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.
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.
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.
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?
- 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
- 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/
- 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 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.
Hi Frances, You described my life to the tee. My husband lost numerous jobs. And just drinks morning noon and night. We are also young 59 & 60. I too am tired of the selfishness anger and worrying from day to day. Can’t cope. So alone and need help. I just want it to stop and be happy again. Good luck to you Frances
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