“It’s like being stuck on an unsafe and unpredictable rollercoaster”: Experiencing substance use problems in a partner
Living with a partner with substance use problems may induce strains in an individual’s everyday life, including poor health, disrupted family life, and social isolation; this may lead to dropping out of education or work, a lack of safety and support, and facing various dilemmas and stigma.
The purpose of this study was to explore these partners’ everyday life experiences, including their parental roles.
A qualitative design comprising qualitative interviews with ten partners and ex-partners was performed, and a thematic analysis was used.
Overall, the results showed that sharing a life with a partner with substance use problems meant that their partner’s problems became the participants’ centre of gravity, affecting every part of their lives.
The findings demonstrated that sharing their lives, including parenthood, with a partner with substance use problems affected every aspect of the participants’ lives, and entailed being influenced by their partner’s ups and downs. The overall theme, “being stuck on an unsafe and unpredictable rollercoaster”, is explored through three themes: “dilemmas, stigma, and shame”, “lack of safety, security, and support,” and “searching for hope and meaning.”
As a result of the negative impact of their circumstances on their everyday lives, these individuals need support to handle the challenges that they face, but often find it difficult to ask for help. Peer support groups seemed helpful in enabling them to find ways out of their situation.
Dilemmas, stigma, and shame
This theme revolved around the participants’ everyday life experiences of contrasting needs between family members, induced by their relationship with a partner with SUP.
Dilemmas and challenges
The participants described periodically facing overwhelming dilemmas, particularly when they were feeling alone in decision-making. One dilemma lay in balancing their children’s need to understand the situation with the desire to protect them from knowing too much.
The feeling of being responsible for the well-being of all family members was described in terms of being a kind of “protector”, which included dilemmas induced by feeling torn by the need to balance a variety of needs.
Participants endeavoured to protect their children from experiences including threats or violence, worrying about their parent, disappointment, and experience of their parent being under the influence.
A major issue was how to make the substance use stop. When their efforts did not lead to any changes, participants experienced a huge strain.
Impact on oneself, children, relationships, and social life
Stigma and shame affected how the participants viewed themselves, their children, relationships, and their (lack of a) social life. A common fear was that others would discover the SUP, and if so, how this would affect their family members.
The shame or guilt that they felt was described as threefold:
- in relation to the substance misuse and their partner’s conduct;
- in relation to not being able to help or feeling that the SUP was in fact their fault; and
- for not leaving when the SUP affected their children.
Efforts were made to conceal the situation at first, which at a certain point became impossible. A different approach was to be open about the problem, which for some became possible through peer support.
The participants’ experiences of stigma and shame could lead to a lack of a social life. If their partners behaved in an unpleasant manner, participants tried either to avoid social settings, by being less sociable themselves, or to avoid socialising with their partner, or both.
Those who had found peer support groups reported that this made a huge impression on them and difference to them, in particular with regard to no longer being alone and lonely.
Discussion and conclusion
Overall, the results showed that the experience of partners of individuals with SUP was that their everyday life depended on the state of their partner’s SUP.
Their own needs, such as healthcare, a social life, and safety, were less attended to. It was challenging to take on the overall familial responsibilities, particularly in the case of parenting responsibilities.
Hopelessness emerged as the participants experienced repeated relapses and witnessed conduct that induced distrust in their partner.
These findings are in line with the experiences described by relatives in general of individuals with SUP; strategies to deal with the situation may include restraining oneself, providing uncritical support, or resigning oneself to the situation, and thus accommodating the person’s SUP, as well as experiencing worries, anxiety, depression, uncertainty, social and/or relational struggles, and hopelessness.
Addiction issues are overwhelming and consuming for family members.
The findings of this study show that the participants’ experience of deficient safety and security was linked to relational strains with their partner with SUP, such as exposure to manipulation, aggression, and sometimes violence, all of which were sometimes witnessed by their children.
As a result of the overwhelming negative impact of their circumstances on their everyday lives, the partners of people with substance abuse problems need support to handle the massive strains and dilemmas that they face. Their strains in everyday life depended largely on the state of the other partner’s SUP.
Health services should include partners in the treatment and follow-up of individuals with SUP, particularly when they share parenthood of children, and also inform partners of relevant support groups. Studies of the effects of implementation of supportive measures should be carried out.