The Effect of Addiction on Intimate Relationships
Health issues tend to be the first thing we think about when considering alcohol and drug abuse, however, the detrimental effects on a person’s social and personal life are often the first to be felt.
The behaviours and personality changes that occur when a person is intoxicated can place a great strain on personal relationships, where the people closest to the addict may feel concerned or unsafe.
As the addict becomes more reliant on their chosen substance, it can begin to dominate their life and replace the support system offered by people in their lives.
As the addiction takes over, people have pushed away and there is no room left for intimate relationships. This can be detrimental to a vulnerable individual who needs support now, more than ever.
However, the support from loved one’s struggles to co-exist at the same time as the addiction. Their addiction must be treated, and the addict is the only one with the agency to take the steps to recover. Once in recovery, the person will need to work on themselves before they can rebuild or begin new intimate relationships.
What is intimacy?
Intimacy is part of a mutually consensual relationship, where both parties share in reciprocal feelings of trust, emotional support and physical closeness. There are two types of intimacy: emotional and physical.
Emotional intimacy varies in degrees and is felt via the closeness people have when sharing personal experiences, thoughts and feelings. This can exist in both platonic and romantic contexts. Physical intimacy usually refers to romantic relationships, where people bond through physical contact and sexual acts.
When classifying a relationship as intimate, you can look at how much one individual knows about the other. People often bond due to shared beliefs, opinions and experiences.
In an intimate relationship, an individual will know lots of information about their friend or partner due to the openness that creates intimacy. They will care lots about each other, and likely factor the person into small or big life decisions, thinking in terms of ‘we’ instead of ‘me’.
Why is intimacy so important?
Intimacy is important due to our innate human need to form bonds with people. Humans are social and tribal by nature and we thrive when we are part of a close-knit community.
We enjoy sharing our lives with others and our relationships help us figure out who we really are. One part of forming close bonds with others is challenging the inclination to always put ourselves first. Forming relationships with others helps us to learn what our values and priorities are, and this is why we surround ourselves with like-minded people.
A breakdown of intimacy can occur when these values and priorities take a back seat. When people drift apart it is due to a lack of closeness which causes a once fulfilling relationship to feel lacking. A lack of intimacy is one of the most common reasons why romantic relationships come to an end.
Without intimacy, some people might feel like something important is missing from their life. Loneliness is a real danger that can lead to depression or destructive coping behaviours. By having healthy relationships an individual need not feel like they have to face difficult times alone.
Effects of substance abuse on intimacy
Alcohol and drug abuse can lead to altered states of mind, impotence and a lack of sex drive which can be a barrier when maintaining an intimate relationship. Physically, it can be challenging since an intoxicated person becomes incapacitated, ill or dangerous.
Emotionally, it becomes challenging since frequent drug or alcohol abuse can lead to a breakdown of trust in a relationship. The addict may conceal the fact they are using the substance, which can lead to arguments and feelings of betrayal when their friend or partner finds out.
People close to the addict will begin to feel scared for their own wellbeing and that of the person they care about. This might mean a person cannot stick around to watch the addict continue to harm themselves. Addiction is an illness that consumes the person and can only be overcome with the willingness of the addict.
Promiscuity and substance abuse
Substance abuse can often lead to promiscuous behaviours. While promiscuity is a personal choice between two consenting adults, it might also be an act that a person regrets if they cannot remember what happened or if they did not engage in safe sex.
If they are too intoxicated to remember to use protection it can lead to the spread of sexually transmitted infections or unplanned pregnancies.
How addiction impacts the sex drive
A person’s sex drive can be greatly impacted by the abuse of alcohol and drugs. Over time, the cumulative effects of substance abuse can lead to impotence and erectile dysfunction. Short-term while intoxicated, a person may struggle to perform sexually or may lack the drive to do so at all.
When an addict is frequently intoxicated they will continually face challenges in sexual functioning, and their partner will also suffer from this lack of intimacy. This can affect both men and women equally, with their libido struggling in the face of addiction cravings.
Intimacy during recovery
The key to a successful recovery is for the addict to focus on themselves. In attending a detox and then talking therapies, the addict can reframe their thought processes and get to the root of their addiction. This is a personal process and is an important aspect of a successful recovery. Once ready, a person can begin to think about their relationships.
For many, this is a complicated part for them to fix since rebuilding trust takes time. However, in building better coping strategies the individual will know how to approach these relationships in a healthier frame of mind. In the recovery process, a person may discover barriers that prevented them from being truly intimate before. In realising these they can be overcome.
Loneliness and recovery
Being alone and feeling lonely are very different things. Some introverts prefer to spend lots of time by themselves and feel deeply satisfied, while other individuals are surrounded by people but feel incredibly lonely. Loneliness is a feeling of emptiness that can strike at any time.
It is an unbearable sense of facing the world alone. Often, addicts can struggle with feelings of loneliness since recovering from addiction can be a very isolating process.
Loneliness should be taken seriously. It is often a trigger for relapse, since an addict may start abusing again to escape these distressing feelings. Recovery is hard since the addict is learning to physically and emotionally detach from the substance they have relied upon.
This is isolating if they feel no one understands what they are going through. Loneliness can result in depression and suicidal thoughts, and an addict should be sure to reach out for help when facing these feelings. No one has to face this alone, and there are always support services available to support an addict through recovery.
Ways to overcome intimacy or sexual issues during recovery
There are ways to overcome sex and intimacy issues when in recovery. One key piece of advice is that people avoid starting any new intimate relationships within the first year of recovery. This is because it is important that people focus on themselves and their own recovery.
It can be hard enough to focus on your own needs in this time, let alone factoring in another person’s needs. Also, if the relationship faces emotionally exhausting times, this could be a trigger for the addict to start abusing again.
For people already in a long-term relationship, time must be taken to allow for adjustments. The relationship may have faced turbulent times in the past and the intimacy won’t be rebuilt overnight.
However, with time and patience, it is possible for the trust to be rebuilt on both sides. Recovery is a process and there is no definitive finish line to mark when it is over. The person in recovery will apply themselves each day, and as their confidence in themselves grows, so will the confidence in their relationships.
One of the key aspects in successfully overcoming intimacy issues is communication. By successfully communicating their feelings and struggles, both parties can come from a place of non-judgement to understand how they got to where they are today. Intimacy can be reformed by challenging the coping strategies which led to deceit during the height of addiction.
Through communication and honesty, closeness can be recreated. It might also be helpful to have a therapist to mediate this reconciliation, such as in specialised relationship counselling.
A person’s openness to intimacy or sense of libido may not be recovered overnight, but it is important to not put too much pressure on the situation. The recovery process occurs over a long period and it takes patience as the person establishes themselves in sobriety.
If a person continues to suffer from loss of libido long after their initial recovery period, they should speak to their physician to uncover any underlying issues.