Living with a partner or spouse’s problem drinking, or other addictive behavior, isn’t easy. Rarely does it come on swiftly; often substance use gradually increases over time – sometimes years. You may not even recognize what’s happening until there is a crisis. And by that time, you have so much invested in the relationship: years spent together, perhaps children or pets, maybe a shared home. It all adds to the pressure to make the right decision. How do you know when it’s time to draw a line in the sand?

You’re not ready until you’re ready

It’s the small things that accumulate until you’ve had enough and turn a corner. Until you’ve had enough, and make the decision to turn that corner, nothing anyone else says or does can make the decision for you. Just as the person whose drinking is out of control must make the decision to stop on their own, the family must also decide on their own when it’s time to draw their boundaries. There are certain times in life that you can’t force readiness, and this is one of them. While you can’t make yourself be ready until you’re actually ready, you can face truths about your family, how you may enable your partner’s drinking, your own drinking, and other unhealthy behaviors or dynamics in the relationship. It’s quite helpful to get a neutral outside party to help you make this assessment and ask some hard questions to help you down the path toward a decision. A qualified substance abuse psychologist or counselor can help you and your family make the healthiest decision for everyone.

Communication is key

Throughout the decision-making process, and certainly once you’ve decided to stay or leave the relationship, communication is crucial. It is particularly important in times of high stress, such as this. Other people cannot read your mind, no matter how well they know you or how much you are feeling. What’s obvious to you, isn’t to others. Your words can be a powerful tool if harnessed correctly. Remember the “Three C’s of Communication”:

Clarity – Communicate your boundaries clearly and concisely. You are teaching others what you need and what you will no longer allow. These boundaries are the cornerstones of respect. It’s not just the words you choose, but also they way you deliver them. This isn’t the time for yelling, or rushing to squeeze a conversation in so you speak too quickly. Carve out a space for the conversation where you can speak calmly, slowly enough to be understood, and with enough time for the other person to ask any clarifying questions.

Consistency – Be consistent with your boundaries, and communicate them often. Sometimes it takes saying things out loud multiple times until another person (or yourself!) believes you. This is particularly true when you’re communicating new boundaries. Yes, this will take some work from you, but that’s what a relationship requires.

Consequences – Communicate the consequences of not respecting your boundaries. Choose consequences you know you will follow through on. And then follow through. If you don’t actually follow through on the consequences, you teach others that there is no need to respect your boundaries because nothing happens when they don’t. And that is a whole other bag of worms to sort out.

Get support

Substance abuse and other addictions grow in the secret darkness of shame. Shame keeps you from reaching out to others. Shame prevents you from telling the full truth, sometimes even to yourself. Shame keeps you painted into a corner. Secrets and shame stand in the way of you getting the support you need. When you decide to break through the shame, and allow even just one person in to help, you open yourself up to the love and support of others. Having this support is essential for change, whether that change looks like staying and renegotiating your boundaries, or that change looks like leaving. You need, and deserve, support.

Making the decision to stay or go is never an easy one. It is intensely personal, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to making the choice. Trust me, if there was a generic decision tree that would accurately fit your life, with all its individual nuances and circumstances, I would gladly hand it over. But while that generic tree doesn’t exist, there are resources to help you draw your own. And that’s the one that you really need.

Dr. Laura Linebarger

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Laura Linebarger, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in ADHD coaching and empowerment, substance abuse and other behavioral addictions, as well as men’s issues.

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