Learning to Let Go of a Spouse with an Addiction

People can have difficulty walking away.

Posted Jul 16, 2019

Most people in a relationship with an addict have some level of codependency. As reported by Mental Health America, codependents are people that have the intention to help the addict, but who become compulsive in the caregiving role. 

Codependency is a learned protective behavior, allowing people to cope with a very difficult situation. However, codependency is not healthy, and it results in a never-ending cycle of similar relationships.

The hardest part of codependency is being able to stop obsessing and let go of that individual. From a codependent who has spent years trying to be everything to that person and to win his or her love and appreciation, this is a big step and one that is full of challenges and doubts.

In an interesting article by Julie Fuller and Rebeca Warner of the University of New Hampshire, women with a history of family stressors scored higher on two different codependency assessment scales than those reporting limited history of family stressors.

These stressors included both addictions, as well as other types of family dysfunction, which suggests that factors other than alcoholism or addiction may be predictors of the pattern of codependency.

This research shows how early childhood issues within a family can have a profound impact on current relationships. Fear of being alone, fear of rejection and fear of not being in a relationship may make it extremely challenging to walk away from an addict, and this may be deeply ingrained in your view of yourself.  

Even people who may not be codependent can still have difficulties in knowing when to walk away. While they may resent the person and what they are doing to themselves and the relationship, they also see their role as the last stabilizing element. This can lead to concerns of leaving the addict to simply sink deeper into the addiction, eventually leading to serious illness, injuries, or tragic death. 

Making the Choice 

Moving from enabler, the person who covered up, made excuses, and removed consequences, to the person who walks away is not an easy choice. For many people, talking to a psychotherapist and understanding about the codependent relationship is an important starting point. 

Even if the partner is no longer an addict, the guilt and the codependent relationship does not change for the codependent. In fact, for some people, letting go of an ex-addict spouse may have the same level of challenge as walking away during the addiction.

In a study published in 2004 in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, researchers found that in counseling with couples where one was an addict, the other partner frequently engaged in the following behaviors:

  • Assumed all responsibility in the relationship to remove the tasks or chores from the alcoholic
  • Made excuses for the person during the addiction
  • Used drugs or drank with the addict

Often, in making the break from an enabler, the codependent has to also change her or his behavior, which means letting go of current behaviors and creating new, positive strategies. (Rotunda, 2004)

There are some steps that can be highly effective in creating that physical and mental break from the ex-addict. Remember, the addict is very likely to remind you that an emotional upset such as a breakup may trigger their addiction again, and it is essential to see this as a narcissistic and manipulative attempt to keep you in the relationship. 

  • Separate physically and completely – It is important to move away and make a clean break. Do not agree to live in another room of the home or live together as "friends." Make the separation clean and neat, but also have a support network for yourself in place. You may want to go and live with a friend who knows your goal to make the break and can act as a resource and support. 
  • Set your goals – The best way to avoid obsessing over something is to find something else to focus your mental energy. This is not the time to get into another relationship, but it may be a time to focus on a goal you have for yourself. Perhaps you want to become more confident, to learn a new skill or to take some time and travel or do something you have always wanted to do on your own. 
  • Plan for change – Having a plan for how to change your old behavior is essential. If the ex calls you and says he or she is using, or if there is another type of manipulation, you are prepared to offer a suggestion that does not involve you coming to the rescue. 

It is essential to focus on yourself and healing at this time. Get active, get interested in something new, and develop a network of support. 


Fuller, J. A. (2000). Family Stressors as Predictors of Codependency. Genetic, Social, and General Psychology Monographs, 5-22.

Rotunda, R. J. (2004). Enabling behavior in a clinical sample of alcohol-dependent clients and their partners. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 269-276.