7 Tips to Help You Deal with an Alcoholic Spouse

By Andrew Macia | Published 9/1/2019 161

Man's hand reaching for glass of whisky (alcoholic spouse)

Living with an alcoholic is traumatic but there are ways to cope so that life becomes better (Photo source: iStock)

When someone you love suffers from an addiction, it can tear you apart. What’s more, the mere presence of the addiction completely removes your ability to communicate honestly. Being married to an alcoholic spouse is even worse. There are so many feelings involved. And, the people you love have the power to hurt you more than anyone else in your life.

Living with an alcoholic is traumatic. You’re affected from the time you wake up in the morning to the time you go to sleep at night. Still, when you know how to deal with your alcoholic spouse, life can become better. In fact, it may even lead to your spouse getting the help that’s needed to recover.

With that in mind, here are seven tips that you must read, review, and remember to help you cope with your alcoholic spouse.

1. Remember that severe alcoholism is a disease

It is very hard to believe that your spouse is no longer making an active choice to drink. However, when someone is an alcoholic, the choice to drink is no longer within their control, at least to some extent.

When problem drinking becomes severe, it is given the diagnosis of alcohol use disorder(AUD). It is considered to be a chronic relapsing brain disorder. It is characterized by the inability to stop or even cut back on heavy alcohol use even if there are adverse social, work, or health consequences.[1]

In order to fully understand this, it can be helpful to think of the way that you think of any other disease, such as cancer, heart disease, or a serious mental illness. Like those diseases, addiction is a complex disease process with biological, psychological, social, and environmental components.[2]

It is possible to make a choice to recover from alcoholism, particularly with treatment. In fact, according to a 2019 study on AUD, a quarter of individuals achieved either abstinent recovery (not drinking alcohol at all) or non-abstinent recovery (defined as asymptomatic low-risk drinking) without the benefit of treatment. However, a much greater percentage were able to stop drinking (43.2%) or cut back significantly (12.3%) if they received treatment.[3]

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), more than a third of U.S. adults who were dependent on alcohol are now in full recovery. So, recovery is possible as long as your spouse is willing. Further, that may eventually be the case, even if it isn’t right now.

However, until the individual makes the decision to deal with their drinking, the disease of AUD remains unabated.

2. Don’t become angry

Your instinct is to respond to your spouse with anger when you know he or she has been drinking. It becomes tiring to cope with the stress. At times, it may even become unbearable.

Even so, maintain a sense of peace and patience. It may help to find a friend you can vent to about your anger. However, try to avoid targeting your spouse with those feelings. It may help to continually remind yourself that what you’re really angry at is the disease, not your spouse.

Remember, a good temper is much more likely to have a positive effect on your spouse in the long run. What you really want to accomplish is recovery from the disease of alcoholism. Maintaining a positive attitude, even if you eventually have to leave your spouse, is the best way to achieve that.

3. Focus on yourself

If you allow it to, your spouse’s alcoholism will take over your life. In fact, in a 2013 study by the University of Buffalo in New York and supported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, it was found that 50% of all marriages that involve one alcoholic spouse end in divorce.

There is nothing you can do to change your spouse’s alcoholism. That type of change has to come from within him or her.

However, what you can do is make sure you’re taking good care of yourself. Invest in your relationships with other people, with your children, and with your extended family members. Treat yourself to something you enjoy on occasion in order to give yourself a break from the turmoil at home. For instance, get a pedicure or enjoy a night out at the movies with friends. Doing these things will give you the stamina and resolve you need during this difficult time.

4. Have a simple, honest discussion but do it the right way

It’s good to talk about how your spouse’s alcoholism is affecting you, and your marriage, but make sure you choose your words carefully.

Statements that begin with “You always…” or “You make it hard to…” are only going to make your spouse defensive. Instead, choose “I” statements to convey how you feel, such as, “I’m having a difficult time sleeping at night because of the late nights you’re keeping.” Be gentle, but be firm in your statements. Above all, don’t become angry or accusing.

5. Don’t enable your alcoholic spouse or try to prevent consequences

One of the mistakes many people make is enabling their alcoholic spouses or trying to prevent consequences from occurring. This does nothing to solve the problem. Instead, it only prevents your spouse from experiencing the results of his or her actions that could eventually lead to recovery.

6. Allow your spouse to explain his or her life choices to others

Your spouse may ask you to lie for him or her or try to cover up a bad choice involving alcohol. Politely decline to do so. Remember that it is not your job to shed a good light on your spouse. Refusing to do so forces him or her to take responsibility. This may lead to a quicker recovery.

7. If your alcoholic spouse is interested in getting professional help, encourage this to happen quickly

Eventually, your spouse may come to you and express an interest in recovery. This is the time to encourage him or her to do so. You can provide website links or phone numbers to help. It is important to act fast because the determination to get help can fade as quickly as it appeared.

The bottom line when it comes to coping with an alcoholic spouse

Living with an alcoholic spouse might be one of the biggest challenges you’ve ever undertaken. However, if you follow these tips, you’ll find that you may be able to cope better.

  • remember that alcoholism is a disease
  • keep your anger at bay
  • focus on yourself
  • discuss the problem calmly, honestly, and rationally
  • don’t enable
  • act quickly when professional help is sought,

Are you living with an alcoholic spouse? What tips or advice would you give someone who is going through this experience right now?

References:

  1. Alcohol use disorder. National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/alcohol-use-disorder. Accessed 12/12/20
  2. Kimball T. Is Cancer A Moral Failing? What About Addiction? The Doctor Weighs In 2020 June 14. https://thedoctorweighsin.com/is-cancer-a-moral-failing/
  3. Fan AZ, Sanchen PC, Zhang H et al. Prevalence and Correlates of Past-Year Recovery   From DSM-5 Alcohol Use Disorder: Results From National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions-III. Alcohol Clin Exp Res, 2019 Nov;43(11):2406-2420. DOI 10.1111/acer.14192. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31580502/>
       

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This story was first published Nov. 12, 2016, it has been updated for republication.

Andrew Macia

Andrew Macia Is an entrepreneur with an online business. He is also a certified drug and alcohol counselor. He has been sober for more than 10 years.

Comments:

  • The behavioural suggestions no doubt “work” to smooth over the atmosphere in the alcoholic marriage, but these suggestion do not acknowledge and inadvertently dismiss so many cultural expectations – that the alcoholic is the “disease victim” and has no moral responsibility; that the spouse – the majority although not all are women – has the role of soothing and smoothing, of taking care of the needs of the alcoholic (which are strikingly similar to those of the narcissist). In short, a lack of cultural and social criticism here – that many readers have noted and found unhelpful.

  • As hard as I try, as much as I’ be read….I just cannot believe this is a disease. My brain just won’t accept it. So I have little sympathy for my husband when he is drinking…and dwindling tolerance for his behavior. When he is sober( on the days he has to work) he seems miserable. A beer or two….he is a funny, happy guy. But it never stops there…and he goes to obnoxious, needy, loud A hole. Lately I am ashamed to say, I have put another drink in his hand just so he will pass out and give me some needed relief. I love him…twenty years together…but I find myself leading my own life most of the time. I don’t have friends over…no way! He would totally embarrassing me. I have told him flat out, if he gets arrested, he will have wasted his phone call if he dials me. Alcoholism is selfishness…..and this article seems to encourage people to coddle the offender….,” don’t get angry”. Temper your choice of words…….I did not find this helpful at all.

  • I have trouble with the advice to keep anger at bay. The spouse of an alcoholic is already suppressing her/his feelings to keep peace most of the time, why encourage them to suppress it more? It is not healthy to suppress one’s feelings to benefit the alcoholic. Anger is normal in this situation and it can be expressed in a healthy way, therapy has helped me to see that. It’s important to express anger before it becomes rage. There is nothing wrong with being angry at your alcoholic AND at the alcoholism. The alcoholic’s actions are not separate from the disease and they are accountable for them whether they were sober or drinking. My husband does and says horrible things when he is drinking and I am fully aware that it is due to alcoholism but after a time, when they are drunk more than they are sober and doing mean things more than they are doing nice things, are they not one and the same as their disease?

  • Alcoholism is a voluntary disease, so I have a hard time treating it as a disease. The alcoholic cannot have it both ways: disease that they can’t help and not seeking treatment, which you would if you had a “real” disease like cancer.

    My husband was sober for 6 months this year and was feeling, looking and doing great. Now in a couple of short weeks, it’s like he went back worse than ever.

    I personally don’t want to deal with this, so I follow almost all of these tips, except for the “disease” thoughts. I can’t reconcile that one.

    He (we) just lost his mom last week. The funeral is Saturday. He is supposed to do the Eulogy. I hope he makes it. :( such a sad state of affairs. His family is half-way informed and is starting to lose respect for him. Too bad, as he had been held in very high esteem.

    If you could spare a couple of prayers, I would be grateful.

    • There is nothing voluntary about it. You know nothing, and are clearly no expert. I am. It is over 52% genetic. It is also due to the brain rewiring after severe trauma. A very, very difficult disease to overcome. People like you make it harder. Please inform yourself before making comment which will be read by widows and people in deep grief. Your comments were thoughtless, but worse they were incorrect.

    • Nothing voluntary? Who puts the bottle to their mouth? Nobody is asking them to drink. How is a alcoholic to be held responsible for their actions? Genetic or not their is always a choice to what you put in your body.

    • I’ve been living with an alcoholic partner for almost 4 years. At first, it took me a while to realize she truly had a problem because we always hung out and went out for drinks. I knew that sometimes we would argue about foolish things and she would particularly become violent and angry quickly and irrationally. Still, I did not truly see that there was a problem. During our third year together, I noticed she would just appear and be drunk out of no where. After I observed for a while, I realized she was drinking in secret. It could be in the morning when she left to take out the trash or any moment she took a walk alone. After observing for a while, I noticed that when she appeared drunk her personality has completely changed and her short term memory was suffering more and more. She has asked for helped many times and as her partner I did my best to spend time around her so she doesn’t have moments to be alone and secretly drink. Now, we are almost 4 years in and she had displayed many physical signs of alcoholism in addition to increasing cognitive issues and short term memory loss. She will be 30 in August. From my understanding, alcoholism runs in her family and two of her uncles recently passed away from associated complications. At this point, I am afraid I will lose her. We have a daughter and wanted to live a long life together. It makes me devastated to think this may not happen. Once in while, she asks for help but I don’t know how to help her personally because I am falling apart myself. We live in a small village town in Africa and services are limited. I’m not sure I can even find a support group for me but I think there is a chapter of AA out here. Even through all the pain, I’m still hopeful that she will get the help she needs.

  • Alcoholism in the family is a terrible thing. I know that very well. We struggled with it for many years until my dear friend recommended the guide by Ellen Petersen called “How to Help an Alcoholic You Love.” Excellent approach, which turned out to be a godsend!

    • This guide is brilliant! I’m surprised that I haven’t heard of it before. It was so worth to spend a few $ to read this guide and change my perspective. I’m glad it’s a short guide and not 300 pages. Thanks!

  • I am living with an alcoholic husband. When he is sober he is wonderful, kind, charming the best friend/lover I have ever had but when he starts drinking (Friday, Saturday) he becomes a monster, a disrespectful, nasty, mean asshole! He typically passes out after hours of his nastiness…he is buck wild and doesn’t give a shit. Hung over during the day so there goes the weekend, then when he is sober during the week I get a bunch of apologies and him saying he is not gonna stop drinking. It is so fucked up….the kids hardly stop by because they can’t deal with their drunk father. He starts of funny…and 4 shots of Tequila later…he is a complete asshole! I don’t know what to do????

    • I am in the same, exact boat. I have no one to discuss this with, as most people dont understand or are judgmental.

    • Hang in there you two. I went through it to the end. If you need to talk, my email is suzanne dot morss at gmail.com.

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