The partner or spouse of an active addict often has a difficult time trying to comprehend the addict’s immature behavior and inability to participate fully in a loving, respectful partnership. There is no question that addicts are not as emotionally mature as their biological years would suggest.
Addicts are emotionally immature because their emotional growth was stalled or slowed down at the age at which they started drinking or using. For example, if someone began actively drinking or using at age 15, then if at age 30 they are still drinking or using, they would still have the emotional maturity of a 15-year-old. In addition, their immaturity is also compounded by the fact that a high percentage of addicts come from chaotic homes where healthy relationships were not modeled because of addiction or other challenges.
I recently asked my first wife to describe what I was like when I was an active addict. She said she could sum it up in two words: emotionally unavailable. I didn’t know I didn’t have the emotional maturity to be able to contribute to a healthy, mature, intimate relationship, and I don’t believe I was any different from most addicts. As the disease of addiction progresses, addicts become more emotionally distant and remote. We are too busy being sick, sad, sorry and tired, or otherwise too preoccupied with our own unhealthy needs to be truly emotionally available to the ones we love. Our energy, time, and life-force are, for the most part, taken up with our drinking or using and everything that goes with it.
Emotionally unavailable people can’t fully commit to being an equal partner in the process of creating a long-term, in-depth, meaningful, intimate relationship. This is despite the fact that deep down it is what they most yearn for. Addicts are very manipulative so they can usually attract a partner when they want. But when the courting stage is over, they go back to their preoccupation with the drug of their choice and their dysfunctional lifestyle.
In my experience it is not unusual for addicts to carry on with others outside of a relationship because moral values such as monogamy often get hijacked by their addiction. The lifestyle is one of lies, deceit, and defensiveness and it significantly hurts the ones who love them the most or who would like to love them the most. A statement I always use with the loved ones of addicts is: “How do you know when the addict is lying? Their lips are moving.” Addiction is the most selfish disease known to humankind and is recognized as such, for the addict always wants what they want, when then want it, in the way they want it and no other way, and they want it now, or to hell with you.
A sign of immaturity that I have noticed with many addicts is that they like to be rebels and intentionally go against the tide, just to be different or defiant. It is a classic case of addicts saying something is black when we say it’s white. These people are generally quite proud of being rebels.
Many addicts suffer deeply rooted fear and anger issues which are usually linked to the past and have a lot to do with trust. Underlying anger issues get lived out either aggressively, expressed by acts of verbal or physical violence, or passive aggressively, where it simmers inside as a silent resentment and often gets expressed as sarcasm and abrasive humor. In either case, an addict’s way of handling anger becomes a conditioned pattern of behavior that he or she believes is acceptable.
In the early months of recovery, it is likely that much of the addict’s accumulated anger and resentment will bubble to the surface and will need to be managed appropriately… or there will be a strong likelihood of relapse. There is a saying that anger is just one letter away from danger (d-anger), and this is very true for the addict in recovery.
It has been my experience that when addicts have quit using, maybe even for years, and they start drinking or using again, they quickly revert back to where they were at emotionally when they were using, or maybe even further back. The illness is awakened and all of the pain associated with drinking or using is forgotten, and they promptly return to the same way of thinking or acting, and to the same mental/emotional place they were in when using. This can happen even if people have worked on their emotional and personal growth during the years they abstained from drinking/using.
Becoming emotionally mature is a process that takes considerable time and effort. Through working a 12-Step program and working with our Higher Power we can learn to grow ourselves up – learn to love ourselves, to forgive, to act with honesty, honor and integrity within a relationship, to express our innermost feelings, to no longer be selfish, to be empathetic, and to act with compassion.
As for the partners of someone in a relationship with an active addict the best advice I have is to work their own program of personal and spiritual growth, and then decide what it is they need to do for themselves.