Two’s Company, Three’s a Crowd

By Mary Detweiler

cardinal rule

Cardinal Rule!!

Every person reading this has some understanding of the destruction wreaked on a marital or significant relationship when one of the partners engages in an extramarital or extra-relationship affair with another person. Every person reading this also understands that the damage is caused by the breaking of the cardinal rule for marital and significant relationships. That cardinal rule, of course, is two’s company, three’s a crowd.

Did you also know that similar damage is wreaked on a marital or significant relationship when one of the partners engages in an active addiction? How, you might ask? Well, an addiction is a relationship. When someone is addicted to a substance and/or a behavior, that person is in a relationship with their substance or behavior of choice, the same as if they were involved with a person. Further, the relationship with the object of their addiction is the most important relationship in his/her life. He or she will do anything to protect that relationship and keep it alive, i.e. deny it, lie about it, cover it up, minimize it, blame others, etc.

In my article last month, An Addiction is an Addiction is an Addiction, I made the point that it is possible to become addicted to a behavior the same way it is possible to become addicted to a substance. Some common behaviors people become addicted to are: overworking; overeating or controlling of eating (anorexia or bulimia); spending; shopping; gambling; engaging in pornography; promiscuity; caretaking; people pleasing/approval seeking; controlling other people and situations. I made the further point that individuals who are addicted to a behavior or behaviors are not any better or any different than individuals who are addicted to substances. They are simply programmed differently.

When two people who are dating decide to get serious about their relationship they spend much time together. This time is needed to get to know each other and build a solid foundation for the relationship. During this phase of relationship building the upholding of the two’s company, three’s a crowd rule is critical. It’s also not usually an issue because the new relationship is the most important relationship in each of their lives. Once the relationship is established and the foundation is laid, regular couples’ time is still important, even if they have been together for decades to nurture the relationship and keep it vibrant and alive. The same rule of thumb (two’s company, three’s a crowd) continues to be critical to uphold for quality couples’ time.

When a person with an addiction enters into a significant relationship, he or she is not entering into that relationship alone. Rather, he or she is bringing an already established important relationship into the new relationship. When someone who is in an already established significant relationship develops an addiction, he or she involves a third party in the relationship. In both of these scenarios the guiding principal of two’s company, three’s a crowd is impossible to uphold.

No relationship is 100% healthy or 100% unhealthy. Every relationship has healthy characteristics and unhealthy characteristics. It is a continuum and every relationship is somewhere on the continuum between healthy and unhealthy. For our purposes we will call relationships healthy if they have more healthy characteristics than unhealthy ones, and vice versa for unhealthy relationships. A relationship in which one or both individuals are engaged in an active addiction will be considered an unhealthy relationship. Having an addiction present in a relationship is having a toxin present in that relationship. Health is impossible.

We will consider a healthy relationship to be one in which the couple’s decision to commit to each other is based on a choice to stand by each other and love each other no matter what. It is not based on a feeling. It is based on a decision. Love, in this context, is not a feeling, it is an action. It is beyond our flawed human capacity to always feel loving toward our partner however, it is not beyond our human capacity to act loving, even when we don’t feel loving. It takes an act of will and a conscious decision not to be ruled by our emotions. This is difficult but not impossible. Therefore, if a marriage or significant relationship is to be successful and healthy, it must be based on a decision and it must be characterized by loving behavior.

Addictions wreak havoc with our decision-making capacity. Inherent in the definition and understanding of addiction is that it is compulsive. Individuals with an addiction are no longer in control of their substance use or behavior. The substance use or behavior is controlling them.

Most of the behaviors which individuals become addicted to are normal, needed, natural behaviors. Once they become addictions, however, the behaviors are no longer being engaged in for the purpose they were intended. They are being engaged in excessively and compulsively for an entirely different purpose. For example, one is not working to earn a living, one is overworking to avoid feeling feelings or one does not eat to live, one lives to eat because the eating keeps emotional pain at bay. There comes a point where one crosses a line from engaging in a normal behavior to engaging in an exaggeration of a normal behavior which then becomes a rigid self-defeating pattern. One crosses the line when one moves from choice to powerlessness.

A healthy relationship is also based on equality. In order for equality to be present in a relationship, each individual needs to be a whole person. He or she does not need the other to complete him or her. Frequently an incomplete person looks to a partner to complete them. Rather than taking responsibility for their own growth and development as a person, they look to their partner to fill in their blanks. For example, if someone has difficulty taking care of self, they may enter into a relationship with a compulsive caretaker and thereby avoid needing to develop this aspect of their personality. The catch though is that he/she then needs their partner to remain a caretaker. Any effort the partner may make to overcome this compulsive behavior will be discouraged if not outright sabotaged by the other person. This is not loving behavior.

A whole person is one who is independent emotionally, socially and intellectually.

Emotional independence involves taking responsibility for one’s feelings. Though another person’s words or behaviors may trigger feelings of anger or sadness in us, we get angry or sad because of what is inside us. It’s like rubbing salt into an open wound. The wound is ours. The salt is the other person’s words or actions. The salt would not hurt us if we did not have that particular wound. So, an emotionally independent individual takes responsibility for his/her pain and does not blame the hurt feelings on another person’s words or actions.

Social independence involves taking responsibility for developing and maintaining friend-ships separate from our significant other. This alleviates putting too much weight on our partner or significant relationship to fill all our needs for friendship and recreation. It is damaging to a relationship to carry this much weight.

Intellectual independence means that we take responsibility for keeping our minds active and alert. We seek out new information in order to keep learning. We think for ourselves and form our own opinions. This goes a long way in keeping the relationship vibrant. Relationships in which both partners are intellectually independent are not characterized by power struggles. Both individuals have accepted the reality that they do not have to think or feel the same way about all things. They have learned to agree to disagree.

Addictions rob us of our capacity to be independent emotionally, socially and intellectually because addictions, by definition, involve dependence. To be addicted to a substance or behavior is to be dependent on that substance or behavior. The addictive process begins with a desire to medicate or numb emotional pain. Once we find the substance or behavior that works to alleviate our pain we begin to use that substance or engage in that behavior with increasing frequency, increasing duration, increasing intensity, and increasing variety. These increases are necessary because we quickly develop tolerance. That is, we become accustomed to our substance or behavior of choice and need more of it to get the effect we want. As the addictive process progresses, the dependence grows and the capacity for emotional, social and intellectual independence diminishes.

Finally, a marital or significant relationship by definition involves intimacy. Important point: intimacy does not equal sex. Sex is one aspect of intimacy, however, it is not the only or the most important aspect .The type of intimacy being discussed here is emotional intimacy. Emotional intimacy may lead to sexual intimacy; however, emotional intimacy is a worthy and satisfying goal in and of itself.

Honesty about who you are and how you are feeling at any given time is a nonnegotiable ingredient of emotional intimacy. It goes without saying that if emotional intimacy is to develop and flourish in a relationship, each partner must be willing to fully and consistently share on a feeling level. Therefore, emotional intimacy always involves reciprocation and openness between two willing and committed partners. If one or both partners are dependent on substances and/or behaviors to medicate emotional pain then feelings are deadened and emotional sharing is virtually impossible. Intimacy either is never established or, if it has been established, it vanishes.

As long as an active addiction or addictions are present in a relationship, the relationship will deteriorate. This process will likely continue until the consequences of the addiction hurt more than the fear of confronting it. When the pain of the addiction finally outweighs the fear, one or both partners are ready for recovery and then hope is finally possible.

Mary Detweiler is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and an Adult Child of an Alcoholic who worked as a mental health professional for 27 years. She is currently leading a Celebrate Recovery ministry in Manheim, PA and is the author of When Therapy Isn’t Enough and When Religion Isn’t Enough. Her blog/website is