Emotional Unavailability and Failed Relationships Are Common Among Marijuana Users

Emotional Unavailability and Failed Relationships Are Common Among Marijuana Users

Dr. Drew W. Edwards

Emotional unavailability is perhaps the best description of how cannabis use affects family life and our most important relationships. Research conducted at the Center for Psychological Studies at the Scripps Institute found striking discrepancies in how marijuana users perceived themselves versus how others perceive them. The findings will not surprise those who have lived with a marijuana user.

The research methodology included structured interviews with users and their family members. The results were clear. Cannabis users believed that the drug improved their self-awareness, and, thus, enhanced their relationships with loved ones.

In contrast, the perceptions of their family members revealed gross perceptual distortions, specifically in regards to interpersonal competence and emotional availability.

For example, Jeff, now 47, described his marijuana use and family life this way.
"I work hard every day, I don’t go to bars, I come home when I’m supposed to, and yes, I smoke a joint or two in the garage to unwind and help me relax. After dinner I spend the evening relaxing with my family."

His 11-year-old daughter Elisha described her father this way
"After Daddy comes home from work he goes to the garage to smoke his stuff. After dinner he just sits in his chair and watches TV—he never does anything."

Family relationships require much more than a warm body in a chair. Genuine intimacy, particularly between a husband and wife or a parent and their child require time, shared interests and deep emotional connection. This is exactly opposite of the vacant, isolated and depersonalized effect associated with cannabis intoxication. Here’s why. All drugs of abuse distort perception to some degree—that is, after all, the point of getting high— to artificially change one's mood. Symptoms of cannabis intoxication include impairment of short-term memory and executive functioning, difficulty concentrating and sustaining  focus, inability to multitask, increased sedation, poor coordination and poor inhibitory control.

It is uncanny how marijuana users describe their relationships with significant others. Although they possess a basic, superficial understanding of their loved ones, research shows they lack awareness of their loved one’s feelings, struggles, dreams, hopes, and disappointments.

Emotional Retardation
Because marijuana distorts perception and emotions, users don’t cope well with life’s stresses or interpersonal conflict. It’s as if their emotional maturity has stopped when they began using cannabis. The research shows that cannabis users have measurable deficits in interpersonal skills, including empathy, acceptance, warmth, and genuineness. Cross-sectional studies of young adults revealed  that regular use of cannabis is predictive of multiple failed relationships.

As adults, establishing emotional intimacy with loved ones is an important developmental stage. It requires self-awareness and understanding one's emotions, and the ability to empathize with others. As their relationships deteriorate  the marijuana user may feel hurt, isolated and angry. So how do they cope with hurts, disappointment, and stress?  Not very well. Like all substance abusers, they have difficulty processing and expressing emotions.  As a result, their hurt and anger are expressed in immature and sometimes inappropriate ways. And of course, their remedy for emotional distress is to “get high”, which only exacerbates the problem. Family members learn to cope by detaching emotionally from their perpetually stoned loved one, while lowering their expectations of the relationship. Over time, the pain and disappointment is no longer tolerable--so separation or  divorce are an expected result.

These data remind us that loving, committed relationships require emotional availability and a shared commitment to interpersonal growth towards  deeper levels of intimacy. Unfortunately, substance abusers are highly resistant to the pleas of their family or friends. When confronted about their emotional distance or lack of intimacy,  users will  deny, rationalize, and blame others for their difficulties. As a result, most users become defensive, refuse help, and remain in their sad, drug induced reality indefinitely. 


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  3. Patton, G.C., et al. (2007) Trajectories of adolescent alcohol and cannabis use into young adulthood.Addiction, 102(4):607-615.
  4. H. Tan, N. M. Lauzon, S. F. Bishop, N. Chi, M. Bechard, S. R. Laviolette. Cannabinoid Transmission in the Basolateral Amygdala Modulates Fear Memory Formation via Functional Inputs to the Prelimbic Cortex. Journal of Neuroscience, 2011; 31 (14): 5300

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