Alcohol and substance abuse is a major problem in the US and a major cause of relationship and marital breakups. Often, the issues surrounding alcohol and substance abuse focus on the physical and psychological effects on the individual, but the effects of alcohol and substance abuse can also have devastating effects on their relationships. The partner who suffers from alcohol or substance abuse is often in denial, which stirs up the relationship even more. Furthermore, the secrecy involved in using alcohol and/or other substances can lead to distancing, self-isolation, aggression, and trust issues, placing even more stress on the relationship. Many times, a partner of an individual with alcohol and substance abuse will cover for them and overlook their problematic behavior, showing that they are also implicit in the addiction problem in the relationship. Finally, problems add up when financial issues occur because of the addiction or because of behavioral problems from trying to control the addicted partner.

What are the signs and symptoms of alcohol and substance abuse?

The individual denies substance use when confronted by others. Alcohol or/and other substances negatively affect the individual’s performance in their academic or professional life. The individual experiences cravings for alcohol or other substances.The individual experiences withdrawal symptoms, which may include nausea, sweating, rapid heart rate, anxiety, hallucinations, or seizures when they attempt to stop use. The individual develops destructive relationships with other alcohol or substance users. Legal problems.Financial problems. The individual engages in illegal activities to get/fund alcohol and/or substances. The individual experiences insomnia or fatigue, fluctuations in their mood, and dilated or glazed eyes. The individual may also experience anxiety, depression, shame, irritability, mood swings, or an inability to feel pleasure. The individual may experience memory problems, self-destructive behavior, or suicidal ideation.

Alcohol and substance abuse and enabling behaviors.

Enabling occurs when a person makes it possible for their partner to continue their abuse without having to face the consequences. Among others, enabling behaviors may include allowing your partner to neglect their responsibilities, making excuses for them, or even letting your partner abuse you. If you are making excuses for your partner or find yourself lying so your partner can maintain their lifestyle, then you are probably enabling them rather than supporting them. This is evident in relationships where there is codependency and codependent partners end up enabling each other.

Ways that alcohol and substance abuse impact relationships.

Alcohol and substance abuse can cause a long list of serious issues in a relationship, like poor communication, a lack of trust, and financial problems. Furthermore, alcohol and substance abuse will have a negative impact on intimacy and the emotional bond between partners. Feelings of closeness and love will be replaced by anger and resentment toward one another. Not only this, but when a partner is under influence they have an increased risk of finding themselves in a vulnerable situation that can lead to infidelity. It is no surprise that alcohol and substance abuse are among the most common reasons partners break up and married couples get divorced.

Here are some ways alcohol and substance abuse affect relationships and marriages:

Destroyed trust.A lack of intimacy—or, intimacy only when one or both partners are under the influence.The blame-and-shame game.Conflict and fights. Creating stress. Domestic violence and aggression.Childhood abuse and neglect.Sexual abuse.Financial problems.
Alcohol and substance abuse don’t just have an impact on relationships; they affect the children of the addicted individuals. Research estimates that 1 in 5 children grow up in a home in which someone uses drugs or misuses alcohol, and may experience difficulties such as

Developmental problems.Mental health problems.Chronic depression.High levels of stress.Low self-esteem.Higher risk for engaging in risky activities that involve alcohol and substance abuse

Relationship coaching for alcohol and substance abuse.

Alcohol and substance abuse don’t just impact the individual; it affects all of their relationships, whether they are family members, friends, coworkers, or partners. Having a romantic partner with an alcohol or substance abuse disorder can be difficult, which often leads to the end of the relationship. Choosing whether to work with your partner or get divorced is a personal decision and will take time and careful thought. You may decide that you cannot reestablish trust, or you may decide that you want to be part of their recovery process. If you decide to go forward with the relationship or marriage, you need to seek marriage or relationship coaching, which, according to research, has a higher success rate than individual approaches that treat only the addicted individual, not the health of the relationship.

Relationship and marriage coaching can take advantage of individual, marital, and group approaches. Starting with what we may call an intervention by their family, partner, and friends, the addicted individual learns that their addiction is negatively affecting their life. The purpose of this confrontation is for the people who surround the addict to talk clearly and respectfully to him or her about his or her harmful behavior. This can also help reunite the rest of the family in a joint strategy where everyone agrees that there won’t be any more enabling behavior or support of the addiction.

At this time, if the addiction is severe, the person may need hospitalization and detoxification. This is a hard time for a couple’s relationship, but it will stabilize and improve over time as the partners work through the recovery process. During this process, both partners will have to face up to any lies and secrecy and will seek and grant forgiveness, each one addressing their own needs instead of trying to save each other. Relationship coaching will help make them aware of their dysfunctional behaviors and both partners will work to develop new problem-solving skills and communication skills and to improve the quality of their relationship and maintain sobriety.


Research shows that alcohol and substance abuse co-occurs in 40-60% of cases of partner abuse. On top of that, men who have alcohol problems have a 60-70% chance of suffering from sexual problems such as erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation, and lack of sexual desire. This is evident in a study from the University of Granada in Spain, which found that men who abused drugs and alcohol suffered from impaired sexual functioning.


A review of outcome research on marital and family approaches to treatment for alcoholism found that people who received behavioral marriage/relationship coaching reported less drinking and fewer alcohol-related problems at a 12-month follow-up, compared to people who received only individual treatment. Couples receiving behavioral marriage/relationship coaching reported an improvement in their relationship and higher levels of satisfaction. Research on marriage/relationship coaching has shown that this approach produces greater overall results, more abstinence from alcohol or other substances, and improved relationship functioning.

Commitment, hard work, and support.


It is now widely accepted among researchers and professionals that relationships play an important part in the process. Studies have revealed the effectiveness of marriage/relationship coaching for alcohol and substance abuse over individual-based treatments. There is not only empirical support for the use of marriage/relationship coaching in improving the recovery from alcohol and substance abuse in relationships; it has also been shown to also improve other areas like domestic violence and financial issues.

Choosing the right approach is necessary for success. Therefore, when beginning this journey, it may be necessary for a couple to meet with multiple marriage/relationship coaches to find someone who is the right fit for them. Keep in mind that if one partner is still abusing alcohol or other substances, relationship coaching may not be effective. That is why many coaches will not start until the addicted partner has reached a certain point in sobriety.

Healthy relationships and alcohol and substance abuse don’t match. Alcohol and substance abuse in a relationship can tear even the strongest couples apart. Fortunately, marriage/relationship coaching has been shown to have positive results for people struggling with these problems. With hard work, forgiveness, and the right kind of support and relationship coaching, many couples are able to heal and create a new and healthier relationship. This takes a lot of time, patience, and persistence, but new levels of trust and intimacy can be reached.


Fals-Stewart, W., O’Farrell, T. J., & Birchler, G. R. (2004). Behavioral couples therapy for substance abuse: rationale, methods, and findings. Science & practice perspectives, 2(2), 30–41.

Fartein A. Torvik Discordant and Concordant Alcohol Use in Spouses as Predictors of Marital Dissolution in the General Population: Results from the Hunt Study.

Johnson JL, Leff M. Children of substance abusers: overview of research findings. Pediatrics. 1999;103(5 pt 2):1085–1099pmid:10224196.

Kulig JW; American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Substance Abuse. Tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs: the role of the pediatrician in prevention, identification, and management of substance abuse. Pediatrics. 2005;115(3):816–821pmid:15741395.

Lander, L., Howsare, J., & Byrne, M. (2013). The impact of substance use disorders on families and children: from theory to practice. Social work in public health, 28(3-4), 194–205.

National Alliance for Drug Endangered Children. The problem. Available at:

O’Farrell TJ, Clements K. Review of outcome research on marital and family therapy in treatment for alcoholism. J Marital Fam Ther. 2012;38(1):122-144. doi:10.1111/j.1752-0606.2011.00242.x.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US). (2004). Treatment Improvement Protocol. Rockville, MD.