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with Tarra Bates-Duford, Ph.D., MFT

Romantic Relationships and Substance Abuse: 8 Signs of Harm


Addiction is defined as a habitual psychological or physiologic dependence on a substance or practice that is beyond voluntary control. Addiction is a process; it does not happen overnight. Most people do not become addicted by choice, nor do they even think they will become addicted to drugs or alcohol. For most people, the addiction process starts off rather innocently, i.e., a strong desire to overcome challenges related to socially engaging with others, numb negative feelings, manage psychological or physical pain. It should be noted people do not continue behaviors for no reason, specifically drug and alcohol use. Most people continue to use because there is some benefit to the continued use of the drug, which reinforces the use and abuse. Drug and alcohol abuse not only affects the abuser and his/her life, but also the lives of romantic partners, family members, and those that love them. Substance abuse affects different family structures in different ways. No one romantic partner or family will react or manage the challenges of drug or alcohol abuse in the same way as each person’s reaction to abuse will be different and unique.

One of the most common ways someone becomes drug or alcohol addicted is through a process called self-medication. Self-medication is essentially a misnomer and rarely has anything to do with actual medication. Individuals that self-medicate do so as a way of trying to numb pre-existing negative feelings, emotions, distress, or physical pain.  For instance, some people may elect to self-medicate to avoid feelings of depression through the use of alcohol and will thus drink to ‘forget’ or numb the thoughts and the emotions associated with their depression. This works because alcohol will shut down the higher order brain functions thereby causing a lack of rumination and thought. Of course such ‘medicating’ is a very poor substitute for actual medications for depression and is not a viable alternative to therapy.

It has long been known that romantic relationships and marriage are an unhealthy mix with alcohol and substance abuse. Having a partner that struggles with alcohol or substance abuse creates a ripple that extends out onto all those he and she comes into contact with and those that love them. In the case of a partner who abuses drugs or alcohol, the effect is felt by his or her children, relatives, friends, and co-workers. However, many would argue that, aside from the abuser, the greatest price is often paid by the abuser’s partner. Romantic relationships in which a partner abuses drugs or alcohol is often a very unhappy relationship; in fact, these partners are often unhappier than couples who don’t have problems with alcohol or other drugs, but who seek help for marital problems. As alcohol and drug consumption increases, it starts to take more and more time away from the couple, taking its toll by creating an emotional distance between the partners that is difficult to overcome. As abuse escalates into addiction, couples also report that they fight and argue a great deal more than they had at any other time in their relationship, which sometimes can become violent. It is often the fighting itself that can create an environment or situation in which the partner with the drinking or drug problems uses these substances to reduce his or her stress.

Once substance abuse becomes the main reasons for fighting or arguing, a vicious cycle is created. Couples in which a partner abuses drugs or alcohol have a very difficult time getting out of this downward spiral; often holding onto memories of when the relationship was happy, when it was healthy.

8 Signs Drugs/Alcohol Abuse or Addiction is Causing Harm to your Relationship:

·         Challenges, interruptions, or conflict during communication

·         The non-abusing partner often has to “cover” for the partner who has been drinking or using drugs too much by making excuses for his or her actions, i.e., being hung over or too intoxicated to go to work so non-abusing partner provides an excuse of the user being sick.

·         Partners become isolated from family and friends as the abusing partner’s behavior is being hidden from others or relationships with others outside of the relationship has become strained do the alcohol or substance abuse.

·         Increased issues with finances, i.e., fallen behind financially because money is no longer being used appropriately. Money intended for household expenses are now being used on drugs or alcohol.

·         Drinking and drug use is one of the few things the partners like to do together.

·         Partners discover they have difficulty relating to each other emotionally, psychologically, physically, or sexually unless they are drunk or high. Abusing partners are unable to show signs of affection or to talk about the problems in their relationship unless drugs or alcohol are involved.

·         Partners have become so accustomed to one partner or both being high or inebriated that they are scared to contemplate what that relationship will look like once drugs or alcohol are no longer involved.

·         Episodes of domestic violence, hostile exchanges, or “angry touching” by either partner when a partner has been drinking or using drugs.   

Although, some couples will not show all or even most of these danger signs, if even one of these is present in your marriage or relationship, it indicates that it may be time for you to seek treatment for drug or alcohol addiction as well as relationship therapy. In order to successfully identify the reasons maintaining the drug or alcohol abuse the user must be able to identify what feelings, thoughts, etc., he or she is trying to block out. By abstaining from all alcohol and drug use, personal problems and issues within the relationship can be identified and addressed. It is not uncommon for one partner or both to assume the problems in their relationship as it pertains to drugs and alcohol is just a phase, it will pass. Unfortunately, that rarely happens. Most relationships will implode if partners do not get the necessary help to improve communication, address hidden issues, learn how to appropriately manage negative feelings, and develop better coping strategies.

Romantic Relationships and Substance Abuse: 8 Signs of Harm

Tarra Bates-Duford, Ph.D., MFT

My name is Dr. Tarra Bates-Duford PhD, MFT, CRS, CMFSW, BCPC I have a PhD in forensic Psychology specializing in familial dysfunctions and traumatic experience. I work with individuals and families struggling with familial dysfunctions, trauma, rape, and incest. I also have a masters in Marriage, Couples, & Family therapy. I am a certified relationship specialist with American Psychotherapy Association (#15221). I have more than 15 years in the field of mental health, relationships, and behavioral sciences.

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APA Reference
Bates-Duford, T. (2016). Romantic Relationships and Substance Abuse: 8 Signs of Harm. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 15, 2020, from


Last updated: 15 Sep 2016
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