(CNN) – Despite the controversy that actor Ben Affleck generated when speak About her marriage and addiction, it also shed light on important conversations for addicts and their loved ones, one expert said.
Marital problems and addiction have a “chicken and egg” relationship, said psychologist John F. Kelly, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Recovery Research Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital.
The conclusion of the Affleck and Garner story shouldn’t be blame, Kelly said, but rather the importance of coping strategies to avoid addictive behaviors and maintain healthy relationships.
Affleck spoke to Howard Stern this week about how his marriage to Jennifer Garner contributed to his alcoholism, saying that if they hadn’t separated in 2015, “he would probably still be drinking.”
“It’s part of the reason I started drinking,” Affleck told Stern. “Because he was trapped.”
As his comments went viral, some people saw Affleck blaming Garner for his addiction.
“It’s not true. I don’t think so. It’s the exact opposite of who I am and what I believe,” Affleck said in “Jimmy Kimmel Live” this Wednesday in response, adding that he loves and respects Garner.
Addiction and relationships are difficult and complex topics, Kelly said, but there are things addicts and those around them can learn from the controversy.
Garner, or people in his position, may have heard words like “trapped” and felt blamed for playing a role in the formation of addiction, but loved ones are not to blame for the addictive behavior, Kelly said.
“She shouldn’t blame herself,” he said. “The responsibility would remain with the person who is using an ineffective coping strategy.”
There are many factors that affect a person who develops an addiction, including genetic predisposition, Kelly said. Repeated heavy use over time can also lead to addiction, he added.
Heavy use may be due to the absence of effective coping mechanisms, a pattern that may have been established long before an addict enters a relationship, he said.
Guilt is not helpful when it comes to relationship conflict and addiction, Kelly said.
“The point is to try to resolve the conflicts that inevitably occur in relationships through honest and respectful communication, and drinking is an ineffective way of coping,” he said.
In the short term, alcohol can seem like a very effective way to cope, Kelly said. It can dissolve unpleasant feelings quickly and reliably.
“Unfortunately, in the long run, it can cause all kinds of problems,” he added.
To some extent, everyone struggles with communication and interpersonal relationships, and many people look for ways to avoid facing situations when the going gets tough, Kelly said.
“If you add alcohol to the mix, you only make things worse,” Kelly said. “People often turn to alcohol use as their primary coping strategy because they don’t have the tools to be able to communicate effectively.”
When problems arise in relationships that matter to us, we may avoid bringing up the problems or hope they go away when we don’t feel equipped to deal with them head-on.
The problems are compounded when using drinking to avoid relationship conflict worsens that conflict, creating a bigger problem for the drinker to avoid with drinking, and the cycle goes on and on, Kelly said.
“We all have conflicts in relationships,” he said. “The question is: how do we deal with them?”
Avoiding the situation or using substances to cope can ultimately lead to more problems later, Kelly added.
We can’t know the specifics of Affleck and Garner’s situation specifically, but many people with alcohol use disorder who experience relationship difficulties may find that they didn’t have the direct communication skills they needed even before the relationship began, 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 communicate effectively and listen to each other.”
Talking to an unbiased friend or family member, or ideally a professional therapist if possible, as a couple can help bring out the unspoken thoughts and feelings that the addict has, as well as illuminate patterns of behavior between the couple. and how they treat the other.
In addition to treating substance use, psychologists also often use assertiveness training for people with addictions so they can communicate effectively and “say what they want to say without being mean,” Kelly said.
The goal is not to remove difficulties and conflicts from a person’s life to stop substance use, but to arm them with the skills to seek support, deal directly with what life throws at them, and “face life on terms of life, “Kelly said.
For a spouse or ex-spouse of someone affected by alcohol use, “getting advice from an experienced therapist and / or groups like AA family groups is often very helpful in gaining support and objectivity in these intense situations,” he suggested.
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We can learn this from Affleck’s comments about his marriage.