The Connection Between Toxic Relationships and Substance Abuse

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By: Renaissance Recovery

Medically Reviewed by: Diana Vo, LMFT

Last Updated: 7/1/2021

Authored By: Joe Gilmore

Table of Contents

A great deal of research has been done on the connection between relationships and substance abuse. The studies have looked a range of groups, from young to old as well as common relationships, such as those between parents and children and spouses or partners. More specifically, they’ve dug into the connection between unhealthy relationships and substance abuse. What they found might surprise you. For starters, they discovered that teens might start abusing substances (or even food) to cope with negative feelings that stem from a unhealthy relationship with their parents or even a romantic partner. Since teens have access to substances as early as the grade school level these days, the temptation to lean on substances to cope with negative experiences in an unhealthy relationship is always there. This, when combined with the normal peer pressure in school-aged kids can prompt them to experiment, especially if they view it as an escape from reality. The primary problem is that many parents are simply so detached from their kids’ lives, they don’t suspect anything’s wrong. Kids today are bombarded with examples of other kids setting bad examples, both in the media (especially on social media) and even network television where topics that were once taboo are now prime-time programming. Researches noted that early treatment of relationship issues could prevent substance abuse. Unfortunately, many parents choose not to seek outside help as they view it as a failure of their own policies or of their ability to manage their children. The stigma is often a non-starter for many parents – and at the child’s expense.  The better option is to bite the bullet and do the right thing. No human is perfect and no human should be too proud to seek treatment. In some cases, the unhealthy relationship is between two parents, but the children witness it. This is just as likely to drive kids to the escape offered by substance abuse. The stress of watching parents fight, verbally or physically is great. They are simply unable to cope in these situations and often have no one to talk to. Wise parents who realize they’re in an unhealthy relationship will realize that counseling is necessary for the child(ren) even if the second parent refuses to participate. In this situation, treatment would need to address the parents’ relationship and the child’s using as well as the child’s issues stemming from the negative interactions between their parents. Regardless of the origination of the issue, there is clearly a link between relationships and substance abuse. In fact, it can manifest itself in any number of ways, including:

Parents may suffer from substance abuse to cope with their own unhealthy relationship.

Just as a teen involved in an unhealthy relationship may turn to drugs, alcohol and/or food, so too may the parent(s) cope in this manner. Treatment would address the parents’ relationship, explore healthier ways of relating (or determining if the relationship is unsafe and should be terminated) in addition to addressing the substance abuse.

By using addictive behaviors to cope, parents teach their children to cope with uncomfortable circumstances by turning to addictive behaviors.

In the case of a parent turning to addictive behaviors to cope with an unhealthy relationship (see #4), even if the child is not exposed to the negative relationship itself, they are likely exposed to the parents’ using and/or drinking, even if it just means seeing their parent under the influence of a substance. Through using substances participating in addictive behaviors as a coping mechanism for adverse situations, parents model this behavior to their children. Thus, children learn that drinking/using is an acceptable way to navigate uncomfortable life experiences. This does not need to be an explicit lesson – just growing up around this will teach the child this is one way to cope. Treatment would involve addressing the parents’ drinking/using, the parents’ negative relationship, as well as therapy for the child to teach them healthier, more effective coping skills in their own life.

Often the abuser in an abusive relationship may be using, increasing their tendency toward inappropriate behavior.

Often, in the case of abuse, the abuser uses substances (maybe as a method to cope with their own experiences), which contributes toward increased abuse, including violence. Treatment in this case, would involve the abuser, helping them address their addiction as well as resolving any underlying trauma that may be driving the cycle of abuse. In addition, the abused party or parties would be advised to seek therapy to help them resolve any trauma caused by the abuse.

In the case that an abuser uses substances, it is not uncommon for them to pressure their victim into using with them.

Abuse often stems from a need to control another person. One way in which someone might assert their control over another is by pressuring the other person into using substances they might not otherwise use. This might include the victim being coerced into getting drunk or using illegal substances. Treatment in this case would address the abuser’s using habits and any underlying trauma. Treatment might also assess the victim’s using habits to determine the severity (if any) of addiction, assess the addiction if it is determined this is an issue, as well as address the trauma caused by the abuse. Any other individuals involved in the situation (if kids witnessed the abuse, etc.) should seek therapy as well.

Use of drugs or alcohol might result in further abuse, such as assault, domestic violence of even rape.

Use of drugs and/or alcohol can create an opportunity for abuse, such as in the case of rape. In the case of someone who becomes intoxicated and passes out or puts themselves in an otherwise compromising situation, they no longer have the capacity to protect themselves. This creates opportunity for unwanted sexual advances or even rape. Furthermore, someone who is drinking and using may find themselves making poor decisions, making unwanted sexual advances, or even taking full advantage of a compromising situation. Treatment might look at the driving factors surrounding one’s desire to drink/use to the point they no longer make good decisions. Often there are underlying reasons for this kind of use which should be explored and addressed. It is important to examine the interplay of unhealthy relationships and substance abuse. In cases where both are present, it is ideal to treat them simultaneously to achieve maximum therapeutic effect. Parents and adults should assess any unhealthy relationships, whether their own, or those of their children, as well as any co-occurring substance abuse and eliminate both. As adults, it is our job to protect ourselves and our children and seek help if necessary.


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Diana is an addiction expert and licensed marriage and family therapist who has been in the field of mental health for over 10 years.

Joseph Gilmore

Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country