When we get married, we exchange some form of life-long vows. We vow to support one another through the good times and the bad. We agree to help one another and be there, even when times get rough. A marriage commitment means being someone’s support. Life is full of changes and surprises, and with that comes shifts in you as a person, as well as your marriage as a partnership.
If you feel your spouse is developing a drinking problem, or you know that they do have one, it can be difficult to be supportive without becoming enabling. You’ll face circumstances where you feel you aren’t living up to your vows of support. It is important to understand that when it comes to alcohol dependency, you’re no longer dealing with just your spouse as a person; you’re also dealing with a disease.
Is There Really a Problem?
Determining whether or not there is a problem can be difficult. Many people enjoy a couple of drinks after a long day of work or like to go out for a night on the town once in a while. As a spouse, you don’t want to assume the worst, which can often lead to you ignoring early signs. One important aspect to keep in mind is whether or not your spouse’s drinking is causing problems. This could be problems within your own family, such as your relationship, relationships with your children, or extended family, or problems with their job.
Has your spouse been missing work? Showing up late? Disappearing early? Have they experienced any legal problems, such as drinking and driving? What about physical issues? There are immediate signs of drinking, such as staggering and poor coordination, but there are longer term signs as well.
Alcohol dependency changes the way our brains work, both in the short and long term. If you notice a rise in poor judgment or loss of inhibitions, this can be a sign of a drinking dependency. These changes in the brain can also lead to emotional signs such as crying spells that may be triggered by seemingly nothing. The other side of that coin can involve moments of hysteria.
Responses to negativity or assumed negativity can be met with anger and erratic behavior. This behavior could lead to further emotional turmoil or even physical abuse. If you have noticed these signs, it is important to take them seriously.
What to Do If Your Spouse Has a Drinking Problem
If you’ve noticed that your spouse’s drinking is beyond what could be considered casual, you’ll next likely ask yourself, what now? What can I do? As a spouse, your natural response is going to be wanting to help. You see your partner hurting themselves and those around them, and you want to make it better.
This is expected, but the truth of the matter is that substance use disorders are tricky, and you must tread lightly if you truly want to help. The question of how to help an alcoholic spouse has many factors to consider. When trying to help your spouse, there are certain steps you can take to help, as well as things you shouldn’t do to avoid exacerbating the problem or pushing them away.
Things You Can Do
If this issue seems new, or if you feel you are catching it early, you can always start by simply talking. Beginning the conversation isn’t going to be easy. Your spouse may not realize the real changes in their behavior, and this conversation could come as a surprise. It is important to focus on a time where you would both be calm and alert.
This is not a conversation to have in the heat of an argument or if you suspect your spouse has been drinking. It is most important to approach the topic in an honest, kind, and respectful manner. You want to strive to avoid any defensive or hostile responses. Speak from your heart. Let them know your concerns without judgment or expectations.
- You can educate yourself. Our understanding of this progressive disease continues to change over time. Learn all that you can about alcohol dependency and the steps you can take to care of yourself and your partner. Knowledge can be empowering and give you the confidence you need to tackle the issue effectively. Peer support groups such as Al-Anon can help you learn important coping skills, self-care, and how to respond constructively.
- You can focus on your self-care. You have to understand that ultimately, you can’t change your spouse. You can only truly work on yourself. Staying an active part of your spouse’s life won’t be easy. You need to care for yourself emotionally, physically, and spiritually during this difficult time. This could mean meditation, exercise, exploring new hobbies, or attending regular therapy for support. The goal is to help ensure that you aren’t losing yourself in their destructive path.
- You can involve yourself in activities and behaviors that reinforce sobriety. When possible, removing alcohol naturally from your individual or shared activities can structure a healthier lifestyle. Instead of going to the bar on a Friday night, take a hike through the woods, have a picnic in the park, or spend time with other sober friends. Do what you can to remove yourself from the culture of drinking and remind your spouse that you can have just as much fun without alcohol. This might be even more so because you don’t have to worry about the disastrous fallout from an evening filled with drinking.
- You can let a crisis happen. Our lives are shaped by high and low points. Alcohol dependency can bring a person to levels of low that may be painful to see. As a spouse, everything inside of you is going to want to intervene. It is hard to comprehend, but sometimes doing nothing is the best thing that you can do. You never want to create or force a crisis, but one that happens naturally could cause your partner to fully realize the state they are in. Detachment is not easy, but it can allow your partner the room to realize the path they have chosen and accept that they require help.
Things You Shouldn’t Do
Helping a spouse with a drinking problem is far from easy. It feels impossible, but at times, you may have to take a step back. Adjusting your approach and your attitude can help you see the situation from a different perspective. While you want to always be your spouse’s support system, you also can’t let their addiction dominate your life.
- You shouldn’t try to control it. This can be one of the most difficult aspects of wanting to be the support system for your spouse. As a spouse, you naturally feel as though you have the right and ability to influence that person’s life. However, alcohol dependency can frame your seemingly good intentions as a personal attack, making your spouse more likely to resist help. You need to release control. You shouldn’t be monitoring their drinks or lecturing them when you think they should be done. Forbidding or pleading will only continue to make matters worse. It is natural that you want to try and come up with ways to stop your spouse from drinking, but sometimes that person needs a crisis point that can push them to seek help for themselves.
- You can’t blame yourself. When your spouse is dependent on alcohol, nothing and no one is going to get in between that relationship. It is typical for alcoholics to blame their drinking on outside causes, whether it be work, you, or even your children. You have to be able to take a step back and know that you have nothing to do with their substance use disorder. They alone are responsible for getting help and following up with treatment.
- Don’t try to cover it up. There is a fine line between helping and enabling. Your spouse will never experience a low point if you are always hiding it. If your spouse drunkenly stumbles and breaks a lamp, if they pass out while cooking, or they make other embarrassing mistakes, you must be willing and able to let them see it for themselves once they are sober again. If you are always cleaning up the mess, it helps to reinforce the denial game that many alcoholics try to play. This also involves making excuses for them to other family members, friends, and coworkers. You have to be a rock of openness and honesty. It feels impossible, but there needs to be natural consequences for what takes place. It is not a form of being mean or unkind to your spouse.
- Don’t accept unacceptable behaviors. Alcohol changes the way people react and behave both emotionally and physically. Usually, these behaviors start small such as having an argument over something small that normally wouldn’t be an issue or using inappropriate name calling. These behaviors, if allowed, will only get worse over time. You’ll continue accepting more and more, and before you know it, you’ll find yourself in a truly abusive relationship. If your partner is behaving out of line, you can’t make excuses and you can’t let it slide.
- Understand that you can’t cure it. Alcoholism is a progressive disease that alters a person physically, emotionally, and mentally. You are not there to be your spouse’s health care provider or their substance counselor. You can’t make decisions for them or try to force them to change. This will only be met with further backlash. When dealing with alcohol dependency, you need outside help.
- Don’t put off getting help. Alcoholism takes control over a person’s life. The level of dependency can blind them into thinking they are all alone. Millions of people have found solutions to their substance use disorders. Finding help for yourself may trigger your partner to also seek help. Visit a peer group in person, join groups through social media, or see a therapist. Take whatever steps you can to ensure that you are there for yourself, as well as your partner.
How to Help Your Spouse
Supporting a spouse with a drinking problem is far from easy. That person may no longer seem like the person you stood in front of and made vows for forever. That person is still there, but you can only do so much. You can take steps to educate yourself, find peer support, turn to friends and family, and make sure to take care of yourself. Sometimes the best way to help your spouse is to be the best you possible. With time, love, and support, your spouse can realize their addiction and seek help.
*Editor’s Note: This article was originally published Feb 5, 2016 and has been republished Jan 3, 2022.
Dr. Bhalavat is Board Certified in General Psychiatry and Addiction Medicine, and provides inpatient evaluation and consultation services at the University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Medical Center, University of Maryland Harford Memorial Hospital, Maryland Recovery Partners, and Citizens Care & Rehabilitation Center. Dr. Bhalavat’s background includes treatment of depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia spectrum disorders, bipolar disorder, substance abuse and dementia.