How to Deal (and Live) with an Alcoholic Spouse

When you’re dealing (and living) with a husband or wife who struggles with alcohol use disorder (AUD), it can be an incredibly challenging and isolating experience. But remember: You are not alone.

AUD is a pervasive issue affecting countless families. In the US alone, nearly 30 million people in the U.S. have AUD – many of whom are in relationships.1 Knowing the scale of this issue can help you remember that there’s support out there — strategies, tools, specialists – and that you don’t have to face this by yourself.

Still, living with a spouse who struggles with drinking is no easy feat. That’s why it’s critical to learn how to effectively cope with this situation, support your spouse, and (most importantly) take care of yourself in the process.

What We’ll Cover:

  • Signs of alcohol addiction to look out for
  • How your spouse’s alcohol use disorder can impact you
  • How to approach your spouse about their drinking
  • Strategies for coping emotionally and mentally
  • Resources for Support

Note on Language: Language shapes perceptions, and terms like “alcoholic” can perpetuate negative stereotypes and discourage individuals from seeking help. Following the recommendation of the NIH (National Institutes of Health), we use “person with alcohol use disorder” to emphasize the person-first approach, which recognizes the individual beyond their condition, and ensure accuracy. Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a diagnosable medical condition that can be mild, moderate, or severe.

Identifying Signs of Your Spouse’s Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) is a medical condition characterized by an inability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences. It’s a chronic relapsing brain disease that involves compulsive alcohol use, loss of control over alcohol intake, and a negative emotional state when not using. AUD can range from mild to severe, and its severity depends on the number and pattern of symptoms.

dealing with spouse
Photo by Samir Dezhangah on Unsplash

However, recognizing whether your spouse is dealing with an alcohol problem isn’t always straightforward. Signs of alcohol addiction can vary greatly, but here are some common ones to look out for:

  • Drinking more or for longer than intended
  • Unsuccessful attempts to cut down or stop drinking
  • Spending a lot of time drinking or recovering from its effects
  • Craving alcohol
  • Neglecting responsibilities at work, home, or school because of drinking
  • Continuing to drink despite knowing it’s causing problems
  • Developing a tolerance to alcohol, meaning they need to drink more to feel the same effect
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not drinking

How Your Spouse’s Drinking Impacts You

Living with a spouse who is addicted to alcohol can profoundly impact your mental and emotional well-being.

That’s why Al-Anon refers to alcohol use disorder as “family disease,” as it can have serious effects (psychological and physical) on people who are close to the affected individual.2 That’s also why it’s crucial to not allow your partner’s drinking to go unaddressed.

Common issues experienced by partners include:

  • Mental Health: Increased risk of mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, and even PTSD due to constant stress and possible abuse
  • Trust Issues: Difficulty trusting others due to the unpredictability and dishonesty associated with alcohol use disorder
  • Neglect: Neglecting personal responsibilities, relationships, and self-care, as the affected partner’s behavior dominates family dynamics​
  • Feelings of isolation and loneliness
  • Decreased marital satisfaction
  • Financial problems due to the spouse’s drinking
  • Physical health issues related to stress
  • A dysfunctional home environment
  • Possible exposure to domestic violence or emotional abuse

How to Approach Your Spouse About Their Drinking Problem

Talking to your spouse about their drinking can be tricky, to say the least. It’s important to come at it with empathy and understanding.

Getting a therapist or counselor involved can also help make the conversation smoother and offer support for both of you.

6 Conversation Tips

  1. Choose the Right Time: Approach your spouse during a sober moment to discuss your concerns calmly and without confrontation.3
  2. Be Specific: Use “I” statements to express how their drinking affects you and the family, which can help reduce defensiveness. For example, “I’ve noticed that when you drink, you often miss important events, and it makes me feel neglected.”4
  3. Be Positive: Try to avoid judgmental language and emphasize the benefits of getting sober, i.e. “I believe our relationship could improve if we both work on addressing your drinking.”3
  4. Offer Your Support: Show that you care and are willing to support them through their recovery journey. “I want to help you get through this. We can look into treatment options together.”3
  5. Develop an Action Plan Together: Collaborate on the next steps, whether it’s seeking professional help, attending support groups, or setting boundaries around drinking.3
  6. Reach Out for External Support: Encourage your spouse to seek help from medical or addiction professionals and explore community resources.3

If you believe an intervention is required – possibly involving a group, close family members, or friends – be sure to plan and carry it out with the help of a professional. Interventions can be highly successful but are not appropriate in all situations (which, again, is why it’s key to consult a specialist).

Strategies for Coping with Your Partner’s Drinking

When your spouse has an alcohol addiction – and if you’re worried sick about it – that worry can become all-consuming. And it can be tempting to push your own needs (emotional, physical, mental, all of them) to the back burner.

Don’t. Even while supporting your spouse, it is crucial to prioritize your own well-being. Not only for your own sake, but also because failing to do so can be detrimental to the relationship and your spouse’s recovery process. As RuPaul puts it: “If you can’t love yourself, how can you love somebody else?”

dealing with alcoholic spouse
Photo by christopher lemercier on Unsplash

5 Ways to Cope with Your Spouse’s Addiction

  1. Set boundaries: Clearly define what behaviors are unacceptable – i.e., drinking in your home – and communicate these boundaries to your spouse. Drawing clear lines in the sand can provide you with a sense of stability, even during chaotic moments at home.
  2. Hold your partner accountable. Speaking of boundaries: Once your partner commits to sobriety, there are tools out there – like BACtrack View – you can leverage to ensure they maintain that commitment. Both you and other loved ones can monitor their sobriety and, with time, rebuild any trust lost between you.
  3. Seek therapy: Individual therapy or family therapy can be instrumental in helping you combat the stress and develop healthier coping strategies. Studies have shown that family therapy can reduce stress and improve coping methods – even if the spouse refuses to get help.
  4. Practice self-care: Engage in activities that promote your mental and physical health, such as exercise, meditation, hobbies, or spending time with friends and family.
  5. Educate yourself: Understanding the science behind alcoholism can help reduce feelings of blame and guilt. Doing so can also equip you with tools to better support your spouse’s recovery journey.

Dealing with Your Spouse’s Alcohol Addiction: Options for Support

As a reminder: No matter how isolated you may feel right now, you are not alone – and you absolutely don’t have to navigate this situation alone, either. Here are some resources that can provide support:

support dealing with addiction
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez 🇨🇦 on Unsplash
  • Therapy. Studies have shown that cognitive group therapy and individual counseling for you, specifically – the partner of a person battling alcohol use disorder – can not only help boost your coping strategies and reduce negative mental health symptoms, but positively influence your spouse as well.5 6
  • CRAFT Method. Community Reinforcement and Family Training (CRAFT) teaches the family members of a person with addiction how to encourage their loved one to get sober (through rewarding positive behavior change) while protecting their own mental and emotional well-being.7 This has proven to be an effective way to encourage unmotivated individuals to start treatment.8
  • Support Groups for You (not just your partner): There are structured programs out there that provide support for family members of people with alcohol use disorder, offering a safe space to share and learn from others’ experiences. Here are a few:

Final word:

Figuring out how to deal with a spouse’s alcohol addiction is undeniably challenging. But with the right approach and support, you can navigate this journey.

As Al-Anon emphasizes, you are not responsible for your partner’s drinking – nor can you control or cure it.2

What you can do is take steps to protect your well-being, seek support, and encourage your spouse to seek help. With compassion and understanding, you can both find a path towards a healthier future.

Sources
  1. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/alcohol-topics/alcohol-facts-and-statistics/alcohol-use-disorder-aud-united-states-age-groups-and-demographic-characteristics ↩︎
  2. https://www.al-anon-sc.org/the-family-disease-of-alcoholism.html ↩︎
  3. National Institute on Aging. (2017). How to help someone you know with a drinking problem. ↩︎
  4. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. (2023). Alcohol Use: Conversation Starters. ↩︎
  5. Zetterlind, U., Hansson, H., Aberg-Orbeck, K., & Berglund, M. (2001). Effects of coping skills training, group support, and information for spouses of alcoholics: a controlled randomized study.. Nordic journal of psychiatry, 55 4, 257-62 . https://doi.org/10.1080/080394801681019110.
    ↩︎
  6. Farid, B., Sherbini, M., & Raistrick, D. (1986). Cognitive group therapy for wives of alcoholics–a pilot study.. Drug and alcohol dependence, 17 4, 349-58 . https://doi.org/10.1016/0376-8716(86)90084-0. ↩︎
  7. https://www.apa.org/pi/about/publications/caregivers/practice-settings/intervention/community-reinforcement ↩︎
  8. Miller, W., Meyers, R., & Tonigan, J. (1999). Engaging the unmotivated in treatment for alcohol problems: a comparison of three strategies for intervention through family members.. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 67 5, 688-97 . https://doi.org/10.1037//0022-006X.67.5.688. ↩︎
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