Marital problems and addiction have a “chicken and egg” relationship, said psychologist John Kelly, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Recovery Research Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital. Kelly said the takeaway from Affleck and Garner’s story is not to blame, but rather the importance of coping strategies in avoiding addictive behaviors and maintaining healthy relationships.
Affleck spoke to Howard Stern this week about how his marriage to Jennifer Garner contributed to his alcoholism, saying if they didn’t break up in 2015, “I probably still drank.”
“It’s part of why I started drinking,” Affleck told Stern. “Because I was trapped.”
As his comments spread, some people saw Affleck blame Garner for his addiction.
Kelly said addiction and relationships are difficult and complex topics, but there are things both addicts and those around them can learn from the controversy.
Kelly said that Garner, or people in her position, may have heard words like “trapped” and felt they were being blamed for playing a role in creating addiction, but loved ones are not at fault for addictive behavior.
“She shouldn’t blame herself,” he said. “The responsibility will remain with the person using an ineffective coping strategy.”
There are many factors that go into a person developing an addiction, Kelly said, including a genetic predisposition. He added that repeated heavy use over time can also lead to addiction.
Heavy use, he said, could stem from the absence of effective coping mechanisms, a pattern that may have arisen long before the addict entered a relationship.
Kelly said blame isn’t helpful when talking about relationship struggles and addictions.
“The goal is to try to resolve the conflicts that inevitably occur in relationships through honest communication and respect, and the use of alcohol is an ineffective method of coping,” he said.
In the short term, alcohol can feel like a very effective way to cope, Kelly said. He can solve unpleasant feelings in a quick and reliable way.
“Unfortunately, in the long run, it can cause all sorts of other problems,” he added.
Everyone struggles to some extent in communication and personal relationships, Kelly said, and many people look for ways to avoid coping when the going gets tough.
“If you add alcohol to the mixture, it just makes things worse,” Kelly said. People often resort to alcohol as a primary coping strategy because they do not have the tools to communicate effectively.
When problems arise in the relationships we care about, we may avoid bringing up the problems or hope that they will go away when we don’t feel equipped to deal with them head on.
Then the problems accumulate when using Kelly said drinking to avoid conflict in a relationship exacerbates that conflict, creating a bigger problem the drinker must avoid with drinking, and the cycle goes on and on.
“We all have relationship struggles,” he said. The question is: How do we deal with them?
Kelly added that avoiding the situation or using materials for conditioning can eventually lead to more problems later on.
We can’t know the specifics of Affleck and Garner’s situation specifically, but many people with alcohol use disorder who struggle with relationship difficulties may find that they didn’t have the direct communication skills they needed even before they got into a relationship, Kelly said. But they don’t have to learn the skills themselves.
“This, of course, is where things like couples counseling and things like that can be really helpful because it provides a forum for people to be able to communicate effectively and listen to each other.”
Talking with an unbiased friend or family member — or ideally a professional therapist if available — as the couple can help bring out the unspoken thoughts and feelings the addict is holding on to, as well as shed light on behavior patterns between the spouses and how they deal with the other.
In addition to substance abuse treatment, psychologists often use insistence training for people with addiction so that they can communicate effectively “to say what they mean without being mean,” Kelly said.
The goal is not to remove hardships and struggles from a person’s life to stop drug use, but to arm them with the skills to seek support, deal directly with whatever life throws their way, and “face life on life’s terms,” Kelly said.
For the ex-husband or wife of someone affected by alcohol use, “getting advice from an experienced therapist and/or groups such as AL Anon’s family groups is often very helpful to get support and objectivity about these severe situations,” he suggested.