Understanding Your Spouse's Addiction

An attachment perspective is necessary to fully grasp the disease of addiction.


There is no simple answer to what causes addiction.  A promising piece of the emerging puzzle has experts seeing addiction as a form of “insecure attachment.” In short, attachment is a deep, emotional bond, usually between two people. Furthermore, attachment theory holds the position that we need this attachment to others in order to manage our own emotions over the long term. Mood altering chemicals, alcohol or drugs can become a substitute in this regard.

In essence, it is an unhealthy way to soothe oneself emotionally rather than turning to a support system (for example, a spouse) for nurturing.  An addict’s emotional withdrawal from the marriage can be devastating to both spouses. Here are some considerations about addiction and attachment to help you gain a more comprehensive understanding of what is happening with your loved one. 

According to Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, Senior Clinical Advisor for Caron Ocean Drive treatment facility, "Attachment theory provides a frame for understanding the cause, effect and successful treatment for the destructive relationship patterns that emanate from addictive and behavioral health issues. Somewhere along their crucial development path, typically in infancy, a primary caregiver failed to be there for them in a loving and nurturing way."  He goes on to say, "As a result, the child learned that the world was unsafe, people untrustworthy and the resources in it scarce." Hence, an insecure attachment results.

Such experiences lead people to use coping strategies to get their needs met, some of which may be dysfunctional or downright destructive.  Dr. Hokemeyer further explains that such negative early experiences became "imprinted in the most primitive part of the person's brain called the limbic system." Substance use may have initially worked well to sooth pain by finally allowing the person to feel safe, secure and grounded in the world, even if only temporarily.

 Dr. David Sack, Director of Elements Behavioral Health, similarly comments, "Drugs and alcohol can seem to provide the answer. The relief they offer from distressing emotions wears off, however, and as use continues, more of the substance will be needed to achieve the same effect. As dependence grows, addiction may result."

It is hard to know what a spouse can do when facing this crisis and it is easy to fall into a pattern of enabling the addict.  Dr. Hokemeyer calls this "destructive care taking."  As troubling as it is to watch a loved one struggle with addiction, Dr. Sack advises, "You cannot overcome your spouse’s addiction for them, but you can help create an emotional climate that makes recovery more possible." He goes on to say, "Let them know you understand the difficulty of the challenge they face, and that you are in their corner. Encourage them to explore the roots of their addiction; the drinking or drug use may seem like the main issue, but it is often a symptom of a deeper problem." Relapses are also a part of the recovery process. Dr Sack encourages spouses to view these as "setbacks instead of failures."  

"While most people think that caretaking is ipso facto productive and healthy, enabling is a form of caretaking that is not" states Dr. Hokemeyer.

He describes how enabling actually does the opposite of helping: "Through enabling behaviors, the spouse allows the person with the addiction to escape the consequences of their disease and become subsumed in their partner's insecure attachment." Consequently, the disease of addiction becomes the substitute caregiver, so to speak.


"The addict's attachment to their partner is hijacked by their addiction."       ~ Dr. David Sack, M.D.


Dr. Sack echoes some of the same sentiments. "Attachment is all about connection, but sometimes addiction requires that we practice healthy detachment in order to truly help those we love. This can seem to be the opposite of the interrelated bonds we create when we become a couple. It’s because those bonds are so strong that we can find ourselves putting the needs and feelings of the addict first and unintentionally perpetuating their substance use problem." Dr. Sack further explains, "Addiction causes changes in the brain that can drive a person to lie, cheat and steal in order to maintain their habit." By setting limits as to what behavior you are willing to accept, you will help direct them toward recovery and make it much more likely to reestablish the relationship you once enjoyed.

When a spouse is working on recovery, there are ways to help establish a secure base for him or her without enabling. James Trone, a licensed professional counselor who works with addictions in his Nashville private practice, states, "There are several important considerations when helping a spouse in recovery. First, it is being accessible and open to each others' vulnerability. Second, it is being able to give and have autonomy in the relationship." He believes that partners need to be able to get to a place of sharing their underlying, core emotions with each other. Trone explains, "These are the softer emotions of fear, hurt, and sadness." Finally, spouses need to "be able to negotiate their needs with each other...it's is like learning a new language." Setting limits, firm boundaries and directing a spouse toward maintaining recovery is critical. Trone encourages spouses to discontinue codependency by "sharing your full voice" with him or her.  He cautions that this is not the time to "reject your own emotions and needs" but it is a time to face the problem head on.  These are proactive steps towards transferring someone's attachment from a substance to where it should be—with their partner.