What can I do about my loved one’s addiction?

Myrna Friedenberg, MSW, RSW
Counsellor, Addictions Management Program
May 2, 2021

It’s difficult to know how to respond when living with a loved one who is dealing with addiction. Efforts to support change may be unwelcome or seem to have no effect. As the healthy person in the relationship, you likely want to see your partner, friend or family member get better. Often, the healthy person wants the addicted person to recover more than they do themselves. It’s important to be mindful that recovery can only be made by the person with the addiction. As one of their key support people, you can invest energy in more helpful ways.

Loving and caring make a difference. It’s helpful to offer love and care to the person who is struggling with addiction. Feeling supported and loved is a huge gift. And while the person may seem unable to absorb the feelings at the time, they do make a difference.

Boundaries are helpful and necessary. Learning about healthy boundaries is imperative for those who are focused on remaining strong and helpful to the person with addiction. If boundaries are weak or unreliable, the message is sent that the support person cannot be counted upon;that in fact, they are willing to let the out-of-control person dictate what is best for everyone. This does not make sense and it certainly does not assist in recovery. In fact, when a person with addiction has family that does not understand the importance and the value of healthy boundaries, the person tends to stay stuck longer in addictions.

Individuals in addiction tend to be manipulative and determined. This cuts across all age and status boundaries. So, whether the loved one is a university graduate with a successful career, or an older teen that wants to quit school and sleep all day, they will act manipulatively to get their addiction needs met. They will cry, have temper tantrums, shut people out, thieve, lie, run away, have an affair, turn to another addiction, blame support people or others, ruin special family events, etc. This is the certainty of having a loved one caught up in an addiction pathway;it will be up to everyone else to recognize manipulation by learning about healthy, consistent boundaries.

Many people recover from addictions. While it may feel hopeless, it is absolutely true that people can and do recover from addictions.

Recovery only happens when the person decides to let go of the addiction. The bottom line is that the support person can never make the other person choose recovery or wellness. What becomes tricky in this regard is that the loved one may want both the support person and the addiction. The individual knows that being completely honest about this may change the support person’s behaviour (they might be kicked out of the house or it could mean the end of their marriage, depending on the nature of the relationship). It is important to realize that no one ever has control over another person’s choices. Ever. What we do have control over are our own choices. We are empowered to stay longer, attend more Al-Anon meetings, stop giving financial support or end the relationship.

Look after yourself. Loving someone through addiction and being there for them in a meaningful way is a long-term activity, not a short-term goal. It took some time for the person to get to this place, and it will take some time for them to get out of this place. The key to surviving as the bystander is to learn to actively care for your own self.

  • Firm up your own identity.
  • Stop trying to be the perfect spouse, parent, sibling or adult child.
  • Have enough downtime.
  • Find sources of comfort (other relationships, community, spirituality, pets, music).
  • Engage in meaningful work.
  • Spend time taking care of your own affairs (clean, pay bills, catch up with friends).
  • Exercise and eat mindfully.

Supporting a loved one through addiction doesn’t mean accommodating the addiction behaviour and the consequences of it. Instead, approach this marathon with a balance of compassion and good boundaries, and ensure that you’re attending to your needs before those of your loved one struggling with addiction. In this way you can model healthy behaviour while maintaining quality of life and integrity.

If someone you care about is battling addiction, you can access Manitoba Blue Cross's counselling services, regardless of whether or not you have coverage with Manitoba Blue Cross. Find the available support that's right for you here.