Coping with a loved one’s addiction: Am I normal for feeling this way?

Myrna Greenberg, MSW, RSW
Counsellor, Employee Assistance Program
May 2, 2021

In the difficult situation of loving someone with an addiction, certain feelings are normal and common. Perhaps most frequent in the beginning stages is a combination of denial and confusion. A person may feel that their loved one is okay one day, then completely off track the next. These shifts in perception can occur in shorter time frames, like within an hour or half a day. Even when describing their worry, individuals can migrate between concern and self-doubt saying things like, “I know I am probably exaggerating but…” A big part of this struggle is that no one wants to acknowledge that their loved one could be living with an addiction.

Another common feeling is guilt. A loved one may feel overly responsible for the choices or realities of the person with the addiction. For example, a father may say that his daughter only started to rebel and experiment with alcohol after her parent’s divorce, implying that his daughter would not be dealing with an alcohol addiction if the marriage between her parents had remained intact. Spouses or relationship partners may blame the other’s addiction on the new baby or the financial stress. They may say, for example, that if only they had stayed more attuned to his needs or her stress levels, the addiction might not have gotten this bad.

A very compelling feeling is fear. Sometimes utter, gut-wrenching fear. The choices that people dealing with an addiction make can be often impulsive, irrational and self-destructive. As a loved one, having to observe this is difficult, and being impacted by those choices is even worse.

Other frequently expressed and normal feelings include those of anxiety or worry, hurt, resentment, betrayal and powerlessness. When a person is feeling anxiety, it can lead to over-functioning and rescuing behaviors. When someone is over-functioning in a relationship with an individual who has an addiction, they are continuously engaging in a pattern in which they contribute more than the person with the addiction. They can give more emotional energy, more time, more money and more effort without a definable end in sight. For example, working two jobs for years while the other person is chronically underemployed, and there is never logical problem solving about how this will become different in the future.

Rescuing behaviours include things like going into the addicted person’s online account to pay a bill that is known to be due, calling an employer to cancel a sales call for later in the day because it is anticipated that the person will be too inebriated, or changing plans at the last minute to run to a child’s soccer game because it is predicted that the other parent’s promise to be there will not be kept.

Resentment is an outcome of chronic relationship disappointment and hurt. It is the by-product of deep-seated anger and rage. Of course, being close to someone that is living with addiction is an experience of betrayal and powerlessness. The betrayal piece is about being lied to or left out of things. It is about the bottle/substance or the activity being the top priority. It is also about finding oneself in a relationship that is less than what was initially perceived or believed to be possible. And the powerlessness is knowing, especially across time, that one is powerless over the other person’s choices.

Individuals often seek counselling because they have a loved one or someone close to them suffering from addiction, either suspected or diagnosed. It is a very troubling experience; loving someone in the throes of addiction is exhausting and isolating. For this reason, it is a good idea to get help. Manitoba Blue Cross’s counselling services are available to all Manitobans, regardless of whether or not you have coverage with Manitoba Blue Cross. Find the available support that’s right for you here. (Sign in to mybluecross® to confirm your coverage with Manitoba Blue Cross.)