7 Ways Unhealthy Relationships and Substance Abuse are Related

#NowIsTheTime to end domestic violence and related substance abuse.

Jessica Yaffa, president of The San Diego Domestic Violence Council, and founder/president of No Silence No Violence, kicked off a series of public service announcements in partnership with the San Diego Chargers. The campaign is geared toward encouraging adults to teach kids about healthy relationships and reduce domestic violence. We’d like to take this a step further and consider what this issue looks like when you add in substance abuse.

“Violent relationships can have long-lasting effects on teens,” said San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis. “Adolescent victims of violent relationships are at greater risk for substance abuse, mental health problems and further domestic violence.”

young woman contemplating unhealthy reelationship and drug useUnhealthy relationships and substance abuse are both very serious subject matters. Quite often, we find the two go hand-in-hand. Through the work we’ve done with clients at the Restoration Inn, we have found the best chance for successful recovery is to treat both the substance abuse and the effects of an unhealthy relationship at the same time. We’ve also noticed that sometimes clients don’t realize there is a connection between the two. To help you recognize whether this is happening in your own life, we’ll be taking a look at the different ways in which substance abuse and unhealthy relationships are related.

1. Teens may begin using drugs, alcohol or food to deal with negative feelings stemming from an unhealthy relationship with a boyfriend or girlfriend.

With substances often readily available at the high school level, it’s easy to turn to substances to cope with the negative experiences in an unhealthy relationship. In addition to peer pressure from the normal high school experience, a teen in an unhealthy relationship may have the added incentive to begin using and/or drinking in order to mentally escape an aversive situation. Treatment would address the negative relationship as well as the substance abuse. It is important that a treatment provider with experience in treating this population be sought since issues at this age can present several unique challenges in treatment.

Learn more about the connection between relationship violence and substance abuse.

2. Kids may be using drugs, alcohol or food to cope with unhealthy and/or abusive relationships between their parents.

Not all kids are exposed to abuse in their own relationships. Sometimes (perhaps more often) kids are actually exposed to abusive behavior by watching the interaction between their parents. It is extremely stressful for kids to watch their parents be verbally, emotionally, physically or otherwise abusive toward each other and kids may turn to using, drinking or even overeating to deal with these negative feelings. In this situation, treatment would need to address the parents’ relationship and the child’s using as well as the child’s issues stemming from the negative interactions between their parents.

3. Parents may use addictive behaviors to cope with being in an unhealthy relationship.

Just as a teen involved in an unhealthy relationship may turn to drugs, alcohol and/or food, so too may the parent(s) cope in this manner. Treatment would address the parents’ relationship, explore healthier ways of relating (or determining if the relationship is unsafe and should be terminated) in addition to addressing the substance abuse.

4. By using addictive behaviors to cope, parents teach their children to cope with uncomfortable circumstances by turning to addictive behaviors.

In the case of a parent turning to addictive behaviors to cope with an unhealthy relationship (see #4), even if the child is not exposed to the negative relationship itself, they are likely exposed to the parents’ using and/or drinking, even if it just means seeing their parent under the influence of a substance. Through using substances participating in addictive behaviors as a coping mechanism for aversive situations, parents model this behavior to their children. Thus, children learn that drinking/using is an acceptable way to navigate uncomfortable life experiences. This does not need to be an explicit lesson – just growing up around this will teach the child this is one way to cope. Treatment would involve addressing the parents’ drinking/using, the parents’ negative relationship, as well as therapy for the child to teach them healthier, more effective coping skills in their own life.

Learn how unhealthy relationships can affect your body.

5. Often the abuser in an abusive relationship may be using, increasing their tendency toward inappropriate behavior.

Often, in the case of abuse, the abuser uses substances (maybe as a method to cope with their own aversive experiences), which contributes toward increased abuse, including violence. Treatment in this case, would involve the abuser, helping them address their addiction as well as resolving any underlying trauma that may be driving the cycle of abuse. In addition, the abused party or parties would be advised to seek therapy to help them resolve any trauma caused by the abuse.

6. In the case that an abuser uses substances, it is not uncommon for them to pressure their victim into using with them.

Abuse often stems from a need to control another person. One way in which someone might assert their control over another is by pressuring the other person into using substances they might not otherwise use. This might include the victim being coerced into getting drunk or using illegal substances. Treatment in this case would address the abuser’s using habits and any underlying trauma. Treatment might also assess the victim’s using habits to determine the severity (if any) of addiction, assess the addiction if it is determined this is an issue, as well as address the trauma caused by the abuse. Any other individuals involved in the situation (if kids witnessed the abuse, etc.) should seek therapy as well.

7. Use of drugs or alcohol might result in abuse, as in the case of rape.

Use of drugs and/or alcohol can create an opportunity for abuse, such as in the case of rape. In the case of someone who becomes intoxicated and passes out or puts themselves in an otherwise compromising situation, they no longer have the capacity to protect themselves. This creates opportunity for unwanted sexual advances or even rape. Furthermore, someone who is drinking and using may find themselves making poor decisions, making unwanted sexual advances, or even taking full advantage of a compromising situation. Treatment might look at the driving factors surrounding one’s desire to drink/use to the point they no longer make good decisions. Often there are underlying reasons for this kind of use which should be explored and addressed.

It is important to examine the interplay of unhealthy relationships and substance abuse. In cases where both are present, it is ideal to treat them simultaneously to achieve maximum therapeutic effect. Parents and adults should assess any unhealthy relationships, whether their own, or those of their children, as well as any co-occurring substance abuse and eliminate both. As adults, it is our job to protect ourselves and our children and seek help if necessary.

If you or a loved one are struggling to cope with substance abuse and an unhealthy relationship, our unique trauma-informed approach can help you break the cycle. Learn more about our inpatient treatment options (including a women’s residence and a co-ed facility) and our outpatient options, including an intensive outpatient program and individual therapy.