How to Handle an Alcoholic Spouse
As the spouse of an alcoholic, you face unique challenges. Emotions and odd thoughts are flying all around, but you have to try to maintain balance to counteract your spouse’s inconsistent behavior. You have a strong desire and greater responsibility to protect your children or other family members that might be harmed by your spouse’s struggles. You also feel a sense of loss of your relationship with your spouse that has been damaged by this disease. The best way to put an end to alcoholism, repair relationships, and get your life back is to get your spouse into treatment. You’ve probably already tried ignoring it, and we know that doesn’t work. Trying to “treat” or handle your alcoholic spouse on your own will lead to frustration and usually failure. But finding help from a qualified rehab program can free you both and help you rebuild your family and life.
Alcoholism in the Family
Alcoholism is a disease that affects entire families, not just the alcoholic. Children, spouses, parents, and other loved ones suffer in silence as they learn to live with the neglect, unpredictability, and even abuse caused by an alcoholic loved one. They worry about the alcoholic’s health and they worry about their own reputations. They struggle with the effects of dysfunctional relationships and erratic behavior. This is no way to live, yet millions of families have come to believe this kind of existence is normal. Families see the symptoms of alcoholism and they see the destruction addiction causes in their relationships, but they don’t seek help for the problem.
Effects of Alcoholism on Relationships
Relationships can survive the impact of alcoholism, but they are forever changed. The alcoholic’s actions often show they care more about drinking than spending time with their spouse or children. They may come home in a drunken rage and take it out on the family. They may neglect responsibilities because they are so hung-over they cannot function. They may manipulate or rely on their loved ones to make excuses for them and to explain away their absence at work or family functions.
Alcoholism causes fear and anger among family members. It leads children of alcoholics to feel insecure and anxious, with difficulties ever trusting someone. It creates a divide between couples, so that their spouse fears intimacy and instead, puts up protective barriers that keep others out. These relationships can be healed, but it takes time and effort to do so.
Dealing with a Loved One and their Addiction
Is there hope for your relationship?
It is difficult to deal with an alcoholic spouse or loved one. You will find yourself frustrated and feeling hopeless. But there is hope for your relationship and for your spouse’s recovery. The first step is admitting there is a problem, and then talking to your loved one about getting treatment. Once your loved one is in rehab, you can work on your relationship. Family counseling, couples counseling, and gaining a greater understanding of their addiction will help you prepare to rebuild your relationship. If your spouse is able to get sober and stay sober, you will both be able to work on healing your relationship.
In fact, often times, a successful rehab will help your spouse not only stop drinking, but also heal some of their inner wounds so a fuller, more successful marriage is your reward. In order to do this, you will both need help learning and practicing new, positive behaviors.
Spouses of alcoholics end up assuming much of the day-to-day responsibilities in their household. In many cases, these actions end up enabling the addict, offering help that perpetuates the addiction rather than stopping it. Those who enable have good intentions – they don’t want to see their spouse in trouble or hurting – so they step in and help minimize the alcoholic’s consequences or hurt feelings.
The NIDA defines enabling as follows: “Enabling behavior occurs when another person…helps or encourages the addict to continue using drugs, either directly or indirectly.” Even though you think, “not me, I want them to stop drinking,” there are several ways you might be enabling your alcoholic spouse. If any of the following are things you do, you are enabling the alcoholic in your life and need help stopping:
- You take on chores, parenting, or other responsibilities for the alcoholic
- You lie or make excuses for your spouse to help them avoid tough tasks or consequences, like
- calling your spouse’s work and saying they are sick when they are hung-over
- making excuses as to why your spouse can’t be at family functions
- You give your spouse money which they use to buy alcohol
- You have held back expressing your wishes and feelings about your own needs or your spouse’s drinking
- You fail to hold your spouse accountable for their actions when they drink
- You have trouble realizing that ‘No’ or opposition is actually the loving response, so you often say ‘yes’ even though that is the more harmful response.
Unfortunately, even though it is a well-meaning impulse, enabling is harmful. Enabling allows your spouse to continue in their addiction. Why would they need to quit if you make it easy for them to avoid “rock bottom” and get away with their actions? It takes away the natural consequences of their drinking. The bottom line is, enabling gives them a false sense of security, an illusion of a safety net, and keeps the alcoholic from getting and accepting treatment.
According to the NIDA, “codependency occurs when another individual, perhaps the addict’s spouse or family member, is controlled by the addict’s addictive behavior. Codependents become codependent because they have learned to believe that love, acceptance, security, and approval are contingent upon taking care of the addict in the way the addict wishes.”
Codependence goes hand-in-hand with enabling. Some individuals have a deep-seated desire to be needed. They thrive on the conflict, the abuse, and the dysfunction of life with an addict. A codependent enables, but they go a step further and use that enabling to feel needed and to feel in control. The codependent’s self-esteem is then linked to the addict’s need for their help.
Below are some questions to ask yourself about behaviors and attitudes that are related to codependency:
- Do you find yourself resenting the responsibilities you take on?
- Do you feel you are responsible for your spouse’s happiness?
- Do you often put your own needs aside in order to help your spouse?
- Do you have trouble expressing your own emotions?
- Do you fear that your loved one will leave the relationship if you don’t provide enough ‘help?’
- Do you blame other people for problems when your spouse is really the cause?
- Do you continue to offer help even when it is not accepted or appreciated?
Codependency is common, but doesn’t have to be the permanent dynamic. Help is available, but you need to be honest with yourself, and then find someone you trust to help guide you to get the healing and coaching you need to handle your feelings and life in a healthier way. Then you will be better at dealing with your spouse’s behavior and manipulation to influence their movement toward getting alcoholism treatment.
Getting Help for Your Partner
If your spouse is an alcoholic, the next steps are complicated and you need help, so don’t try to do this on your own. If you don’t take steps now to find a rehab and get your loved one into treatment, it won’t go away on its own. Life will get tougher and more dangerous for all of you – physically, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually.
Days of inaction turn into weeks, months, and years – and every day that goes by pulls you farther apart from your spouse, which drives the alcoholic farther into their addiction. Getting help today is the best way to get your life and relationship back.
Find a Rehab
The first step is admitting your family has a problem. The second step is finding help. Talk to a professional for help finding the treatment program that will be best for your family and your spouse’s needs. Rehab programs vary by treatment length, philosophy, level of care, and cost, and it is so important to find the right one, because you might only have one shot. Learn how to find the right rehab for your family’s needs here.
If your spouse is opposed to the idea of rehab or even denies their alcoholism, you might need what’s called an “Intervention” to help. An intervention is when a professional facilitates a specifically structured meeting with family or friends to confront the addict in a firm but loving way. While many families try to hold interventions on their own, as you can imagine, this is a tense and difficult meeting because your alcoholic spouse isn’t thinking clearly. The intervention is most effective when supervised by a professional who can successfully guide the family.
During an intervention you and your family will explain to the alcoholic how great life was before the addiction, and then how the addiction is devastating your spouse as well as harming all who are close to them. You will make it clear to your loved one that because you care about him or her, you want them to get help and you have a treatment option already set up for them. The goal of an intervention is not to blame anyone or to pummel someone, but to help your loved one see their need for treatment, and then accept help to turn their life around.
Support Your Loved One during Rehab
Once your spouse has agreed to get help and has been admitted to a rehab program, your work is not complete. Now is the time for you to take part in their treatment and to offer support and encouragement for their sobriety. You can do this by meeting regularly with your spouse’s treatment team, by joining in family therapy, and by attending couples counseling sessions. Becoming involved with your spouse’s recovery from the beginning will not only provide them with encouragement and support, but will allow you to work on repairing your relationship.
Preparing for Life in Recovery with Your Loved One
After your spouse has completed rehab, there will be many opportunities for you to show your support. Learn all you can about alcoholism and rehab so that you know what to expect when your spouse comes home. Investigate your own lifestyle to be sure it is one that is conducive to sobriety. You should also consider joining Al-Anon or another support group where you will learn how your actions affect your loved one, and how to interact in a supportive, non-enabling fashion.
Also, your spouse’s alcoholism has been damaging to your mind and life. You need some healing. After spending so much time focusing on and taking care of your spouse, kids, finances, and household, it is time to focus on yourself. Find a therapist to sort out what happened, heal some of your wounds, and get your life back on track while preparing for your spouse to come back and start a new life together.
Even though life seems difficult and dark right now, we know God brings hope and is a true miracle worker. Your spouse’s alcoholism might have derailed your journey with God, but while they are in treatment, revive your spirit with the living water of God and He will bring a power and peace to change your life.