I’m Married to an Alcoholic, What Can I Do to Help?

Most everybody engages in social drinking or an occasional nightcap before bed. Problems only develop when a person chooses to drink despite the problems it causes. Unfortunately, when you’re married to an alcoholic, you’re married to the addiction until your spouse chooses to get treatment help. By changing how you interact with your spouse in certain key areas, you can help him or her get one step closer to getting the help they need.

See the Big Picture – “Is Alcoholism Running My Household?”

Honesty, trust, communication, and compassion are the hallmarks of a healthy family. Each member of the household shows respect towards the other with mom and dad leading the way. This is not an environment where alcohol addiction can thrive.

Families operate as an integrated network of relationships where each member develops his or her own style of interacting with the group. If you’ve been married to an alcoholic for any length of time, you know how alcohol addiction affects the family as well as the alcoholic. This is because addiction is a family disease.

When one member of the family falls prey to alcoholism, the whole family network is affected. For these reasons, family members affected by alcoholism tend to adapt to accommodate the alcoholic’s behaviors without even knowing they’re doing it. This is most true for the spouse of the alcoholic, who often ends up bearing the brunt of the problem.

Signs that alcoholism may be running your household include:

You or your children have been publicly embarrassed by your spouse’s behaviors when intoxicated

  • Money problems due to your spouse missing work
  • You or your children live on pins and needles out of fear of another alcoholic outburst
  • You’ve become more socially withdrawn, spending less and less time with friends and family
  • Physical, emotional, or even sexual abuse is an issue
  • Alcoholism has become the family secret

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Things You Can Do to Help an Alcoholic Spouse

Know What You’re Dealing With

For the alcoholic, drinking becomes a means for coping with stress, pressure, or other difficulties in daily life. While the choice to drink may be voluntary during the early stages of alcohol abuse, once addiction sets in, choosing to drink or not drink are no longer within your spouse’s control. At this point, his or her brain has become hard-wired to seek out alcohol. In effect, alcohol has hijacked your spouse’s brain at a chemical level to the point where it has become a basic need in their life.

On the bright side, your spouse can still choose to get treatment help once circumstances make it impossible to deny the problem any longer. Statistics obtained by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism show that over a third of Americans struggling with alcoholism make a full recovery. It may not happen overnight but it is possible.

Set Rules and Boundaries for the Household

Being married to an alcoholic can quickly become a slippery slow when it comes to rules and boundaries. Once the alcohol starts to take top priority in a spouse’s life, honesty, respect for others, and daily responsibilities take a backseat to the needs of the addiction. Manipulative behaviors and outright lying become necessary in order to protect this part of their life.

Setting rules and boundaries for the household regarding drinking helps re-establish order in the household and also lessens the effects of addiction on the family. Keep in mind, you must be willing to set consequences when your spouse crosses the line, and more importantly, follow-through with these consequences. Otherwise, not following through only encourages continued drinking.

Refuse to Enable Drinking Behaviors

Without knowing it, many spouses fall into the trap of enabling their partner’s drinking. When this happens, the spouse actually becomes part of the problem. Enabling may take the form of:

  • Avoiding talking about drinking to pacify your spouse
  • Making excuses for your spouse’s inappropriate behaviors while under the influence
  • Buying alcohol for him or her
  • Justifying your spouse’s repeated absences from work due to hangovers
  • Ignoring the financial difficulties caused by your spouse’s drinking

Rather than enable, be straightforward about situations as they come up. Keep in mind though, that you’re sure to be met with resistance so be prepared to stand your ground. A big part of helping your spouse seek treatment is by making it hard for them to drink without suffering the consequences. At the very least, these changes will force your spouse to see the problems drinking causes.

Build a Support Network

No one quite understands what it’s like to be married to an alcoholic than the spouse of an alcoholic. Being able to connect with people who share similar experiences and fears provides a much-needed outlet that lets you know you’re not alone. Support groups, like Al-Anon, exist for spouses and loved ones who live with alcoholism. The people that make up these groups have different levels of experience in dealing with alcoholic spouses, so there are real opportunities to learn how other people in your position handle different situations.

Confront Your Spouse About the Problem

Confronting your spouse (also known as an intervention) about his or her drinking can be tricky. While it’s never a good idea to do this while they’re under the influence, even a stone-cold sober spouse with drinking problems will likely resist when confronted. Confronting is not about blaming or humiliating the alcoholic but rather letting them know how their drinking is affecting your life.

You might also want to include other people in your spouse’s life who’ve been negatively affected by his or her drinking behaviors. If your spouse has a history of angry outbursts or violence, it’s best to have an intervention specialist conduct the meeting. Be sure to have a treatment program lined up in the event he or she is willing to get treatment help.

Helping an alcoholic spouse see drinking as a problem can be a monumental task considering how addiction skews their thinking and behavior. Your day-to-day interactions with him or her will either support the addiction or prompt your spouse to make changes, no matter how small. Ultimately, alcohol rehab programs will pick up where you leave off, providing the medical care and treatment supports they need to lead a sober lifestyle.

Sources:

  • library.cityvision.edu – Alcoholism in Family Systems
  • niaaa.nih.gov – 2001-2002 Survey Finds that Many Recover from Alcoholism: Researchers Identify Factors Associated with Abstinent and Non-Abstinent Recovery
  • uphs.upenn.edu – Enabling Behaviors

Medical disclaimer:

Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.

Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.

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