Living with an Alcoholic

Alcoholism is a condition that affects the entire family. Many alcoholics’ wives and partners withdraw themselves and adopt undesirable coping mechanisms. They frequently experience feelings of humiliation and guilt. The family suffers because of the alcoholic; however, family therapy can help rebuild trust and restore connections.

The effects of a loved one’s alcoholism are often felt by their families. Heavy alcohol use by one family member can devastate the family’s foundations, causing feelings of humiliation, guilt, wrath, fear, grief, and loneliness.

Alcoholism can consume people, causing them to lose sight of their responsibilities to their families. Spouses frequently take up the slack and bear the psychological effects of living with an alcoholic, such as anxiety and depression.

The following are examples of alcohol-related family issues:

  • Domestic violence
  • Marital tension
  • Infidelity
  • Insecurity
  • Jealousy
  • Divorce

According to a 2016 study published in the Industrial Psychiatry Journal, alcoholics’ concern with drinking causes them to lose sight of their relationships and their loved ones’ needs.

An alcoholic’s primary relationship is with the substance, so they spend most of their time thinking about it. This has a negative impact on their relationships with their spouses, and their partners feel rejected. According to the 2016 study, while an alcoholic’s alcoholism impacts everyone around them, the wives of alcoholics suffer the most.

Alcoholic men contribute to a stressful and traumatic home atmosphere, causing anxiety disorders, depression, neuroticism, and low self-confidence in their spouses.

According to the study, the wives of alcoholics face five significant obstacles as a result of their partner’s alcoholism:

  • Emotional disturbances
  • Problems with health
  • Social issues
  • Financial difficulties
  • Coercive violence

According to previous studies, alcoholics’ wives experience negative emotions due to their partner’s alcoholism. These feelings are harmful to the wives and the family unit since they reduce self-esteem and lower overall quality of life.

Before her marriage was destroyed by alcoholism, Harmony Rose, author of “Married Under the Influence,” had common misconceptions about what an alcoholic was. Her spouse worked at a steady job and never missed a day. He was a social drinker who generally drank on weekends. She made excuses for him when he drank excessively over the week.

Rose’s marriage suffered as a result of her husband’s condition. Her husband was addicted to alcohol for the majority of their 17-year relationship. She claimed that drinking had taken over his life before he went to treatment and overcame his addiction. The consumption of beer progressed to the consumption of wine and beer simultaneously. He went to vodka and drank shots when that wasn’t enough.

Although an alcoholic’s issue affects everyone around them, the wives of alcoholics suffer the most.

“For many years, we would squabble and fight; it was a broken record,” Rose said. She explained, “Our family dynamic was sick and dysfunctional.”

Substance use disorders are progressive family disorders in which the alcoholic’s family goes through the condition with them.

The alcoholic and family members can get parallel illnesses simultaneously. The family becomes entangled with the alcoholism of a loved one. The alcoholic’s compulsive conduct harms family members.

“He’d go to the casino ten months into the relationship, gamble hundreds of dollars, and lose,” Rose claimed. “In the end, he lost his entire income – hundreds of dollars.” We were unable to pay our mortgage. We didn’t have any food and had three children.”

However, alcoholism is not an incurable condition. Families can be treated for the psychosocial repercussions of alcohol abuse. Family members can learn to make amends, communicate effectively, and heal damaged relationships when an alcoholic recovers from addiction.

Codependency as a Result of Alcoholism

According to a 2008 study published in the journal Family Relations, experts frequently regard the wives of alcoholic males as codependents. Codependent wives of alcoholics, according to the authors, are women who embrace a persistent preoccupation with the alcoholic’s activities as a method to feel protected, boost self-esteem, and gain a sense of identity.

Because the alcoholic is often under-functioning, the family will begin to over-function to take over the alcoholic’s responsibilities and obligations.

In order to stabilise the family structure, the family becomes sensitised to alcoholism.

Some disagree with the term codependency. The term ‘codependence’ ignores the fact that people are forced to choose between a bad and a worse outcome. Behaviours like calling an employer to excuse a spouse’s hangover hide the real issue that the family is dealing with: the loss of a job.

An estimated 2.6 million children in the UK live with at least one parent who drinks too much.

Partners can safeguard children from dangerous surroundings, but the youngsters may blame the wrong person for the family problems. The alcoholic parent was either constantly sleeping or never around in their view. On the other hand, the sober parent was always enraged and frustrated.

Rose’s husband’s youngest daughter defended her father at all times, explaining his conduct and denying his addiction. Rose’s stepdaughters saw the incident from a new perspective after she released her book. They had no idea how serious their father’s alcoholism was because they were completely unaware of it.

Rose’s family did not discuss their patriarch’s drinking openly until they read the book. She admitted to lying to her children to protect them from their father’s addiction. “Children should not be the victims of addiction,” Rose remarked. “It’s bad enough that they don’t have their father.”

Is your partner an alcoholic?

Determining if your partner has an alcohol addiction can be difficult because your partner could be a high-functioning alcoholic. Alcohol affects people differently, and high-functioning alcoholics who drink in secret may appear to have control over their life.

Rose didn’t understand she was enabling her husband for several years. She’d sit next to him while he drank. She would occasionally buy alcohol for him. However, as she began reading about alcoholism, she realised that his behaviour was out of the ordinary.

When she questioned if he was an alcoholic, he always denied it. When she caught him drinking too much, he admitted to having a problem but denied it weeks later. “His alcoholism forced him to fabricate excuses for everything,” Rose explained. “He’d be alright for a time, but then he’d drown in the drink once more.” It developed into a pattern.”

Family members cannot diagnose an alcoholic relative based on one or two experiences. The symptoms and warning signals appear gradually and contribute to an unhealthy behaviour habit.

Signs to Look Out For

Alcoholism progresses more slowly than intravenous drug addiction. Injecting cocaine can lead to addiction in less than a week. An alcohol abuse problem might develop over the course of a decade. It sneaks up on individuals, particularly if you live with an alcoholic.

The following are some of the signs and symptoms of an alcohol consumption disorder:

  • Failure to control drinking habits
  • Investing time in consuming alcohol or recovering from its effects
  • A desire for alcoholic beverages
  • Missing work, school, or other obligations because of alcohol
  • Continuing to drink despite negative health, social, and interpersonal effects
  • Prioritising alcohol over social, business, and recreational activities
  • Having a drink in dangerous circumstances
  • Drinking more and more as a result of alcohol tolerance
  • Withdrawal symptoms in alcohol abstinence periods

Men who consume more than four drinks on any given day or more than 14 drinks per week are considered at-risk, according to the National Institutes of Health. Women who consume more than three drinks per day or more than seven drinks per week are considered at-risk drinkers. According to the National Institutes of Health, 25% of people who drink more than the recommended amount have an alcohol use problem, while the remaining 75% are at risk of developing an addiction to alcohol and associated issues.

What to Expect When You’re Dealing with an Alcoholic

Rose claimed that her husband’s drunkenness robbed him of his family. He was physically present, but he was never present emotionally. She characterised her spouse as a shell of himself who would jeopardise his family’s safety. She claimed that alcoholics could never be trusted because they will lie to obtain what they want and that alcoholics’ spouses may expect blame, deceit, betrayal, and infidelity. “They’re extremely dysfunctional and can be extremely abusive,” Rose explained. “They also tend to assign blame to those closest to them,” she added. A lack of regularity in conduct causes the unpredictability found in alcoholics. They may exhibit both positive and negative behaviours, leaving their loved ones in the dark.

The Alcoholic’s Point of View: “It’s Not Really a Choice”

Alcoholics process emotions differently than people who do not use alcohol. They misinterpret facial expressions and gestures and engage in impulsive or aggressive behaviour. Alcohol disrupts brain connections, influencing mood and behaviour. Long-term alcohol exposure causes the brain to adapt to the presence of alcohol, resulting in cravings. Alcoholism is a brain condition. Alcoholics are unable to operate normally or make sensible decisions. Alcoholism is a survival mechanism; an alcoholic relies on drinking to stay alive. There isn’t much of a choice. After his youngest children counted 19 bottles and cans after one night’s drinking, Rose’s husband decided to start drinking outside in the shed or at clubs so the children wouldn’t realise the extent of his alcoholism. He only recognised the pain he had caused the family after rehabilitation, therapy, and support group meetings.

When Is It Appropriate to Leave an Alcoholic?

Every circumstance is unique. Many husbands and wives do not want to abandon their loved ones when they are in need. Alcoholism is a disease, and family members’ support is essential for those in recovery. Family members can help loved ones seek therapy, but they should not risk their own health or safety.

People should leave when their safety cannot be guaranteed, such as in cases of physical aggression.

Children may develop learning and behavioural issues due to constant exposure to domestic violence directed at a parent. According to a 2013 study published in the journal Social Work in Public Health, children living in the home of a person with a substance use disorder were more likely to assume parental obligations, depriving them of their childhood.

Rose characterised the emotional abuse she and her children were subjected to as “traumatic.” “It doesn’t leave you bruised as bruises do”, Rose explained. “You start believing what they say, and they need someone to blame”.

Alcoholics drink to dull their feelings, and they frequently deny having a drinking problem when confronted by a partner. Alcoholics will go to any length to draw attention away from their bad habits.

Carole Bennett, author of “Reclaim Your Life: You and the Alcoholic/Addict,” highlighted various reasons to leave an alcoholic in an essay for The Huffington Post, including:

  • Mental and physical weariness as a result of the alcoholic’s unpredictable conduct
  • Lack of confidence in the alcoholic
  • Bullying, insulting, disdain, and placing blame on the family
  • The alcoholic’s persistent failure to recover through rehabilitation and treatment
  • Avoidance of certain topics of discussion to avoid the alcoholic’s irritability

Bennett did, however, mention several reasons why people may choose to stay with an alcoholic partner, including the children’s well-being, their financial condition, and the social stigma associated with divorce. It’s difficult to know when to leave an alcoholic. Each scenario was unique, but a threat to one’s physical safety justified serious consideration of ending the relationship.

Wives of alcoholics: Coping Strategies

To cope with their husbands’ alcoholism, alcoholic wives adopt emotional and problem-focused coping mechanisms. Wives exhibited five behaviours, according to a 2016 study published in the Industrial Psychiatry Journal: attack, retreat, protection, acting out, and preserving family interests. The researchers discovered three coping strategies: engaged, tolerant, and withdrawal.

Active Coping

To change their husbands’ drinking habits, wives will use a variety of assertive, controlling, emotional, and supportive actions. However, the wives become enslaved to their husbands’ alcoholism. “The spouse’s fixation with the condition becomes obsessed with the drinking,” Lander explained. “They try to help and believe they are in charge of the addiction, but they aren’t.” Active participation in the husband’s drinking is referred to as active coping. Active coping can be exhausting emotionally. However, believing they are helping the alcoholic, and their family enhances their self-esteem and gives them a sense of fulfilment for some spouses. According to a 2016 survey, 93.4% of alcoholic wives preferred to sit with their husbands and talk about the problem, while 93% begged their partners to stop drinking. 70% described arguing as an active coping strategy.

Tolerant Coping

According to the researchers, tolerant coping is similar to self-sacrifice. The purpose of tolerant coping is to keep fights to a minimum. Spouses frequently contribute to their alcoholic husbands’ alcoholism by making excuses for them or providing them money while knowing they will spend it on their addiction. In the study, tolerant coping was shown to be less common than active coping. Only 3% of wives gave money to their alcoholic partners, while 6% made excuses for their partners’ drinking.

Withdrawal Coping

In a 2016 study, one out of four women employed withdrawal coping tactics. This type of coping involves staying away from the drinker and indulging in other activities. Poor drinking outcomes are exacerbated by tolerant and withdrawal coping. They also have a detrimental impact on the family, with nonalcoholic wives experiencing higher rates of depression. According to the study, 70% of the wives surveyed experienced anxiety as a result of their husband’s alcoholism, 60% said they were mentally disturbed, and half said they were frustrated. Despite this, nearly half of the wives never expressed their frustrations with their children, and 75% never ignored them. Rose advises wives of alcoholics to seek help from others to cope in a healthy way. “Don’t isolate yourself,” she said. “Don’t be scared or embarrassed; it’s not your fault.” The alcoholic will tell you that it is; they are deceptive. Make contact with someone, anyone. Don’t suffer in silence; things will only get worse.”

Supporting an alcoholic

It takes a lifetime to recover from an alcohol use disorder. While alcoholics develop a tolerance for alcohol, family members develop a tolerance for the inappropriate behaviours associated with problem drinking. It’s crucial that family members understand that alcoholism is a brain condition that causes harmful behaviour.

Alcoholism, according to Rose, is a sickness that affects a person’s brain chemistry and causes them to behave in ways that harm their families. “It’s extremely debilitating for both the family and the alcoholic.” “You have to separate the disease from the individual when you look at an alcoholic,” Rose remarked. “Who they are is what the disease made them to be, not the person they are underneath.”

People can help an alcoholic in a variety of ways, including:

  • Reading about alcoholism and its effects on the alcoholic
  • Instead of condemning the addiction, adopt a loving and helping tone
  • Choosing a quiet time and a secluded location to discuss the individual’s alcoholism
  • Listening to the person’s hardship while expressing concerns
  • Supporting the alcoholic while trying to respect their decisions

These actions are not the same as an intervention. When a person’s alcoholism worsens, and they refuse treatment, close family and friends may have to help their loved one get sober.

A 2007 study looked into the role of marital therapy in the treatment of alcoholism. They discovered that cognitive couples therapy helped the alcoholic reintegrate back into the family.

Involving both partners in treatment assisted the alcoholic in maintaining sober and in repairing the relationship. Because relationships can produce a lot of stress and emotional upheaval, repairing the relationship is crucial to minimise the emotional imbalance that can contribute to a relapse.

Treatment for Alcoholism Can Be Effective

Rose’s life was a nightmare for the first ten months of her husband’s treatment. He cheated on her, and the abuse and lying got worse. He was sober, but he wasn’t on the mend.

“When you lose the alcohol glasses and come out of rehab, it’s like coming out of a basement after a tornado,” Rose remarked. “You see all the destruction and damage all around you. What an alcoholic does to a family is this.”

Her husband’s decision to focus on his recovery programme and their marriage was the turning point. They were able to re-establish trust in their relationship and work together to heal.

Rose’s husband was utterly clueless about the family’s difficulties before committing to recovery. After committing to recovery, her husband became more physically and emotionally present through family issues.

“When you become sober and heal,” Rose remarked, “it’s an unbelievable difference.” “You reclaim your life, and you get to be present for the people you care about.” You get to be there for others while also being there for yourself.”

Al-Anon and Other Self-Help Organisations

Al-Anon Family Groups give a space for friends and family members of alcoholics to share their stories and connect with others in similar situations. The 12 Steps of Al-Anon, which attempt to help individuals heal from the impacts of alcoholics in their lives, are often read at the outset of Al-Anon meetings.

Friends and relatives can also help the alcoholic by taking on tasks that prevent them from seeking treatment, such as job, child care, and household chores.

Following treatment and therapy, the individual in recovery will require ongoing assistance. Loved ones should remain committed to the alcoholic’s rehabilitation by inquiring about coping skills to avoid triggers. Even in social circumstances, friends and family members should avoid consuming alcohol around the person.

It’s challenging to live with an alcoholic, and only you know how much of the addict’s behaviour you can handle. It’s critical to realise that recovery is possible. Your family can recover.

It is not your fault that your loved one is addicted. You can’t stop the disease from spreading, but you can show your love and support. Take care of yourself first, and then seek treatment for your companion.

Compare Rehab’s mission is to improve the quality of life for individuals living with a substance use disease by providing fact-based information about behavioural health conditions, treatment alternatives, and outcomes.

We do not intend for the information we give to be used in place of professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It should not be used as a substitute for medical advice from a doctor or other qualified healthcare provider.

Last Edited: April 14th, 2022
Clinically Reviewed: April 9, 2022
Clinical Reviewer

Michael

BACP accredited psychotherapist with 16 years experience working in mental health specialising in psychodynamic person-centred therapies treating those with a range of mental health disorders including anxiety, depression, OCD and Addiction.