How to Talk to Your Partner About Their Substance Use

Pile of pill bottles

I’ve seen many relationships where one person abuses substances and the other partner has no idea how to deal with or provide support. Here are some typical situations that I see in my practice:

  • A man drinks to excess every Friday and Saturday night, meaning that he is incapacitated through late afternoon of the next day. His wife doesn’t want to say anything because when she has tried in the past, he insists that he is only having fun on non-work nights, and she is a buzzkill.
  • A woman smokes pot every night to relax after work. Her girlfriend feels alone and rejected, because the woman doesn’t like to talk much or to have sex when she is stoned. When the girlfriend tries to bring it up, the woman says that she’s smoking to deal with the stress of her job and her girlfriend should be more supportive.
  • A man drinks starting at 4pm every night. His partner broaches the idea that he should try AA. Yet, because the man is quiet and withdrawn when he drinks, he rejects the idea that he is an alcoholic, which he associates with being angry and loud like his alcoholic father.

In cases like this and many others, people are aware that their partner has issues with substance use, but has no idea how to approach them about it. They are worried that their partner will be hurt, angry, defensive, or outright deny that there is an issue. It can be very hard to start a conversation about a sensitive topic in general, and even more so if you’ve been angrily dismissed about this topic multiple times in the past.

Addressing Substance Abuse Head On

Since substance use is such a fraught topic — and what may be acceptable levels of use by one person, may be considered abuse by another — it is important to address the issue in a sensitive, but straightforward way. You want to avoid the common pitfalls of avoidance, patronizing, and enabling.

  • Avoidance: refusing to engage directly and ignoring the substance use entirely.
  • Patronizing: talking to your partner like they are a child that needs you to think for them or “parent” them, e.g., “you are making bad decisions and from now on you’ll be having only 2 drinks a night.”
  • Enabling: allowing your partner to continue using and even making it easier for them to do so, e.g., watching the kids while your partner is hungover

What should you do instead? Use direct, kind, and straightforward language. Treat your partner with empathy and compassion, and whether or not you have struggled with substance use yourself, imagine the way that you would want to be treated in your partner’s position.

Starting the Conversation About Substance Abuse

Here are some examples of how to begin a conversation about your partner’s substance use:

  • “I’m noticing that you’re drinking every night again. It makes me feel lonely when we don’t have conversations at night. I know you say you’re blowing off steam from work but I don’t think this is working for our relationship.”
  • “You have told me that you only drink two nights a week so it isn’t a problem. Still, on those two nights, you get out of control and leave me to parent solo most of the next day. I need us to figure out how to change this pattern.”

If you can use “us” or “we” language, that can help your partner feel like you are both on a team together, working together on the problem of substance use. This is in direct contrast to a paradigm that pits you against your partner, and leaves them feeling defensive and closed down. You can suggest AA/NA, individual therapy, or rehab to your partner based on their individual preferences and needs, but if you get no traction with this, you can also suggest couples counseling, which may help you and your partner have a safe space to talk about substance use together.

Don’t just ignore it and hope for the best if you know that your partner struggles with substance abuse. Having an open conversation is the first step toward getting your partner the help they need, and to getting you the relationship that you want and deserve.

Published by

Dr. Samantha Rodman

Clinical Psychologist