Challenges of Having an Alcoholic Spouse or Partner
Alcoholics often hurt family members and friends that they love by drinking too much, lying to cover it up, exhibiting violent behavior, being emotionally abusive, and more. As a result, life with an alcoholic can be unpredictable, stressful, and physically dangerous, not to mention the mental distress one experiences daily.
Choosing to stay in a relationship with an alcoholic without addressing the alcohol abuse can have lasting consequences. Often, these include mental illness, physical injuries, chronic health problems, social trauma, and financial problems.
For example, one study published in the Industrial Psychiatry Journal in 2016 found that the wives of alcoholics often suffered severe problems directly related to their husbands’ alcohol abuse, such as:
- Emotional problems like anxiety, mental disturbances, and frustration
- Health-related issues like ignoring one’s health or having sleep disturbances
- Having problems socializing and feeling ashamed of a loved one’s drinking habits
- Suffering financially
- Experiencing physical violence such as personal physical harm, assault with a weapon, or children being threatened or hurt
- Wanting to commit suicide
- Having a loved one who threatens to commit suicide or kill other family members
The study found that the most common types of issues faced by wives of alcoholics were emotional problems and social issues, with health-related problems being fairly common as well.1
Although physical violence was not experienced by all of the women surveyed in the study, a report from the World Health Organization found that more than half of all U.S. assaults by one partner against another occurred after the perpetrator had been drinking. Research shows heavy drinking is a common predictor of intimate partner violence and incidents of domestic violence.2
How People Deal With a Partner’s Alcoholism
As a result of these challenges, people often develop unhealthy ways of coping with their partner’s alcoholism. Some people may choose to withdraw by prioritizing the interests of other family members instead, leaving the alcoholic alone when he or she is intoxicated, or finding other interests or activities to stay preoccupied. Although this may work for a short time, in the meantime, the addict’s drinking behaviors worsen and the person becomes more distant and removed from friends and loved ones.
Partners of alcoholics may also try to cope with their loved one’s alcoholism by tolerating and ignoring it. For example, they may:
- Make excuses for the alcoholic’s behavior
- Get another job to compensate for financial issues
- Pretend that everything is okay although it’s not
People who respond this way are often too scared to make a change, feel hopeless, or are in denial that the alcoholic has a serious drinking problem. Although avoiding the issue may work short-term, things are bound to get worse.
Another common way family members deal with a loved one’s alcoholism is by engaging in self-harming behaviors, such as:
- Abusing alcohol or drugs
- Mistreating the children in the household
- Spending excessive amounts of money
- Having an affair
- Attempting suicide
These coping strategies cause direct harm to the family members involved. If a person chooses to react to their partner’s drinking in these ways, he or she may be more likely to develop a substance use disorder.
Are Partners of Alcoholics More Likely to Become Alcoholics Themselves?
Some people may feel like they are unable to deal with the effects of their partner’s drinking and turn to drug or alcohol abuse to numb the emotional or physical pain. This is one unhealthy coping strategy with serious, life-altering and long-term consequences. Alcohol abuse can quickly turn into full-blown addiction and it is fairly common for spouses, partners, or even children of alcoholics to adopt this behavior.3
Partners of alcoholics may be more likely to become alcoholics themselves as they struggle to cope with the harmful side effects and challenges of living with someone with a severe alcohol use disorder.
Lasting Side Effects of Having an Alcoholic Partner
The effects of alcohol addiction aren’t just immediately contained to the person who drinks. Its effects are far-reaching and can harm everyone involved. Some of these effects can be long-lasting and carry over into other relationships because they change the way a person behaves and interacts with the world. Here are a few common examples of the lasting side effects of having an alcoholic partner.
- Codependency – People who live with an addicted loved one often deny their own needs and repress their emotions to focus on surviving. They often become caretakers for their addicted loved one, and in the process, they lose touch with their own sense of self. This can lead to low self-esteem, substance abuse, and a victim mentality. By continually rescuing the alcoholic from his or her own decisions, the person feels needed and develops a sense of satisfaction from it. They begin to seek out those same needs in other friendships and relationships, leading to other, unhealthy and codependent relationships.4
- Relationship problems – Addiction can have a lasting impact on family relationships. It often causes emotional issues, dissatisfaction in spousal relationships, and estrangement between children and parents. It can also result in short-term or permanent separations or divorce, essentially breaking up a family due to issues that have gone on without resolution.
- Enabling – Many people with alcoholic partners also exhibit enabling behaviors, which allow the person to act irresponsibly by shielding them from the consequences of their alcohol abuse.5 For example, a person may keep secrets about their alcoholic partner’s behavior simply to keep the peace, make excuses about his or her behavior, bail him or her out of trouble, and take over responsibilities to keep the household functioning well. These behaviors don’t help the alcoholic get better. Instead, they enable the harmful drinking behaviors.
- Mental health issues – Staying in a relationship with an alcoholic is very emotionally taxing. It can cause a great deal of stress that can lead to ongoing mental health issues such as trauma, anxiety, depression, loss of self-worth, feelings of hopelessness, or suicidal thoughts. Social isolation due to an alcoholic’s drinking can also contribute to these problems.
- Financial problems – An alcoholic partner’s irresponsible decisions may also lead to serious long-term financial problems such as extreme debt, bankruptcy, or homelessness. These could be a result of the person losing a job, maxing out credit cards, neglecting to pay the bills, or paying medical bills for physical injuries or health problems related to the alcohol abuse.
- Drug or alcohol addiction – People who choose to cope with a spouse’s or partner’s alcoholism by self-medicating with alcohol or drugs may also find themselves going down the same path. By using addictive substances to deal with difficult life circumstances, individuals may develop harmful habits that can quickly get out of control and become full-fledged addictions.
How to Help an Alcoholic Spouse or Partner
Helping an alcoholic spouse or partner is difficult but ignoring the problem isn’t going to help either. Ultimately, it’s up to the addicted individual to decide to get help. No one else can do it for them.
If your spouse or partner is struggling with severe alcohol use disorder, it may be time to host an intervention. A professional interventionist can help you choose a time and place in which you can safely and effective talk to your partner about his or her drinking habits. The interventionist can also coach you on what to say, how to say it, and provide suggestions for helpful addiction treatment options.
If you don’t feel comfortable talking to your partner via an in-person intervention, you may also consider writing an intervention letter. In this letter, you can calmly state your concerns without being accusatory, clearly explain how you will respond if he or she refuses to make changes, and provide a few treatment options.
In some cases, an alcoholic spouse may refuse to accept help or make any changes, which can leave a partner with no other choice other than to leave or separate temporarily. This may be especially true if children are involved.
Helping an addicted spouse or partner is tricky, but there is professional help available if you need it. Call Nova Recovery Center today to learn more about our addiction treatment options. We can connect you with a professional interventionist and recommend appropriate addiction treatment services for your addicted loved one. Please call (512) 605-2955 to speak with a caring member of our staff today.