When Marriages are Threatened by Addiction: Part 1

This is part one of a two-part series about marriages that are threatened by addiction.

In 2013, 17.3 million Americans reported being dependent on alcohol, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. While this was a decline from the 18.1 million Americans who reported such a dependency in 2002, it is still a large number.  The Institute also reports that the abuse of tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs exacting more than $700 billion annually in costs related to crime, lost work productivity, and health care. Addiction is large and difficult problem. That being said, over the years, as it has developed as a problem and developed as a science, with its classification changing to one of disease rather than moral problem, more resources, research, and treatments are available now than have ever been offered before. Faculty in BYU’s School of Family Life, like Jason Carroll research its effects. Jeffry H. Larson is a licensed marriage and family therapist who formerly taught in and chaired the Marriage and Family Therapy program. He now teaches a graduate-level addiction and violence course.

He has researched extensively the effect of addictions on marriages.  In an article published in the 2005 book Helping and Healing our Families, he provides suggestions for spouses on how to recognize addictive behavior in others and solutions for overcoming these addictions.

chains-19176_1280Recognizing an addiction

“Addiction is defined as the compulsive and out-of-control use of any substance or activity that leads to adverse consequences in a person’s life and that produces unpleasant physical or emotional symptoms, or both, when the use of the substance or activity is stopped,” he says, quoting a definition provided in 1989 by researchers Washton and Boundy. Many of us narrowly label only a few things as addictions: pornography, drugs, or alcohol. However, by their definition, an addiction could be any substance or activity.  “Many who would never dream of becoming addicted to a substance like alcohol or nicotine may not realize that they are in fact addicted to work, stress, eating, perfectionism, or extreme care taking.” An addiction cannot be turned off.  Its claws are in deeper than a bad habit or a temptation.  Loved ones of an addict must understand that the addiction is slowly taking control of its victim.

These are some of the signs of addiction:

  • out-of-control behavior, or no sense of personal power to stop
  • Need to keep using more and more of the substance or activity to achieve the same level of relief or benefit
  • inability to decrease or eliminate the substance or activity, even if they desire to stop
  • Devotion of a lot of time in activities necessary to be able to satisfy the addiction

To overcome, both spouses must change

“Addictions damage nearly every aspect of marriage, including trust, roles, intimacy and affection, feelings, conflict resolution, parenting, and safety,” says Larson and co-author LaNae Valentine. Because the addicted spouse is slave to their substance or activity, they spend an increasing amount of time satisfying it.  Their sober spouse feels neglected and abandoned as a result.  Dishonesty enters the relationship.  Marriage’s foundation of trust begins to crumble.

But, with support and motivation, addictions can be tempered and eliminated.  Elder Russell M. Nelson said, “Addiction to any substance enslaves not only the physical body but the spirit as well…. Each one who resolves to climb that steep road to recovery must gird up for the fight of a lifetime. But a lifetime is a prize well worth the price.” Some of the solutions that Larson and Valentine discuss are:

  • detoxification: becoming abstinent may first require detoxification for individuals dangerously addicted to alcohol and some drugs (e.g. cocaine). [It] is available at most hospitals and inpatient rehabilitation clinics.
  • therapy: individual and group therapy should focus on breaking through denial and altering addictive behavioral cycles and addictive thinking patterns. For example, people with addictions must learn to combat permission-giving beliefs such as, “I worked hard today so I deserve to have a beer tonight.”
  • find fellowship: these can be offered through twelve-step recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, or Sexaholics Anonymous. LDS Family Services also offers Substance Abuse Recovery Groups, offering addicts a chance to find fellowship but also, perhaps, regain spirituality.

When Therapy is Chosen

Therapy for couples and, where appropriate, with children, can help save and strengthen family relationships weakened by addiction.  In therapy for the married couple, the couple will learn a variety of skills and behaviors to improve themselves, Larson says.  As individuals improve, the couple will be better equipped to work as a team to strengthen their marriage.  He says that therapists will help addicts and their families:

  • Accept and face the real problems and real issues. Emerge from denial
  • Stop any violent behavior and establish safe and healthy boundaries, with consequences for unacceptable behavior
  • Stop enabling cycles to help the addicted person suffer the natural consequences of addiction and eventually break out of denial
  • Stop blaming, controlling, or changing each other. Focus on self-improvement
  • Rebuild trust by learning to express honest thoughts and feelings
  • Care for and serve each other. This will increase affection and intimacy
  • Learn to work together through healthy communication, not manipulation
  • Forgive each other for the past
  • Establish more shared and balanced family roles with regards to parenting and household responsibilities
  • Have a plan in case of relapse. See a relapse as a learning opportunity, not a failure
  • Accept and live by the mantra that it is OK to be human, make mistakes, and disrupt the status quo


directory-466935_1280Personal Discovery Through Recovery

Addictions do not have to mean the end of a relationship.  Like other trials in life, an addiction can be a chance to grow and change for the better.  People often find themselves through their journey out of addiction. “My husband and I have actually communicated more and grown closer because of his addiction, says one women whose husband experienced addiction. “I think our marriage will be better once we work through this.” Another woman said of her journey out of addiction to eating: “My eating disorder forced me to look deep within myself, to come home, and to realize that there was something very beautiful and powerful that lay beneath all of the outward self-hatred and criticism. My enemy was actually my friend; she showed me parts of myself I never knew existed and taught me to love all of myself.”

If you or someone you love is grappling with an addiction, know that help is as close as you let it be.  You can overcome.

The suggestions given by Larson and Valentine in their article are just a few of many provided throughout the entire book, on the subject of helping and healing families, on subjects such as:


  • Breaking the Chain of Negative Family Influences
  • Financial Stewardships
  • Joys and Challenges of Marrying Later in Life
  • Mental Illness in the Family
  • Teaching Children to Sacrifice


Larson, Jeffry H., and LaNae Valentine. “When Marriages Are Threatened by Addiction.” Ed. Elaine Walton. Helping and Healing Our Families: Principles and Practices Inspired by the Family: A Proclamation to the World. Ed. Craig H. Hart, Lloyd D. Newell, and David C. Dollahite. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2005. 96-100. Print.

A. M. Washton and D. Boundy (1989), Willpowers’ Not Enough: Understanding and Recovering from Addiction of Every Kind (New York: Harper and Row), 13.



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