Did you know about 43 percent of U.S. adults have been exposed to alcoholism in the family? Or that 9.2 percent of adults have been married to (or lived with as if married to) an alcoholic or a problem drinker?1
If you have a spouse with a drinking problem, you’re not alone. Many families in America grapple with the negative effects of alcoholism in the household and suffer severe consequences like financial ruin, divorce, or domestic violence as a result.
If you believe your spouse is an alcoholic, you and your family members do not have to continue living that way. In this guide, we’ll address some of the most common issues you may be facing and answer many of the questions you have, such as how to approach an alcoholic spouse about their drinking problem, how to support an alcoholic spouse in recovery, and what to do if they won’t get help.
Is My Spouse an Alcoholic? Signs and Symptoms of Alcoholism
It’s often difficult to remain objective about a loved one’s drinking problem, especially when the person in question is your husband or wife. No one wants to believe that their spouse could be an alcoholic, but it’s important to recognize the signs and symptoms of alcoholism if your spouse is exhibiting them. After all, you won’t be able to get help if neither of you recognizes there is a problem.
If your spouse is an alcoholic, he or she may exhibit some of these common signs and symptoms of alcohol abuse:
- They drink more than they intend to.
- They have tried to stop drinking or cut back but are unable to.
- They spend a great deal of time drinking, being drunk, or recovering from hangovers.
- They have problems with work, school, or family because of their drinking habits.
- They quit or cut back on other activities they used to enjoy to drink.
- They continue to drink alcohol even though it makes them depressed, anxious, and sick.
- They experience alcohol-induced blackouts often.
- They must drink more than they used to in order to achieve the desired effect.
- They experience withdrawal symptoms when the effects of alcohol wear off.2
The presence of several of the signs and symptoms listed above may indicate a severe drinking problem that needs to be addressed immediately.
Consequences of Living with an Alcoholic Wife or Husband
Unfortunately, many husbands or wives choose to do nothing, even after they realize their spouse has a drinking problem. Although it may seem like a strange thing to do, many people do nothing because they are in denial, they are afraid of approaching the alcoholic, or they don’t know where to turn for help.
If you have a spouse with a drinking problem and you choose to do nothing about it, you and your family will likely suffer the consequences. It should be no surprise that continuing to live with an alcoholic wife or husband will have many negative effects on both you and your children.
If your spouse is an alcoholic, you may suffer some of the following negative effects as a result:
- Verbal abuse
- Physical abuse
- Financial problems
- Medical problems
- Frequent lies
- Poor self-esteem
- Neglect 3
Your children are also not immune to the negative effects of alcoholism in the family. One in four children lives in a family with a parent addicted to drugs or alcohol.4 Although it is common, children in these situations also suffer immensely when one or both of their parents are alcoholics, and the effects are often long-lasting, following them throughout the remainder of their lives.
According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, children of alcoholics face many challenges due to the lack of stability at home.5 Generally speaking, children of alcoholics frequently face many of the following unique challenges:
- They are exposed to chronic high levels of stress.
- They are at higher risk for developing depression, anxiety disorders, and PTSD.
- They are often emotionally and/or physically neglected.
- They are often exposed to violence.
- They may be physically or emotionally abused.
- They may internalize feelings of fear and shame.
- They may feel responsible for their parent’s drinking problem.
- They are more at risk for alcoholism and drug abuse later in life.
- They are more likely to have behavioral problems.5,6
Families affected by addiction also tend to adopt unhealthy coping behaviors as a result of the alcohol abuse, such as self-medicating, isolating, or continually “rescuing” the alcoholic.
Planning an Intervention for an Alcoholic Spouse
If you’re trying to figure out how to approach an alcoholic spouse, it is wise to consider each situation individually. Some people may respond well to a one-on-one conversation about their drinking habits. In this case, choose a time and place with minimal distractions to talk to your spouse about their drinking problem. Try to remain calm when you address the issue, using “I feel” statements, such as “When you come home drunk at 2 a.m., I feel disrespected and sad.”
While a one-on-one conversation may be enough to get some people to go to treatment, this approach may not work well for everyone. If your alcoholic spouse is in denial and refuses to get help after you talk to them about it, you may need to consider an intervention.
A carefully planned intervention may be an effective way to address your spouse’s drinking problem and convince them to go to treatment. If you’ve never planned or hosted an intervention before, you may want to consult with an interventionist first.
An interventionist is a type of professional that has been trained to work with families dealing with addiction and can help you plan and host the intervention. He or she may also be able to mediate during the intervention to ensure the conversation remains productive and calm.
During the intervention, you will address the following topics with your spouse:
- How their alcohol abuse has negatively affected you, your children, and your household
- Why you believe addiction treatment would be the best solution
- Any boundaries you will implement if they choose not to get professional help
If your spouse still refuses to get help after the intervention, you will need to follow through with those boundaries you laid out during the intervention until your spouse agrees to get help for their drinking problem. Some examples of boundaries may include:
- Finding another temporary living situation
- Refusing to support them financially until they get help
- Getting rid of all the alcohol in the house
- Restricting parenting privileges or access to children
When an alcoholic spouse refuses to get help, it can make things difficult. Although there are laws in many states allow involuntary commitment of minors into addiction treatment, once the person turns 18, there are few things a loved one can do to force someone into treatment—with the exception of court-ordered rehab.7 Your spouse will either need to agree to go to treatment, be forced to go to treatment by the court, or choose to do so themselves.
Identifying and Changing Enabling Behaviors
Implementing some of the boundaries outlined above may seem harsh, but in some instances, it may be the only way to motivate your spouse to enroll in treatment. There are, however, other ways you can help motivate your spouse to get help for their alcohol addiction, such as identifying any enabling behaviors in your own life and changing them.
If you are enabling your alcoholic spouse, you may behave in certain ways that intentionally or unintentionally support their drinking habits. Common examples of enabling behaviors include:
- Maintaining denial about your spouse’s addiction.
- Drinking with your alcoholic spouse.
- Justifying your spouse’s alcohol abuse.
- Avoiding problems to keep the peace.
- Blaming or lecturing your alcoholic spouse.
- Taking over your spouse’s responsibilities at home.
- Treating the alcoholic spouse like a child.
- Doing nothing and just “sticking it out” until things get better.8
It’s extremely important to identify and change these enabling behaviors because, ultimately, they do more harm than good. When you enable, you shield your alcoholic spouse from ever fully experiencing the consequences of their behavior. Since you’ll always be there to catch them when they fall, your spouse may never be motivated to seek treatment on their own.
Enabling behaviors may also quickly develop into codependency, which is a form of enabling and a learned behavior that can be passed down from one generation to the next. The main danger of codependency is that it will fuel your spouse’s addiction and affect your ability to have a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship, both now and in the future.9
How to Support an Alcoholic Spouse in Recovery
Individual treatment for addiction recovery is very helpful, but research shows treatment and therapy that involves the whole family may produce better outcomes.10
In the event that your spouse chooses to seek treatment and enroll in alcohol detox and a rehab program, you may be wondering what you can do to support them and get involved in the recovery process. There are several things you can do to support an alcoholic spouse in recovery, but here are just a few ideas:
- Remove all alcoholic beverages from the home, in preparation for their return.
- Participate in the treatment center’s family program.
- Make time for phone calls and/or meetings with your spouse’s treatment team.
- Write letters to your spouse while they are in treatment to remind them that you’re proud of the progress they’ve made.
- Consider enrolling in individual therapy.
- Be a good example with your own drinking habits and behaviors.
If you want personalized recommendations on how to support a spouse in rehab, it’s best to contact their treatment team at the rehab center.
Getting Addiction Recovery Support for Yourself
Addiction is a family disease and recovery will involve everyone affected. While your loved one is in treatment, it’s important for you and your loved ones to find outlets for personal support as well.
Community support groups can provide a safe environment for you to express your emotions and feelings regarding your spouse’s alcohol abuse. They also offer opportunities to engage and connect with other individuals and families in similar situations.
If you’re not sure where to start, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence recommends the following community organizations:
- Al-Anon Family Groups
- Nar-anon Family Groups
- CoDA (Co-Dependents Anonymous)
- ACA (Adult Children of Alcoholics)11
The addiction recovery process requires hard work, dedication, and life-long continued effort, but it is well worth the work. You and your loved ones all play an essential role in your spouse’s ongoing recovery, but together, your family can find freedom in sustained sobriety.