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When a Man Overdoses, Why Do We Blame the Spouse?

On September 7, musician Mac Miller, a young man with a long and very public history of drug abuse, died of an overdose – most likely from his stated drug of choice, lean, also referred to as sizzurp, syrup, and purple drank. Whatever name is used, this potentially fatal concoction is usually a combination of codeine (a highly addictive opiate-based pain/cough reliever) and promethazine (an antihistamine that doubles as a sedative). Users high on lean often appear to be incredibly drunk – to the point where they literally need to “lean” on something or someone to stand up. Hence, the name.

Mac Miller, by his own public admission, was abusing lean and other drugs for years. So it’s sad, but hardly a surprise that he would overdose.

This begs the question: Why did Miller’s fans (and plenty of other people) lash out at his ex-girlfriend, pop star Ariana Grande, after his death? Why did so many angry people blame her for Miller’s overdose? Why did many of these folks post so many hateful statements on Grande’s Twitter and Instagram accounts that she chose to disable comments and go ‘radio silent’?

And let’s remember, Ariana Grande is a youthful celebrity who is well-known for staying in almost constant contact with her fans through social media posts and interactions. She is actively on her social media feeds almost continually, interacting with her followers, and they love her for that. It’s a huge part of her appeal. So for Ariana Grande, stopping that communication is bad for business.

This isn’t the first time a loving, caring woman has been blamed for her partner or former partner’s death. To name but a few:

  • Courtney Love felt the wrath of fans after rocker Kurt Cobain’s suicide, with some people going so far as to allege that she, not Kurt, pulled the trigger.
  • After Heath Ledger’s overdose, fans and paparazzi chased Michelle Williams so relentlessly that she fled with their daughter to a small town in upstate New York.
  • To avoid persecution, Lea Michelle hid at Kate Hudson’s house for weeks after her boyfriend and former Glee costar Cory Monteith overdosed.

Seemingly without reason or rhyme, when a famous man fails and dies, somehow our cultural grief shifts to the wives and girlfriends who “couldn’t save them.” Even when these women did everything that was suggested to them to help their troubled men – including listening to and trying to follow the standard codependency mantra, “Stop worrying about him and focus on yourself and your own happiness.” Even though that advice is almost impossible to follow if you love someone, no matter how badly that person is struggling.

And when that struggling loved one finally succumbs to his demons with suicide or an overdose, it’s not just people outside the relationship who blame the wife/girlfriend. These loving, caring, grieving women often blame themselves. Consider Ariana Grande’s one break in her social media silence, posted a week after Miller’s death:

i adored you from the day i met you when i was nineteen and i always will. i can’t believe you aren’t here anymore. i really can’t wrap my head around it. we talked about this. so many times. i’m so mad, i’m so sad i don’t know what to do. you were my dearest friend. for so long. above anything else. i’m so sorry i couldn’t fix or take your pain away. i really wanted to. the kindest, sweetest soul with demons he never deserved. i hope you’re okay now. Rest.

The sentence that rips my heart out is “I’m so sorry I couldn’t fix or take your pain away.” I have heard versions of that sentiment countless times from women grieving the loss of a relationship or a life to addiction, mental illness, or some other equally troubling issue. They internalize blame for the other person’s problem and failure to recover. How can they not? They tried and tried and tried to fix the problem, even though it was never theirs to fix, and ultimately they failed. So, instead of thinking, I did everything I could, they think, Obviously, I should have done something else, something different. I should have hung in there a little bit longer, fought a little bit harder. If only I’d….

For women who’ve been treated using the codependence model – the primary methodology used to “help” spouses, partners, and other loved ones of addicts for more than 35 years – this “if only” reaction is especially likely – because codependence coaches these deeply loving individuals to step away from the fight and let their struggling loved one sink or swim on his or her own. I received that advice myself many years ago regarding my mentally ill mother. It was the height of the codependency movement, and I was told, “If she shows up at your doorstep in the middle of the night in the pouring rain and she’s off her meds, turn her away. Otherwise, she’ll never learn the lessons she needs to learn.”

Happily, the mental health community realized in the early-2000s that this was bad advice, that it pushed mentally ill individuals further away from useful treatment and assistance – leading to homelessness, profound physical and emotional misery, and premature death. The advice now given to loved ones of the mentally ill is to engage in self-care, to set healthy boundaries, and to continue loving and caring for their struggling loved one. And to realize that the more that person is struggling, the more love and care that person needs – most often from those closest to him or her.

In the addiction world, however, we’re still stuck in the codependency model. Via codependence, loved ones, especially wives and girlfriends, are blamed and shamed for their partner’s addictions and related bad behaviors. For example, in May of this year, eight days after Ariana Grande broke up with Mac Miller, he totaled his car while intoxicated and she was eviscerated on social media for “breaking his heart.” Hardly a word was uttered about him choosing to drive while profoundly intoxicated. And this was likely not the first time Ariana Grande was told that her actions in some way created, fostered, enabled, and drove Mac Miller’s problems.

This is the message that codependence gives to loved ones of addicts, especially female loved ones of addicts.

Well, that message is outdated and incorrect, and it’s time for a new approach. We need a new way to view and treat spouses, partners, parents, siblings, friends, and others who care for and try to help addicts. We need to think about these individuals as loving, caring, and incredibly well-intentioned. We need to thank them for all of their efforts, even the efforts that are misguided, and then we need to offer instruction on how they might assist their addicted loved one more effectively.

The good news is that codependency is no longer the only lens through which we can view people in close relationship with an addict. The new prodependence paradigm, based in attachment, contrasts in several important ways with the trauma-sourced codependency model. The primary difference is that prodependence celebrates rather than denigrates a caregiving loved one’s desire to stay connected with and help a troubled loved one. In this way, prodependence de-pathologizes caregiving.

The simple truth is that we – not just therapists but society – are long overdue for a way of thinking about and advising loved ones of addicts that is driven more by attachment and love than judgment and pathology. That model is prodependence. Prodependence says you can never love too much. Yes, you can love ineffectively, and you can love inadequately, and you can love in less than helpful ways. But love too much? No way.

Would the prodependence paradigm have helped Ariana Grande and Mac Miller? Maybe yes, maybe no. I did not treat either of these individuals and without knowing the full facts I cannot speculate. What I can tell you is that over the years I’ve seen far too many people, usually (though not always) women, follow the ill-suited ‘detach with love’ advice of codependence with disastrous results.

Consider the following story that appears in Prodependence: Moving Beyond Codependency.

Evan, a 48-year-old single father, learned that his 17-year-old son, Oliver, was actively abusing heroin and had been since he was 15. From the moment Evan found out about his son’s drug use, he blamed himself (and his failed marriage) and, out of love for his son and guilt for his past marital challenges, he did everything he could think of to help. He sent his son to rehabs, paid his rent, tolerated his stealing from their home to buy drugs, and paid for college even though the boy spent more time getting high than going to class.

When Oliver was 20, Evan took a good look at how his efforts were paying off, saw no progress, and finally took his therapist’s, his CoDA sponsor’s, and his friends’ and family members’ advice to detach with love by walking away. … Within a year, Oliver was homeless, arrested for theft, and sent to prison for 18 months.

Upon release, Evan wanted to get Oliver into a drug rehab instead of the depressing halfway house to which he’d been assigned, but again he was advised to detach with love. And that is what he did. Unfortunately, Oliver was unable to find a decent job, became depressed, started using again, and ended up back on the streets. A week before his 23rd birthday he overdosed, dying with a needle in his arm just a few miles from his father’s home.

When I heard this story a few years ago, I immediately wondered what might have happened if Evan had been coached toward prodependence rather than detachment. It’s entirely possible that Evan would have gotten Oliver into a rehab after prison, and this time the young man would have found sobriety, gotten a job, and grown into a relatively healthy and well-adjusted person. It’s also possible the story would have ended the same way, with Oliver dead of an overdose. But at least Evan wouldn’t be blaming himself for not trying hard enough to help his son – a regret he will now live with the rest of his life.

Today, I can’t help but compare the story of Ariana Grande and Mac Miller to the story of Evan and Oliver. If Ariana Grande had received more useful advice that kept her more healthfully connected with Mac Miller in some ongoing way – even when their romance was over – would the story have a different ending? As with Evan and Oliver, there is no way to know. But at least Ariana wouldn’t be tweeting, “I’m so sorry I couldn’t fix or take your pain away.”


When a Man Overdoses, Why Do We Blame the Spouse?

Robert Weiss PhD, LCSW

Robert Weiss PhD, LCSW is Chief Clinical Officer of Seeking Integrity Treatment Centers. He is an expert in the treatment of adult intimacy disorders and related addictions, most notably sex/porn/relationship addictions along with co-occurring drug/sex addiction. A clinical sexologist and practicing psychotherapist, Dr. Rob frequently serves as a subject matter expert for major media outlets including CNN, HLN, MSNBC, OWN, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and NPR, among others.Dr. Rob is the author of Prodependence: Moving Beyond Codependency, Out of the Doghouse, Sex Addiction 101, and Cruise Control, among other books. He blogs regularly for Psychology Today and Psych Central. His podcast, Sex, Love, & Addiction, is rated as a Top 10 Addiction Podcast for 2019. He also hosts a weekly live no-cost Webinar with Q&A on A skilled clinical educator, Dr. Rob routinely provides training to therapists, hospitals, psychiatric organizations, and even the US military. Over the years, he has created and overseen nearly a dozen high-end addiction and mental health treatment facilities across the globe. For more information or to reach Dr. Rob, visit You can also follow him on Twitter (@RobWeissMSW), LinkedIn (Robert Weiss LCSW), and Facebook (Rob Weiss MSW).

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APA Reference
Weiss PhD, R. (2018). When a Man Overdoses, Why Do We Blame the Spouse?. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 6, 2020, from


Last updated: 24 Sep 2018
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