Communicating With Someone Who Has an Addiction

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. 

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

No-one automatically knows how to talk to an addict—someone living with an addiction. Although people who have lived and worked with people with addictions may have discovered effective ways to communicate, it is always difficult, because of the confusion addiction creates in the person with the addiction, and in those around them. If you are also going through the shock of just having discovered a loved one has an addiction, you have a recipe for poor communication.

But there are ways of communicating that produce better outcomes than we might expect. Communicating with someone who has an addiction can be especially hard if you have been supporting the person's addiction by enabling them to continue with their addictive behavior. People with addictions can make this worse by denial and lying to you.

Making changes in the way that you interact with the addicted person will put an end to enabling, while still showing you care about them.

Always Be Kind to Someone With an Addiction

Young couple embracing, close-up

Lisa Spindler Photography Inc. / The Image Bank / Getty Images

Show you care through your behavior—always act with kindness and compassion. This is the elusive secret ingredient to successful interaction with a person who has an addiction. Addiction is so stigmatized in our society, that people who have addictions expect others to criticize, insult, and belittle them, and for friends and family to reject them.

By accepting an addict as a person, even if you don't accept their behavior, you can start to build bridges to forgiveness and recovery.

Listen to Person With the Addiction at Least as Much as You Talk

Whether they are a loved one or not, a person with an addiction is more likely to confide in you about what is really going on for them if you listen without interrupting or criticizing. Even if you do not agree with their behavior, addictions happen for a reason.

Find out about their addiction by reading about it, and try to understand the person with an addiction's point of view.

Always Be Consistent

Whenever you are with someone with an addiction, communicate through your actions as well as your words. For example, don't say you think your partner has a drinking problem, and then share a bottle of wine over dinner.

Remain consistent in your message, so that they don't misunderstand what it is you want or expect of them.

Try to Be Predictable

Addicts can be very unpredictable in their words and behavior, but setting a good example can help to turn this around.

Be predictable in your words and actions whenever you are around someone with an addiction — surprises are stressful, and stress feeds addiction.

Show Unconditional Love or Concern

Let them know that you still love or care about them, no matter how severe their addiction. If this is not true or possible, show that you have their best interests at heart, whether or not they get help. This doesn't mean you will put up with anything, however.

Let the person with the addiction know what you won't put up with, and don't be scared to set limits and follow through to show you aren't simply making empty threats or psychologically punishing them for their addictive behavior.

Support the Process of Change

Although your motivation for change may be higher than the addict's motivation for change, through counseling this may start to shift once the addict starts to benefit and realizes that you are also willing to look at yourself and make changes, too.

Let the person with the addiction know that you are willing to support them in changing, for example, by coming with them to family or couples counseling.

Do It Their Way

Although you should be absolutely clear and firm about what is unacceptable in an addicted person's behavior—for example, underage drinking or using drugs in your house, you can be flexible in how they make these important changes. Offer to help in ways that they would like, without dictating what they must do.

As long as you get the same outcome, there is no harm caused by following the addict's own strategy for change. So, let them do it their way.

Seek Information on Where to Get Help

People often feel ashamed of their addiction, and the fear of being reported to the police or another authority may be one of the biggest obstacles to addicts seeking help. Offer to research ways to get help for the situation. Even if the person refuses, you can find help for yourself. Seeing you get help and improving your mood and functioning can be inspiring to them, as they see that change is possible.

Offer to find and share information on where to get help. If the person with the addiction declines, focus instead on getting help for yourself.

Always Let an Addict Know Your Limits

If the person seems unwilling to change, and you feel you cannot keep on living with them while they are engaging in their addiction, gently let them know. Counseling can be a good place to do this.

As long as someone with an addiction does not know how much their behavior bothers you, they have no reason to change.

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Article Sources
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