You find yourself in yet another argument with your partner because they are drinking again on a weekday. They swore to you that they would only drink on the weekends and would be fully present for their work responsibilities during the week. However, you hear their excuses about another stressful day at the office, you see their irritable reactions to yourself and the kids and you feel like you’re walking on egg shells with all the ups and downs that come with emotional instability. It seems like they find every reason in the book to reach for the bottle. It’s clear to you that their drinking may be more than just a weekend affair. It may actually be the formidable coping mechanism they are using to get by. Yet, you know it’s just not working.
Your inner dialogue goes something like this, “This is becoming a problem for the family. Yes, he goes to work, pays the bills and takes care of his basic duties. However, we aren’t connecting anymore. We aren’t spending any quality time together without there being drinks involved. Plus, his time with the kids has decreased. All he wants to do is come home and have a drink. I feel bad even bringing it up. He gets so upset when I suggest he reduce his drinking. I mean he doesn’t drink every day, but I sense that I may be minimizing his use to keep the peace. I just can’t help but feel that things are changing between us and that the alcohol is the biggest culprit. It’s hard to talk about this with him because he gets so defensive. I feel like a nag if I bring it up.”This is a familiar dialogue. You are not alone. There are many family members out there who don’t know how to approach their loved one when when they get defensive. It is helpful to know more about defense mechanisms.
When someone is defensive, they are merely trying to protect themselves. What are they protecting? Most often they are protecting their self-concept so that they don’t have to experience feelings of shame, unworthiness or disappointment. For some people, admitting they have a problem means weakness, failure or inferiority. It can be very hard for people to take responsibility for the feelings behind these beliefs. Those with substance abuse issues don’t know how to face these feelings and thoughts without the drinking or other maladaptive behaviors.
Defenses can appear in many different forms. Here are 3 of the most common defense mechanisms that show up for people who have substance abuse issues.
Three common defense mechanisms used by people with substance use disorder are:
1. Denial is an inability to accurately perceive the extent or severity of a problem. “I don’t have a problem.”
2. Rationalization refers to the manufacture or invention of reasons for problem behavior that make it seem OK, at least in the addict’s mind. “The drinking takes the edge off and makes me more social.”
3. Intellectualization is focusing on semantics or trivial disputes in order to distract from the larger issue. “Addiction is a genetic disorder, and I don’t have any alcoholics in my bloodline, so I don’t have a problem.”
Be weary if you hear your partner make these kind of statements. Someone who doesn’t have a problem would be open to exploring the cause and effect of their behavior. And maybe that conversation doesn’t happen with you. You can try to approach them neutrally, with compassion and non-judgment. However, often there is so much resentment involved that family finds it difficult to provide feedback that isn’t emotionally charged.
No one wants to intentionally let down their family. Most are just trying to preserve some sense of self. Substance use can become part of someone’s identity, letting it go can seem really scary when there are no skills or replacements. Most people need support and accountability to be able to investigate and navigate their thoughts and feelings.
If you are having difficulty approaching your loved one, find someone who can. In particular, a counselor or a recovery life coach could support someone in deeper exploration. Having some-one go through a cost benefit analysis with your loved one would support them to come to their own conclusions around their use. By talking through the benefits of their use versus the cost of their use, your loved one can gather more information about how their use affects other people around them.
It’s helpful to understand that your love one isn’t trying to be defiant. They are actually trying to protect something. It makes sense that something positive must be coming from the substance use or they wouldn’t be doing it. Having compassion for the driving force behind the addiction can support you in separating your loved one’s behavior from who they truly are beyond their substance use. Understanding why someone becomes defensive, learning common defense mechanisms, knowing to be neutral and non-judgmental when sharing feedback around some-one’s use and developing a cost benefit analysis with a support person other than family are all great actions to take in support of your loved one. With this information, you can make empowered choices versus staying in the disempowerment created by defense mechanisms.
Beverly Sartain, M.A. CADCII, is a Recovery Life Coach who shows people how to use spiritual tools and techniques to make conscious change. Learn more about Bev at Recovery Life Management.
About C.A.R.I.: C.A.R.I. provides guidance on intervention, detox, drug and alcohol rehab options in North County of San Diego, including the cities of Oceanside, Carlsbad, Encinitas, Vista, San Marcos and Rancho Santa Fe. We help not only the people who struggling with drug and alcohol abuse, but also their families and loved ones. Our program accepts PPO insurance from insurance providers such as Cigna, Aetna, UBH, Optum, Magellan and Value.