How to Deal With an Alcoholic Spouse

An alcohol addiction is a progressive illness that can dramatically change a person’s life and the lives of those around them. Knowing how to support a loved one as they struggle with alcohol dependence is difficult, and it may seem like their drinking problem has taken over your relationship.

Living with an alcoholic can be confusing, overwhelming, and at times isolating. Some face hurtful or negative comments or even intimate partner violence. Despite wanting to do everything you can to support your partner to get their alcohol consumption under control, you may experience anxiety about addressing the subject and uncertainty about the best way to support them in beginning alcohol treatment.

Understanding how alcohol and other addictive substances affect the brain and body is a good place to start if you wish to better deal with your partner’s drinking.

What is Alcohol Addiction

When understanding addiction and looking into addiction treatment, the language may seem confusing at first. The terms alcoholic, alcoholism, substance use disorder, and substance abuse may seem to be used interchangeably. First understanding the language around alcoholism and what different terms refer to is important.

Substance Abuse

Substance abuse is any kind of use outside of the recommended amount or prescribed dose by a doctor. Those who abuse alcohol, continue drinking despite the negative impacts that the alcohol consumption is having on their mental, physical, and social wellbeing. Alcohol abuse includes binge drinking and heavy alcohol consumption. The 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health discovered that around 16 million Americans were heavy alcohol users, and 14.5 million Americans had an alcohol use disorder.

Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is the term most often used by medical professionals and it encompasses what is often referred to as alcoholism, alcohol dependence, and alcohol addiction. Alcohol addiction is different from dependence; addiction is psychological whereas dependence is physiological, although they can occur separately, they most often emerge simultaneously.

AUD is considered a brain disorder, due to the fact that substance abuse, including alcohol abuse, causes lasting changes in the brain’s functioning to worsen and progress the effects of AUD. This causes a vicious cycle of dependence that is incredibly difficult to break with continued use and relapse more likely in the future.

Healthcare professionals use criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to diagnose a person with AUD. Alcohol dependency and AUD can vary in severity so this manual provides guidelines for diagnosing the different stages of AUD.

Alcohol Addiction and Mental Health

Alcohol use and mental health are closely linked. Increased frequency and volume of alcohol consumption can be linked to grief, stress, loneliness, or declining mental health. Alcohol affects the part of your brain that controls inhibition, so drinking can make you feel more relaxed, less anxious, and more confident. It is common for people to use substances like alcohol to self-medicate, but this behavior can quickly lead to dependence.

Alcohol is a depressant, disrupting the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain and affecting your feelings, thoughts, and behavior. The exact effects can vary from person to person. The chemical changes in your brain can soon lead to more negative feelings such as anger and anxiety.

If your spouse’s drinking increases as their mental health declines, it may be helpful to speak to a mental health professional about your concerns, and if your spouse is receptive to it, encourage them to consider therapy.

What can I do?

Despite what it may seem, there are a number of things you can do to support an alcoholic spouse and yourself at the same time.

Prioritize your Physical and Mental Health

It is common to feel so concerned about your partner that you disregard your own mental well-being, but becoming burnt out will affect your ability to support your partner. The first step toward supporting people struggling with alcohol abuse or addiction is to recognize how your partner’s drinking is affecting you, and create ways of protecting your well-being throughout what must be an incredibly stressful time. Living with an alcoholic can be exhausting and take a toll on your mental well-being. Even if the person abusing alcohol tries to avoid it, family members will always be affected.

Set Healthy Boundaries

There is a significant link between alcohol abuse, domestic violence, and emotional abuse. Alcohol was found to be involved in 30 to 40 percent of male abuse cases and 27 to 34 percent of female abuse cases at the time of the event.

When a person who abuses alcohol feels like their own behavior is being threatened or judged, they may lash out with unacceptable behavior such as physical or verbal abuse, blame, or anger. Set your limits of what behavior you will and won’t accept early as it is common for the spouse to slowly begin to accept more and more unacceptable behavior as their condition progresses.

This said, be sure to set reasonable expectations for their behavior. For example, they may say that they are going to stop drinking and seek professional treatment next week. This may come from a genuine place, and at the moment they may really contemplate quitting. However, alcohol addiction can have powerful control over a person, so don’t be completely surprised if this doesn’t happen. It may seem frustrating or even like betrayal, but don’t take their broken promises or lies personally. Drug abuse can affect the brain and cause selfish behavior.

It is never the fault of victims of domestic abuse or intimate partner violence for the abuse they experience, however, setting boundaries and adhering to them can help keep you safe, recognize warning signs, and potentially avoid becoming involved in a full-blown abusive relationship.

It can be helpful to have an exit strategy if your alcoholic partner becomes aggressive or dangerous. Setting a clear line of behavior that you will not tolerate and removing yourself from the situation if this line is crossed is one way of setting and maintaining a healthy boundary. Seek support from friends and family and help from domestic abuse networks.

Support Groups

Researching local resources such as a local support group for the loved ones or family members of alcoholics can be a great way to connect with others facing similar problems. Support groups are places to share the ways that your wife or husband’s drinking habits are affecting you and your family in a safe and confidential setting.

Seek Professional Medical Advice

Try to think of your alcoholic spouse as having an illness that they need substance abuse treatment for. AUD itself is a medical issue, in addition to the negative effects of drug and alcohol use on the body such as liver damage. The complexity of medical research and treatment options may seem daunting, but professional help is available so you never have to support an alcoholic spouse alone. If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, you can always contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. There are medical professionals to support and advise you.

Limit Enabling Behavior

Maintaining a healthy relationship with an alcoholic spouse can be a challenge. You don’t want to constantly highlight their alcohol problem or negative behavior, but you also want to highlight your own pain and the issues that this is causing you.

Identify things that may be enabling your partner’s drug or alcohol abuse. Address them, and try to avoid doing things that allow your alcoholic spouse to deny disruptive behavior caused by their alcohol dependency or face the natural consequences of their own decision-making and actions.

Try encouraging your spouse not to attend events that encourage alcohol consumption, such as staff parties. Find ways of connecting and relaxing that don’t involve alcohol, such as hiking or golf. If other family members wish to be involved, encourage them to engage your alcoholic husband in activities that don’t trigger addictive thoughts or behavior.

Alcohol Abuse Treatment

It can be helpful to be prepared even if your husband is not yet ready to start treatment, or seems hesitant. Researching different treatments or speaking to people who have received treatment for a substance use disorder in the past can help you suggest treatment plans or therapies that you think may be helpful for their situation.

Compiling recovery resources and information on a range of different treatment programs can help your partner view alcohol addiction treatment as less daunting or scary.

Family therapy can be a feature of addiction treatment that helps those supporting an alcoholic to better understand their struggles and needs, and also greatly support the person in recovery. Many family members become frustrated and exhausted with the consequences of their loved one’s alcoholism and can benefit from social support and family healing.

Alina Lodge provides a comfortable, supportive environment to help you detox and withdraw from alcohol safely. We offer a combination of evidence-based and holistic approaches to help alcoholics start their recovery journey. No matter what stage of dependence or addiction your partner is in, recovery is always an option.

As a dual diagnosis treatment center, Alina Lodge is committed to offering simultaneous treatment for substance use disorder and the mental illnesses that so often accompany and worsen those disorders.

Contact us today to find out more about our treatment programs and recovery options.

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