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Most of your energy has probably gone toward helping your spouse manage their symptoms or getting them into detox or rehab. But, likely, you haven’t thought much about yourself other than to ask, “What can I do?” However, there are ways to help your spouse while also helping yourself so you both can be healthy and happy.
In 2019, of the 14.5 million people in the U.S. ages 12 and older, 5.3% had an alcohol use disorder (AUD), including nine million men (6.8% of men in this age group) and 5.5 million women (3.9% of women in this age group). According to a 2017 report, approximately 10.5% (7.5 million) of U.S. children ages 17 and younger were living with a parent with AUD.
When coping with your spouse’s AUD seems impossible, remember you’re far from the only one, and millions of other men and women are in the same position. Some may be struggling, but others have found ways to cope and live happily together — and so can you.
When you’re married to someone with an AUD, your relationship will often come second to their relationship with alcohol. Emotional connections can be difficult because communication about your spouse’s alcohol is either implicitly or explicitly prohibited. AUD could lead your partner to lie or fight with you about their use, and your sex life could also suffer.
Once you realize your spouse has a problem with alcohol, you will probably try to cover for their behavior or make excuses to others if your partner’s level of drinking is noticed. This can cause you to isolate yourself from friends and family so they don’t notice your troubles.
There are usually financial problems as drinking increases, from overspending on alcohol or making reckless purchases while under the influence.
Codependency, or unhealthily sacrificing your own needs to react and tend to someone with a substance use disorder in the hope of receiving positive validation, is also common in households where AUDs are present. You may suffer a great deal of mental stress and use healthcare services more often.
While you cannot control your spouse’s drinking, you can set boundaries around the behavior you will tolerate associated with their drinking. This means you will define limits to what you will handle and the consequences for breaking those limits. For example, you may decide not to be out in public with your spouse if they choose to drink. You can also establish that they cannot drink in the house or when you are home with them. Boundaries are personal to you and what you believe will help you cope with an alcoholic spouse.
A strong support network can be helpful when coping with an alcoholic partner. Support groups are geared to those who are affected by alcohol use disorder. These groups include:
In the course of all this change and partner-centered care, you have to remember to take care of yourself, too. When using, people with AUDs often forget how important their relationships with others are. You have probably felt this lack in your own life. Your partner’s treatment will focus on improving their relationship with you, but you can do things to help yourself:
There will likely be a point where confronting your spouse becomes necessary. When the time comes to do so, certain things may help the conversation be more productive. Remember, however, that your goal is confrontation without conflict.
Avoid having a discussion while you or your partner is under the influence. This will impede your ability to communicate effectively and can result in frustration instead of understanding. If your husband or wife is hungover, remorseful, etc., it might be a good time to talk about the negative consequences of their drinking.
It may be hard to come from a place of compassion and empathy when talking to your partner. Remember that an alcohol use disorder is a disease, not a character flaw in your partner. Working to separate your partner from their alcoholism can help you be more patient and empathetic to them.
Try to address the situation in terms of how you feel their drinking affects you and others without making accusations. For instance, you might want to address facts about what particular episodes resulted in without saying what they should do instead or try to self-diagnose your partner.
Think of this conversation as planting a new idea in their mind. It may take a while for them to process or accept their disease. They may become defensive or angry. If this happens, remember that anger comes after denial in the stages of acceptance and give them the physical or emotional space to process this new emotion.
Above all, be patient. This may be yet another conversation about their drinking or the first time you’ve talked openly about it. Either way, your spouse will probably feel apprehensive about it.
If you don’t feel like you can come to your spouse with this mindset or think someone else in their life could do it better, or your spouse may be open to listening to someone else, that’s okay. It is important that your partner has a productive conversation about their AUD with someone who cares about them.
Many people with AUDs will have difficulty admitting they have a problem. This is normal. Substance use disorders (SUDs) have such stigma in society, and those with SUDs want to believe they’re in control of their life. Admitting to an AUD would upend the mythology they’ve created for themselves.
This mentality is especially common with ‘high-functioning alcoholics.’ Because they don’t hit the same sort of ‘bottom’ that others with AUDs have (losing their jobs, place to live, financial security, etc.), your spouse may not be able to see that they’re in a downward spiral.
Denial can also be something you deal with, too. Thinking that your husband or wife doesn’t have a problem because they go to work every day or that they’re drinking because of external circumstances that will soon pass (despite constant drinking) is a way of refusing to deal with the real situation. Being patient with yourself and open-minded to the symptoms of AUD can help you face the truth.
In short, denial will likely occur on both sides of your marriage. It’s normal; the more you plan for it, the better.
Alcohol use disorder develops in a person for many different reasons. There is not one single factor that may lead to AUD, but some that can contribute to AUD can include:
If your spouse is related to someone with an AUD, it could be contributing to their problems with alcohol. Studies have shown that variations in 51 different chromosomal regions can lead to an AUD later in life or increase the risk of developing one.
Situations like difficulties at work, unemployment/underemployment, loss of a friend or family member, etc., can initially lead someone to drink. Once they begin to associate drinking with stress relief, long-term drinking could set in, causing norepinephrine (a chemical that increases feelings of anxiety and raises blood pressure and heart rate) levels to spike in the brain. Thus alcohol becomes a necessary stress reliever.
Studies have shown that almost half of people who began drinking before age 14 went on to develop an AUD by 21. Whereas only 9% of people who started to drink after 21 did.
Depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are common in people with AUD.
If your spouse fits any of these criteria, that may help you to understand why an alcohol use disorder is affecting your family.
Alcohol abuse is much more common in men than women, affecting them differently. Being able to drink a lot is seen as a sign of masculinity in much of the world. It also brings out different characteristics, such as dangerous driving, violence against both men and women and giving them an excuse to ‘defend their honor’ if such an occasion presents itself.
On the other hand, women are more vulnerable to addiction than men, and they become addicted more quickly. When they enter treatment, their addictions are generally more severe, and they have more medical and psychiatric symptoms than men. They have also suffered more social consequences as a result of their AUD.
Whether your spouse is male or female will help you understand specific dangers and co-occurrences of their AUD.
Living with a spouse with alcoholism can be incredibly difficult on a constant basis. Emotional, physical and even financial stressors can come from having a spouse with AUD.
When someone has an alcohol use disorder, they may have difficulty maintaining relationships due to their addictive behaviors. The spouse of an alcoholic may feel disconnected from their partner, untrusting, scared or angry. It can be emotionally exhausting for the spouse of a person with alcoholism and lead to other mental health issues such as depression or anxiety.
The spouse of a person with alcohol use disorder may experience physical strain and emotional damage. The spouse with alcoholism might need physical support due to impairment, like walking up the stairs or help after falling over. This can cause strain on their spouse over time. Emotional stressors can also affect the body. The spouse of someone who misused alcohol may always feel tired, change their appetite or sleep habits or notice other physical tolls of stress.
Affording alcohol use disorder can be financially draining. Someone who misused alcohol might forego other financial responsibilities to buy more alcohol. Legal fees can also burden the family if they get into trouble with the law.
Being married to and living with someone with an AUD is taxing. A time may come when the costs outweigh the benefits. For instance, if:
Choosing to leave any marriage is difficult, and only you can decide if staying or going is right for you. But consider your well-being when making that decision, despite any internal or external pressures you may feel.
Even if you know or suspect that your husband or wife has a problem with alcohol, understanding the scope of the problem is important. Review the list of AUD symptoms and determine how many of them your partner has so you can get an idea of the severity of the problem.
It’s also possible that your spouse may be a ‘high-functioning alcoholic’ or someone with an AUD who can still excel at work and provide for their family, thinking that their drinking only affects themselves superficially (hangovers, etc.). Since they seem put together from an outside perspective, it can be difficult for them (or you!) to see they have a problem. Try to be impartial when looking at the symptoms of AUDs if your spouse seems to fit this profile.
In a study by The Recovery Village involving 2,000 respondents, those who chose support groups for alcohol use disorder had a higher than average reliance on friends and family members (45%) when seeking help.
If your husband or wife is open to getting help, their first step is to go to a therapist or doctor who can best diagnose them and recommend a course of treatment. There are also many types of meetings your partner can attend (Alcoholics Anonymous, SMART Recovery or Women for Sobriety). Some even have ‘open’ meetings that you can attend with them.
Attending hospital follow-up sessions and self-help meetings has been shown to increase the outcome of a spouse’s recovery significantly, so your support makes a big difference in helping them succeed.
If your spouse enters treatment, prepare for the idea that life will not return to normal right away for either of you. Even if you choose to leave your marriage, recovery is a process that takes time. However, resources and methods can help you both deal with the alcohol use disorder that has affected your marriage, which will lead you to a happier, healthier life.
Spouses can play a vital role in recovery from an alcohol use disorder. Part of that role may include helping your spouse or partner find the treatment they need. Contact us to learn about our treatment options. We have a proven track record of providing successful addiction treatment at our Palmer Lake, Colorado facility. Our knowledgeable staff can help advise the best course of action for your spouse based on their unique situation.
Because alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous – and even kill you – make sure you have medical advice from your doctor or a rehab facility when you decide to stop drinking.
There are many misconceptions about alcoholism that make it sound like an alcoholic is an easy person to spot, however, many alcoholics function effectively and lead relatively normal lives.
An alcohol abuse problem can include binge drinking, having negative consequences such as hangovers with your drinking but continuing anyway, and drinking despite the desire to stop.
In a recent study by The Recovery Village, 44% of respondents reported abusing alcohol in an attempt to ease uncomfortable feelings that stem from underlying anxiety.
Drinking more than three drinks in a single sitting will temporarily cause your blood pressure to rise, but extended binge drinking or regular alcohol consumption can cause a permanent increase in blood pressure.
NIAAA. “Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, June 2021. Accessed July 23, 2021.
The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.
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