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Alcoholism, Marriage, and Rehab

How can your marriage be impacted by alcoholism?

Many marriages impacted by alcoholism end in separation or divorce, but it does not have to be that way. Couples therapy, or counseling for people with alcoholism and their spouses, can break longstanding habits that lock alcoholism in place and repair damaged relationships. Couples emerging from this therapy have the tools to support one another, come what may, in recovery.

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.

Take Our “Am I an Alcoholic?” Self-Assessment

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.

What does alcoholism do to family?

spouse and alcohol use problem

A person’s relationship with a spouse and other family members can be adversely affected by an addiction to alcohol. This can take a major toll on the emotional health of everyone in the family, especially the person’s spouse.

It can be painfully obvious when a partner’s alcohol use is becoming a problem. However, it’s often difficult for either the individual or the spouse to admit that there may be an alcohol addiction issue. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has a list of symptoms that can help one to identify when a loved one is dealing with alcoholism, such as:

  • Spending less time doing favorite activities because of more time spent drinking or hungover
  • Having trouble keeping up with family or work responsibilities due to drinking
  • Continuing to drink even if it is causing trouble with family or friends
  • Regularly getting into risky situations while drunk, such as driving or operating machinery

Other behavior changes can affect the individual’s way of behaving toward a spouse or children, including potential rage or violence while drunk. These issues are never to be taken lightly or dismissed. Even if behavior doesn’t turn dangerous or violent, when a spouse’s actions change on a regular basis and drinking is a concern, it may be time to consider whether an alcohol addiction is present.

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. 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.


When living with a partner’s addiction, a spouse may build up coping mechanisms to protect any children and the marriage itself.

Often, because of the shame felt about the situation, the spouse will avoid taking steps to get help for the individual and will instead begin to develop a behavior known as enabling.

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. 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. Without supporting the spouse in overcoming these behaviors and emotional challenges, it is difficult for recovery from alcoholism to last.

How to Get Help for a Partner Struggling with Alcohol Addiction

The best step a spouse can take is to help the addicted partner get into rehab. While this may seem like a challenging step to take, knowing how to find a rehab program and talk to the loved one about the drinking problem can make this process much easier to start. The steps to follow in getting help for a loved one are as follows:

  • Find a rehab program. Local rehab programs and centers can easily be found through a state’s or municipality’s behavioral health department, as listed in the Directory of Single State Agencies (SSAs) for Substance Abuse Services provided by the federal government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). SAMHSA also has an online search engine that provides a national, customizable way to seek treatment centers. Private treatment centers often offer more comprehensive and personalized care than public treatment options, and most private centers work with insurance providers so care is at least partially covered.
  • Stage an intervention. Working with other family members and with a professional interventionist, the spouse can prepare for and initiate an intervention to let the person struggling with alcohol abuse know that family and friends are concerned and treatment is available. It may not work immediately, but a large percentage of interventions are successful if handled objectively and with professional support.
  • Be present for rehab. Treatment for alcohol addiction is most likely to result in recovery when the person undergoing treatment has a support structure to help both during treatment and after program completion. Family therapy in alcohol rehab can help other family members work through their issues and psychological challenges as well, giving perspective on, and strategies for handling, behaviors like enabling and codependency that can stall treatment and recovery.
  • Prepare for life after treatment and get support. Since there is no cure for alcoholism, recovery is a lifelong journey. It’s important for both partners in a marriage to have the necessary support to sustain recovery and avoid relapse. There are mutual support groups like Al-Anon that can provide motivational support, as well as resources that can help both partners avoid falling back into old patterns.

Through these processes, it is possible for those who struggle with alcohol abuse, and those individuals’ spouses, to release the hold of alcoholism on their relationships and begin to move toward healthy marriages in recovery.

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Last Updated on June 29, 2021
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