There are few personal dilemmas worse than dealing with an alcoholic spouse. The actions of the drinking partner can be humiliating, dangerous, and overwhelming. This article examines the ways in which an alcoholic partner can be helped. Some of them are counter-intuitive and any article on this topic is incomplete without considering how the non-alcoholic partner should deal with themselves.
Alcoholism is a primary, chronic disease with genetic, psychosocial, and environmental influencing its development and manifestations. The disease is often progressive and fatal. It is characterized by impaired control over drinking, preoccupation with the drug alcohol, use of alcohol despite adverse consequences, and distortions in thinking, most notably denial. Each of these symptoms may be continuous or periodic. (Morse & Flavin, 1992)
The definition is not a pretty one, but there are a couple of things that need to be noted. It is
- A disease
- It is often progressive
- It can be fatal
- It is denied
All of these are relevant and yet none can be the overriding concern of the partner of the alcoholic.
That it is a disease means it is not the fault of the spouses of alcoholics. They should not blame themselves and neither should they accept blame for their partner’s drinking. Crucial to understanding how to help an alcoholic spouse is the fact that in order to recover the drinker has to reach a point where they have to admit to themselves that they are powerless over alcohol.
The Drinking Spouse Is Not the Most Important Thing
People who have an alcoholic partner often experience tremendous stress. There may be children in the household, and this will exacerbate the concerns that the partner will experience. For these reasons, the spouses of alcoholics must consider their own mental health issues first.
The best thing to do is ensure the safety of those in the household.
Alcoholics can be emotionally and physically abusive. Safety in this instance means safety against all possible forms of abuse. The first thing that needs to be done is to plan for the worst eventualities.
It would be a good move to join Al-Anon which aims to “help you learn how to cope with the challenges of someone else’s drinking.” (Scot, n.d.) Al-Anon talks about detachment saying
Detachment is neither kind nor unkind. It does not imply judgment or condemnation of the person or situation from which we are detaching. Separating ourselves from the adverse effects of another person’s alcoholism can be a means of detaching: this does not necessarily require physical separation. Detachment can help us look at our situations realistically and objectively. (Al-Anon, n.d.)
The document further goes on to say
In Al-Anon we learn nothing we say or do can cause or stop someone else’s drinking. We are not responsible for another person’s disease or recovery from it. (Al-Anon, n.d.)
Peer support groups are crucial to the spouse and family of the alcoholic. It provides a place of stability, strength, and compassion. Drawing on the experience of others helps flatten the learning curve. They may well have experience in domestic violence and are generally the best option for the non-drinking spouse’s emotional support.
The non-alcoholic partner needs to be strong for themselves and avoid co-dependency. Co-dependency is a situation in which people allow themselves to become embroiled in relationships
that are one-sided, emotionally destructive and/or abusive (Co-Dependency, n.d.)
Stephen King wrote that
When a codependent is drowning, somebody else’s life flashes before his eyes (FunSaaz, n.d.)
This sums up the obsessive nature of co-dependency and as Mental Health America notes it often affects those in a relationship with those with substance abuse disorders. Indeed, the term co-dependency was originally used to describe the relationship that can exist between an alcoholic and someone in a bond with them.
The co-dependent will often suffer from low self-esteem issues. They tend to feel they are responsible for the actions of the addict, feel guilty when being assertive, and be hurt when efforts they make are not recognized because they desperately need approval.
It also makes them susceptible to manipulation and the person with a drinking problem is usually a skilled manipulator. The alcoholic will attempt to tap into the spouse’s guilt and use that to gain leverage over them. They may even make promises, which are almost certain not to be kept, to elicit some sort of concession.
An important thing in avoiding co-dependency is that boundaries should be set. These boundaries represent limits beyond which the partner who is not abusing alcohol will not go. It is not restrictions on the drinker. The sober spouse creates these boundaries to place themselves first and not become a tool and victim of the alcoholic spouse.
Do Not Be an Enabler
Enabling the alcoholic’s alcohol abuse can be defined as trying to minimize the extent or the effects of the person’s drinking problem. For anyone who suffers from substance abuse disorders, the first step towards recovery is for that person to recognize that they are powerless over their addiction. The longer active alcoholics can avoid the consequences of their drinking, the longer they will continue to drink.
The co-dependent will often, if not always, be an enabler. They will bail the drinker out of a difficult situation such as a DUI arrest or help pay personal bills. The best thing to do is stop all of the actions that are focused only on supporting or hiding the fact or extent of the alcohol problem their partner has. Any action must only help the alcoholic partner by effect rather than directly. An example is paying the rent, so the children have a home – this may help the drinker indirectly and that is of course fine.
Paying for the alcoholic’s car to be repaired after a drunken accident or covering a gambling debt on the other hand is not.
This violates the natural inclination to protect and help. When excessive drinking leads to a DUI, against all nature, the alcoholic must be left to face the consequences of their use of alcohol. When someone had consumed too much alcohol and been thrown out of a bar do not go and pick them up.
There is one obvious exception to this and that is a medical emergency. If this happens the partners of alcoholics should ensure the alcoholic gets to the hospital and leave. This seems harsh. It is after all, supposedly the closest personal relationship and this seems like abandoning the drinker. It is not. The person is safe, but anything that smacks of sympathy will not serve the primary aim of letting the drinker arrive at the point where they realize that they are powerless over alcohol.
It cannot be stressed enough that the heavy drinking and the influence of alcohol on the alcoholic spouse is not the fault of the other. This is not quite as true of the enabler. They are still not at fault for the drinker’s choices but do make their drinking easier.
Do Not Force
12-step meetings are littered with tales of people dragged there by a desperate spouse and coming to perhaps one of two meetings and then vanishing. Certainly, those with a drinking problem do not yield to coercion.
Ultimatums invariably fail, create antagonism, and in most cases have the opposite effect. Family interventions of the type so often seen in films will likely not work. While the drinker is in denial about their alcohol consumption every comment that targets their lack of conviction over the existence of a severe alcohol use disorder will make the problem worse. In dealing with the alcoholic, people are not dealing with someone rational.
Any comment about their drinking is seen as a personal attack and as a threat to their habit which they need, against all normal logic to protect. Like any person compelled to defend something they desperately need or love, the reaction can be extreme. But in the case of the alcoholic, not always.
They can also react by manipulation. The alcoholic will agree to go to an A.A. meeting, even enthusiastically. The enthusiasm though will mask their reluctance and they will go with the spouse in an effort to keep them quiet and hoping to say at the end of it, “See I’m not like them.”
They may go again to quieten the comments about their drinking and then it will stop. Excuses will start, antagonism will grow and the visits to A.A. meetings will be quoted as proof that they do not have a problem.
When the alcoholic partner signals that they are ready to make a change to their life, the spouse should be ready to act. Despite years of mistrust and hurt, the one opportunity to constructively help becomes open in this moment. It is a good thing if the sober spouse has information at hand and can take initiative.
The partner should gather information to have ready at hand when the drinker reaches the point when they admit they have no control over their excessive drinking. They should gather information about alcoholics anonymous and local meetings. They should gather details about alcohol addiction treatment and family therapy sessions. Information about treatment options and treatment programs needs to be noted.
The partner, a moderate drink needs to seize the chance and emphasize how pleased they are at the choice and bring out the mine of information they have gathered regarding substance abuse treatment, the nearby treatment center, what the recovery process takes, and discuss the best way forward.
This is the moment that the paradoxical approach has been intended to reach. The alcoholic driven to desperation and dejection reaches out and the spouse after waiting and doing nothing now becomes a helpmeet and anchor. This is where it all makes sense. The spouse has helped by not enabling the alcoholic behavior and waiting in the wings to help when the possibility of redemption finally arises.
For the spouse of the person with a drinking problem, the answer to the question of how to help their spouse is paradoxical and counterintuitive. The partner helps best by doing nothing at all until the one with the drinking habit is ready to move on from their alcohol dependence. Recognizing it is the right time provides an opportunity to be seized. The preparation for this point becomes crucial as is the necessity that the addicted spouse is aware of the approval, if not sheer delight that their partner is experiencing at the step being undertaken.
John Milton wrote
They also serve who only stand and wait (Foundation, 2022)
This is true of those who have an alcoholic spouse. They need to deal with their issues, protect themselves and the other family members and then when the opportunity presents itself, move in to support their life partner and build a new status quo.
Al-Anon. (n.d.). Detachment. Retrieved February 1, 2022, from https://www.al-anon.org/pdf/S19.pdf
Co-Dependency. (n.d.). Mental Health America. Retrieved February 1, 2022, from https://www.mhanational.org/co-dependency
Foundation, P. (2022, February 1). Sonnet 19: When I consider how my light is spent by John Milton (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/) [Text/html]. Poetry Foundation; Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44750/sonnet-19-when-i-consider-how-my-light-is-spent
FunSaaz. (n.d.). When a codependent is drowning, somebody else’s life flashes before his eyes. FunSaaz. Retrieved February 1, 2022, from https://funsaaz.com/quotes/codependent/when-a-codependent-is-drowning-somebody-else-s-life-flashes-before-his-eye/
Morse, R. M., & Flavin, D. K. (1992). The definition of alcoholism. The Joint Committee of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence and the American Society of Addiction Medicine to Study the Definition and Criteria for the Diagnosis of Alcoholism. JAMA, 268(8), 1012–1014. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.268.8.1012
Scot. (n.d.). How do I help my Alcoholic Family Member or Friend? Al-Anon Family Groups. Retrieved February 1, 2022, from https://al-anon.org/newcomers/how-can-i-help-my/