When one partner is drinking too much and in denial about it, it can be hard for the other partner to know what to do. It can also be tempting to think, “I’m all alone.” Yet the reality is that countless couples are in the same boat or have faced similar problems before. If you are concerned about a partner’s drinking problem and the fact that they do not yet see it, what follows are some suggestions for what to do and what not to do….
Consider how alcohol may be functioning as a coping mechanism
Everyone faces ups and downs, and let’s be real: Life can be stressful. People cope with their stress in a lot of ways, including some that are not healthy. Drinking is a case in point. (Explore how treatment at FHE Health is helping people overcome their issues with alcohol, through detox and therapies that teach healthy coping skills.)
Alcohol has perennially been an automatic go-to for human beings. Whether to relieve social anxieties, calm nerves in stressful situations or shut down or avoid painful emotions, alcohol often serves as a way to cope with stress. If a partner’s drinking has recently escalated to problem levels, consider whether there may be new stressors in the picture that could be contributing.
Address your concern with your partner
People who engage in heavy or regular drinking may not recognize the warning signs or that they are out of control. Generally, though, the people in their life do notice. This makes communication, (which is key in any relationship), that much more important.
Hiding or just looking the other way is enabling a problem to continue or get worse. Relationships need to be built on trust and communication. That said, timing is also important.
Avoid talking to your partner when they are drunk. Trying to reason with a drunk person is, well, useless. Many things said will not be remembered. In a disinhibited state, people are prone to anger and impulsive decisions and are not logical in proportion to the effects of alcohol.
Instead, pick a time when things are calm and everyone is sober; and begin the conversation using “I statements,” such as “I am concerned,” “I feel there is a problem” or “I am not comfortable with the alcohol use.” It is best not to accuse, be argumentative or shaming when addressing issues. This approach is sure to make someone defensive and shut down any meaningful conversation.
Do not take on the drinking problem as yours
One important rule for navigating a situation where one partner is drinking or behaving badly is to avoid the trap of taking on their issues like one’s own. Taking on a drinking problem that is not one’s own might look like excusing the behavior or thinking it’s the fault of the job, the kids, or oneself—when it is not.
People deal with stress, finances, kids, and mood issues and don’t take it out on others all the time. If behaviors are coming from one person, then that is the person who is both responsible for their actions and the one who needs to address the issue if it is going to improve. There is not enough love, compassion, or control that will make things work. The person with the drinking problem needs to see what is going on and commit to a change. It is possible to support a partner with a drinking problem but not take responsibility for it or make it about yourself.
Generally speaking, when a partner is drinking too much and causing a strain on the family, the problem is not just about alcohol. There are usually other factors going on, and for that reason, it cannot remain a secret if the goal is a good outcome.
Many partners feel isolated because they alone see the anger, the abuse, or the out-of-control behaviors of the drinker, and the tendency to cover it up can be strong. Without support, they can quickly get into a bad situation where there is a shame, guilt or fear that clouds judgment. Having someone supportive to talk to can be key.
Find a trusted friend or family member, talk to your doctor, talk to a professional counselor or attend an Al-Anon support group to get perspective, support, and take care of yourself. You are facing a challenge, so be kind to yourself. Get the support that will help you weather the storm.
Not everyone can provide confidential support. Be mindful of who you share this sensitive information with. They need to be a safe, trusted outlet.
Also, sometimes others will be so concerned about what is going on that they may want to do something. That needs to be a discussion with the partner seeking support and the person who is receiving the news. It is best to think strategically before everyone bands together and impulsively marches off to confront the drinking partner. Often, this type of rash approach does not turn out well.
Be prepared to take action
Often, a person with addiction issues will not want to address their problem until there are consequences. Job loss, a DUI, or a separation or divorce can often be the wake-up call that a problem drinker needs to address their behavior.
Also keep in mind that the process of dealing with mental health issues and problematic addictive behaviors is not a one-time, quick fix that just goes away. It is a process. In that process, there needs to be a commitment from both sides, and those commitments need to be honored.
Many a scenario after a drunken night is an apology and it will not happen again. But then it does. How many times is someone forgiven—or trust allowed to be broken? How many relapses are to be tolerated? These are questions that some partners will have to face; but without the consequences, there may be no change.
If it comes down to “our relationship vs. alcohol,” do not be surprised, sadly, if the addiction wins. Someone so desperate to drink in an unhealthy way may be so scared, depressed, or out of control that stopping drinking seems impossible.
Of course, the disease of addiction is a powerful force. If things do not change, then the healthier partner may have to put “love” on the back burner and be realistic about the life ahead. Do not be afraid to make a decision for safety, sanity or quality of life; sometimes love is not enough. Many families have had to draw clear boundaries when addiction is in the family, and this is necessary. Relationships cannot do well if the “sickest” person is steering the car—it just does not work.
The good news is many people are able to make changes and overcome drinking issues when they are committed to it and have support. Partners, friends, family, and other sober supports can be key positive influences in this process. When both partners choose to be healthy, address issues head-on and make healthy changes, it is possible to overcome a drinking problem and experience happier days ahead.
This article was provided by Dr. Beau A. Nelson, DBH, LCSW, who is Chief Clinical Officer at the national behavioral health provider FHE Health.