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Addiction and Relationships: Think Your Partner Should Do Better? A Lesson In Empathy

Updated: Jan 26

a lesson in empathy

Has anyone wanted to go up to their addicted partner and shake them (or other, more questionable, actions) because they just won’t wake up to the fact that their life is very quickly falling downhill and they are doing nothing to stop it?

“Why can’t they just get sober?” is a common question we ask ourselves. I mean, from our perspective (and pretty much the world’s perspective as well) it seems pretty obvious: drugs are bad. Why keep taking something that is wrecking your personal life and slowly creeping into every aspect of life as a whole and destroying it from the inside out? Our relationship is in shambles, our finances are down the toilet, their employment is on shaky ground, and the future is unknown.

And then the world looks to us with the same energy:

Why don’t you just leave already?

And we say right back: It’s not so simple! You don’t know what it’s like for me!


And then you list reasons why you can’t or don’t want to leave: finances, children, lack of stability, nowhere to go, they need you, you love them, etc.

But the reasoning doesn’t matter. The point is, they don’t understand us because they haven’t been in our shoes. And the same thing applies to our partners.

What you now have is a lesson in empathy.

Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”

It doesn’t mean that you agree with the other person, or think that they are necessarily doing a good job. Instead, it just means that you are able to see where they are coming from and why they are doing what they are doing.

For us, the ones who have a partner with an addiction issue, we often get the well-meaning suggestions to leave them. Why would we want to subject ourselves to this kind of life?

Since they aren’t standing in our shoes, it is completely confusing to them and we often get talked to like we are crazy or stupid or just naïve.

But we stay because we love them, we care about them, and we still cling to that hope that one day they will see the light and make the change to enter recovery.

Do any of us like the judgments, though? Is it helpful, or reassuring? I think we can pretty much unanimously answer that.

So if we don’t like it, why do we then do the same thing to our partners?

For our partners who struggle with addiction, we can use the same way of thinking that our loved ones do to us. We may think that they are doing this on purpose. Why else would they be using drugs or drinking alcohol or whatever vices are influencing them?

They must just want to have a terrible life, or maybe they want to ruin our lives!

But, have you ever considered the fact that they may just be having a very hard time from something else and use the substances to cope?

Once we can step back from the judgments, and the belief that we have all the answers, we can see that their decisions come from a place of fear.

Now, I won’t get into the reasons people use, so I won’t attempt to make it seem like I know the answers there. But to share more on this point, I’ll use myself and my partner.

I used to see the choices my partner made, and wonder why he did it. I mean, he saw the way others viewed his situation, and I know for a fact he knew that I didn’t approve of his actions either.

But yet we went through the cycles, year after year, and I resented him for it. Why couldn’t he just go to rehab? Why couldn’t he just stop because obviously things weren’t working like this. Maybe if I leave it would show him. Or maybe if I just got mad at him a little more it would wake him up. Right?

But what I failed to realize was that he actually did want to get better. He just didn’t know how.

He just wanted to feel normal.

Wait, what? Take drugs to feel normal? How does that work?

Well, for me, I’ll never truly understand that. And I wouldn’t ever use that as the answer for anything that I’m feeling. But what I can do is feel a little empathy for what he was going through. And while I thought I was “helping” by getting mad at him and telling him how much he was ruining things, or influencing things unconsciously because I was full of emotions too, what I was really doing was making it worse for him which resulted in him again turning to drugs even more to then overpower that, too.

And while I’m not to blame for the continuing of the addiction as a whole, I do recognize my part in not supporting him in a more healthy and positive way.

If I had only realized that I needed to just understand where he was coming from and humanize him a bit more, instead of treating him and seeing him as this terrible person who only cared about himself, I would have been much more able to support him in a way that would have benefitted both of us.

Thankfully, I realized eventually how to do just that, and now we are on much better terms and have a stronger foundation to mend the old and build new things on.

I look back and see now that he wasn’t doing anything to hurt me, and I don’t believe he would ever intentionally hurt me just for the sake of it. And now I know that I don’t want to label him as anything bad, just because of bad choices he has made in the past, or because he wasn't coping with life the way that I would, or in a way that is “better”.

And no matter what happens, and no matter who else I meet in my life, these lessons learned will stick with me and ensure that my connections with everyone I meet and have around are built on solid ground, where there is the understanding that everyone is merely doing the best they can with the resources they have available to them at any given time.

You'll find that applies to everyone, from the average person, to those with addiction or other stigmatic conditions.

And the sooner everyone has a lesson in empathy and realizes this, the happier and more harmonious our interactions and relationships will be, all across the board.

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