How to Cope with an Alcoholic Spouse - Comprehensive Guide

Editorial Team

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One quick glance at the wording of traditional marriage vows – “from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish” – and you may well think they were even written by someone with an alcoholic spouse. 

For worse… for poorer… in sickness” when placed in the cold, harsh light of alcoholism? The loving and cherishing can feel like an impossible task.

However, the cold, harsh reality right now is that the COVID-19 pandemic, with its heightened levels of depression, anxiety and stress across virtually all demographics, has created many more cases of alcohol use disorder (AUD) across the U.S., with vastly increased rates of consumption, numerous episodes of binge drinking and underage drinking, and more alcohol-related ER visits compared to previous years.

In December 2020, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) announced a record rise in fatal drug overdoses in the U.S. – over 81,000 in the calendar year up to May 2020. As shocking and saddening as this is, it is pertinent to remember that every single year, alcohol-related causes account for even more deaths – over 95,000.

alcoholic spouse

Alcohol & Marriage: The Rocky Relationship

Did you know that 29 people die every day from an alcohol-related medical condition or an alcohol-related accident – every single one of those being preventable?

Unsurprisingly, alcohol can have a tremendously damaging effect upon marriage, as well as your life expectancy, and particularly where one spouse has AUD. Numerous research studies on the effect of one spouse being diagnosed with AUD have consistently shown these marriages are far more likely to end in divorce than those where no AUD exists.

Furthermore, the University at Buffalo’s Clinical and Research Institute on Addictions reports that 50% of marriages with a discrepant drinking pattern (where only one partner drinks heavily) will end in divorce, whereas only 30% of marriages in which spouses drank at similar amounts (where neither or both partners were heavy drinkers) will end in divorce.

Sadly, it’s not just the married couple who are affected. Approximately 10.5% (7.5 million) of U.S. children, aged 17 and younger, live with a parent diagnosed with AUD, according to a 2017 report.

AUD & Marriage: “The Elephant in the Room”

As famous horror writer and recovering alcoholic Stephen King once succinctly pointed out, “There’s a phrase, “the elephant in the living room“, which purports to describe what it’s like to live with a drug addict, an alcoholic, an abuser.”

He explains, “People outside such relationships will sometimes ask, “How could you let such a business go on for so many years? Didn’t you see the elephant in the living room?” And it’s so hard for anyone living in a more normal situation to understand the answer that comes closest to the truth; “I’m sorry, but it was there when I moved in. I didn’t know it was an elephant; I thought it was part of the furniture.”

There comes an aha-moment for some folks – the lucky ones – when they suddenly recognize the difference.”

However, for many married couples today in the U.S., regular heavy drinking, binge drinking, heated drunken arguments, violent alcohol-induced arguments, and even sexual abuse, all of this is simply par-for-the-course – where one spouse’s alcohol use disorder really is the elephant in the living room, and an accepted part of the marriage, however dysfunctional and unhappy that may be.

Alcohol Use Disorder What is It

What is Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is medically defined as a “chronic, relapsing brain disorder.” It is characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences. AUD is now considered as a spectrum, encompassing all previous phraseology for alcohol misuse – alcohol abuse, alcohol dependence, alcohol addiction, and the colloquial term, alcoholism.

As a brain disorder, AUD can be considered as either mild, moderate, or severe on the disorder’s spectrum. However, unless the alcohol consumption is not controlled, it will undoubtedly worsen. Should excessive alcohol consumption continue unabated over a significant period of time, it will cause changes in brain structure and neurology that can perpetuate the disorder, making AUD sufferers vulnerable to repeated relapse.

No matter how severe the problem, though, recovery is still possible. Evidence-based treatment, consisting of behavioral therapies, mutual-support groups, and/or medications, can and do help people with AUD achieve and maintain their recovery.

Is My Spouse an Alcoholic?: Signs & Symptoms

People struggling with AUD will have intense mental and physical cravings when they aren’t drinking, as well as undergoing a range of withdrawal symptoms when they do stop. In addition, as their AUD worsens, their tolerance to alcohol will increase, meaning that they need more and more alcohol to achieve a similar effect.

In addition to this, people with AUD may:

  • Drink in secret to conceal their addiction
  • Hide alcohol in unusual places
  • Experience regular blackouts
  • Drink solely with the purpose of getting drunk
  • Drink at specific times, becoming agitated if they cannot
  • Experience relationship, employment or legal troubles
  • Experience a severe loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed

Although the likelihood of developing AUD can be linked to genetics, there are other risk factors, which include:

  • Regular episodes of binge drinking
  • Drinking alcohol from a young age
  • Mental health disorder/illness
  • Social influences, such as close friends or family who drink heavily
  • History of familial alcohol-related disorders or alcohol abuse

Alcohol relationship problems

AUD: The Damaging Effects Upon Your Relationship

Regardless of the kind of person your spouse was when you were married, heavy alcohol consumption can radically change someone, and mental, emotional, and/or physical abuse is often a result of alcohol intoxication.

In fact, if you look at all reported alcohol-related incidents of violence, two-thirds happen within close relationships, like marriage. Sadly, spouses and children are at a far higher risk of seeing or being the victim(s) of a violent crime, such as physical assault. In addition, there are other ways in which a drunk spouse can damage the relationship, such as frequently missing work or maxing out credit cards. 

Here are the most common ways that AUD can damage the marriage – they can also be used as further signs and symptoms of the development of your spouse’s severe alcohol addiction. Oftentimes, sadly, the damage sustained by these is beyond repair:

  • Emotional Unavailability & Detachment: Heavy alcohol use can cause people to detach from their relationships, as the drinker becomes more insular and secretive.
  • Poor Sex Life: Although alcohol can increase sexual excitement in the short term, it can decrease vaginal lubrication and increase the chance of erectile dysfunction. Over the long term, AUD will significantly decrease libido.
  • Unreliability: Even the most reliable people will become both unreliable and irresponsible with AUD; for example, they may be unable to meet family obligations. The sense of dependability is intrinsic and crucial in a marriage – if it erodes, the relationship will suffer.
  • Poor Personal Hygiene: People with AUD can focus only on their alcohol consumption, and they tend to let other normal day-to-day matters slide. A decline in personal hygiene is one of the most obvious examples of this, such as not showering or changing their clothes.
  • Physical Health Issues: Heavy alcohol consumption can negatively impact your health – severely, in some cases. AUD can affect the brain, your vital organs, digestion, and weight. It can also leave you at risk of a number of different cancers.
  • Mental Health Issues: Medical research shows that heavy alcohol consumption will worsen mental health issues like depression and anxiety, as opposed to being a way of “self-medicating.” Furthermore, excessive drinking can even cause these issues to develop when they didn’t exist originally. Obviously, any changes in mood and behavior will negatively impact a spousal relationship.
  • Negative Changes in Attitude: AUD makes people negatively-minded, and can make them rude and intolerant, leading to the potential for verbal abuse.
  • Intimate Partner Violence: Intimate partner violence” – defined as physical, psychological, or sexual abuse – is a disturbing issue that can occur in married life where AUD exists.
  • Work-Related Issues: Alcohol abuse leads to unreliability, and this often affects the sufferer’s work, eg. calling in sick because of hangovers, or showing up late. Obviously, job loss will place any marriage under financial strain.
  • Loss of Interest in Activities: AUD lessens a person’s energy and enthusiasm, and can lead to depression. This can easily affect a person’s desire to engage in activities that were once part of their previously healthy relationship.
  • Legal Problems: Alcohol abuse can lead to a host of legal troubles, such as DUIs, violence against others, destruction of property, and so on. Additionally, if the spouse has trouble financing their addiction, they may turn to crime.
  • Fertility Issues: For those partners who wish to have children, alcohol abuse can significantly lower their chances of conceiving. Additionally, if they do get pregnant, there is a higher chance of miscarriage – 2-3 times more likely if the woman drank the week she conceived.

All of these consequences (and these are just the most common) can put a previously healthy relationship under immense and intense strain.

Children of Alcoholics

Parental AUD: The Consequences for Children

According to a 2017 SAMHSA report, approximately 10.5% (7.5 million) of U.S. children, aged 17 and younger, live with a parent with AUD – that equates to 1 in 10 children. However, the consequences of this for the affected children may not appear for many years to come. Children whose parents have AUD are known to have a greater genetic risk of developing the disease later in life.

Furthermore, many of these children will grow up with serious emotional and psychological consequences, such as trust and intimacy issues. Sadly, it doesn’t end there, as other challenges can include:

  • Inability to sustain close relationships
  • Impulsive, risky behavior
  • Severely low self-esteem
  • Lying without reason
  • Need for constant approval and affirmation

What Can I Do?: Be Proactive

Although the presence of alcohol use disorder (or other substance use disorders) can create severe problems for families, if the family is strong, then such difficult issues are usually faced together and overcome. Additionally, there is always hope that the AUD sufferer will find recovery.

According to addiction experts, the clear distinction between relationships and families which survive (and even come out of the situation stronger than before), and those which either end or continue to suffer, lies in one important difference – the desire to be proactive.

Furthermore, it’s crucial you remember one simple fact – you can’t change your partner or loved one. Therefore, you can’t stop them from drinking, and you can’t stop them if they refuse treatment. However, if they do choose to get professional treatment for their AUD, your support – 100% and unwavering – will be essential to their success. For example, post-treatment, this support will help them deal with alcohol cravings and will encourage them to keep going in difficult times.

Take Care of Yourself & Your Family

There are a number of steps you need to take to ensure you and other family members remain safe, secure and healthy during this difficult time.

  • Self-Care: It is a priority that you (and your children) are physically and emotionally safe when your spouse is drinking. Additionally, you should consider seeking support, either through private counseling or group mutual aid meetings, such as Al-Anon

If you do have children, make sure they have someone they can confide in, like a counselor or a close family friend. Furthermore, you shouldn’t put your lives on hold, just because your spouse is occupied only with their addiction. Remember to eat healthily and keep active, too.

  • Being Proactive: The situation will never find a resolution if you do nothing. Perhaps, your spouse will one day ask for help and want to attempt to get well through treatment, but that is only a “perhaps.” Seek advice from addiction professionals and counselors as to your best way forward.

You may want to look into staging an intervention, where you and a group of your spouse’s closest family and friends confront them in a nonjudgmental way. Please note this is usually done with professional guidance, eg. the presence of an addiction expert or addiction counselor.

  • Ensure Your Physical Safety: If you’re still living in the same home as your loved one, be certain the situation is physically safe for you (and your children, if you have them). Abuse should not be tolerated, whether it’s emotional or physical. If your loved one is potentially violent or vulgar when they have been drinking, either you or they must leave.
  • Do Not Enable The Addiction: Keeping your partner in a good mood at all costs by purchasing alcohol for them or simply ignoring the issue is known as “enabling” – you are enabling their AUD, and all it does is to continue a bad situation. In reality, you aren’t helping them get any better.
  • Setting Clear, Healthy Boundaries: Set mutually agreed boundaries for their alcohol consumption – practical guidelines that stop unwanted behaviors. Never allow the loved one struggling with AUD to blame you for their disorder – their addiction is theirs, and theirs alone. 

SpringBoard Recovery

SpringBoard Recovery: Refreshingly Human Holistic AUD Treatment

Located in Scottsdale, Arizona (near Phoenix), SpringBoard Recovery has a range of drug and alcohol addiction treatments that can help you conquer your alcohol use disorder, and empower you to live the life you deserve. Contact us today.

Sources:

  1. University at Buffalo’s Clinical and Research Institute on Addictions: “Does Drinking Affect Marriage?” (2014)
  2. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA): “Alcohol Use in the United States” (updated March, 2021)
  3. Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): “Children Living with Parents who have a Substance Use Disorder” short report (2017)
  4. Al-Anon Family Groups: Al-Anon Family Groups webpage

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WRITTEN BY GERARD BULLEN
APRIL 12, 2021

Gerard has been writing exclusively for the U.S. substance addiction treatment industry for many years, providing a range of medically-reviewed work, including white papers, long-form, and short-form content articles, and blog posts for accredited addiction treatment centers. A member of the American Medical Writers Association, Gerard’s specific focus is substance addiction (an area that has impacted Gerard’s personal life in several ways), and he is particularly drawn to the topics of professional, evidence-based treatment, new and alternative therapies, and enabling readers to find their own sustainable, long-term recovery. Gerard lives and works in Maryland, U.S., he’s happily married, and a proud father. His interests include hiking with the family, reading fiction (from the classics to virtually all of the current NYT bestseller list), American and British film classics, and his beloved dogs, Toby and Coco, both rescued from the local pound.

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