Addiction in Marriage: Should I stay or should I go?

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Pic: Flat Icon

Have you ever found yourself in the impossible situation of leaving someone you love, because the trust has gone?

Amy wrote to me asking me to write about leaving a marriage. She has found herself in a life moment she never dreamt she would be in. Amy met and fell in love with a man, Simon, who she built a life with, and together they created a beautiful family. They pledged their vows together 5 years ago in front of family and friends. And they meant it. They built a home, and a life that worked for them. Their relationship had challenges, of course, but it also held such promise. Until a tipping point; an unpaid invoice with a hazy explanation about funds and banks and transfers. Amy started to question his late nights, fluctuations in his business banking accounts and recreational drug use. When she realised the extent of the debt and addiction, Amy made the choice to separate from Simon. She is now a single mother with her two toddlers. She has held together their little family for the past 8 months, whilst Simon has been offered significant rehabilitation opportunities, most of which have been in-patient by nature. Whilst Simon has made good decisions from time to time in these past months, these are sporadic in nature. More often than not, Simon's choices in recent months have caused Amy harm, and put his little family under great stress. This is a common experience for those in the process of recovery, and for some the relationships is reparable. For others, it is not.

It turns out Simon’s addiction started around 2 years into their marriage. Amy knew he went out, knew that he took recreational drugs from time to time and knew that he drank. But she didn’t know the extent of his drug and alcohol abuse. Simon kept these depths a secret. His addiction and supporting behaviours were locked deep inside himself, like an internal ‘room’. Simon deliberately kept this ‘room’ hidden from Amy. Sometimes Simon tripped up, and caused Amy to question him, but mostly, this ‘room’ was separate to his family life. Until one day the two worlds blurred and merged, and life as they knew it, imploded.

In a marriage or partnership, we give each other keys and blueprints to ourselves. We share our history, our lives and we create a ‘map’ of our partner, so that we understand who they are, who we are, and therefore what our marriage or relationship is. When you are in a relationship where you trust that you have a ‘blueprint’ of your partner, only to find out they have a ‘room’ they knew was there, but you didn’t, there will be a crisis.

This crisis is where Amy found herself six months ago, with what felt like an impossible choice, to stay or to leave. She left. Simon went straight into rehab to dry out and detox and she was left in a bedroom at her parents with a 6 month old baby and a toddler. She did not see this coming. It was, in the truest sense of the word, shocking.

As with all secrets, everything eventually came out. Secrets always do. Some friends and family had information about the ‘room’, others had no knowledge. Amy found herself in the whirl of thoughts common with a crisis. What was real, what was not? Who could she trust? What would her life look like now? Was he going to recover? Should her children live in the same home with their father? Should they have supervised access? How was she supposed to make all these decisions, when for years she had not had all the information? Her foundations of the relationship crumbled. Simon though, had known the 'room' existed for many years. His experience of their relationship was different. He was having trouble understanding what it felt like to be his wife and how hard it would be for her, to be in a trusting relationship with him.

Amy wrote to me to ask me to write an article about how to know when it’s time to leave.

The truth is only you will know.

The answer lies in a choice which strengthens your resolve, straightens your back, and grows you in a direction that is compatible with your authentic self. It’s usually a whisper, until it becomes a roar. Until it is deafening.

The thing is, when someone you have chosen to build and share your life with has a blueprint where ‘rooms’ are unknown to their significant other, the fabric of that relationship tears. For some, leaving will be straightforward, more like a pair of scissors cutting a cord. For most, the slow tearing means the decision to walk away. It has shadows and doubt attached to it. Some threads in the fabric are longer, or thicker than others, and can heavily influence a decision – like Simon being the father to their children, or the happy times they shared at the beginning of their relationship. Other threads within the fabric are much more clear cut, like the $25,000 debt in Simon’s business, in both Simon and Amy’s names. This debt was taken out in Amy’s name, without her knowledge. The money was used to buy alcohol and drugs. This see-saw of evidence can take us some time to process and the fabric tearing can feel like it is in your very DNA.

We know when it’s time to go, when our deepest self is peaceful with the decision. The fabric moves and ripples as it tears apart, causing immeasurable pain and suffering for all involved. The grief flares at the slightest provocation, depending on our emotional state and situational environments. But when the grief abates, we feel the truth, and comfort, in leaving.

We know it is time to separate when it feels safer somehow, despite the road ahead having more questions than answers. Grief will interrupt our thinking from time to time, more frequently at the beginning of a loss, and then less and less. The key in these grief stricken moments is to wait for the emotional ‘wave’ to complete its cycle, and then check back in with yourself, and how your decision feels. It is common to grieve for what could have been, or shared happier times together as a couple.

Successful navigation of a separation will require Amy to feel ALL the feelings. Amy has decided to leave Simon. And yet sometimes, those thicker threads tug her back, and she questions whether she is doing the right thing for herself, or for her children. Other times the anger spurs her on to rent a new house in her name, and set up a return to work plan.

What we all want in these difficult times, is a roadmap. For Amy I have some tips:

  1. Second guessing a major life decision is normal. Particularly if you are feeling overwhelmed with grief, which is also normal when it comes to loss. The rule of thumb I advise is to allow yourself the comfort of knowing in these moments of overwhelm, that you can change your mind, but you are not going to make any rash decisions in the heat of the moment.
  2. You will need to blur out the empathy you have for everyone. Your kids, and Simon in particular. You need to make your feelings about Simon the primary objective, so that you will have a better chance of hearing your truth. Your truth is the absolute, most important part of making this decision. You will factor in feelings and experiences to do with your kids and Simon, but, you must come first. It is you who is going to responsibly return, or not, to this relationship. 
  3. The duration of a deep grief such as this, usually lasts for 12 months to 2 years.  After this time, the grief will still come in waves, and often when you least expect it. But the overall intensity will likely have waned. In saying this, when you have that deep calling that you must follow in order to live your own truth, you will feel the associated grief and loss, but you won’t go back, without some kind of (r)evolution from both individuals.

Amy, I hope this helps. Wherever your road takes you, all of us are behind you, cheering you on.

What have significant endings looked like in your life?