Coping When Your Partner Is an Alcoholic

Your partner’s drinking problem is undoubtedly deeply impacting you, and your children, if you have any. My first advice is that if you are in any danger, get out of there. Don’t put yourself or your children in any danger of physical harm, no matter how much you love your spouse. You can still work on the marriage or the addiction from a safe distance. 

I’d like to also make a distinction between being married to the alcoholic (or in a long-term relationship that includes children) and just dating an alcoholic. My suggestion if you are just dating is to break off the relationship and support the person as a friend if you want. But when marriage and children are involved, I encourage couples to try to work things out together. This is not always successful but, depending on the behavior and cooperation of the addicted spouse, it is possible, through careful, respectful, and supportive effort. 

Talking to your spouse about the addiction

There are some dos and don’ts when talking to an alcoholic spouse. The first is to remember that it’s an addiction, not something he or she is choosing to do at this point. Keeping this in mind may help you remain calm and avoid anger and blame. At the same time, don’t blame yourself in any way, and don’t let him or her blame you! It’s not because of anything you have done. 

Do some research so you understand the signs of alcoholism, the feelings alcoholics may be having themselves (perhaps shame and self-hatred over an addiction they hate but can’t control or maybe a need to hide the addiction or blame others), and where your partner can get help in your area. 

When your spouse is sober, discuss the situation calmly and respectfully. Say something like, “You may not realize how you sound when you’ve had too much to drink. Your words sometimes frighten the children, though I know you would never say such things right now and I know you love them. What can we do about this?” This is both honest and affirming and shows your support and love for your spouse.

If your partner expresses regret and a desire to change but doesn’t know where to start, suggest that there are resources in the area, or suggest he or she contact the family doctor or another trusted expert. Resist doing the work for your spouse, but you can present him or her with some names, maybe text some websites to make it a little easier. Just remember that people with addictions have to do the work themselves because they have to really want to change. 

If the conversation becomes heated, step away. Try again another time, because eventually, your spouse may be ready. But in the meantime, you need to take care of yourself and your children. 

Taking care of yourself and your children

While you may find your thoughts consumed with concern for your alcoholic spouse, your own emotional health and the emotional health of your children are what need to be your top priorities. Focus on keeping yourself and your children well. 

As I said, do not take responsibility for the addiction, and don’t let your children blame themselves, either. Maintain a healthy routine in the home, so that all family members feel a sense of stability, something they can count on even in the midst of upheaval from an alcoholic in the house. 

Don’t let your spouse drag you into his or her addiction. Do not make excuses for his behavior, or support her lies. Calmly explain to your spouse that you will not be drawn into it and it’s not fair to expect you to lie or cover things up. Remind your spouse of your love and that you won’t gossip or tell stories about his or her condition, but neither will you make excuses or tell lies to cover it up. 

Don’t try to fix his or her mistakes. Sometimes a crisis is necessary in order for the impact of the person’s behavior to move them to want to heal. 

Focus on self-love routines, such as pampering yourself on the weekend or picking up a hobby. Build strong, supportive friendships that remind you that you are lovable and loved. Help the children to also have activities and friendships that affirm them. 

If your spouse is open to marriage counseling, I highly recommend it. Even in the midst of alcoholism, healing can begin. Reach out to a counselor in your area who is trained specifically in marriage counseling and has experience with addictions. If you’re in the NYC area, call me to see how I can help you and your spouse heal and grow stronger together.

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