Is your spouse an alcoholic? Five ways you can help them — and yourself
Is your spouse an alcoholic? In some marriages, the answer is a clear-cut and definitive “yes.” If she polishes off a bottle of wine every night and passes out in the living room, that’s a pretty obvious sign. If he hits the bar after work and stumbles through the door sometime in the a.m. hours, that’s also a pretty obvious sign.
In other cases, however, it’s not so obvious. You may have your suspicions — why does he spend so much time in the garage? Why is there a pint bottle in the back of her closet? — but without concrete proof, it’s not a conversation you’re ready to have.
Make no mistake, though: If your husband of wife has a drinking problem, it’s a conversation you’re going to have to have eventually, because there’s trouble brewing. So what can you do in the meantime? Here are five ways to educate and take care of yourself and be there for your spouse when the time comes for them to do something about it.
No. 1: Recognize That It’s a Disease
The American Medical Association first declared alcoholism as a disease back in 1956, but that’s been the subject of much debate and discussion ever since. However, in the early 1990s, a 23-member multidisciplinary committee of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence and the American Society of Addiction Medicine conducted a two-year study of alcoholism through a lens of contemporary medicine and science. Their findings ? Alcoholism is “a primary, chronic disease with genetic, psychosocial, and environmental factors 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.”
Even though scientists and physicians have continued to regard it as a disease, however, alcoholism still faces a great deal of public scrutiny and scorn, mostly because it’s different than most other diseases, according to a 1996 scientific paper titled “The Natural History of Alcoholism” : “First, it generally develops slowly over a person’s life and can occur in people of all ages. Second, it has no single known cause: Heredity, culture, economics, and the environment all contribute to its development, and each alcoholic has his or her own personal drinking history. Third, both alcoholics and their alcohol-related disabilities can change over time.”
The most important thing you, as a spouse, can do is to further educate yourself through the lens of science and medicine and not the echo chamber of armchair physicians on social media. For example, “knowing the difference between alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence is important in clarifying our understanding of problematic drinking,” according to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy . “Alcohol dependence, often referred to as ‘alcoholism,’ occurs when an individual is physically or psychologically dependent on drinking alcohol. Alcohol abuse, which includes binge drinking, is present when there is recurrent harmful use of alcohol despite negative consequences. Both conditions are now classified by the (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) as alcohol use disorder (AUD).”
There are 11 different criteria that help determine the severity of an individual’s AUD , the severity of which can be categorized as mild, moderate or severe, and if you’re contemplating whether your spouse is an alcoholic, it’s important to familiarize yourself with them so you can determine the best course of action to get them the help that they need.
No. 2: Is Your Spouse An Alcoholic? If So, Know You’re Not Alone
When alcohol (or the suspicion of a spouse’s overindulgence) has created marital turmoil, it can seem like the weight of the world is on your shoulders. Much of that has to do with the stigma that still surrounds alcoholism: “We worry, feel angry, afraid, and alone,” writes Darlene Lancer, writing for the mental health website Psych Central . “We hide our private lives from friends, co-workers, and even family to cover up the problems created by addiction or alcoholism. Our shame isn’t warranted; nonetheless, we feel responsible for the addict’s actions.”
Because of that shame, we cover up for the problems at home by putting on a “happy face” around co-workers and other family members, while at home, where the problem seems cancerous, “we’re unable to lean on our partner for comfort or support,” Lancer adds. It’s understandable, then, that if your spouse is an alcoholic, you feel absolutely and completely alone … but you’re not.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) , “an estimated 15 million people in the United States have AUD.” To put it another way: “One in eight American adults, or 12.7 percent of the U.S. population, now meets diagnostic criteria for alcohol use disorder,” according to a 2017 report in The Washington Post . While that may bring you little comfort if the spouses of those individuals aren’t talking about it any more than you are, there are resources out there of which you can take advantage so you don’t feel so isolated.
One in particular, Al-Anon, is specifically for the family members and loved ones of alcoholics. It’s a companion program to Alcoholics Anonymous, but your spouse doesn’t even have to admit he or she has a problem for you to start working on your own self-care. In other words, you can attend meetings at which you can meet and bond with other spouses, many of whom may offer you comforting insight, important feedback or just a sounding board off which you can bounce your concerns, worries and fears.
Self-care is critical during this time, and you don’t have to wait until your marriage is crumbling to take care of yourself. Is your spouse an alcoholic? Maybe, but you can work on your own recovery while he or she comes to terms with that.
No. 3: Gather Resources to Help
If you’re wondering how you can best assist your spouse in addressing his or her drinking problem, the best course of action you can take is to accumulate a list of resources that can help. That mean finding a list of local Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, which you can do so through the A.A. website. Many A.A. groups or regions have hotlines you can call for more information, and if a meeting is listed as an “open meeting,” that means anyone can attend — including you, if your spouse would like you there for moral support. Regardless, A.A. is a free resource for anyone who has a desire to stop drinking, and like most 12 Step recovery programs, there’s no commitment to do anything. Going to an A.A. meeting may seem daunting for both of you, but thousands of suffering alcoholics have found sobriety in those meetings, and it may be exactly what your spouse needs to get on top of a problem.
In many cases, however, meetings just aren’t enough. Alcoholism, as noted above, is a chronic and progressive disease, and those diagnosed with a severe alcohol use disorder may have progressed to the point that they’re unable to function without drinking. Their bodies have become dependent on alcohol, and the dangers of alcohol withdrawal can be deadly. However, according to the NIAAA , “The good news is that no matter how severe the problem may seem, most people with an alcohol use disorder can benefit from some form of treatment. Research shows that about one-third of people who are treated for alcohol problems have no further symptoms 1 year later. Many others substantially reduce their drinking and report fewer alcohol-related problems.”
So how do you go about finding the right treatment? A reputable drug and alcohol treatment center will have copious amounts of information on its website, or the facility’s staff members will be more than happy to take your call and discuss options. In some cases, they can help direct you to an interventionist — a trained staff member who can help you organize an intervention aimed at directing your spouse to treatment. That may not be an option you’re ready to undertake just yet — after all, some alcoholics recognize they have a problem long before the subject is broached, and in many cases, they’re more than ready to do something about it.
In other cases, an intervention may be necessary, and there are certain guidelines that you, as a spouse, should keep in mind before organizing one. Ideally, an intervention should end with your spouse agreeing to get help — but before that can be presented as an option, you should gather the resources that determine what that help may entail.
No. 4: Is Your Spouse an Alcoholic? Broaching the Subject
Is your spouse an alcoholic? Well … have you asked him or her? That may seem like a dumb question, but it’s a relevant one. Many times, alcoholism is the elephant in the living room, and because it’s such a touchy, uncomfortable, awkward, painful or explosive subject, no one wants to bring it up. But if it’s having an impact on you, opening a dialog about it is crucial if your marriage is going to survive.
It’s important, however, to frame the conversation around a genuine desire to help rather than using it as an opportunity to vent. Author and blogger Anna Grace strongly recommends  empathy as the launching pad for any conversation you have with a spouse about his or her drinking: “Unfortunately, many of us don’t understand the disease of addiction and we blame ourselves. We feel so much shame that we are unwilling to talk. If your loved one is willing to talk — be sincere in your desire to understand just for the sake of understanding — rather than for the sake of forcing them to make the change you desire.”
If you’re consumed with anger, find an outlet to which you can direct it before you approach your spouse about his or her drinking. As an article on the healthcare media website The Doctor Weighs In stresses , anger is understandable given your situation. After all, “it becomes tiring to cope with the stress, and 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 but 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.”
It may seem impossible, of course, to maintain a Zen-like level of peace, empathy, and understanding when you’re dealing with a problem that at the very least is pushing your marriage into uncharted waters, and may be in the process of slamming it against the rocks. By this point, repairing your relationship may seem hopeless or even pointless … but you can’t even begin the process of putting things back together until you start to talk about it. A discussion can simply be that: A conversation that brings up the “elephant in the room” to acknowledge its presence. In so doing, you can gauge where your spouse stands: Denial? Acceptance? Pushback? Requesting help?
Any and all are possibilities, but you can’t begin to deal with what he or she wants, much less help them if that’s the choice they make, until you talk about it.
No. 5: Set Boundaries, Don’t Enable, and Take Care of Yourself
If your loved one’s drinking has yet to cause problems, then a concerned conversation may be exactly what he or she needs to course correct. However, if it’s past the point of being a problem and is threatening your marriage, you need to determine ahead of time what your boundaries are.
Again, it’s important to keep in mind that you’re not alone … and that, unfortunately, a problem with alcohol can be devastating to a marriage. At the University of Buffalo , “Researchers followed 634 couples from the time of their weddings through the first nine years of marriage and found that couples where only one spouse was a heavy drinker had a much higher divorce rate than other couples.” That information may seem demoralizing, but there is hope: Research has shown that couples therapy with a focus on the alcoholic spouse results in “greater marital happiness after treatment, fewer incidents of marital separation, and fewer incidents of domestic violence.” 
Requiring that your spouse seek alcoholism treatment, or at the very least attend family therapy sessions, may be one of your boundaries. Boundaries can take many forms, but as a PsychCentral article notes, “It’s important to remember that boundaries aren’t about trying to control someone or make them change. Boundaries are about establishing how you want to be treated, self-preservation in a chaotic or dangerous environment, and a path to healthy relationships.” 
By the same token, keeping those boundary lines firm and not redrawing them because you face criticism, pleading, or withering scorn is vital. By moving those boundaries, you’re allowing your spouse to manipulate the situation, which is the exact opposite of what you hope to accomplish: a solution to a drinking problem.
Flimsy boundaries can also lead to enabling. “Anything that you do that does protect the alcoholic or addict from the consequences of his or her actions, could be enabling him to delay a decision to get help for their problem,” according to one writer for the website VeryWellMind . “Are you working and paying some of the bills that the alcoholic would be paying if he hadn't lost his job or missed time from work due to drinking? Or are you providing the alcoholic food and shelter? If so, you could be enabling. You are providing him with a ‘safety net’ that allows him to lose or skip his job with no real consequences.”
And you’re only adding to your own stress, because you’ve ceased to be an equal partner in a marriage, and you’ve become a caretaker. Is your spouse an alcoholic? If you find yourself living as more of a parent than a husband or wife, then the answer is most certainly yes … and it’s time to do something about it.
Is Your Spouse an Alcoholic? Yes. So What’s Next?
In an ideal scenario, you would gather information, initiate a conversation, and your husband or wife would realize they need help and agree to get it immediately. Reality, unfortunately, paints a far different picture — which is why it’s critical for you to begin taking care of yourself immediately. Living in the shadow of impending alcoholism is difficult enough, but the longer it goes unaddressed, the greater the toll it will take on your marriage?
Is your spouse an alcoholic? If you find yourself asking that question, it’s imperative that you learn the answer — for the sake of your marriage, the health of your partner and your own peace of mind. Whatever the answer turns out to be, know this: There are resources available, to help get your spouse the alcoholism treatment he or she needs, and family groups and therapy that can help you navigate these uncertain waters regardless of what your spouse decides to do.