They’re a local couple: “He works in a very high-pressure, dynamic field, at an extremely stress high level. Before going to sleep he likes to light up a joint to relax. His wife was afraid of that, so he smokes alone. He has his hideaways. He goes to them just at the moments when she needs him. It’s the time of evening when, after all the day’s administration and the errands and the children, they finally have time for each other. He goes, she doesn’t follow. And if she does follow, he sees it as criticism. That’s how the conflict starts.”
This story is very familiar to Arie Tivon, a veteran clinical psychologist, family therapist and manager of the Tivon Psychological Institute. The details are less important, because the principle is always the same, only the individual cases change. Tivon has treated many similar couples. One of the partners likes to drink a little at the end of the evening, or smoke something. The other gets uptight at this behavior and feels abandoned to his/her fate. Sometimes, as in the case above, thoughts of separation come up. One study found that an exaggerated use of drugs or alcohol is the third most common cause of divorce in the United States (following cheating and incompatibility).
It’s not only among humans that difficulties can be caused by one member of a couple using some sort of substance. In an interesting experiment, whose results were published last month in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry, pairs of prairie voles were given solutions of 10 percent alcohol to drink. Voles are known for the strong homogeneous ties that form between them, so they are often used in experiments about interrelationships. Fortunately for the researchers, they are fond not only of one another but also of boozing. “In a day, they can drink [an amount] comparable to 15 bottles of wine,” neuroscientist Andrey E. Ryabinin, who oversaw the study, told National Geographic.
Male voles that drank alcohol while their female partner imbibed water, preferred to spend their periods of intoxication with a different partner. But when both partners drank alcohol, they were inclined to spend time together.
Another study, conducted among thousands of third-age couples and published last summer in The Journals of Gerontology, found a correlation between drinking together and satisfaction with one’s partner, particularly among women. “We’re not sure why this is happening,” the author of the study, Dr. Kira Birditt of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor told Reuters, adding, “We’re not suggesting that people should drink more or change the way they drink.”
Where does the fine line between reasonable use and addiction lie? Dr. Belle Gavriel-Fried of the School of Social Work at Tel Aviv University studies the connection between addiction and relationships. She says one symptom of addiction is impaired functioning. In a certain sense, addiction within a relationship is an acute phenomenon, because the non-addicted person takes over the addicted partner’s functions, leaving him or her at liberty to make the problem worse. “When one of the partners becomes addicted, the non-using partner takes greater responsibility for daily behavior, leading to mutual dependence. The non-user becomes a partner to the disease of addiction,” Dr. Gavriel-Fried notes.
Tivon, a therapist with an open mind, doesn’t necessarily become upset at the use of alcohol or marijuana by couples together or separately, as long as the amounts involved are reasonable and no patterns of addiction emerge. (And, by the way, he thinks that alcohol is a more dangerous drug than marijuana.)
Some couples, he says, have a constant need for “couples’ dramas,” and the drug or the alcohol provides that. In some cases, matters reach undesirable extremes. Joints can also sometimes become a type of self-therapy, their use concealing depression and other problems.
Substance abuse might ensue due to a couple’s problems of communication. “One patient asked me, ‘What will I talk about with my wife? When I’m a bit drunk, I find that I am able to communicate and liberate myself from my stiffness,’” Tivon relates. It’s a problem, he observes, when a relationship depends on getting high in order to function properly.
But often drugs are used for the sheer fun of it. “Why is it called a ‘joint’? It’s so you can be happy together. Change the mood, shift to a more associative and connecting flow,” Tivon points out. People might use drugs because they need a moment of intimacy, and first of all with themselves, he notes. They’re out for an existential moment of observation and liberation from the practical, oppressive side of life. Tivon: “I want to reconnect with my feelings and senses, to a feeling of existence with myself within the hard, coercive agenda in which I function.”
Many couples whom Tivon has met integrate cannabis into their sex life and find salvation, because it helps them find release and connect with their drives. Doug, 24, told the website Broadly last April: “... sometimes we’ll smoke when we have sex. I remember one time she was smoking a joint while I was going down on her, and she said something along the lines of, ‘This is how couples should smoke together.’” On the other hand, Tivon has also encountered cases in which highs put a damper on sexual performance, rendering senses and feelings shallow. “Someone told me that [because of the grass] ‘I accept everyone better, but I don’t like anyone,’” Tivon says.
His advice to the many couples who come to his clinic seeking help from tensions arising from substance use by one of them, is to try to clarify what the user obtains from the drug, and how the fulfillment of that need can be integrated within the framework of the conjugal relations, not outside them. A case in point is the couple cited at the beginning of this article.
“It was important for him that she be capable of listening to what [the drug] does for him," Tivon says. "She started to join him, to sit with him outside, beneath the stars. The tranquility he derived from marijuana led to cuddling, an atmosphere of love and affection, of tenderness and relaxation, of fantasy.
“It’s not substances that contribute most to good sex and a good relationship – it’s talking. That’s the most sexual thing there is. Instead of being the enemy of the relationship, it was integrated into it. Now he also smokes less. He doesn’t need it as much.”