Coping with an Alcoholic Spouse: What to Say and Do When Living with an Alcoholic
This article will cover how to cope with a spouse with an AUD while finding ways to take care of yourself. It will also explore some common behaviors of those with alcohol abuse issues, phenomena you may experience while living with an alcoholic spouse, and your spouse’s addiction treatment options. If you or your loved one is struggling with substance abuse issues and you aren’t sure where to turn, reach out to AAC’s helpline today at .
What a Spouse Living With an Alcohol Use Disorder May Experience
An alcohol use disorder is a chronic medical condition characterized by an inability to stop or control drinking despite health, social, or professional consequences. The impact of an AUD isn’t always limited to the one suffering from this chronic medical condition. AUDs may not only affect the person with the drinking problem themselves, but their family, their loved ones, and others around them.
Living with someone with an alcohol use disorder can trigger feelings of self-blame, attempts to control your partner’s drinking, or enabling your partner such as by making excuses for their drinking. But as Al-Anon notes, you did not cause your spouse’s drinking—nor can you control or cure their drinking.1
For each of these experiences, you may choose to employ some more constructive solutions:
- Self-blame. Rather than blaming yourself for your partner’s drinking, realize that they alone are responsible for how they handle their emotions and their recovery from an alcohol use disorder. If your loved one has an AUD, they have a chronic medical condition; and, like many other chronic medical conditions, AUD has several potential contributing factors. You would not blame yourself if he or she had diabetes or cancer, so try practice trying to think of alcoholism in the same light.1
- Controlling your spouse’s drinking. Rather than obsessively monitoring your spouse’s drinking behavior, keeping constant tabs on their whereabouts, attempting to discard their alcohol, lecturing them, forbidding them from drinking, or pleading with them to stop drinking, you may choose to practice the art of actively releasing control over your spouse’s alcohol use. You did not cause their drinking, you cannot control it, and you cannot cure it.
- Enabling your spouse. Enabling involves behaviors like “covering” for your loved one. For example, someone who is enabling their spouse may call their spouse’s workplace and telling their boss that their spouse is “sick” when they are actually intoxicated or hungover. Enabling can also be bailing your loved one out of jail for a DUI, minimizing the impact that the drinking has on your family, or avoiding the issue or pretending it does not exist. In time, you can learn to say no, set healthy boundaries, and follow through with consequences.
When you live with a spouse who has an alcohol use disorder, taking care of yourself is important. Although it may seem counterintuitive to focus on yourself first when your spouse may be showing worrisome addictive behaviors, it’s critical to look at your own emotions and needs before you can take steps to help your spouse.
How to Cope with an Alcoholic Spouse
Coping with an alcoholic spouse is a dynamic process—one that is more of a journey than a recipe. What helps you in one moment or scenario may be different from the next, so it’s important to have a variety of coping methods in your personal toolkit. Some things you can do to help yourself cope with the experience of having a spouse with an alcohol use disorder include:
- Peer support groups, such as Al-Anon, which was founded to help families of people who abuse alcohol. In Al-Anon, you can learn coping skills that help you detach from your spouse’s behaviors and take care of yourself. These groups may help you respond to your spouse’s drinking in a more constructive way while giving you the support of and connection with people who are going through something similar.
- Self-care, whether emotionally, physically, or spiritually, is key to your ability to cope. It might involve activities like meditation, exercise, or new hobbies to pursue during this stressful time. Making time for, and even prioritizing, these activities can be beneficial.
- Involve friends or family that help you feel more supported. Be honest about what would be helpful to you from them.2 Remember that you’re not in this alone.
- Therapy can be helpful for you to learn how to cope with an alcoholic spouse. Research studies have shown that even when the alcoholic spouse refuses to get help, family therapy can help the nonalcoholic spouse reduce stress and learn coping methods.3
- Educate yourself on what your partner is going through, what treatments may be available to them, and what resources they may be able to access when they’re ready to get help. Being prepared for when they are ready to talk about their problem may make you feel more at ease.
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.
The Treatment Process for Alcoholism
Alcohol use disorders are chronic conditions, but many with them benefit from treatment and ongoing recovery efforts. There are many treatment options that vary in intensity of services, length of treatment, and types of therapeutic interventions that your partner can choose from to help overcome their AUD. Some of these treatment options may include inpatient treatment (such as residential rehabilitation), outpatient treatment, individual therapy, medications, and more.
It is possible that your partner will choose to attend some type of rehab center or employ some other therapeutic intervention for the treatment of their alcohol abuse issues at some point. If (or when) they do, you’ll want to know what options are out there for the treatment of AUDs and what to look for in a treatment provider.
Regardless of the type of treatment your significant other chooses, certain principles tend to make treatment more effective. These include:4
- Treatment should be readily available. When a person decides to go to treatment, you do not want to lose momentum and have them change their minds. As with many chronic disease processes, the earlier a person receives treatment for an alcohol addiction, the greater chance of positive treatment outcomes.
- Treatment should be individualized. No one type of treatment works for everyone.
- Treatment should last an adequate amount of time. Studies indicate that 3 months of treatment is needed to significantly reduce a person’s risk of relapse.
- Effective treatment should focus on numerous aspects of a person’s life, including work, family, and any legal issues they may have. It is also critical to have treatment that is tailored to a person’s age, gender, culture, and ethnicity.
- Treatment for AUDs ought to include behavioral therapies. Behavioral therapy approaches are most commonly used in treating alcohol use disorders and other substance use disorders. This option helps them improve their relationships with others, find outlets that do not involve substance use, build skills that help them resist alcohol or drug use, and increase their ability to problem-solve.
- Treatment plans at effective treatment centers are not static. Instead, they are ever-changing, flexible, reactive, and proactive. For treatment to be optimally effective, clinicians should evaluate and revise a patient’s treatment plan on an as-needed or routine basis.
- Treatment should address any underlying mental health disorders to be optimally effective. If your loved one has a co-occurring mental health condition, they may benefit from an integrated approach to treatment that simultaneously addresses both mental health and substance use issues.
The course of your spouse’s treatment will vary depending upon their exact issues and needs. Clinicians and patients consider various factors when determining the duration of treatment and what modalities will be used. Some people with alcohol use disorders are good candidates for medication-assisted treatment (MAT). Medications that are FDA-approved to treat AUD include:5
- Acamprosate, which can be used after a person has stopped drinking and wants to remain abstinent. Acamprosate can help to prevent drinking, but may be less effective in people who continue to drink or use other drugs.
- Disulfiram, which can be used after someone completes alcohol detox or if they’re in the early stages of abstinence. If a person uses alcohol while on disulfiram, he or she will have nausea, headaches, vomiting, and trouble breathing.
- Naltrexone, which can block some of the reinforcing effects of alcohol to help a person in recovery reduce their alcohol use.
Find Alcohol Treatment for a Spouse or a Loved One
If you are searching for treatment for your spouse or loved one, there are many programs for you to choose from at American Addiction Centers (AAC). AAC is a leading treatment provider that stands out from many of the programs you may hear about. At AAC facilities across the country, you will find caring and compassionate staff members who can help your loved one develop an individualized treatment plan so they can find their way to recovery from an alcohol use disorder.
- All Treatment Centers
- Rhode Island
- New Jersey
- Al-Anon Family Groups of South Carolina. The family disease of alcoholism.
- National Institute on Aging. (2017). How to help someone you know with a drinking problem.
- O’Farrell, T. J., & Clements, K. (2012). Review of outcome research on marital and family therapy in treatment for alcoholism. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 38(1), 122-144.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Principles of effective treatment.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2020). MAT medications, counseling, and related conditions.