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What To Do When You’re Married To An Alcoholic

by Landmark Recovery

April 4, 2019
A married couple walking in the field

Updated: August 15, 2023, at 12:14 p.m.

Being married to an alcoholic can be stressful and scary. An estimated 28.6 million American adults meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder (AUD), which can negatively impact marriages and families. You may question your future together, whether divorce is the best option, or if your spouse can ever turn their life around.

Research shows that heavy drinkers are nearly two times more likely to divorce due to their drinking problems than the general population.

Why Alcoholic Spouses Start Drinking

Many alcoholic spouses begin innocently enough. Some occasionally display signs of binge drinking, while others may have hidden it over the years as high-functioning alcoholics. Maybe they have only started excessive drinking in response to some life event, like a death in the family.

“Your self-esteem, your sense of normalcy, everything becomes distorted. They gaslight you and make you feel like it’s your fault. You walk on eggshells every single second they’re in your life…”

How to Help an Alcoholic Spouse

No matter the reasoning behind the drinking, the best solutions include:

However, not every alcoholic is prepared to admit to a problem or ready to seek out help. Being married to an alcoholic means living with a constant cloud over your head. This blog will help you learn how to cope with being married to an alcoholic, what you can do to help, and ways to avoid being pulled into the eye of their tornado.

Am I Married to an Alcoholic?

an alcoholic spouse passes out on the couch surrounded by liquor bottles

Marriage with an alcoholic brings with it specific everyday experiences and situations. If you’re unsure whether your spouse is an alcoholic, here are six signs to look out for in your behavior and spouse that can indicate an unhealthy, alcoholic marriage.

Out-of-Control Drinking

Has your spouse attempted to curtail their drinking in the past? The number one alcoholic trait is someone continually failing to control their drink amount. If they have expressed a desire to reduce or stop their drinking with no success, they likely have a drinking problem.

In some cases, they may not express a desire to quit drinking. However, it may also be clear that their drinking has gotten out of hand, such as:

  • Constantly being drunk
  • Blacking out every time they drink
  • Always needing a drink on hand

When their control over drinking is either entirely or primarily non-existent, there is a definite drinking problem.

“You still love them so much. You wish you weren’t angry at them for their disease but sometimes you are. Mostly you feel sorry. Sorry for their all-consuming disease and their inability to get help. When their about to lose their whole life and they have no clue and you just feel so torn. Utterly and completely torn.”

Emotional Mood Swings

Alcohol affects the brain’s ability to process emotion and logic. Alcoholics generally have trouble regulating their emotional well-being and may swing from anger to hysteria, to depression, to confidence, all rather quickly. If alcohol turns your spouse into an angry drunk or abusive, seeking help is crucial.

Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or text “START” to 88788 for support.

The Wear & Tear of Drinking

Alcoholics will generally incur severe physical and mental side effects from prolonged drinking. Typically, loss of coordination and stumbling are common symptoms of over-intoxication. However, over time you may begin to notice more alarming symptoms, for example:

  • Stomach cramps
  • Loss of muscle mass
  • Loss of fine motor control
  • Paranoia, anxiety, and easily irritable
  • Dry skin and hair
  • Dehydration
  • High blood pressure
  • Mood swings
  • Unexplained bruises and scars
  • Decline in sexual functioning
  • Muscle cramps
  • Numbness and tingling in extremities
  • Insomnia, chronic fatigue

Long-term alcohol dependency is incredibly harmful. Increased chances of contracting certain types of cancer, neuropathy, and permanent liver damage are all possible outcomes of alcoholism.

Your Own Low Self Esteem

While being in a relationship with an alcoholic does not necessarily make you codependent, many clinicians and psychiatrists ascribe this title to people who specifically enter into relationships with abusive individuals and oftentimes, addicts. Codependents in a relationship often feel like they are never good enough, feeling overly guilty for shortcomings and constantly chasing perfectionism.

The codependent in a relationship oftentimes is used to tolerating emotional abuse and will accept the spouse’s behavior to maintain that person’s love and affection.

Constant Caretaking

One manifestation of codependency is a chronic tendency to caregiving. If someone else has a problem, you feel guilty about not helping them. It’s natural to want to help others, especially those closest to you, but codependent people tend to put others’ needs ahead of their own.

For codependents, their well-being is based on whether or not they are needed. While it is admirable to want to take care of your alcoholic spouse, this often manifests as enabling behavior that only allows the cycles of abuse and addiction to continue.

Believing You Can Control or Cure It

People in relationships with alcoholics often attempt to either hide, control, or solve it. Unfortunately, all three of these are impossible in the long term. Everyone wants to believe the best in the people they love. So as a consequence, loved ones of alcoholics often try to help them get sober and will continually give them second chances.

In reality, no one can control another person’s drinking problem. Nor can alcoholism be cured by any known medicine. Alcoholism can be hidden, but only for so long before it takes its toll on the alcoholic and their spouse.

Attempts to stop a loved one from excessive drinking can only go so far, as it is up to the addict themselves to ultimately get treatment.

“The worst part about loving an alcoholic is when you need any kind of emotional support. They simply don’t care how many times you’ve set yourself on fire to keep them warm.”

What to Do When You’re Married to an Alcoholic

A couple sitting and talking about alcohol addiction

People in a relationship with an alcoholic can find the best kind of support from certified addiction specialists. This could be a therapist, social worker, or residential treatment staff member. It can also be helpful to seek the support of a close friend or family member, or just someone to talk with. Here are seven concrete steps you can take to cope with being married to an alcoholic.

1. Start the Conversation

Talking about a drinking problem is never easy. You’ll need to choose a time when you are both sober and at relative peace. Above all, aim to have a conversation that is not fueled by anger or emotion, but that openly and honestly conveys your feelings about your partner’s drinking.

When confronted with the emotional pain a spouse is experiencing, a person suffering from alcohol use disorder may deny the problem, lash out, blame their spouse, or engage in other combative behavior. During this time, it is important to stay focused on the problem, and keep it short and simple. Keep in mind that this is about healing the relationship, not ending it.

Possible conversation-starters: include:

“I love you very much. Is it okay if we talk about something difficult and you hear me out?”

“I’m worried about your health and well-being. Your drinking frightens me and I just want you to be okay. Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Would you consider seeking professional help? It would put me at ease and I would be there to support you every step of the way.”

Of course, these are only general ways to start the conversation. The best way to approach this conversation generally comes from your relationship and perhaps with help from your closest friends and family members. The first time you bring up the subject, your spouse may deny that a problem exists or rationalize it. Listen with compassion and thank your partner for hearing you regardless.

2. Support Them in Cutting Back

If your spouse agrees to address their drinking problem, you can help support them by staying sober when you go out together or promising to do fun activities with them instead of drinking. Offer encouragement and love and applaud them for making this difficult decision to become more healthy. At first, it may not be easy. They may grow agitated, grumpy, or depressed, but given enough time to cut back and hopefully achieve sobriety, they will emerge happier and healthier.

3. Consider an Intervention

If your spouse refuses to acknowledge a problem or continues to deny getting help, it may be worth considering the professional assistance of certified interventionists. In recovery, an intervention is a carefully planned process by which friends and family members of an addict may confront that person about their addiction. The most successful interventions usually involve a lot of forethought and careful planning toward structure, what people plan to say, and the next steps following the intervention.

To begin, talk with friends and family members about staging an intervention and gather input from all concerned parties. You can seek out a professional intervention specialist online or consult with online resources and guides such as our “What’s an Intervention” page. It helps to talk about specific examples of problematic behaviors and the consequences that affect you and others around your spouse.

It also helps to offer specific treatment options for them to get started on. Getting an addict to agree to enter treatment is crucial, and you do not want to give them time to reconsider or drink again. Having treatment lined up and ready to go ensures they immediately get the help they need to improve.

4. Find Professional Help

If your spouse agrees to professional help, there are several recovery options you can choose from. Do some careful research to ensure they get the support they best and help you cope. Let’s discuss a few.

Residential Treatment

Residential treatment, or inpatient rehab, typically lasts about 30 days. In residential treatment, patients will foster a sober lifestyle via educational presentations, discussions, group and individual therapy, occupational therapy, and other activities. It is typically recommended for alcoholic spouses who need more than detox.

Alcohol Detox

Detox usually lasts a few days and consists of medically supervised withdrawal from alcohol for people who cannot do so safely. Following detoxification, a month-long stay in a residential treatment program is recommended for people seeking ongoing sobriety.

Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOPs)

Intensive Outpatient Programs (also known as IOPs) is a primary treatment program recommended by clinicians and medical staff for many individuals newly sober or in need of continuing resources to help with addiction. IOP is ideal for individuals who have already stabilized from withdrawal symptoms and wish to continue treatment outside of a residential setting. IOP patients can attend multiple sessions per week while continuing to live at home and meet work and personal obligations.

12-Step Programs

12 Step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) provide a philosophy, meetings, support, and fellowship with others who struggle with alcoholism, whether actively drinking or recovering. Hosts, speakers, and sponsors are usually recovering alcoholics.

5. Join Support Groups for Spouses of Alcoholics

If you and your spouse have trouble finding support from friends and family, you may want to consider the assistance of support groups that specialize in helping alcoholics and their loved ones. Alcoholics Anonymous is one group where your spouse can find peers who are struggling with the disease of alcoholism. There, they can learn more about alcoholism, ways to cope with this disease, and hear stories from others in recovery.

If you find yourself needing support, you can find local Al-Anon meetings. Al-Anon is a program for spouses and others severely affected by someone’s drinking problem. Here, you can find support from others in similar situations and learn how to deal with a spouse who has a drinking problem.

“Al-Anon is invaluable at least in the beginning to learn how to live your life. If you don’t have real resolve, you will end up listening to the endless promises and go back. Don’t.”

6. Practice Self Care

Instead of focusing on the dark cloud of your spouse’s addiction, take the time out of today to practice self-care. This could be exercising, practicing meditation, or simply partaking in your favorite activity, separate from your spouse. A relationship with an alcoholic can be physically and emotionally draining, so take the time to do something that can help replenish you.

Remember, you are a separate person with your own needs. Don’t base your life totally around your partner’s addiction and recovery.

7. Practice Positive Thinking

You’ll need to catch yourself when you begin to think negatively. Identify the logical fallacies of your thinking and make a conscious decision to expel negative thoughts about yourself. Read positive quotes regularly and engage in activities that make you feel good about yourself and the situation.

Help an Alcoholic Spouse Today

If you need further assistance/information about how to cope with being married to an alcoholic, call the confidential admissions phone line at Landmark Recovery (888-448-0302). Our Patient Navigators are available 24/7 to discuss your situation, offer assistance, and even provide alcohol addiction treatment for your spouse. Visit our locations page to find a nearby alcohol rehab center in one of the following states:

Check out our addiction recovery blog for more information about alcoholism, addiction, and treatment options.

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About the Author

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery was founded with a determination to make addiction treatment accessible for all. Through our integrated treatment programs, we've helped thousands of people choose recovery over addiction and get back to life on their own terms. We're on a mission to save one million lives over the next century. We encourage all those struggling with substance use to seek professional help.