Marital problems and addiction have a chicken and egg relationship, said psychologist John F. Kelly, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Recovery Research Institute. The takeaway from Affleck and Jennifer Garner’s story shouldn’t be to blame, Kelly said, but rather the importance of coping strategies for avoiding addictive behaviors and maintaining healthy relationships.
Affleck spoke to Howard Stern this week about how his marriage to Garner contributed to his alcoholism, saying that if they hadn’t split in 2015, “I would probably drink again.”
“That’s part of why I started drinking,” Affleck told Stern. “Because I was trapped. “
As his comments went viral, some people viewed Affleck as blaming Garner for his addiction.
Addiction and relationships are difficult and complex topics, Kelly said, but there are things addicts and those around them can learn from controversy.
Garner, or people in his position, may have heard words like ‘trapped’ and felt blamed for playing a role in the formation of the addiction, but loved ones are not responsible for the addictive behavior, Kelly said.
“She shouldn’t blame herself,” he said. “The responsibility would fall on the person who uses an ineffective coping strategy.”
Many factors come into play in a person who develops an addiction, including a genetic predisposition, Kelly said. Heavy use repeated over time can also lead to addiction, he added.
Heavy use can stem from a lack of effective coping mechanisms, a pattern that may have been established long before an addict entered a relationship, he said.
Blame isn’t helpful when it comes to relationship conflicts and addictions, Kelly said.
“The point is to try and resolve the conflicts that inevitably arise in relationships through honest and respectful communication, and alcohol use is an ineffective way to cope,” he said.
In the short term, alcohol can seem like a very effective way to cope, Kelly said. It can dissolve unpleasant feelings quickly and reliably.
“Unfortunately, in the longer term it can cause all kinds of other problems,” he added.
To some extent, everyone struggles with communication and interpersonal relationships, and many people are looking for ways to avoid facing up when the going is tough, Kelly said.
“If you add alcohol to the mix, it just makes it worse,” Kelly said. “People often use alcohol as a primary coping strategy because they don’t have the tools to communicate effectively.”
When issues arise in relationships that are close to our hearts, we may avoid bringing up the issues or expect them to go away when we don’t feel equipped to face them head-on.
The problems then worsen when the use of drinking to avoid relationship conflict worsens that conflict, creating a bigger problem for the drinker to avoid with alcohol use, and the cycle goes on and on, Kelly said.
“We all have conflicts in relationships,” he said. “The question is: how to deal with them?
Avoiding the situation or using substances to cope can ultimately lead to even more problems down the road, Kelly added.
We cannot know the details of Affleck and Garner’s situation in particular, but many people with alcohol use disorders and relationship difficulties may find that they lacked the communication skills. direct that they needed before they even entered into a relationship, Kelly said. But they don’t have to learn the skills on their own.
“This is of course where things like couple counseling and things like that can be really helpful because they provide a forum for people to communicate effectively and listen to each other.”
Speaking with an impartial friend or family member – or ideally a professional therapist if accessible – as a couple can help bring out unexpressed thoughts and feelings that the addict clings to, as well as enlightenment patterns of behavior between the couple and how they treat others.
In addition to treating addiction, psychologists often also use assertiveness training for people with drug addiction so they can communicate effectively to “say what they want to say without being mean,” Kelly said.
The goal is not to remove difficulties and conflicts from a person’s life to stop substance use, but to equip them with the skills to seek help, to directly face what the life reserve them and “face life according to the conditions of life,” Kelly mentioned.
For the spouse or ex-spouse of a person affected by alcohol use, “getting advice from an experienced therapist and / or groups like AL Anon Family Groups is often very helpful in obtaining support and objectivity in these intense situations, “he suggested.