Drugs and alcohol provide an illusion, an illusion that ranges from love to despair. Many substances evoke both positive and negative feelings, euphoria and anxiety, side by side, with the negative emotions typically following the positive. This affects the user’s emotions and perception of reality, and subsequently the stability and wellbeing of a couple.
The affect of drugs and alcohol on a couple will vary with the frequency, the social context, the kind of dependence and the kind of substance. A relationship is also affected by whether one or both partners partake. When feelings experienced while “high” are confused with “real” feelings, serious ruptures and rampant misunderstandings are likely to adversely affect healthy romantic interactions. While this phenomenon can occur in any kind of relationship, the intimacy of romantic relationships exacerbates this dysfunction.
Keep in mind there is a difference between use and abuse. When individuals choose to put a substance into their body, they aren’t necessarily affecting their relationships or their ability to function. However, addictive use and, at times, periodic recreational use, may cause a serious rupture within a couple. This may be followed by recrimination, dishonesty, misunderstanding, and a breakdown of empathy.
Many substances foster feelings of omnipotence that lead to narcissistic behavior. This clouds empathy and sensitivity and makes it easy to disregard others’ feelings and needs. When feelings of euphoria are prominent, one can seem to be highly empathic to others when, in fact, the feelings are originating from the user’s own narcissistic needs. Although being high may seem to heighten connection between people, it ultimately separates people in a haze of unreality. This can be most acute and damaging within a couple – particularly when such feelings and behavior exacerbate dysfunctional communication already problematic in the relationship.
I am working with a gay male couple who have been together for 6 years. The partners have different cultural histories which causes some friction in the relationship. They both use drugs and alcohol recreationally, mostly when going out together to socialize. When they are home alone together, they claim to be content and argue little. They do, however, have issues of trust and when they go out and take club drugs, the trust issues explode and feelings of insecurity, paranoia, and heightened sexuality come to the forefront, exacerbating the milder mistrust that already exists. While this couple uses drugs relatively infrequently (they say 5 times a year), they will binge for days at a time, leaving them rife with drug-induced depression. This occasional drug use has caused havoc in the relationship and has led the couple to seek treatment. Most of my work has involved separating the issues caused by the substance use from those occurring in the couple’s everyday lives. It is not an easy task since the conflict provoked by the drug use bleeds so easily into the pre-existent mistrust.
Another couple I worked with had been together over two decades. They had a loving healthy relationship and had come into treatment, not because there were major problems, but rather to keep and maintain open lines of communication. They both enjoyed a nightly glass of wine before dinner. One of the partners started drinking a strong margarita instead of wine during their pre-dinner ritual. While a glass of wine didn’t affect either’s ability to relate, the margarita drinker became very high and lost his ability to communicate in any realistic way. Because of this, his partner felt shut out and asked that his partner refrain from drinking hard liquor at those times and go back to a glass of wine. Because both in the relationship were sensitive to each others’ needs, and listened to and respected each other, the margarita drinker, not wanting his inebriation to cause conflict in the relationship, went back to wine. If the couple hadn’t already had good communication skills, the drinking could have created a major rupture.
Substance use often creates volatility and unpredictability in couple relationships. Unless monitored with honesty, understanding, and open communication, drugs and alcohol can cause serious ruptures between partners. Left unaddressed, these ruptures can develop into a breakdown of the relationship. Unreality and erratic mood overtake any ability for healthy communication.