The Heart of Addiction

How psychology drives addictive behavior.

Does addiction have to destroy love?

Not if you understand the psychology of addiction.

Phyllis and Peter had been married a few years when he started hiding "nip" bottles of vodka in the house. After Phyllis discovered them he lied, saying he had stopped drinking and she'd found the last of them. When a week later she found more bottles, she threw Peter out. "If it had only been his drinking," she said, "I could have stood it. But lying is different. A marriage can't exist without trust." Did addiction have to ruin this marriage?

The story of Phyllis and Peter is taken from my new book, Breaking Addiction: A 7-step Handbook for Ending Any Addiction. The major issue between them is probably the most common way that addictions spoil relationships. Peter's drinking itself was a huge problem of course, but as Phyllis said, it was not the fatal one. Loss of trust was what would kill their relationship, and that would have to be repaired if this otherwise good marriage had a chance. Repairing trust would allow them to work together, creating the time and space needed for Peter to seek treatment for his addiction.

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How can this happen if the person with addiction continues to lie?

The answer is that, when it comes to addiction, lying and general untrustworthiness are not quite the same thing. Although people with addictions often lie, nearly all the time their lies are about their addiction. Peter lied about his hidden liquor supply, and he had lied about going to bars on his way home from work, telling Phyllis he was just working late. But he didn't lie to her about anything unrelated to drinking. In fact, Peter was a very conscientious man, the sort of person who would return the money if he were given too much change at a store. Except for his drinking, it wouldn't cross his mind to lie to Phyllis. For the couple to survive, they would have to understand what the difference was between lying about addiction and lying in general.

First, let's consider what Phyllis thought Peter's lying was about. To her, it was a sign that he was excluding her from his life and was no longer treating her as his life partner. He was manipulating her and no longer respected her. Ultimately, his lying meant that he no longer loved her.

But from Peter's standpoint, his lying meant none of those things. He still loved his wife very much, but he was ashamed about his inability to stop drinking, and filled with guilt about hurting her repeatedly when he did. So, he came up with the only solution he could think of. He couldn't stop drinking, but what Phyllis didn't know wouldn't hurt her. He would be less ashamed and she would be less injured if he lied.

However, Phyllis regularly caught him in his lies, which made Peter feel even more guilty and ashamed. On these occasions, he promised never to drink again, and he meant it. But since he was unable to keep his promise, the problem escalated. Now he needed to conceal his drinking even more. In effect, the more he lied the more he needed to lie.

Peter felt trapped. As I've written about before in this blog and both my books, it is just this kind of helplessness that produces the impulse to addictive behavior. Peter's drinking had been, to begin with, a response to entirely separate issues in his life that led him to feel helplessly trapped. But now this new trap added to Peter's sense of overwhelming helplessness, and became a new precipitant to drinking. This new cycle of drinking, shame, lying, and more drinking was devastating, for both of them.

But here is the key point. Peter's drinking to begin with had been about issues within Peter, as is true about every addiction -- particular areas of his emotional life that led him to feel overwhelmingly helpless. His drinking was not about his feelings for Phyllis, even though she suffered terribly as a result. Exactly the same reasoning applies to Peter's lying. Although Phyllis suffered as a result of his behavior, the cycle of Peter's lying and drinking was not essentially about his feelings for her. Her interpretation of Peter's lying as a sign that he no longer loved or respected her, therefore, was not correct. There was an especially sad irony in this, because Phyllis's conclusion that Peter no longer loved her made her feel much worse.

The solution for this couple was to help them to understand both how addiction works psychologically, and how lying about addiction so often becomes part of the addictive cycle. As Phyllis was able to separate Peter's general trustworthiness and his usual respect for her from his addiction, her anger and hurt lessened. The furious tension between them subsided, and Peter was able to get into a good psychotherapy to address his addiction.

Phyllis and Peter found that the better you understand the psychology of addiction, the better you can repair not only addictive behavior but the damage to relationships caused by it.

Breaking Addiction: A 7-step Handbook for Ending Any Addiction" will be published March 1; the book may be pre-ordered at Amazon.

Lance Dodes, M.D., is an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

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