Many non-addicted spouses complain about how their addicted significant other is driving them crazy, making them depressed, or leading them toward suicide or homicide. These comments only illustrate the destructive nature of the family dynamics of addiction. The addicted and non-addicted spouses get locked into mortal combat over the addiction, even when they have not identified the problem as "addiction".

Of course the non-addicted spouse is angry. S/he is picking up all the slack caused by the addict's abdication of responsibility. S/he is trying to do it all--working, chauffeuring kids around, doing the majority of the parenting, cooking, cleaning, bills paying, and keeping the family from sinking under the weight of the addiction. The addict, of course, sees it entirely differently. S/he believes that s/he is taking care of the most important things, and that s/he is not appreciated.

Both are looking at the same relationship events through very different "filters". The alcoholic, self-centered and narcissistic, is also ashamed and self-loathing. They sometimes demand "respect" in one breath and then in the next, say that the family would be better off without them. The addict feels hurt and angry about the non-addicted spouse's attempts to control, parent, manipulate, and above all, try to block the using. The spouse, on the other hand, feels confused, hurt and angry about the addict's continuing to use despite all the problems caused by it. The non-addicted spouse is angry about the addict's apparent refusal to cooperate with solutions to stop the using or to control it. The spouse is also angry that the addict is emotionally absent from the family.

They are working toward entirely different goals. The addict's goal is to use his or her drugs of choice, but without the natural negative consequences. S/he wants the spouse to acknowledge his or her efforts to take control of the use, even if those efforts are not working. S/he wants the spouse to acknowledge the "intent" to use without negative consequences or loss of control. The non-addicted family member also wants control to be restored. They may or may not know that the addict cannot re-establish control. They eventually get to the place where they want the addict to see that their efforts are not working and that it is time to quit using.

The addict is blissfully unaware for the longest time that they are engaging in an obsessive compulsive relationship with the chemical. The spouse, equally unaware, is also engaging in an obsessive compulsive relationship with the addict. Spouses can eventually see that "the chemical is the problem" and the addict views the problem as the "controlling spouse". Just as the addict feels compelled to use the drug (whether it is alcohol or some other mood/mind altering drug), the spouse feels equally compelled to try to fix the problem. The problem, finally having been identified as the addict's chemical use, is not fixable by the non-addicted spouse.

There are a number of relationship dynamics and individual behaviors that are predictable and characteristic of addiction. Some of these are secrecy, lying, manipulation, social isolation and withdrawal, distorted feelings, and inappropriate ways of dealing with those feelings. Relationship issues become a battlefield where the struggle over the chemical is played out. Two people who were once close become combatants. They seem to be forever locked into mortal combat with each other.

Issues that were once minor differences become major chasms that divide and conquer. Common conflicts lead to polarized positions, where each feels completely justified in their resolute stance, lack of acknowledgment that there is more than one way to look at something, and a staunch refusal to change. Spouses can get so locked into battle conflicts and unresolved relationship issues that they don't even deal with the addiction as an issue. Yet it permeates every argument, every conflict, and every event where feelings are hurt. Or they may engage in an overt struggle over the addiction, and the other conflicts are viewed as just another example of how the other spouse is wrong.

Each is engaged in coercive efforts to control. The spouse, especially a wife, will stay engaged in that struggle over decades of addiction. A husband typically, stays a shorter length of time in a marriage with an AOD addicted wife. Although they may be arguing about something else, much of the time, the struggle is actually over the addiction. The family interactions and relationship dynamics distort reality to such a degree that it can take decades to identify the addiction as the main problem.

Many couples seek outpatient marriage counseling, wanting to fix the relationship, thinking that it will solve the problem of the addiction. It doesn't. Relationship problems can be solved once the addiction is arrested. In fact, some relationship issues will be solved by sobriety while many issues will need time and attention to work through during recovery. The alcoholic/addict and non-addicted family members all need help with establishing their own recovery and with developing new skills to enable them to work through unresolved relationship issues that persist into sobriety.

Author's Bio: 

Dr. Peggy L. Ferguson, Ph.D., LADC, LMFT, Marriage/Family Therapist and Alcohol/Drug Counselor.
The website of Dr. Ferguson has a wealth of helpful information. There are a number of original articles by Dr. Ferguson on Family Dynamics of Addiction and Recovery, among other topics. The "Links" page offers a wide range of resources for additional help. There is a "Recommended Readings" page and an "Ask Peggy" column. My site is a work in progress with additional features, articles, and resources being added to it on a regular basis. You may also opt in for Dr. Ferguson's Newsletter. Check it out at
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