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Alcoholism And Marriage – What to do when your Partner’s Drinking Harms your Marriage

A strong marriage requires two people to believe in and live by, the solemn vows they made.  Alcohol abuse by one or both will make that impossible.

How does Alcohol Negatively Impact Marriage?

Alcoholism, and indeed most addictions, are potentially destructive to relationships especially marriage, where betrayal of trust is particularly difficult to overcome. It is destructive in many ways besides that, however.

Marriage should be undertaken responsibly, but the inherent selfishness of addiction undermines the best of intentions. Most married people start off with the joint aim of trying to build a healthy and mutually respectful relationship but, like any building project, the materials must be right. Sadly, some marriages may not survive the ravages of alcoholism. Partners of alcoholics often don’t know how to handle the situation. Some get out before the collapse; others stay and try to help. Every case is different but there are some things to do and also, some not to do. We will discuss the best approach to take, later in this article.

Negative Effects of Alcohol Abuse

Negative effects of alcohol abuse are well known, but many people still choose a lifestyle of heavy drinking and remain in denial of potentially disastrous consequences to others as well as to themselves.

Here are some of those consequences:

  • Physical health issues

A person who is physically sick with hangovers is unlikely to be pulling their weight in the partnership, but that may be the least problem for the marriage. Excessive alcohol intake damages most of the body’s organs. The liver, brain and nervous system are especially at risk.

The body often becomes liable to cancer and other diseases too. Negative effects of alcohol abuse are well known, but some people still choose a lifestyle of heavy drinking and remain in denial of potentially disastrous consequences such as liver cirrhosis, memory loss or foetal alcohol syndrome. The longer a person continues self-destructive drinking, the greater the damage. Life expectancy is shortened too.

  • Mental health issues

Alcohol is a depressant. It attacks the body’s nervous system and its ability to handle emotions, leading to mood swings and erratic behaviour. Alcohol abusers and habitual heavy drinkers often develop depression, chronic anxiety and a liability to panic attacks.

  • Emotional unavailability

A heavy drinker displaying symptoms of physical and mental health issues is likely to become introverted and concerned for their own wellbeing, with scant regard for the emotional needs of their partner. They may display the condition known as anhedonia (Inability to feel pleasure). Their partner meanwhile will be struggling not just at the lack of support for themselves but with concern too for their partner’s deteriorating condition.

  • Domestic abuse

As a drinker experiences more negative consequences of their behaviour, they can become frustrated and angry. They may react with violence against their partner or other family members. Much of domestic abuse originates from alcohol or drug dependence.

  • Financial troubles

As drinking behaviour progresses, a further consequence will likely be financial troubles. Many drinkers choose to ignore the warning signs because otherwise they would have to do something about it. This ‘cognitive dissonance’ simply increases stress in the relationship.

Am I Enabling my Partner’s Addiction?

The partner of someone who abuses alcohol is in a difficult position, torn between love and hurt. Should they ‘cover up’ and accept the unacceptable or confront the problem?

Trying to keep the relationship together, perhaps for the children, is very understandable but can lead to enabling behaviour such as making excuses, calling in sick to the partner’s workplace or paying a partner’s debts. Too often this prolongs the pain and merely delays the inevitable crisis.

Co-dependence of this kind, where a person cannot be happy unless their loved one is happy, points to an essentially unhealthy relationship that needs attention. If a couple cannot sort this out honestly between themselves, and few can, then some form of couples counselling is strongly recommended.

What Can I Do To Help My Partner?

Heavy drinking and its consequences often build up slowly and the early warning signs go unnoticed. What was first a minor concern later becomes a major worry and then a desperate struggle. Here are some important markers that you need to make clear to your partner. They may disagree and become upset but ultimately you will be glad you did.

Choose a time when you are both in a sober state:

  • Express your concerns in a firm but respectful way. If you both agree that your relationship is not as good as it was, try to discuss ways of improvement. There are good counselling services available, such as Relate. Doing nothing is not a good option.
  • Establish clear boundaries of what you consider acceptable and unacceptable. Any violence or threatening behaviour is an obvious example.
  • Be clear that you will not cover up or make excuses for your partner’s actions or lack of action.
  • Clarify the family’s financial situation and budget for family security. If for example, the breadwinner is also the heavy drinker, try to establish a separate ‘family needs’ bank account controlled by you, into which a suitable amount is automatically transferred on pay day. This is preferable to seeing a joint bank account dwindle into the red.

Your partner may respond that you are harsh or over-reacting, but heavy drinkers develop considerable denial around their habit. Addictive behaviour brooks no compromise. The best approach is always to be honest and direct.  Your partner may react negatively at the time but perhaps reflect on the truth of your words later.

What can I do to Help Myself?

Not surprisingly, many people do not understand the complexities and potential for harm of alcohol abuse. If you are a normal drinker, it may seem incomprehensible that a person cannot control their alcohol intake. It’s all about self-discipline, you may think. Alternatively, you may imagine that you somehow have the power to control your partner’s intake – don’t they love you enough to cut down? The reality is different.

Here are some steps to take:

  • Understanding the problem is the first stage in dealing with it. Alcohol abuse usually makes people incompetent, unpleasant and dishonest. They do not mean to be like that, but it happens. You do not have the power to make them act differently– only they can make the changes. You can, however, help yourself.
  • Always be honest, open and willing to look at yourself and your own behaviour. It is very easy for partners of people who drink problematically to get drawn into similar self-destructive cycles (such as telling lies to justify your partners misdeeds). To become in other words, as sick as the alcoholic. Recognise this fact.
  • Ask for help for yourself. Addiction is a family disease and therefore the whole family needs to make a recovery. You may find the whole situation abhorrent but saying: ‘It’s their problem, not mine’, simply doesn’t work. It is the family’s problem and the family that addresses it together will most likely resolve it. Counselling may help.
  • A major resource for partners of alcohol abusers is the 12 Step Fellowship Al-Anon.

This worldwide self-help group was established quite soon after AA came into being because they well recognised this need for families to recover. Al-Anon offers opportunities for support, sharing experiences and learning coping skills. Its philosophy and structure are similar to that of AA and members attend regular meetings and work the 12 Steps with a sponsor. It is highly recommended.

What must I not do?

A relationship where drink has become a problem cannot be ignored because the situation will progress from bad to worse. Remember these points:

  • Secrets make us sick. Do not try to pretend that everything is fine when it is not. The sooner a problem is addressed, the sooner it will be resolved. Alcoholism is a powerful and nasty disease, but it is eminently treatable with successful outcomes for many.
  • Do not allow yourself to become co-dependent. Enabling another’s bad behaviour will cause you distress and compromise your own mental health.
  • Avoid blaming your partner. Try to see them as a sick person rather than as a weak, stupid or bad person.

If your partner’s drinking progress from occasional alcohol abuse to alcohol dependence, remember that there is help available.

  • Encourage your partner to contact Alcoholics Anonymous via their 24-hour helpline – they are there to help in an entirely non-judgmental way. They will be able to arrange for a home visit or attendance at a meeting if desired.
  • If you have not already, contact Al-Anon yourself and arrange to go to a meeting.
  • Encourage your partner to contact their GP who can advise on detox and make referrals for counselling. To stop drinking after a prolonged period of alcohol abuse can be extremely dangerous and should never be attempted without medical supervision.
  • Consider talking to support agencies such as Alcohol Change.
  • Consider treatment options. CATCH Recovery is an outpatient rehab based in Central London.

Our Family Programme includes therapy and workshops to help partners and other family members gain understanding and learn appropriate responses. However, if you’re looking for residential rehab, our team can refer you to one of our many partner clinics in the UK. Our team are always on hand to talk to you – you are not alone.