What Are the Best Ways to Help an Alcoholic Partner or Spouse?
Understanding the behavior of a partner or spouse who is struggling with an alcohol use disorder can be extremely difficult. Their behavior often seems selfish and irrational, so it can be difficult to make any sense of it.
What’s important to realize is that your partner is battling a disease that makes them essentially unaware of how their behaviors affect those around them. When in the grips of addiction, your partner is unable to see or think clearly about how their actions are harming the people they love.
Understanding an Alcoholic Partner
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), alcoholism is a chronic relapsing brain disorder marked by the following characteristics:
- Compulsive use of alcohol
- Loss of control over alcohol intake
- Negative emotional state when not using alcohol
While it is often hard to come to terms with the fact that your partner has an alcohol use disorder, they are not alone. NIAAA estimates that 16 million people in the United States have an alcohol use disorder. In 2015, over 15 million adults, including 9.8 million men and 5.3 million women, met diagnostic criteria for a substance use disorder.
The number of people struggling with an alcohol use disorder in the U.S. is alarming, but it also means that you and your partner are not alone. Treatment programs and support groups are available across the country to help individuals and families affected by alcoholism. No matter how bad the alcohol use disorder appears, most people benefit from treatment and have a good chance at achieving full recovery.
What You Need to Know
When your alcoholic partner is under the influence, which is likely to be often, they are not themselves. Alcohol has an effect on them, as it does on anybody, that alters the way they think, feel, and behave. Their mental capacity and emotional stability are negatively impacted, and it can take a year or two of sobriety to completely return to normal.
As you live with an emotionally unstable person who is not fulfilling the cognitive potential that you know they have, you might begin to feel a sense of compassion fatigue. That is, your patience and concern for your partner’s well-being starts to run out, and you feel hurt and angry about what their behaviors are doing to your relationship.
It is important for you to realize that it is both normal and understandable to have these feelings. In fact, there are support groups around the country just for family members of someone with an alcohol use disorder.
Al-Anon is one of the most well-known family support groups that gives family members the opportunity to learn from the experiences of other people in similar situations. Al-Anon and Alateen (support groups for adolescents affected by someone with alcoholism) are free, voluntary, and offered in many locations around the world.
How to Help Your Partner
After watching your partner struggle with an alcohol addiction and feeling the impacts of it on yourself and your family, you likely want to know how you can help. Helping someone with any sort of addiction is challenging, as addiction often makes it difficult for the individual to comprehend the severity of their disease. Nonetheless, there are steps you can take to compassionately and supportively help your partner.
- Educate yourself about alcohol use disorder so you have an understanding about what they’re going through and the obstacles they face on their path to sobriety.
- Before approaching your partner, practice what you’re going to say by rehearsing positive and supportive statements that are not accusatory or making any assumptions.
- Be prepared for any response from your partner, as they may not appreciate being confronted about their drinking.
- When you approach your partner about their drinking, do so in a quiet, calm, and safe environment. Do it when they are sober rather than under the influence.
- Be open and honest about how your partner’s drinking affects you while expressing your concern for them.
- Offer your support to help them find treatment in a nonjudgmental and genuine way.
Recovery from an alcohol use disorder is a long process that will require ongoing effort throughout your partner’s life. The best thing you can do for them is to be a supportive, loving, and consistent support for them as they navigate this journey.
Is an Intervention a Good Idea?
Staging an intervention is one way to get the attention of someone struggling with an addiction. Interventions can help loved ones feel motivated to seek addiction treatment by helping them gain some insight into how concerned family members and friends are for them and how much their addiction is impacting others.
During an intervention, close loved ones of the individual come together to show support for the individual and encourage them to seek treatment by:
- Providing specific examples of their destructive behavior.
- Describing the impact of the behavior on each family member.
- Outlining a prearranged treatment plan for the individual.
- Providing consequences for not seeking treatment.
If you feel like an intervention may be necessary, your partner’s addiction only continues to get worse, and you’re not sure how else to confront the situation, staging a well-planned intervention can be a very effective approach.
It’s important to realize, though, that not all interventions are successful. It is possible that your partner will feel hurt and betrayed by an intervention being planned behind their back. They may not be ready to seek treatment and refuse to follow through with the outlined treatment plan.
Even if your partner does not accept the terms of the intervention, it has given family members and friends the opportunity to come together in support of the individual as well as each other.
In the best-case scenario, your partner will be touched by the sincerity and efforts displayed by the intervention team and move forward with treatment. If not, everyone was given the opportunity to express their concerns and for the individual to hear them. If treatment is not being sought right now, the intervention is still an important step in their recovery journey.
Involuntarily Committing Someone to Rehab
Ideally, everyone who enters rehab does so on their own accord because they are ready and willing to seek treatment. This is not always the case, however, as people are occasionally forced into treatment for a variety of reasons. While it can be emotionally difficult to involuntarily commit someone to rehab, it is not necessarily a bad idea.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), treatment does not need to be voluntary to be effective. Effective treatment considers all the unique needs of the individual, provides multiple treatment options and approaches, provides medications when applicable as well as counseling services, and features ongoing treatment planning.
Even if someone does not voluntarily enter rehab, they are likely to feel differently after completing the detox process and participating in counseling and behavioral therapy. As long as they are given enough time with the right supports in rehab, they are likely to experience significant positive treatment outcomes.
What to Avoid
As you work hard to support your loved one in recovery, there are some things you should avoid doing. Remember that you can’t solve your loved one’s problems.
- Don’t keep alcohol around the house.
- Don’t drink around your partner.
- Don’t tell them what they must or must not do.
- Don’t take on all their responsibilities.
- Don’t give them money unless it’s going toward treatment or you know exactly what it’s being used for.
- Don’t become codependent and entangled in their addiction.
- Don’t blame yourself for your partner’s struggle with alcohol.
It can be extremely difficult not to become wrapped up in your partner’s addiction, but it is important to keep a safe distance for yourself. This doesn’t mean that you can’t speak with them about their addiction and offer ways to help, but if they choose not to accept help right now, that is up to them, not you.
Ultimately, a full recovery will be made when your partner is ready to seek help. In the meantime, the best thing you can do is take good care of yourself so you are available for your partner and other family members.
Alcohol Use Disorder. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
How to Help Someone with an Alcohol Addiction. (March 2017). Healthline.
Intervention: Help a Loved One Overcome Addiction. (July 2017). Mayo Clinic.
The Alcoholic’s Mindset and Effect on Family Members. (November 2018). Verywell Mind.
Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction. (January 2019). National Institute on Drug Abuse.