Coping with an Alcoholic Spouse: What to Say and Do
Alcohol use disorder is a diagnostic term for alcohol addiction. Addiction to alcohol involves a compulsion to drink despite the negative impact of doing so; it frequently develops with the phenomena of tolerance and physical dependence as contributing factors. It is a disease that affects 17 million adults (ages 18 and older) in the US, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
People who struggle with alcohol use disorder may try to hide their condition, or they may believe that the negative effects of their problem only hurt them. However, addiction to alcohol often changes behaviors, puts people at risk of financial and legal problems, and leads to memory loss or cognitive difficulty – all of which can negatively impact people who love alcoholics, such as parents, siblings, friends, children, and spouses.
A person may be married to someone who is struggling with alcohol use disorder. Perhaps the person has tried several times to end their addiction or maybe the addiction has just begun after decades of marriage. Maybe the spouse was a high-functioning alcoholic, coping with job stresses and consuming large quantities of alcohol at the same time, without appearing to struggle, but they are now beginning to suffer serious consequences as time progresses.
What the Spouse of an Alcoholic May Experience
People who are married to someone struggling with alcohol use disorder may experience fear for their safety, their future, or their family. They often fear for their loved one’s health and happiness. People in a romantic relationship with someone who is struggling with alcohol use disorder, whether they are married, cohabitating, or dating, may:
- Blame themselves for the problem: While intoxicated, their partner may blame them for the drinking problem. In other instances, the individual may recognize codependent or enabling characteristics that they employ to avoid fights when the person is intoxicated. As a result, spouses may blame themselves for the addiction.
- Take drinking personally: People who know they have a problem with alcohol abuse may attempt repeatedly to stop drinking; without help from a professional detox and rehabilitation program, however, they are at high risk for relapse. When they do relapse, their loved ones, especially spouses, may feel like they have been lied to or coerced. Addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease involving compulsive ingestion of substances, so relapse is often part of the disease. While it can be easy to take things personally, an alcoholic doesn’t have full control over their behavior; the disease has taken over.
- Attempt to control or cure it: A spouse may feel that they will be safer if they can keep their partner drinking at home instead of at a bar. They may also try to get rid of all the alcohol in the house, assuming that then the person will stop drinking. They may scold, shame, or coerce their partner to get them to stop drinking. While it is possible to understand and overcome alcohol use disorder, it requires help from professionals. Spouses generally won’t be successful in at-home attempts to stop their loved one from drinking, and in some instances, attempts can be dangerous.
- Cover up the problem: People who are in partnership with someone struggling with alcohol use disorder may be in denial about the problem themselves. Everyone wants to believe the best of those they love. They want their children, relatives, and friends to be happy, and this overarching desire may lead to making excuses for their spouse or hiding evidence of the problem.
Accept troublesome behavior: Again, people who love a person struggling with alcohol use disorder may deny or excuse problematic behaviors because the person was drunk at the time. They may firmly believe that this isn’t really who their loved one is, so they might excuse the behavior. If the person is aggressive, depressed, suicidal, abusive, or dangerous more often than not because they are drunk, they likely have a drinking problem that needs to be addressed.
Enable their partner: This could include giving the loved one money to get out of a tough financial spot; driving them to and from bars to keep them safe on the road; make excuses at social events for the person’s behavior or their absence; or avoiding the issue in order to focus on positive events. All of this is enabling behavior; it’s “helping” that isn’t really helpful. Instead, it shields the person suffering from alcohol use disorder from the consequences of their disease.
Pointing out these behaviors is not an attempt to blame anyone, only to help people recognize if they may be hurting themselves in an attempt to maintain their relationship with someone who is compulsively engaging in destructive behaviors. Instead, both people in the relationship can heal by being honest and getting appropriate help.
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What the Spouse of an Alcoholic Can Do to Help
The actions aren’t easy to take, but they are certainly important. People who are married to, or in a relationship with, someone struggling with alcohol use disorder may want to start by going to a therapist, social worker, spiritual or religious leader, or friend or family member for emotional support. It can help to have a steady person to talk to as action is taken.
Here are some steps that spouses of alcoholics can take to get help for themselves and their loved ones:
- Rehearse the approach. It is important to focus honest and open discussion on love and the relationship – not on blame or shame. This may take some rehearsal and planning.
- Be honest and keep it simple. When confronted with the emotional pain their spouse is experiencing, a person suffering from alcohol use disorder may deny the problem, lash out, blame their spouse, or engage in other combative behavior. During this time, it is important to stay focused on the problem, and keep it short and simple. Do not be distracted from the truth. Keep in mind that this is about healing the relationship, not ending it.
- Get help from others. This may be for individual emotional support or to plan an intervention. Bringing together the person’s community in a time of need is important. An intervention can be very successful as long as it is planned and focused. A professional interventionist can help with this.
- Commit to change. Whether the change is sticking to stated boundaries during the intervention or making a personal promise, stick with it. Facing uncertainty, fear, and abuse is unacceptable. While it’s important to help a loved one who is struggling with alcohol use disorder, personal health and safety must be preserved. Many people want their alcoholic spouses to get better, but they risk becoming codependent – wholly focused on someone else’s needs – while attempting to be supportive. Remember that each party’s personal needs are important too.
Get help for the whole family.
If there are children or close family members involved, family therapy can greatly help strained relationships to heal and improve. Individual therapy for family members, including the alcoholic’s spouse, is important to address damage that has been done during their loved one’s active addiction. Spouses and loved ones can also take up a hobby, get regular exercise, learn mindfulness meditation techniques, find opportunities to socialize and relax in sober settings, and learn about alcohol use disorder to better support themselves as well as their partners.
The person struggling with alcohol use disorder should complete a professional detox and rehabilitation program, but it is equally important that their partner seek help too.