If you’re concerned about the way your partner uses alcohol or other drugs, it can be hard to know when and how to speak up. You might worry about seeming judgmental, or that they won’t be receptive. But voicing your concerns with compassion and kindness is a good way to show you care and allow them the opportunity to reevaluate their relationship with substances. It can also help you set boundaries to protect your own well-being. Here are some tips on how to effectively communicate with a partner about substance abuse.
Prepare yourself to bring up the issue
Before you address the issue with your partner, it can be helpful to prepare. This can mean learning more about addiction, getting clear about your own needs, talking with others with similar experiences, or all of the above. What works best for you can vary depending on the situation. That said, you may find the following tips helpful for laying the groundwork for a conversation with your partner.
- Get yourself support. “When a family member or loved one is struggling with addiction, it becomes a family disease. Everyone impacted may benefit from support, and this is an important step,” addiction specialist and counselor Matt Glowiak, PhD, tells O.school. In addition to leaning on family, friends, and/or a mental health professional, he recommends groups like Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, and NAMI.
- Identify the ways substance abuse may be harming the relationship. Substance abuse can compromise trust and get in the way of intimacy and closeness within relationships, impacting everything from sex to communication. If your partner is mismanaging money, failing to meet household or child care obligations, getting into legal trouble, or experiencing poor health because of their substance abuse, this can compromise your own well-being and place a major strain on the relationship. Some people may become violent when drunk or high. If your partner’s substance use makes you feel isolated, uncomfortable, or unsafe, physically or emotionally, it’s a problem that needs to be addressed.
- Educate yourself. “A large misconception is that there is some type of moral deficit leading individuals to intentionally make bad decisions and continue using despite the consequences. Being knowledgeable of addiction as a biomedical disease primes loved ones to enter the conversation with an objective lens,” says Glowiak. Additionally, understanding more about their substance(s) of choice — how it affects the body and mind, what withdrawal symptoms can be like, and the factors that lead some people to use — can also help you to approach your partner from a more informed perspective.
- Gather resources. “It is helpful to be informed insofar as treatment centers, providers, and support groups in the area,” says Glowiak. “Now, when the loved one who is struggling asks, ‘What do I do next?’ some options are readily available.” For your partner, resources can include groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, residential treatment (rehab), mental health counseling, or peer support. Both of you may benefit from a network of trusted people you can turn to for support, couples therapy, or books and online resources to help you learn more about substance use and addiction.
7 tips for communicating with your partner about their substance abuse
Respectfully voicing your concerns can show your partner how their substance use doesn’t just impact them — it impacts you as well. By starting the conversations, you can offer love and support, but also set boundaries to protect yourself. Here are seven tips for having an effective conversation with your partner about their substance use.
1. Don’t ignore the issue
Addressing the issue head-on may feel overwhelming, especially if you’re worried that your partner won’t be receptive, or if you’ve gotten used to rationalizing or making excuses for their behavior (“She only drinks to unwind after a stressful day,” “He’s still holding down a job,” “They only yell at me sometimes,”). But avoiding the issue won’t make it go away; instead, substance abuse often worsens over time. Glowiak tells O.school: “Addiction often begins gradually but then rapidly accelerates into a serious problem. The earlier others intervene, the better.” Talking to your partner as soon as possible when you notice that their struggling is the best thing you can do to help them work towards recovery.
2. Avoid ultimatums
If your partner brushes off your concern or doesn’t seem to want to change, it might be tempting to give an ultimatum (“You need to stop drinking right now, or else”). But it’s not your responsibility to convince your partner that they have a problem or force them to get help. In fact, therapist and addiction specialist Hailey Shafir tells O.school, giving ultimatums can be “more likely to make your loved ones defensive, further isolate them, and even push them deeper into their addiction.” Recovery has to be a personal choice based on a genuine desire to work towards change.
3. Instead, lead with empathy
It’s normal to feel frustrated, scared, or angry when your partner is struggling with substance abuse, especially if their behavior or mood have been dramatically affected. But Shafir says that approaching them in anger is unlikely to be effective: “The best way to talk to a loved one about their substance use is to approach them from a place of care and concern, rather than being harsh or confrontational. Saying, ‘I'm really worried about you’ or, ‘I really care about you and have noticed that you haven't seemed like yourself lately’ are examples of good things to say to a loved one struggling with an addiction.” Actively listening to your partner, and being curious instead of judgmental, can also help them to be more receptive to your concerns, Glowiak tells O.school. “Rather than attempting to force change, hear your loved one out. What is their experience with addiction? Why is it so hard to stop? Have they tried stopping and want support? What could you be doing to better support them?”
3. Be clear about how their substance abuse is impacting the relationship
Pointing out the ways their substance use impacts you doesn’t mean shaming or blaming your partner; instead, sharing your experience in a clear, matter-of-fact way can help to show that you care — and that their behavior impacts you, too. If there are children involved, point out how substance abuse affects the whole family, and can be especially damaging for kids.
Rather than accusing or berating your partner, focus on their impact on the family and the relationship. For example, instead of saying “I can’t believe you get high in front of the kids; you’re so irresponsible!” or, “You’re a jerk when you’re drunk,” you could use language like: “It scares me when you use drugs around our kids,” or “I feel distant from you when you’re drinking, and I miss our connection.”
4. Leave things open for continued discussion
Shafir tells O.school that you shouldn’t expect your partner to be ready to change after a single conversation. “They may or may not respond the way you want them to, and some will double down and insist they don't have a problem. This doesn't mean that the conversation was pointless. You can leave knowing you made an honest and sincere attempt to reach out, and you may be surprised that later on, they reach back out to you for help, support, or a more open and honest conversation.”
5. Let them know you’re on their team
It can be helpful to use “I” statements to describe the impact of substance abuse on the relationship. But when it comes to working towards solutions, using “us” and “we” language can show that you’re committed to supporting them.
Research suggests that partners and families have an important role to play in helping people overcome substance abuse, and that involving them in the recovery process through family counseling or therapy may be more effective than individual therapy alone. Instead of “You need to get help right away,” you could say something like, “Let’s find some resources that may help;” rather than saying “Your addiction is ruining our relationship,” you could say, “I feel that our relationship is in trouble. We need to find some strategies to address the issue.”
6. Be ready to set boundaries
As much as you may want your partner to get better, you can’t force anyone to change if they’re not ready. If your partner’s substance abuse is negatively impacting you, and they’re not willing to admit that they have a problem or seek help, setting realistic boundaries is important for your own well-being. It’s especially important to set boundaries if you have children together. These will vary based on your individual situation but may include steps like not interacting with your partner while they’re drunk or high, keeping alcohol and other drugs out of your home, making sure that kids don’t spend time with them unsupervised, and not loaning your partner money or paying their legal fees.
Set boundaries with the goal of protecting your own and other family members’ well-being rather than using them as ultimatums or motivation for your partner to change. You can say something like, “I hear that you don’t feel that your drinking is a problem. But I’m not comfortable having conversations when you’ve been drinking, so we’ll need to wait until you’re sober if you want to talk,” or “I understand that you don’t want to stop using drugs, but it doesn't feel safe to have you around the kids when you’re high, so you’ll need to find somewhere else to live if you’re not ready to stop.”
7. Know that it’s ok to walk away
You don’t have to stay with a partner for any reason. If you feel that your well-being is being compromised by your partner’s substance abuse, if you don’t like being with someone who uses alcohol or other drugs, or if you’re simply unhappy in the relationship, it may be time to end things.
The bottom line
Starting a conversation about a partner’s substance use can feel daunting. But seeking out resources, educating yourself about substance abuse, creating realistic boundaries, and maintaining compassion for your partner and yourself can help prepare you to communicate with empathy and clarity. Connecting with support groups, mental health professionals, and caring family and friends can also be helpful in navigating the conversation. If you find that your partner is unwilling to change, or your well-being is at risk, it’s ok to walk away.