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Is My Husband or Wife an Alcoholic?

  1. Simple Definition of a Drinking Problem
  2. Signs That My Spouse Has a Drinking Problem
  3. Case Example: Using Alcohol to Block out Emotional Pain
  4. My Partner Might Have a Drinking Problem: What Do I Do About It?
  5. Sustaining the Relationship

Does my Partner Have a Problem?

Perhaps you've tried to ignore the signs. As the saying goes: "Denial is not just a river in Egypt." Or you waver between confronting your spouse and thinking you might be jumping to conclusions, overreacting. After all, what's wrong with a little social drinking? Maybe that's all it is.

But maybe not.

Is there a difference between problem drinking and social drinking--having a couple, or more, beers daily after work "to take the edge off" the day?

Does my Partner Have a Problem?

Simple Definition of a Drinking Problem

When I worked at San Francisco's Alcoholism Evaluation and Treatment Center, we had a simple way of diagnosing a drinking problem: If the person's use of alcohol is causing problems in the family, at work, legally, or physically, then yes, a drinking problem exists. We didn't quibble about whether to label someone as an alcoholic, which implies disease, or as a problem drinker (which implies a behavioral style). Either way, we understood that if you need to drink to be social, it's not social drinking.

Signs That My Spouse Has a Drinking Problem

Below are four areas of functioning that may show signs of a drinking problem:1

  • Psychological signs: Too much alcohol in the body affects the brain's ability to think clearly, causing poor judgment. It also causes a loss of inhibitions. The person may become overly talkative or more confident. In my experience, many problem drinkers often act in ways when drunk that they find unacceptable to do when sober.
  • Emotional signs: An intoxicated alcoholic may have crying spells, bouts of hysteria, or become angry and physically or verbally abusive. His or her moods may be erratic and unpredictable. Attempts by an alcoholic to abstain, even for short periods, result in depression and anxiety - often leading to a quick return to drinking.
  • Relational signs: Especially at home, alcoholism causes serious difficulties in personal relationships. Other family members might view the alcoholic as untrustworthy, unreliable, and unworthy of respect. Normal, everyday activities and conversation can be difficult around the alcoholic, since a word or a look may be perceived as a provocation. Violent arguments and physical abuse may occur, further damaging the family dynamic.
  • Physical signs: Loss of coordination and stumbling are common symptoms that occur with problem drinking. Medical conditions can include a decline in sexual functioning, stomach cramps, exacerbation of existing medical conditions and serious new ones, such as cirrhosis of the liver. Other physical signs of a drinking problem include passing out and blacking out.

Case Example: Using Alcohol to Block out Emotional Pain

Alcohol blunts or blocks out emotional pain and allows the drinker to tolerate situations he or she may not want to, or feels unable to, deal with.

Many years before marrying, "Jack" had been a prisoner of war. He'd kept that to himself after his release and never told his wife about it. During couple therapy sessions, his wife said she felt frustrated with his heavy drinking and shut out by his silent, withdrawn behavior. After several sessions, he came in to one drunk.

Although the typical rule is that problem drinkers must come to therapy sober, I made an exception--a good decision. This time he let it all out, crying as he described how as a prisoner of war for over a year, he'd been forced to stay in an underground compartment-like space so shallow that he had to remain lying down.

Alcohol helped him gain the courage to tell his truth in this session and cry. His wife was deeply moved on hearing this and by his tears. She finally understood. She gained empathy for him, and consequently, their marital relationship improved dramatically.2

My Partner Might Have a Drinking Problem: What Do I Do About It?

Addressing a possible drinking problem constructively is likely to be challenging. Choose a time to talk when you are both calm, alert, sober, and not hungry. Begin with the end in mind, which is for a conversation that is honest, kind, and respectful. Being critical or judgmental tends to result in a defensive or hostile response from your partner.

Beginning the Conversation

Comforting a friendSpeak from your heart about how the drinking affects you. Begin and conclude with a positive statement.3

  • For example, "I love you very much. I want to talk about something difficult. Is this okay with you to hear me now?"
  • If the answer is yes, say for example, "I was so frightened when you were cited for driving while intoxicated. I'd be devastated if you were killed or disabled or caused that to happen to someone else. It would give me peace of mind and I think you would be happier too if you would be willing to consider getting help about the drinking."

The first time you bring up your concern, your spouse may deny that a problem exists or rationalize it, saying "It only happened once; I'm still a safe driver" or make false promises like, "It will never happen again." Listen with compassion and thank your partner for hearing you regardless. Expect to have more similar conversations in the future before treatment may be sought.

Helping Your Partner Get Treatment

Here are some treatment options to consider:

  • Inpatient treatment programs typically last 28 days. They foster a sober lifestyle via educational presentations, discussions, group and individual therapy, occupational therapy, and other activities. To learn more about inpatient programs, call 1-888-993-3112Who Answers?.
  • Detoxification programs usually last a few days and provide medically supervised withdrawal from alcohol for people who are unable to do so safely on their own. Following detoxification, a 28 day, or longer, program is recommended for people seeking ongoing sobriety.
  • Outpatient programs are available for continued support after successfully completing an inpatient program.
  • 12 step programs, like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), provide a philosophy, meetings, support and fellowship with others who struggle with alcoholism, whether they are actively drinking or in recovery. Hosts and speakers are recovering alcoholics.
  • Al-Anon is a program for spouses and others whose lives are severely affected by someone's drinking problem.
  • Individual psychotherapy, including cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), focus on helping people replace drinking and related behaviors with more constructive ways of dealing with relationships and stress.
  • Couples therapy can improve communication and replace oppositional interactions with more collaboration and teamwork.
  • Family therapy recognizes that the drinking may be a response to a difficult family system dynamic, such as an unspoken rule that it is not acceptable to express so-called negative feelings, such as hurt, anger, or disappointment. All family members can benefit from learning to communicate more directly.

Sustaining the Relationship

Couples can support each other by engaging in activities and behaviors that reinforce sobriety, avoid situations like going to bars, that may serve as cues for drinking, and involve themselves in activities and friendships which don't encourage drinking, such as:

    • Exercising in ways you enjoy, such as hiking, bicycling, nature walks, kayaking, swimming, or working out at a gym.
    • Attending classes and lectures on topics that interest you.
    • Engaging in creative activities or hobbies together.

You will also want to support yourselves socially and psychologically by:

    • Communicating openly and constructively.
    • Continuing to attend therapy.
    • Developing healthy social outlets.

Self-Care is Key

Remember: You are a separate person with your own needs and wants. Don't build your life totally around your partner's recovery. Give yourself permission to engage in activities you enjoy doing on your own, at least once a week, as author Julia Cameron recommends in her book, The Artist's Way.4 Her advice isn't just for artists; it's great for all of us!

Eternal vigilance is necessary for ongoing recovery. The same is true for keeping a marriage thriving. We're likely to do so by staying alert to both our own feelings and needs, and also to what's best for our relationship.



2. Fisch, Marcia [Marcia Naomi Berger] "Homeostasis: A Key Concept in Working with Alcoholic Family Systems." Family Therapy 3, #2 (1976): 133-39,

3. Seven positive communication skills are explained step by step and illustrated in my book, Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You've Always Wanted (New World Library 2014). These include I-statements, nonverbal communication, self-talk, active listening, giving constructive feedback, brainstorming for solutions, and congruent communication.

4. Julia Cameron, The Artist's Way (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1992), 18.


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