medically…and can be overcome. How do you know you have a problem, or not?

Addiction can be recognized by two basic indicators. Usually, addiction is present when you end up drinking or using more drugs than you planned. But the hallmark sign of a problem is when you continue to use despite negative consequences in your life. 

Addiction is a disease that changes people’s brain affecting key areas responsible for judgment, memory, and behavior. Looking at addiction as a disease might help you and those around you understand that addiction is not anyone’s fault! Addiction is a disease that takes place within the brain and body. Knowing that addiction takes over a person’s life can your friends and loved ones better understand the complexity of these disease.

The Reasons Behind Addiction: What Makes You Addicted?

I started asking myself this very question about a decade ago when I was in early recovery. Why did I get addicted…and my sisters can drink normally? Why and how is my brain different? What does my family or my past have to do with my drinking and drugging patterns?

Well, the answers to my questions are not so clear.

Many addiction studies have concluded that substance use disorders are genetically originated and run through families. But genes are not the only factor which determines a susceptibility to addiction. According to one Swedish study conducted in 2012, out more than 18,000 adopted children born between 1950 and 1993, risk for addiction was found to be significantly increased in adopted children with biological parents who experienced addiction problems. [1]

However, addiction is not solely influenced by genetics. Socio-cultural factors and the surroundings you grow up in play a significant role in the formation of addiction disorders. Peer pressure and the need to fit in social groups are some of the key risk factors for the development of addiction among teenagers and adolescents. Family birth order, your parents’ marital harmony, and your own personality also have roles.

The influence of these multiple factors gives us a clue that addiction should not be seen as a weakness, or a characteristic flaw, but rather than a complex disease influenced by many factors. The compulsive nature of addiction makes people hooked on a drug-of-choice for a reason. Drugs and alcohol solve many of our original problems…just not in the long run.

Mix in chemical dependence with past life trauma and most people cannot quit on their own. The intensity and the discomfort of withdrawal symptoms makes it unmanageable to detox alone. Plus, detoxing alone can be dangerous! This reason alone points to the need for medical care and attention when a person decides to quit drinking or using drugs.

Biological Factors For Addictive Behaviors

Moving on, I think it’s crucial that you really understand what’s happening in the brain before you talk with a spouse. Knowing how the brain and body work to adapt substances as normal explains a lot about addiction.

Our brain is a dynamic and complex organ. One of the brain’s most important functions is to keep us alive. Proper brain function enables us to constantly adapt to our environment. However, ironic as it may sound, it is the brain’s ability to be so adaptive contributes to the formation of addiction. Addiction causes changes to the brain in various ways such as:

  1. Altering brain chemistry.
  2. Changing the brain structures and it’s functioning.
  3. Changing the brain’s communication patterns.
  4. Changing the brain’s natural balance.

Once a psychoactive substance enters the body, it is quickly metabolized and reaches the brain rapidly. Drugs and alcohol interact with the neural system and trigger effects. But with prolonged use, an effect called tolerance occurs, which is a reduced reaction to a substance. This is one of the main reasons why you need to drink more over time to get drunk…or you why prescription pills are time limited when legally prescribed by a doctor.

As time progresses, people become physically dependent on drugs or alcohol. A physically dependent person experiences withdrawal symptoms when they want to cut down or quit. The intensity of withdrawal symptoms can drive us right back to drinking or drugging. Physical withdrawal symptoms vary by substance and can differ significantly. Psychological symptoms tend to overlap and usually include:

  • Anxiety
  • Craving
  • Depression
  • Insomnia

No wonder quitting your drug-of-choice has become so difficult! Who wants to go through that?

Addiction: A Brain Disease – Not A Choice!

The human brain functions by the rule of reward and punishment. Activities such as dancing, eating, sex, or other pleasurable behaviors are directly linked to our health. Each stimulate the release of a neurotransmitter called dopamine. The increase of dopamine gives us the feeling of pleasure.

When the brain experiences pleasure, it tends to seek the same sensation and is motivated to continue repeating the same things which bring us pleasure. Drugs trigger that same part of the brain—the reward system. The only problem is that they do this unnaturally and to an extreme.

For example, when people abuse pain pills, their brain releases extreme amounts of dopamine. The brain overreacts, reducing the production of dopamine in an attempt to normalize these sudden, intensive high levels which drug abuse has created. This is how the cycle of addiction begins. Once an individual becomes addicted, s/he is not taking pills in order to feel good any more, but to feel “normal”. However, studies have shown that repeated drug use severely limits a person’s capacity to feel pleasure. [2]

Once addiction starts ruling a person’s brain, the compulsive behavior becomes a reflex need instead of a conscious choice. That is how addicted individuals lose their free willpower to make their own decisions.


Starting the Conversation

So, what is the best way to approach your spouse and tell them you’re struggling? How you start the conversation will be up to you. Personally, “big talks” like this need to be outlined. In my life, I would set aside time and make sure that there are no distractions. No phones. No kids. No work. And then, I’d just open up.

One of the biggest myths about addiction is that you can deal with it on your own! When getting started, know that needing help is a strength and not a weakness! So, we suggest that – however you do it – you let the cat out of the bag. This will be a very personal process. We can’t help you with that. But, when you discuss addiction with someone you love, keep in mind these three steps:

FIRST STEP: Avoid being in denial about your addiction. Instead, accept that you have a problem and move towards the solution.

SECOND STEP: Be completely honest and tell your spouse about your addiction directly. Do not try to link your problem with something else because you risk losing your spouse’s trust even more.

THIRD STEP: Express remorse, ask for support, and look for treatment alternatives together. You can use your addiction as a way to reconnect with your spouse and join forces

Asking for help is super critical. You are probably carrying the weight of decades of pent up issues. Again, you do not want to do this alone. I’m now almost 15 years into a drug and alcohol-free life…and I still see a psychotherapist when I need to. The idea is that issues are covering up some major pain. You need to bring these to the light…but you do need professional advice.

When looking for professional help, you can always benefit from family and couples therapy. Your spouse and your family should be an important piece of the recovery process. All family members are affected by your addiction. Family and/or couple’s therapy can help you work on dysfunctional relationships and broken communications between you and your spouse. Family and couples therapy’s main focus is to:

  1. Work with loved ones to understand the addiction and addicted individual.
  2. Work with everyone to communicate better.
  3. Work with the addict to learn how to communicate with loved ones.

Your Questions

Hopefully, we helped you learn more about how addiction works…and how to open up to your spouse. If you have any questions, please post them in the comments section below. We are happy to answer your questions in a personal and prompt manner, or refer you to someone who can help.

Reference Sources: [1] NCBI: Genetic and Familial Environmental Influences on the Risk for Drug Abuse, A National Swedish Adoption Study
[2] NIDA: Drugs, Brains, and Behavior, The Science of Addiction
Integrated Approaches to drug and alcohol problems: Action on Addiction 6.p
Mental Health: How Does Addiction Affect The Brain?
Shatter Proof: Science of Addiction
Treating Addiction: A Guide for professionals 33.p
Waters  Edge Recovery: How to Tell Your Partner About Your Drug Addiction
About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
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