Marriage to an Addict: When Helping Doesn’t Help

Sheilah will never forget the day she “hit bottom” as the wife of an addict. It was the day she finally walked out of her fifteen-year marriage to Jimmy.

She also will never forget how the guilt she felt the next day nearly drove her back to him.

She kept asking herself, “Did I do enough to try and save my marriage? Is it really hopeless? What if his recovery is right around the corner? What if my leaving will make him even worse?”

Have you ever felt like Sheilah?

Courage to leave an abusive relationship one minute, crippling guilt the next. If you have, you’re not alone.

Trying to help an addict is hard. Knowing when you have to stop trying can be even harder.

Why Can’t I Make Him Stop?

When your husband is an addict, you’ll try just about anything to get him back to “normal” so you can start living the life you’ve always hoped for.

We want to comfort and support our husbands. They can see them hurting and want to do something to help. After all, the Bible exhorts us to, “Bear one another’s burdens.”

At first our help may be good, healthy efforts to reassure the addict that he is loved and that we haven’t lost hope in him. But over time, often what was once healthy changes into something harmful to both the addict and ourselves.

As relapse follows relapse, we begin to realize that our loved one’s healing isn’t going to be a quick fix. So we try harder to help.

Which of these have you tried?


  • Threatened to leave if he doesn’t clean up so he’d be scared enough to quit;
  • Accused him of not loving you, loving the family, and/or loving God so he’d be ashamed enough to quit;
  • Given him the cold shoulder… and the cold bed so he’d be lonely enough to quit;
  • Left recovery material around the house so he’d learn enough to quit;
  • Called treatment centers to make arrangements for admitting him so it would be easy for him to quit;
  • Belittled him in front of friends and family so he’d be embarrassed enough to quit;
  • Recounted all the ways he’s let you down so he’d feel bad enough to quit;


The problem with this list is that it’s YOU trying harder, not the addict. Who’s taking responsibility for change? YOU. Who’s taking steps to find resources or help? YOU. Who is sick and tired of the roller coaster ride? YOU.

For many wives, the harder they try to create the “lightening bolt” that will get through to their husband, the farther away the addict retreats. That’s exactly what happened to Sheilah.

Sheilah had perfected her routine by the fifth or sixth relapse.

She would cry about how heartbroken she was. Then she would yell about how insensitive and hurtful Jimmy’s behavior was.

Then she would threaten to leave, hoping that maybe this time Jimmy would see how awful his using made her feel and finally stop.

Then she would yell about how insensitive and hurtful Jimmy’s behavior was.

Then she would threaten to leave, hoping that maybe this time Jimmy would see how awful his using made her feel and finally stop.

She was good. But Jimmy had perfected his routine too.

First he would apologize and express his deep remorse.

Next he would confess to feeling lost and hopeless, saying how much he needed Sheilah’s support.

Then he would beg her forgiveness and promise to do better.

A week later, a few meetings later, things were back to normal.

Jimmy and Sheilah acting like nothing was wrong. For Sheilah, she got what she wanted, a sober Jimmy.

For Jimmy, he got what he wanted, no one yelling or crying.

Unfortunately for Sheilah, she was operating under the false belief that she could make Jimmy change.

If she just cried harder or yelled louder, it would eventually get through.

If you’re in a relationship with an addict, the cold hard truth is that you can’t make them change.

Nothing you say, nothing you do, nothing you don’t do will make them change.

You can’t “love” them into changing, you can’t explain them into changing, you can’t shock them into changing, you can’t hurt them into changing. Nothing.

Instead, we often end up enabling them to continue in the dysfunctional cycle of addiction and relapse.

What Does Enabling Look Like?

The number one thing you can do to help your addict, is to get out of the way.

That means stop doing things that make it easy for the addict to keep using. Counselors call this “enabling”. Enabling may look like this:


  • Bailing him out of jail when he’s arrested for drunk driving;
  • Lending him money when he used all of his for drugs;
  • Picking him up in the middle of the night from a bar when he’s too drunk to drive;
  • Telling people he’s home sick when he doesn’t come to family functions;
  • Sending the kids to a friend’s house on weekends when he usually is drunk.


All of these are ways that you shield him from the natural and appropriate consequences for his actions.

When you stop enabling, you put what rightly belongs to him back into his life rather than allowing them into yours.

An important point to understand, however, is that the addict may STILL not change when you stop enabling.

The difference is that the addiction is now destroying just one life instead of two.

You only have control over your own life. When you stop enabling, you gain control of what you allow or not allow into your life.

You can hope that it leads to the addict getting help, but that will be up to him, not you.

Proverbs 19:19 says, “Short-tempered people must pay their own penalty. If you rescue them once, you will have to do it again.

The most loving thing you can do for an addict is to get out of the way. All the help you think you’ve provided may actually have given them reasons to believe that they didn’t really have to change.

What Do I Do Now?

Once we make the decision to stop enabling, our own recovery begins. We need to learn how to live, think, and react in ways that are healthy for us.

The most important thing we can do for ourselves is find a support group that understands what we’re going through.

Al-Anon, CoDA, and Celebrate Recovery offer groups for people struggling to live with an addict as well as those who have chosen to leave.

Codependency is a term often used to describe the dysfunctional relationships we’ve developed with our husband addicts. Although it means different things to different people, and looks different in each person’s experience, there is one common thread.

Codependents don’t know how to live in healthy relationship to an addict.

It doesn’t matter whether we choose to live with our husbands while they are using or whether we choose to separate or even divorce.

The damage has been done to our own sense of what is normal in a relationship.

There is much to unlearn.

Melody Beattie is a renowned expert on codependency.

Her book Codependent No More has helped many women, and men, struggling to learn how to free from our compulsion to fix things for the addicts we loved.

In the past thirty years more and more counselors and recovery groups recognize the need for support for the family members of addicts and alcoholics.

A quick internet search will bring up hundreds of websites with useful tools and resources such as:



Getting Past the Guilt

After Sheilah left Jimmy, she struggled for weeks with her desire to go back. She drove past the house to see if he was home, she checked her emails constantly hoping to hear from him.


“If I loved him, I’d be with him! If I was there I could make sure he went to meetings. What if he gets so depressed he uses even more? What if he overdoses and it will be my fault?”


Anyone who has been in a relationship with an addict knows how hard it is to retrain our brains to let go of the addict and take care of ourselves.

When we feel guilty, we are forgetting that the addict still has the power of choice in his life. That includes the power to choose to respond in self-pity, anger, or resentment.

Our guilt is often our own feelings about how we would feel if we were in the addicts shoes. But the addict doesn’t feel like you do. He avoids negative feelings, deflects criticism, finds a scapegoat to blame, or simply uses or drinks to feel better.

No one likes change. But it’s always better to live in reality with all its ugliness, than to live in a fantasy world where consequences are muted or ignored.

To combat our feelings of guilt, we must hold this one thought in our minds: I can only control what belongs to me.

That’s why recovery support groups are so important. It’s too easy to talk ourselves back into the same old behaviors of rescuing and carrying someone else’s burdens.

Sheilah chose to return to Jimmy. But this time she went back prepared to do things differently. She attended codependency support groups where she learned about setting boundaries, letting Jimmy own his own consequences, and refusing to enable his behaviors.

She would tell her group that,


“Life is still really hard and often disappointing. But now I enjoy the life I have control over and protect it as best I can. I still love Jimmy, I just show it by getting out of his way.”



Maria Tarasuk from CrossRoads Freedom Center in Ijamsville, Maryland, learned about codependency through her Celebrate Recovery. She credits her recovery from her first marriage to an alcoholic to the support she received from her women’s group.

Click here to receive a copy of her testimony.

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