When Your Spouse is the Child of an Addict – Help and Understanding for the Person You Love

When you get married, dealing with the aftermath of a childhood with addicted parents is probably one of the last things you think you’ll be doing for your spouse. Especially if your new husband or wife is not an addict themselves. However, the effects can run deep, and often require a lot of patience and work on the part of both halves of the couple.

First things first, you’ll want to understand what growing up with parents with substance abuse issues is like. Just because your spouse has a parent with addiction, does not mean that they themselves have a mental illness. They are still dealing with the repercussions of a difficult childhood fraught with instability. These effects often run deep throughout your partner’s entire life. As a child, they may have experienced some social issues, depression and low self-esteem. Growing up in a family dynamic where fear and anxiety have a regular presence has a profound effect on how romantic relationships develop in adulthood.

growing up in a family where fear and anxiety have a regular presence has a profound effect on how romantic relationships develop in adulthood

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Sharing a home with an addict creates a hyper-vigilant, survivalist state of mind. The constant walking on eggshells, reading people closely and watching for signs that something could change at any second is a stressful place to be. It’s no wonder adults who grow up watching a parent operate under the influence of drugs or alcohol can easily develop some unhealthy ideas about love and relationships. Unfortunately, you, in the role of spouse, may be left confused by your significant other’s behavior.

Should you find yourself puzzled by their silence, neediness, depression or other issues, we’ve gathered some information to help you gain a better understanding of the person you’ve chosen to spend your life with, for better or worse.

Your Spouse is Used to a Dysfunctional Family Landscape

Growing up alongside a family member struggling with addiction often causes a child to lack the understanding needed for a successful relationship when they grow up. For example, one parent may be deep in the throes of alcoholism, while the other parent enables their habit or is subject to cruelty or abuse. Neither scenario is representative of a healthy, loving relationship, causing potential for dysfunctional romantic relationships when that child becomes an adult.

Try to see it from your spouse’s point of view. Continuing to have a relationship with an addict parent can feel like there is this wall of artifice in the way of “normal” family interactions, leading to tense family gatherings and meal times. Over time, the family of an addict will make a number of small adjustments to accommodate the person living with addiction.

try to see it from your spouse's point of view

The child of an addict comes to expect erratic behavior, learning that loving another person may go hand in hand with abuse, cruelty, fear or secrecy. The child of an addict will hide feelings as a result of having no one to confide in at home.

Unfortunately, the adult children of addicts maintain certain behaviors they learned in childhood as a coping mechanism. Like it or not, the relationships we have with our parents inform the intimate relationships we have later in life. Understand that this is the case with your partner — regardless of whether or not you bear any similarities to their alcoholic parent. Your traumatized partner may transfer some of that anxiety onto your existing relationship, inadvertently blaming you for something you didn’t do.

As we go through life, we layer our different experiences onto our adult relationships, expecting them to play out as they did in our past. Adult children of addicts often still live as though the threat the parent represents is ever-looming, even decades after they’ve left home. Drug or alcohol addiction may not be present in your spouse, but they’ll likely carry some of the traits of an addict.

addiction may not be present in your spouse, but they'll likely carry some of the traits of an addict

Over time, stress accumulates, and can make it difficult for the child to find love as an adult or maintain a meaningful connection with a partner. Lingering feelings of abandonment, betrayal or fear turn into this underlying resentment, that often unfairly gets transferred to the new partner or spouse. When conflicts in the marriage arise — perhaps an argument or miscommunication – old wounds may open up, causing the spouse with addicted parents to blow up, or shut down, due to their learned struggle to deal with confrontation and emotion.

Defining Characteristics of Adults with Addict Parents

To help you better understand the person you married (it’s a work in progress), we’ve gathered a long list of traits common in individuals raised by parents afflicted with addiction.

  • They are incredibly harsh on themselves — they often felt unlovable as children and that has carried through to adulthood.
  • It can be hard for them to relax or have fun without being preoccupied or slightly on edge.
  • Often they feel anxious, like there’s this sensation of something being wrong.
  • They are prone to isolating themselves when feeling depressed or angry.
  • They may still have a fear of authority figures — particularly if the parents were volatile.
  • They may have low self-esteem and as a result, seek validation from others.
  • They often have a hard time expressing their needs or feelings when in an intimate relationship — this can lead to resentment, as the other partner never learns what needs should be met.
  • There may be a thrill-seeking aspect to their personality — drawn to the chaos that feels so familiar.
  • Your partner may be reactionary, coming off as passive at times.
  • They may also have trouble letting their guard down.
  • Children of addicts may experience frequent depression — in alcoholic homes, it’s normal to repress feelings, as expressing them is typically not tolerated.
  • Fear of intimacy — intimate situations are challenging for people from unstable homes. Falling in love and committing to another person may feel like a loss of control.
  • They may continue to feel like a victim.
  • They may have an unhealthy attraction to addicts or alcoholics—people are drawn to familiarity whether or not it’s healthy.

children of addicts may experience frequent depression

At Risk of Developing Addictive Habits or Compulsive Behavior

Your partner may display some compulsive behaviors of their own. Many people who grew up with addiction in the home find themselves attracted to friends or romantic partners with compulsions of their own — alcoholics or drug abusers, workaholics or someone who is emotionally distant.

In other cases, the children of addicts will develop co-dependent relationships with people they feel need taken care of, as they may have had to be responsible for their parent’s needs growing up. Often taking on the caretaker role will cause them to neglect their own needs, which in turn, shifts the focus away from their own issues that need worked out.

In other cases, adult children will take on similar tendencies to the addict, even if they don’t use drugs or alcohol themselves. Your spouse may be still be in denial from past trauma or have trouble forming functional relationships, romantic or otherwise. You might also notice that they have difficulty coping with loss or everyday stresses.

People are drawn to familiarity whether or not it's healthy

Some adults raised by drug addicts or alcoholics develop compulsive habits of their own. Maybe your spouse overworks himself, overeats or even abuses substances like his parents did. If you notice these behaviors surfacing, gently talk to your partner, and let them know you are there to help.

Let your partner know you are there to help

Your Spouse Lives in Constant Survival Mode

Due to the instability of growing up in a household with an addicted parent, your spouse may have difficulty truly relaxing. You may find that your spouse has trouble feeling at ease in social situations, even if they appear to be laughing alongside the group. While survival mode helped them get through the difficulties of their childhood, being on the defensive as an adult makes it more challenging to maintain healthy relationships with a friend or spouse.

Much to the chagrin of the partner who doesn’t come from a home with an addict, the one who does continues living with that survivalist mentality long after they leave the nest. While the logical side of our brain understands that one is safe after leaving a difficult situation, the actual brain chemistry in an adult child of an addict often stays the same.

Handling the frightening territory of an alcoholic in the home requires a tough outer shell — your partner is used to being on high alert for drastic changes in mood, shouting matches or outbursts of violence. The constant vigilance on the part of the child is something that doesn’t really go away. Your spouse may be watching for these signs in your behavior, regardless of whether you display any evidence of volatility.

How to Talk to Them

Learning how to effectively communicate with your partner is important in any relationship regardless of underlying issues. If your spouse came from a volatile home environment, communication gets a bit trickier, requiring a bit more compassion. Here are a few things you should know if your spouse comes from a family with addicted parents.

Be Patient

It takes a special person to love and care for someone who didn’t have a strong example of a good relationship growing up. Your spouse may process emotions differently than you or others. The fact of the matter is, your spouse requires a bit of patience and understanding on your part.

your spouse may process emotions differently than you

To be a good partner, you need to listen, learn and try your best to understand where the other person is coming from. That’s all that’s required of you. As far as changing your partner, that’s on them. When your loved one is ready to do some serious work, they will need to come to that conclusion on their own. You can’t force them into anything. As a child of addiction, they will likely not respond well to coercion.

Patience is key when a spouse has personal struggles to work on. If you find information you think would help them cope — whether that’s a new therapist, a self-help book, or a support group — feel free to share it with them. However, you can’t make them take your advice. What you’ll need to remember is, you chose to love this person as they are now. Not this fantasy of who they could become if they fixed a few things here and there, or took your advice. It’s great if they want to put in the work needed to change, but even so, it can be a long road ahead when unpacking problems that have been present since early childhood.

Lastly, express your own needs to your spouse. Because of their difficulty expressing emotions, and sometimes shut-off demeanor, your spouse will likely need things laid out for them. If they aren’t meeting an expectation you have, speak up — it’s likely the problem you are having isn’t as obvious to your partner as you think it is.

express your own needs to your spouse

Avoid Bossing Them Around or Being Overly Critical

Because adults with addict parents tend to have some discomfort with authority figures, they may become defensive if they feel as though you are telling them what to do. If you are in an intimate relationship with someone with an unstable background, anything you say to them could potentially be misinterpreted as criticism.

Remember, if your spouse has a parent with alcoholism, they may often be seeking approval from you. Telling them to do a chore, or that you don’t like something they do may feel like an attack rather than a typical interaction. On the other hand, you are one-half of this partnership, and your feelings matter too. If there is something that needs work in your relationship, always speak up. Just tread lightly if you know certain things trigger your spouse.

Don’t Expect them to Just “Get Over” Old Wounds

Your spouse grew up in a high stress environment, which makes things difficult years later, as they try to navigate the rugged terrain of emotions and intimacy in adulthood. The leftover pain from struggling with an unstable or abusive parent can sometimes be triggered by well-meaning intimacy. It’s hard to understand, but if you find being intimate sometimes elicits a negative response on the part of your spouse, know that it isn’t your doing. The fight or flight response often never goes away, and without help from a therapist, may have lasting effects on their relationship with you or any children you may have together. Your spouse may also be prone to overreacting. Small things like rolling your eyes, or shooting them a glance that conveys annoyance can trigger some deep emotional response.

Focus on Yourself

No relationship is healthy when the needs of one partner outweigh the other’s. It may be a challenge to understand all of the many nuances of your partner’s situation, and you’re sure to feel overwhelmed and frustrated from time to time.

This is always worth a reminder, even for those who aren’t married to someone raised in a dysfunctional home: don’t forget to take care of yourself. Bringing your best self to the table makes it easier to help someone else. Eat healthy foods that make you happy, focus on your platonic relationships with close friends and family. Exercise regularly and find hobbies that you can enjoy without your spouse.

bringing your best self to the table makes it easier to help someone else

People that came from an unstable home often have difficulty with commitment. Maintaining your independence is a positive thing for both parties, allowing you to feel satisfied with or without your spouse, while they can avoid the intermittent feelings of being “trapped” in a relationship for life.

What Happens if the Offending Parent is Still in the Picture?

Relationships with in-laws are already treacherous. Well, maybe not for all of us, but many people experience the stereotypical challenges that come along with a whole new family. But, having a civil relationship with the mother or father in law you know caused problems for your partner is complicated at best.

If the parent is still abusing drugs or alcohol, the amount of stress on the family is nothing to sniff at. Perhaps your partner has been trying to push their parent into getting help. Maybe they’ve given up on intervening. Having an addict in the family affects everyone, not just the addict. Your partner may feel like they’ve done everything they can and their parent is still harming themselves or others. Maybe they’re angry about past abuse or neglect.

Let your spouse take the lead on how to proceed here. They may still want to have a relationship with a parent who has caused them pain in the past. They may worry about their health and well-being. Be respectful, and provide an ear to listen or a shoulder to cry on if need be.

Unfortunately, there’s no official “addicted parents guide,” but here’s a few things to keep in mind:

  • Don’t speak ill of the offending parent — As much as you may feel anger toward the person who has caused your spouse so much pain, avoid trash talking them to your partner. Familial relationships can be complicated, complete with a full spectrum of conflicting feelings. Let them vent about their parent. As infuriating as it is, they may still love their mother or father and want to work on the relationship.
  • Learn more about their situation — Taking time to understand the plight of the child of an addict will help bolster your compassion for your loved one. Check out information devoted to adult children of alcoholics (ACOAs), or Al-Anon or Nar-Anon, support groups for people whose lives are affected by addiction.
  • Ask your partner what they need from you — It varies on a case-by-case basis, but find out if your partner wants help with coming to terms with their painful past. If your partner isn’t ready to tackle their issues yet, be patient. If they’re ready to look this problem right in the face, be there if they need some extra support. Keep in mind, the family in question is your spouse’s, not yours. Let them decide what to do. It’s challenging to watch from the sidelines, but you have to respect your partner’s wishes, whether or not you agree with them.

Therapy and Outside Support

Hopefully, your spouse is going to therapy on their own to work through their backlog of emotional issues and past traumas. Again, encouraging them to face their demons head on is okay, but only in small doses.

On your part, understanding that the real work to be done is a joint effort between the therapist and your partner.  Your job is to be there for the person you married, offering love and understanding through each step of the journey. That being said, couples’ therapy can also be effective in building understanding for your partner. A therapist can help you develop methods of communicating that you both feel comfortable with, helping you build a solid foundation for your relationship.

be there if they need extra support

Additionally, try encouraging your partner to seek out support groups for people in their situation, so they can connect with others that share their experience. Even if you are the most understanding spouse on the planet, you can’t fully understand what your significant other is going through if you haven’t been there yourself.

Need to Get Help?

Addicts aren’t the only ones who need relief from the effects of addiction. If you or someone in your family is struggling to deal with a relative with substance abuse issues, call 12 Keys Rehab today. Our trained staff is on hand to provide information on our family counseling services, as well as our various addiction treatment options and more.

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