Alcoholism and Marriage

Alcoholism can put a strain on a marriage.

Trying to juggle alcoholism and marriage is tough because alcohol addiction can drain couples to the breaking point.

How Alcoholism Affects a Marriage

Alcoholism can negatively affect all relationships, but true alcoholism and marriage statistics aren't easy to find. This is because there are many issues surrounding a break-up of a marriage, not simply one variable.

That said, for couples dealing with alcoholism the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) notes that various problems tend to be reported in marriages where one (or both) of the spouses is an alcoholic. Some of these effects of alcohol issues include:

  • Broken or non-existent communication skills are usually observed among affected couples.
  • Violence is initiated by the spouse with the drinking problem.
  • Infidelity by either spouse plays a role.
  • The alcoholic spouse may feel and act jealous towards the non-drinking spouse's life, friends or actions.
  • Money problems and economic instability can result.
  • Decreased family function; family function can be summed up as all the things that help make a marriage work. Cooking dinner, playing with the kids, going out as a couple on dates and more are considered healthy family functions
  • Separation and/or divorce can result.

The NIAAA also reports that a high percentage of couples entering marriage therapy say that alcohol is a problem factor in the relationship. This is good because it shows many couples are trying to gain support, but also does show that alcohol is a negative issue in marriages. If you aren't sure if your spouse is abusing alcohol read about the Signs of Alcoholism.

Helping a Spouse Dealing with Alcoholism

Spouses of alcoholics can't force the alcoholic into treatment or counseling, but there are some ways to help a spouse dealing with alcoholism. The NIAAA offers the following helpful suggestions:

  • Quit covering: Cover-ups allow a drinker to continue drinking in peace. One great way for alcoholics to realize they have a problem is to allow them to deal with the full consequences of their actions. This means the other spouse should not do things like call in sick to work for that person or make excuses for his or her drinking to family and friends.
  • Be specific: Don't talk about general ways in which alcohol is bad such as, "Drinking is unhealthy", but rather mention specific ways that drinking harms your marriage like, "It makes me upset that you canceled our plans last week because you were hungover."
  • Time interventions: Only talk to your spouse when he or she is sober and calm. Soon after an alcohol-related problem occurs is a good time to talk because the issue is fresh.
  • Get help: When bringing up alcoholism with a spouse. there is strength in numbers. Involve family members and friends. Ideally these should be people both spouses know and or trust.
  • Discuss marriage consequences: Tell your spouse what will happen if he or she fails to seek help or stop drinking. Explain that this isn't a threat but a way to protect yourself from the consequences of alcohol. You can tell your spouse that you won't go to social events together, attend family dinners or even that you will move out. Never make fake threats though. If you are not prepared to walk out the door, don't say that's what will happen. Pretend threats won't help or have a positive effect on a spouse's alcoholism.
  • Get support: Either as a couple or one-on-one, outside support can greatly help a marriage touched by alcohol abuse. Visit the last section of this article for suggestions on where to find help.

It's Never the Non-Drinking Spouse's Fault

For a non-alcoholic spouse, dealing with both alcoholism and marriage at the same time can be highly frustrating. It is possible to help someone overcome alcoholism, but in the end, the only person that can stop the alcohol abuse is the alcoholic. Addicts often blame the people around them for their addiction so the other spouse may feel responsible, but that's simply not true. It's the alcoholic's responsibility and no one else's fault if that person continues to drink. It doesn't mean the other spouse failed to help; it means the alcoholic refuses to accept the help at that time.

Helping Yourself when Married to an Alcoholic

It's useful and a worthwhile cause to try to help the spouse you love to overcome a drinking problem. However, the first priority is always safety both for you and any children you may have together.

It doesn't take alcohol to make someone violent, and not all alcoholics are violent. However, research notes that survivors of violence often report that their abuser is an alcoholic. Alcohol-related violence is a large topic and can't be covered in one short article but to sum up:

  • Alcohol related violence can harm spouses from all walks of life; female and male partners and same sex couples are all affected. People from all cultures, religions and beliefs can be harmed by alcohol related abuse.
  • If you're a woman and you think you may be in an abusive relationship, visit WomenAreSafe.org and take a look at Is It Abuse? - a guide that can help.
  • If you're a male and you think you may be in an abusive relationship, visit the Abused Adult Resource Center to learn more.

The bottom line is that if you're married or in a serious relationship with an alcoholic who is abusive towards you or towards children in the family, it's not time for you to help them overcome alcoholism; it's time for you to keep yourself safe. To learn more about alcohol relate violence and to find resources that can help you stay safe, read the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Domestic Violence Awareness Handbook.

Further Resources on Alcoholism and Marriage

  • Visit the National Drug and Alcohol Treatment Referral Routing Service Center for Substance Abuse Treatment at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) for information about alcoholism and local treatment programs.
  • Al-Anon: This is a group offering support to family members, spouses, and children of alcoholics.

If you believe your drinking may be affecting your marriage, let LTK's Am_I_an_Alcoholic survey help you take stock and determine if it's time to seek professional help.

Alcoholism and Marriage