Sometimes in couples counselling things can get to a stuck place where progress isn’t being made, despite what seems like everyone’s best efforts. A very common explanation for this can be that there is a hidden addiction issue present in the relationship.
Addictions take a huge toll on relationships. Partners sometimes describe the presence of addiction in a relationship being like there is an affair going on. Addiction can harm trust and a partner can turn to a substance (or a behaviour) for comfort in a similar way that they might to an affair partner.
The language of “codependency” has come into our speech to try to help people understand what goes on when their partner is an addict. Here’s one definition:
codependency |ˌkōdəˈpendənsē| “excessive emotional or psychological reliance on a partner, typically a partner who requires support due to an illness or addiction.”
The problem with this definition is that it’s not the reliance that’s the problem. In healthy relationships, we rely utterly on one another so that language of “excessive reliance” isn’t always helpful. The problem comes when we can’t get to our partner through the addiction. The problem comes when partners can’t talk to one another about the role the addiction plays in the relationship and how it stops them from really being able to get close and meet each other’s needs.
When that happens, partners get stuck in a cycle where one of them self-medicates or numbs in order to deal with the lack of healthy connection and the other accommodates their behaviour to compensate for the addiction and/or burns up all their energy trying to draw attention to the addiction. When that happens, it is profoundly difficult to get the relationship to a healthy place without some kind of help.
Terry Noble is a therapist in Peterborough, ON. You can find information about his counselling practice at www.terrynoble.ca.