Alcoholism, Marriage, and Rehab
When a husband, wife or significant other is struggling with alcoholism, it can be difficult to accept that alcohol rehab may be needed.
In some instances, it may be hard to admit that there’s even a problem. In other situations, it may be hard to ignore or difficult to change due to a loss of communication and additional issues commonly caused by heavy alcohol use. The spouse of a person who is addicted to alcohol can often feel confused and unsure of how to improve the situation. Some partners may feel stuck and unable to do anything, or they may even begin to have issues of their own that make the problem worse.
Many marriages affected by alcoholism end in separation or divorce, with no healing reached for the addiction, or other psychological and physical issues that may have resulted from, or even caused, the situation. In fact, various studies, including one from addiction, have shown that heavy alcohol use by one partner is a predictor of divorce for young adults.
Understanding the dynamics of relationships affected by alcohol abuse can help a person gain control over this type of situation, avoid circumstances that can make the problem worse, and get help for both the person struggling with alcohol and for the spouse affected by the addiction.
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Take our free, 5-minute “Am I an Alcoholic?” self-assessment below if you think you or someone you love might be struggling with an alcohol use disorder (AUD). The evaluation consists of 11 yes or no questions that are intended to be used as an informational tool to assess the severity and probability of an AUD. The test is free, confidential, and no personal information is needed to receive the result.
Alcoholism and Marriage
Per an article in Alcoholism Clinical and Experimental Research, marriages where alcohol dependence is present in either partner are more likely to result in early separation.2 The reason for this is certainly the strain that alcoholism puts on a relationship.
Having a partner who is alcoholic can put stress on the marriage in many ways, including:
- Feeling embarrassed, guilty, or ashamed of a spouse’s drinking problem
- Being afraid of the spouse’s behavior while under the influence
- Feeling a loss of intimacy or communication
- Having to take on more responsibility to make up for the person who is drinking
Dealing with a Loved One’s Alcohol Addiction
Dealing with these issues takes a toll on the spouse of the individual dealing with alcoholism, and on the entire family. The constant strain of this kind of relationship can cause psychological issues, and it can steer the dynamics of the relationship in several directions that may make the problem worse.
Sometimes the strain is enough that the relationship will end; other times, sober spouses may unconsciously adjust their behaviors to help them avoid directly dealing with the challenge, which can result in a relationship dynamic that makes the problem worse instead of better. Enabling behaviors and issue of codependency are also common in these marriages.
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When living with a partner’s addiction, a spouse may build up coping mechanisms to protect any children and the marriage itself.
As described in a study from the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, enabling behaviors are those that, intentionally or otherwise, enable a person to continue drinking.3 An obvious type of enabling occurs when a spouse drinks alcohol with the partner who is struggling with addiction, which gives the partner direct permission to continue drinking.
Some forms of enabling are subtler. For example, if the drinking partner is having trouble maintaining family responsibilities, the spouse may take over doing those things, which tacitly allows the person who is addicted to alcohol to continue drinking. The more the spouse covers, the more the person who is drinking is able to get away with continued alcohol abuse.
Another issue that can arise in a marriage with an individual who is alcoholic is codependency. Put very simply, a codependent relationship is one in which one partner’s behavior depends on the need to take care of or control another person.
In a relationship with a person dependent on alcohol, this develops when the spouse begins to be defined in the role of caretaker of the partner who is struggling with alcoholism. The spouse becomes so committed to helping that the addictive behavior is enabled, either subconsciously or purposefully.
Enabling behaviors and codependence need to be taken into account when a person is being treated for alcoholism, as explored in a study published in the International Journal of Culture and Mental Health.4 Without supporting the spouse in overcoming these behaviors and emotional challenges, it is difficult for recovery from alcoholism to last.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2020). Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder.
- Waldron, M., Heath, A. C., Lynskey, M. T., Bucholz, K. K., Madden, P. A., & Martin, N. G. (2011). Alcoholic marriage: later start, sooner end. Alcoholism, clinical and experimental research, 35(4), 632–642.
- Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment. (2004). Enabling Behavior in a Clinical Sample of Alcohol-Dependent Clients and their Partners.
- International Journal of Culture and Mental Health. (2013). Codependence in Spouses of Alcohol and Opioid Dependent Men.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2016). Directory of Single State Agencies (SSA) for Substance Abuse Services.