With conflicting information from friends and family members who mean well, the media, our prevailing culture, and even from some professionals, it can be incredibly stressful to know what to do when your son or daughter is struggling with substance use. What’s often not talked about, however, is potential conflict between you and your husband, wife, significant other or partner when trying to help your child. Substance use is a struggle that can put a strain on the entire family, and marriage is not excluded.
It’s not uncommon to disagree on ways to handle certain situations with a child. But it can feel like so much more is on the line when your child is using drugs or alcohol and needs support. Disagreements on communication, consequences, financial support, housing or other issues may leave you feeling like you’re not on the same page, and at a loss for how to move forward.
How do you cope with your partner not agreeing with you?
A first step is to find common ground. You both want your child to live a healthier, happier life. And you both want to do the best you can to get them there. So, try to collaborate. Have a conversation about everything you do agree on first. It’ll have the added benefit of making you both feel more connected before diving into your differences.
For example, you may be worried that your spouse isn’t taking your child’s substance use as seriously as you are, but you do agree that academics are important and you don’t want your child getting caught up in the legal system. You may also agree that there are friends that aren’t great influences on your child. Building upon this common ground, you can explore your differences asking him or her, “What would have to happen for you to be more concerned?” Say your spouse or partner agrees that a decline in academics would be a problem — try for more specificity. Does that mean missed homework, a poor test grade, skipping classes, a failed class, a call of concern from the school, etc.? The more detail, the better.
As another example, one of our parent coaches was working with a caller who was concerned that her son needed money for car repairs related to an accident so that he could continue to work, but her husband didn’t agree. He didn’t want to provide the money because of his son’s marijuana use. Both agreed that when he was working, he wasn’t smoking pot. Their solution was to offer the funds, but only if there was an agreed upon payment plan with a direct deposit from his bank account to their account.
Rather than getting wed to each partner’s position, it can also help to think out of the box and problem solve. For instance, you may think that your child needs more oversight but your spouse thinks that he or she should be kicked out of the house for substance use. Couples have come up with all kinds of ways to address this situation such as making treatment a condition of staying in the home, only having access to the house if someone else is home, moving him to another room such as the laundry room or the garage instead of providing a bedroom, telling him he has to leave for the weekend or some other amount of time as opposed to a permanent move, having him move in with a friend or relative, etc.
What if we can't compromise on how to help our child?
Regardless of what partners come up with it’s important to stay connected to your struggling child. If you truly reach a point where you can’t agree or reach a compromise, then try one person’s approach for a given period of time and see how it goes. For example, your partner may think therapy is a waste of time and you’re all for it. Either try it out for a month and re-evaluate at the end of the month or don’t go to therapy and see if the situation improves, again re-evaluating at the end of the month. In this example, it’s important to have a conversation on what “improvement” means to both partners or spouses.
Above all, it’s important for you (and your spouse) to focus on self-care. It helps to think of the advice on an airplane, to “put your own oxygen mask on before helping others.” Take time out of your day to seek out whatever it is that you enjoy doing that will fortify your mind, body and soul. It’s not healthy or helpful to live continuously in “panic mode.” You and your spouse both need to be strong, individually and as a team, to be able to best help your child.