Having A Partner with an Alcohol Problem: Coping & Help
Maintaining your mental health when your partner has a drinking problem can be challenging. Nearly 15 million people in the United States suffer from alcohol use disorder (AUD).1 But AUD negatively impacts you and your loved ones, even to the point of possibly creating a wedge with the potential to destroy a relationship.
If you have a spouse with an alcohol problem, there are several things you can keep in mind to help yourself and your partner. This page will explore how alcohol affects relationships and what you can do about it in a marriage.
Find Out If Your Insurance Plan Covers Alcohol Addiction Treatment
American Addiction Centers can help people recover from alcohol misuse and alcohol use disorders (AUDs). To find out if your insurance covers treatment for your loved one at an American Addiction Centers facility, click here, or fill out the form below. Your information is kept 100% confidential. You can also click here to find a rehab near me.
The Effects of Alcohol on Marriage & Romantic Relationships
Marriage and family life are meant to be a place of safety, trust, and love. When used moderately, alcohol doesn’t have to equate to an issue. But if you are living with a partner with an alcohol problem, you know that these descriptions are easily skewed. Many partners of people with AUD may experience or notice irritability, a lack of fidelity, or even violence that results from alcohol use. It is possible to work through some of those issues after a few offenses. But violence within a romantic relationship is a very common factor associated with substance use disorder (SUD).2 When they become the norm, the emotional or physical toll can become too much. Sometimes, separation is the best solution.
Less than 10% of people with AUD receive treatment.1 That means that 90% of people with AUD are living in marriages and relationships that are being influenced by their addiction. With those rates of treatment, it is no surprise that one study found rates of divorce to be more than 50% higher among people with an AUD compared to people without AUD.3
Without help, alcohol use disorder changes a person, even down to the way their brain functions. One of the defining characteristics of AUD is an inability to attend to your responsibilities due to alcohol. In a marriage, this means failing financially, leaving home responsibilities undone, and potentially a lack of attention to committed relationships. Truly, it is a disease that affects the entire family.
Take Our Alcohol Addiction Self-Assessment
If you think your loved one might be struggling with alcohol misuse or addiction, take our free, 5-minute alcohol addiction self-assessment. The evaluation consists of 11 yes or no questions intended to be used as an informational tool to assess the probability and severity of alcohol use disorder. The test is free and confidential, and no personal information is needed to receive the result.
How to Deal with a Spouse with Alcohol Addiction
You may be wondering what you can do for a spouse with alcohol use disorder. The first thing to realize is that you cannot change them if they don’t want to. And they will not change until they have a great enough inner motivation to pursue treatment and make the necessary changes. But you have control over your own actions. There are things you can do to help them develop motivation and improve your life in the meantime. The following sections explore some suggestions for how to take care of yourself and cope with your spouse’s AUD.
Alcohol use disorder is a disease, and the more you know about it, the easier it is to cope with. At times, it may feel like your spouse is choosing alcohol over work, over responsibilities, or over you. But, once AUD takes root in a person, their brain has changed, and they can’t change it back without help.
Learning as much as you can about AUD can help you adjust your expectations for your spouse and set realistic goals going forward. Educating yourself can lead you to a better understanding of your spouse and perhaps offer a new point of connection between you.
Because you love your spouse, it’s hard to see them suffer. But sometimes the actions that you take out of love are enabling your partner to continue drinking. Enabling behaviors protect your spouse from fully experiencing the negative effects of misusing alcohol. In a roundabout way, these “support” their AUD. Examples of enabling behaviors might be:
- Driving your spouse everywhere after getting a DUI.
- Giving them alcohol or money to buy alcohol.
- Paying for alcohol-related damages.
- Bailing them out of jail.
- Ignoring their alcohol use.
- Joining in with their drinking.
Instead, you can set boundaries for yourself or your relationship that allows them to experience consequences. For example, you can refuse to drive them around and require them to use public transit or find another ride if they lose their license. It may be difficult at first, but ultimately, it can help them move toward getting help and recovery.
Having a spouse with an alcohol problem will take its toll on you. Taking care of yourself is one of the best ways to help your spouse. You cannot help your spouse if you are not in a good place yourself. So, embrace self-care. Take time to do something you like (reading, meditation, exercise) and solidify your own mental health.
Make sure your life is in order and your needs are taken care of. By keeping your life in order and offering your partner love without enabling their alcohol use, you can give them hope for their future and remain a stable presence for them to come back to when they’re ready.
Staying strong, holding boundaries, and bearing the challenges of having a spouse with a drinking problem is difficult to do alone. And you don’t have to. Your spouse’s alcohol use disorder is not your fault and leaning on close family and friends can help you get through hard times.
But if they don’t have personal experience, even the people who love you most may not be able to support you in the way you need. Joining a community support group for the partners or families of people with AUD or going to therapy can help. These groups consist of others who have experienced the difficulties of alcohol misuse and can give you encouragement. Al-Anon is a nationwide group for the families of people with alcohol use disorder. They occur in hundreds of cities across the United States and Canada and offer video and telephone meetings as well. Attending a group like Al-Anon may give you the support you need to protect yourself and even help your spouse.
Stop Blaming Yourself
You may have heard it a thousand times, but your partner’s problem is not your fault. The only way they will be able to begin recovery is if they begin to take responsibility. If you blame yourself, you are harming yourself and harming them by giving them an opportunity to blame you as well.
They can heal, but only if they want to. And you can heal from the damage their AUD caused—but only if you are able to let go of some things. Perhaps you participated in behaviors that enabled their alcohol use and blame yourself for that. Enabling behaviors stem from a love for your spouse. Those same behaviors would not be a problem if they did not have an AUD. Rather than playing the blame game on yourself or your spouse, it is best to recognize AUD as the disease that it is. Neither you nor your spouse can control it without professional help.
It can be hard to know when to turn in your cards when you’ve already invested a lot. Marriage is an enormous investment physically, emotionally, and mentally. You love your partner and most likely intended to stay together for life. So, when their alcohol use begins to cause problems in your life and relationship, it can be difficult to think of ending it.
But sometimes people aren’t ready to change. It can take a long time for someone to go from realizing they have a problem to getting help. And in that time, their AUD can cause much more damage to you and your life. Sometimes, separating from one another or even filing for a divorce might be the best option for you both. This is particularly true if their alcohol use often leads to abuse in your relationship. There are many organizations willing to help you take the steps to leave discreetly if you need to.
Try to Get Them Help
The most you can do for your spouse with an alcohol problem is encourage them to get help. Remember, you can’t control what they do, and the drive to get sober must come from within them. If they end up going to rehab just because you tell them to, they will typically not have enough motivation to stay sober. Recovery is a lifelong process that will require a lifelong commitment.
If you can, encourage your spouse to get help and try to stop any enabling behaviors you may have been doing. The only actions you can control are your own.
How to Help a Spouse with Alcohol Addiction
Before you decide to leave, you may want to do everything you can to save your marriage. You’ve loved this person for so long, and you want to see them recover. A conversation is usually the best place to start. Here are a couple of suggestions to help you have a smooth conversation:
- Look for signs of intoxication, and do not engage in a conversation unless they are sober.
- Do not speak judgmentally or “preach” at them.
- Bring other people who care for them to the conversation.
- Have specific examples of worrisome behaviors/instances.
- Educate yourself about AUD as much as possible beforehand.
- Encourage treatment.
There are many alcohol addiction treatment options available. Depending on your spouse’s amount and frequency of alcohol use, they may need detox, inpatient care, or an intensive outpatient program. Other people can sometimes find success at the start of recovery through an outpatient program or by joining 12-Step groups like Alcoholic Anonymous (AA). Talk to your spouse and research options together; it may convince them to get treatment.