While grief is a natural and often integral part of life, it can be challenging to navigate. When you’re grieving, you’re working through a series of losses to recreate the structure and routine essential to your day-to-day. Because of these challenges, it’s no surprise that grief addiction and grief are related. Sometimes those experiencing grief cope in maladaptive ways like substance abuse, impacting someone’s grief process and their close relationships. 

Research shows that individuals with complicated grief are more likely to struggle with substance abuse. Complicated grief differs from traditional grief in that a heightened state of mourning that keeps you from healing. It may impact your ability to maintain routines or question whether you could have changed the outcome. We wanted to explore the connection between grief and addiction, so we spoke to therapist Victoria Mexcur.

Victoria Mexcur is a clinician and owner of Tread Deep Counseling PLLC in Denver, North Carolina, which provides care to those who have experienced trauma, PTSD, grief, co-occurring disorders, addiction, and other mental health concerns. She has extensive experience with military populations and working with those actively recovering from addiction. Victoria has seen addiction and grief at various levels of healing and crisis and works to meet clients in whatever stage they are in. 

How are couples impacted by grief and addiction? 

Anger and resentment often come up for couples impacted by addiction. Partners are grieving what their relationship was. Beneath the anger and resentment are unmet longings. It can be helpful for couples to understand those unmet longings they are grieving in some way. Partners have tried in their own ways to work on their relationship or save their marriage, but without understanding the addiction of one or both partners, the couple’s cycle continues.

There can also be codependency dynamics that show up in grief processing. This can look like the non-addicted partner enabling addicted behaviors or violated boundaries. For example, the non-addicted partner may become so burned out and want to save her marriage for their children that she no longer holds boundaries. The addicted partner continues to use drugs and negatively impacts the family when the non-addicted partner would like the behaviors to stop. Couples must find new, healthy ways to cope with their present pattern of addiction and enabling. 

What common issues do couples have when they are in cycles of substance abuse and grief? 

Typical issues with addiction and grief in couples are lack of commitment and follow-through, hospitalization, overdose, and fear of outcomes like homelessness, marriage failure, or loneliness. Part of this is that spouses fear that if they follow through with their boundaries, then something worse will happen.  In actuality, the fear of the loss of crisis — the chaos and crisis they’ve become accustomed to — is larger than the substance abuse itself. 

How have you seen grief connected to a couple’s addiction cycle? 

The world changed during the COVID-19 pandemic and how people connected with one another. In the shifts from typical day-to-day life to being at home with one’s partner, there was an unveiling grief process that led to more substance abuse as a means to cope. The COVID-19 pandemic presented a grieving process for people’s social interactions. This lent itself to comments like “I don’t want to inconvenience you or waste your time.” The intentionality behind relationships became heightened and individuals and couples felt that their situation was too much. Part of this was partners’ needs changed in COVID-19. Couples did not know how to ask for things that they did not have to previously, like a hug or a specific conversation. 

There is also a grief process as the non-addicted partner usually has a romanticized notion that they can save their addicted partner or that the addicted partner will want to end their addiction on the non-addicted partner’s behalf. This belief can lead to feeling hopeless or making more concessions to try and save one’s partner or the marriage itself. The non-addicted partner can feel like a failure when they can’t “save” their partner. It can also make it difficult to open up to family and friends about the addiction process for support, leading to more loneliness. 

How can couples start thinking through healthy coping strategies for grief and addiction?

When a couple comes to therapy, the cycle they find themselves in is not working. Unhealthy coping strategies like drinking or drug use served a purpose until they became unhealthy in the couple’s relationship. The goal is to find new alternatives to reinforce positive change and better coping strategies. Positive and healthy coping strategies can help the couple move through their grief and substance abuse. 

Part of this is reality-checking each other by considering the mind-body connection. You can note the difference between one’s thoughts versus body language or bodily sensations. “Sometimes you say one thing, and sometimes your body does the other. We have to figure out how they can talk to each other.”

It’s also vital to honor each partner’s boundaries and respect their decisions. For example, there may be an expectation that the addicted partner does not drink within their home. The addicted partner choosing to drink is their choice, and so long as they do it outside of their home, the boundary remains respected. If the addicted partner does not wish to drink alone, the couple will need to work together to flesh out how to make sure all boundaries are respected and honored. 

Is there a specific practice or tool that couples could try as they work to communicate together?

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of follow-through. If a couple communicates a boundary or decision, it must be followed through. The couple, namely the non-addicted partner, is already grieving or has anticipated the grief of the failed relationship. Couples must work together to set realistic expectations for where they are in the addiction process. It is also crucial to celebrate the small wins. 

A specific practice I encourage is boundary setting. It’s crucial to set aside time to discuss what each partner needs and repeatedly enforce the boundaries. I believe that repetition is key — consistency cultivates a habit. 

If a couple cannot have the boundary-setting conversation on their own, they should contact an addiction therapist for support. We are trained to help couples confront their current cycle and make the covert patterns more overt, which can assist with the boundary-setting conversation. 

Thank you, Victoria, for your insights into grief and addiction in couples’ relationships. 

If you or your partner live in Charlotte, NC contact Connect Couples Therapy to get started. Connect Couples has clinicians specifically trained to work with couples with backgrounds in addiction or who are recovering from addiction. There are also clinicians who can assist with grief processing or boundary setting as a couple. Victoria also has a wealth of experience working with individuals and couples that may be in addictive addiction or recovery. You can also contact her to get started.