Addiction is an Abusive Relationship

Addiction is an Abusive Relationship

Note: The comparison of the addictive process is not intended to trivialize intimate partner violence and other kinds of abusive relationships, but rather to emphasize how damaging addiction can be and how much its victims are in need of help.

“Every problem is an interpersonal problem.” — Alfred Adler, Psychotherapist and founder of the school of individual psychology.

Addiction—whether it involves substances we drink, smoke, ingest, watch, or wager—is always a give and take relationship. It certainly may give us something initially, momentarily. (To suggest otherwise is to risk appearing disingenuous to a person caught in the orbit of addiction.) But it also takes in a variety of ways…and keeps on taking…and it’s not satisfied until it has depleted us.

We gain credibility in working with people who battle substance use disorder and process addictions by acknowledging that at first there is something promised, offered, and given. It is even more valid to emphasize the incessant taking that is so often overlooked or rationalized away.

In many ways, addiction is very much an abusive relationship.

Just look at all addiction and an abusive relationship share:

  • Promising without delivering. (i.e. “I’ll never hurt you, it won’t happen again.”)
  • Gaslighting and deception. (i.e. “You aren’t strong enough or complete without me.”)
  • Hiding what is really happening because of shame; believing it is a moral failing or sign of weakness.
  • Battering the spirit, mind and body.
  • Claiming no one else will ever love you like they do. (i.e. “This is the most important relationship in your life; no one else wants you.”)
  • Interfering with family/friends, social, work, and spiritual obligations.
  • Controlling your behavior, and getting angry when they can’t. (With addiction, this manifests in withdrawal.)
  • Isolating you from family and friends, and demanding you spend all your time with them until you become totally reliant or dependent on them
  • Rationalizing and blaming you for you “making them hurt you.”
  • Feeling scared about what will happen if you leave, and being convinced you can’t live without them.
  • Hiding the injuries and making excuses and apologies on their behalf.
  • Believing you need to ignore, discount or deny your true feelings.
  • Preferring to live with pain and fear rather than consider the alternative because it’s what you know.
  • Being humiliated.
  • Forgetting what a healthy relationship looks like.
  • Being expected to ignore and dismiss who you are, what you want and what’s important to you.
  • Realizing you may be killed if you try to leave (dangerous withdrawal, suicide, homicide).

If we consider addiction to be a form of abusive relationship, it helps to keep the following in mind:

An addicted person often cannot get out of the relationship or achieve sobriety completely on their own.

They also can’t necessarily be rushed.

The most dangerous things we can do when it comes to addiction is ignore signs of it, avoid talking about it or give ultimatums to those who struggle with it.

The worst thing we can do when intervening is to ignore signs or indicators, avoid talking about it, or give an ultimatum based on our own comfort and needs. For example, demand that the person leave/stop immediately, or we can’t or won’t help them.

The risk of death can be high.

People in abusive relationships and those with addiction problems are often at their greatest risk for death when they leave/stop, whether it’s homicide by a partner, suicide, or death from dangerous withdrawal.

Supporters can best help a loved one struggling with addiction by:

  • Noticing possible signs of abuse and addiction.
  • Being willing to discuss observations and concerns with tact and absence of judgment or blame.
  • Listening, reassuring that you’re available, nearby and not going anywhere (regardless of how we might feel about their choices and behavior).
  • Being discrete.
  • Suggesting ideas and options with permission.
  • Honoring what the person is currently prepared to do.
  • Getting them connected (as quickly as they are willing) to a professional with the expertise and resources to help them safely escape the influence and recover. (Via a physician, addiction professional, therapist specializing in intimate partner violence, shelter, rehab.)

If we think of addiction as an abusive relationship, it becomes easier to think of those who struggle with it as victims in need of and worthy of our help and support in achieving recovery.


Gordon Greer, LMSW, ACSW, CAADC, at the Pine Rest Forest Hills Clinic and is seeing patients through teletherapy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He has extensive experience working with teens, adults and families in outpatient mental health and inpatient psychiatric settings.

Because of his sensitivity to the possible apprehension involved with anything new or personal, Gordon places a particular emphasis on helping clients and families feel at ease from the very beginning. His relaxed approach is primarily informed by Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Motivational Interviewing, both evidence-based treatments. Gordon also is a certified alcohol and drug counselor.

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