Return to Healthy Relationships in Addiction Recovery

Family conflict

It’s natural for human beings to want relationships with people around them. In fact, each of us has layers of relationships in operation at any one point in time. We can categorize common relationships like this:

  • Friends/peers
  • Family
  • Intimate relationships
  • Neighbors
  • Community
  • School
  • Law enforcement
  • Employment

When we are doing well in life, it’s relatively easy for our relationships to thrive. Of course, there’s always an ebb and flow to our relationships. For example, when we leave school, our relationships with other students may diminish. When we move from one city to another, we may break off relationships with neighbors or others in our former community.

But, by and large, when we thrive in life, our relationships are generally under our control. For a person using drugs, alcohol or both, this control is gradually abandoned. As addiction worsens, a person may completely lose control of every relationship in their life.

Why Does an Addicted Person Lose Control of Relationships?

Look at the list of relationship layers above. Why do drug abuse and addiction shatter relationships in each of these categories?

Family is arguing in a car

For this, we can take a lesson from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA). This agency has documented the effects of each of the most common drugs on the illicit market or the prescription drugs that are often abused. In their case, it’s because these drugs impair the judgment or the abilities of drivers to control their vehicles. Let’s look at their information and zero in on the effects that might make it difficult to sustain healthy relationships.

  • Cannabis (marijuana): Panic reactions, paranoia, disturbed associations, dulling of attention, psychosis, fluctuating emotions, memory problems, depersonalization, lethargy.
  • Cocaine: Self-absorbed, psychosis with confused and distorted behavior, delusions, hallucinations, fear, paranoia, aggressiveness, antisocial behavior, convulsions, violence.
  • Dextromethorphan (found in many cough medications): Disorientation, confusion, hallucinations, decreased sexual functioning, dissociation, impaired judgment and memory, toxic psychosis.
  • Diazepam (Valium): Confusion, sedation, drunken behavior, vomiting, loss of memory.
  • GHB (club drug): Confusion, agitation, sedation, combativeness, hallucinations, incontinence.
  • Ketamine: Decreased awareness of environment, disorientation, hallucinations, delirium, immobility, increased distractibility.
  • LSD: Hallucinations, temporary or lasting psychosis, delusions, impaired time and space perceptions, rapidly changing emotions, despair, prolonged mania.
  • Methamphetamine: Hallucinations, delusions, psychosis, poor impulse control, agitation, paranoia, and violent behavior.
  • Opioids (heroin, morphine, fentanyl): In addition to the risk of overdose, these drugs also cause sedation, lethargy, disconnectedness, self-absorption, mental clouding, inability to concentrate.
  • PCP: Disorientation, distorted sensory perceptions, hallucinations, bizarre behavior, memory loss, agitation.

In general, the effects of these drugs are milder when a small dose is taken and more severe when large doses are taken. All of these drugs are habit-forming, either physically, psychologically or both. Most of them cause withdrawal symptoms and sickness if drug use is discontinued. That’s the time that an addicted person will begin to abandon other responsibilities in favor of their drug use.

Looking at this list above, every one of these effects is damaging to a healthy relationship. When the drug is abused day after day, these effects compound until they completely destroy friendships or relationships among family, co-workers or a student body. Definitely, these effects impair a person’s relationship with their community and law enforcement. Certain it is that these characteristics, when repeated or chronic, would make it difficult or impossible to maintain an intimate relationship.

I have seen this in my own life. Two members of my family have been addicted, one to alcohol and one to methamphetamine. I watched as their lives unraveled and their relationships came apart. They lost marriages, careers and children. Their immediate families were consumed with trying to help these people survive, which stressed every relationship within reach.

People often begin to use drugs in an effort to dull painful experiences in life. A person who has suffered abuse as they grew up or in adult relationships may turn to drugs to numb the mental or physical pain. Drugs dim memories and dampen emotional reactions to life which may seem like they help if a person has painful memories. However, they also cause a person to disassociate from friends and family that might help them. As life becomes more distant, one’s grip on responsibilities begins to falter.

Homeless on a street.

How Bad Can It Get?

Where is the bottom of this descending ladder of destruction? For four years, a photographer named Chris Arnade walked the streets of the Bronx, photographing the addicted individuals who lived on the streets or nearly so. He documented their stories of trying to get their drugs for the day, of going to jail or the hospital, or the stories of their deaths. For me, he was telling the stories of people clinging to the last rungs of relationships while addicted.

These people told Arnade about what they had lost. Husbands, multiple children, homes, parents, dignity, self-respect. Their desperate need for drugs superseded any other need. By the time they wound up in Hunts Point, an industrial district of the Bronx, many people were utterly alone. Others had one person they could cling to. These couples looked out for each other, tried to make sure the other person didn’t overdose, helped ensure there were enough drugs on hand for both of them to make it through the day.

This is truly the very last rung of the relationship ladder. The saddest thing of all is that this situation could be helped but hasn’t been. The fact is that if a person gets the right help, they don’t have to reach this point. It is possible to recover from addiction.

It takes an effective program that supports a person as they detox, helps them recover the life skills that were destroyed during addiction and guides them as they refocus their energies on the present and future, not the past. It takes time to recover from an addiction that may have lasted a decade. It takes most people more than a 30-day stint in rehab to be ready to return home and start their shattered relationships over. It also requires letting go of the guilt and discovering a new honesty in their hearts.

It’s not an easy journey back from addiction. The person who makes it back has a chance to rebuild friendships, relationships with one’s kids and parents, even marriages in some cases.

Don’t Wait Until It Is Too Late


If you care about someone who is addicted, the sooner they get help, the better. Once you realize that drug use is causing problems in this person’s life, health and relationships, the best thing that can happen is that they arrive at rehab immediately.

Of course, some people refuse the help. There is a desperate oblivion that overtakes many people who are addicted. They can feel worthless, like no one should waste any time or money on them. They know how much they have harmed those they love. They have little to no hope of recovery and very often, don’t care if they live or not.

But you’re simply hearing the deadening effect of addiction. You don’t have to listen to it. The solution in a case like this is very often a professional intervention.

A professional intervention is much more precisely planned than simply sitting down with a person and lowering the boom. A professional interventionist knows how to educate the family and get everyone on the same page. They can set up a situation in which an addicted person has no option but to accept help and leave for rehab. Then it is up to the effective staff of the person’s rehab to help that person complete their turn toward sobriety.

Supporting a Person Coming Back from Addiction

If you’re a person whose relationship with an addict has been shattered and your friend or loved one has just come back from rehab, you can contribute greatly to their success. The more you can help this person restore the relationship between you, the better. Yes, it’s going to be gradual and yes, they will have to show a steady pattern of stable and trustworthy behavior.

But you can help by supporting their sobriety. Compliment their progress and acknowledge their contributions. Offer to accompany them to events that might be challenging for them as they return to normal social activities. By strengthening them, you’re also strengthening and rebuilding the relationship that was damaged or shattered by their addiction.


Reviewed and Edited by Claire Pinelli, ICAASC, LADC, CCS, RAS, MCAP, LCDC


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.