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  • joeywenning

Substance use and relationship distress

As we continue to adjust to our current situation with covid-19, I’m sure you’ve been aware of the increase in substance use. Substance abuse and addiction doesn’t discriminate, and can have particularly damaging effects on marriages. It’s not surprising that many couples seeking marriage counseling have a history of one or both partners struggling with a Substance Use Disorder. Sadly this isn’t a new discovery, as I’ve noticed this trend in my years of counseling couples long before covid. This relationship distress and substance abuse makes sense because: 1 - relationship problems are painful and lead to substance use, and 2 - substance abuse leads to relationship problems. Now that more couples are working from home and trying to balance their growing list of responsibilities, stressors and tension increases, as does relationship distress and substance abuse. 

These two points, coupled with the truth that we live in a “feel good, avoid suffering” kind of society, contributes to the high rates of substance abuse and addiction. This isn’t to discount the disease model of addiction which I very much believe. However, when substances are so readily available and normalized, and when we, as a culture, seek pleasure and avoid pain, it makes sense that we would turn to a substance to do just that. So let’s look more at the correlation between relationship distress and substance use. 

1 - Relationship problems are painful and lead to substance use. 

Bob and Cindy just had a huge fight, and Bob stormed out the door. He goes straight to the bar and has a couple shots of whiskey. Cindy takes a Xanax and goes to bed. The pain of the fight, the fear of divorce, and a myriad of other emotions intensify and they don’t feel good. Rather than acknowledging, processing, sharing, and FEELING their emotions, they numb them out. Emotions are unpleasant and scary and something to be avoided.

2 - Substance abuse leads to relationship problems.  

Sam got home from work and found Jane in the living room. She had just finished her second joint and was zoning out on social media. He tried to connect with her but was having a hard time. This was becoming a daily event, and eventually he stops reaching for her. Jane says after a long day of work, she deserves a “pick-me-up”. They feel like roommates more than lovers. 

In both scenarios, the relationship suffers. When we turn to substances to alter our feelings, we’re not able to identify what we need to address the real issue. Problems get swept under the rug, more problems pile up as a result of the substance use, and partners are turning away from each other. Legal substance use isn’t wrong, but you should understand why you’re using it. Is drinking a way of coping with a difficult situation? Does substance use make you feel less vulnerable talking to your spouse? Is using an escape away from a long day? Do you find it harder to connect with your spouse when one or both of you is under the influence? Instead of turning to a substance, what would it be like to turn to your spouse? How would your marriage be different? Authentically, 


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