Living With an Alcoholic Husband Or Spouse? How to Give the Alcoholic Help

Of all the people I have encountered who once struggled as an alcoholic, but don’t anymore, none of them said it was their spouse’s or families’ fault. “If only he/she did not enable me so much” or “if only he/she was not a codependent, I could have stopped drinking sooner”, are two statements I have never heard from a recovered alcoholic. In fact, it is the complete opposite. Those who have “recovered” value the strength and understanding they received from others.

Does this mean you become a doormat? Absolutely not. Below you may find some helpful information on how to give the alcoholic help. But in no way think that the answer can be found anywhere but truly in your heart. What works for one, may not work for another. What one person wants and can put up with, another may not be able to. Determine how much you are willing to take, then set the boundaries. Talk to your alcoholic husband or spouse and make these boundaries clear.

There are many theories of how to help an alcoholic and of course everyone believes to know the answers of how to best give the alcoholic help. But from experience, I found that the reality of living with an alcoholic is very different than the theory.One approach does not fit all. We have to be comfortable with the choices and decisions we make when giving the alcoholic help. Theories and opinions of others do not necessarily help us fall asleep at night if they go against what we believe or are willing to do in helping the alcoholic spouse or husband. In fact, these theories and opinions can be detrimental if they are given as absolutes, or if they judge or victimize the person trying to help the alcoholic husband or spouse.

The following are some suggestions I found helpful from people who have struggled with an alcoholic husband or spouse. Like myself, not everyone can be thrown into the codependent or enabler category simply because they refuse to give up or leave the alcoholic.

I believe that understanding the dynamics underlying the alcoholic behavior will help the family or friends support and challenge the alcoholic to move on to a better life.

There are two aspects of change necessary for the alcoholic husband or alcoholic spouse:

1) There must be a desire to change.

2) There must be a belief that the change will positively impact their life.

1) The desire to change includes…

– A focus on the positives of the person struggling with alcohol. Why? Because the alcoholic already knows their life is a mess. What they don’t know is if they have the ability to climb out of this mess.

– An improved self-confidence, as self-esteem is an issue here. The alcoholic husband or spouse doubts their ability to handle life situations. If they doubt they can survive the stress of life without their crutch (alcohol), then they are not going to give it up and will be resistant to any alcoholic help you may try to give.

– Moving away from dwelling on negative consequences of drinking. We often like to overemphasize the negative consequences the alcoholic husband or spouse is going to experience if they continue using alcohol. We throw statements at them like: “You are going to end up in jail” or “You are destroying your body”. They already know this. What they don’t know is if they have the inner capabilities to avoid these negative consequences.

An important point here is that the alcoholic compensates for their feelings of inadequacy, fear and helplessness by drinking. To constantly remind them of the negative consequences does not find a solution or way for them to regain control of their fear and helplessness in a healthy manner. You may wonder how destroying their life even more with alcohol helps them regain control? Here it is: Alcohol use is often comforting in a sense that using is predictable and consistent. What? No matter what is going on in life, the alcoholic spouse or husband knows they can assert their “will” or control through their use of alcohol. It’s their perception. They may not like the pain alcohol causes them, but at least they know what to expect. They are miserable, but without alcohol they would not know how to cope. The fear of the unknown is greater than the pain of drinking.

Self-esteem may be confused with sobriety. The alcoholic husband or spouse may not regain an instant positive self-image simply by becoming sober. Self-esteem needs to be associated with more than particular actions. Otherwise a belief occurs that if I do such and such then I am a good person and I will remain sober. This can get the alcoholic in trouble if they do the proper actions and don’t get the right response (sobriety). Instead, start emphasizing that personal worth is present when the alcoholic believes it is because they are alive and have every capability to thrive and succeed.

2) The belief that the change will positively impact their life includes:

– Proper support and peer groups. This is important that support is present. Remember we all rise or fall to the expectation of our peers. If someone using alcohol does not seem to be changing for the better, I’ll bet it is because they do not see any significant personal life benefits or improvement.

This goes to their perception of what life improvement means, but it also has to do with realistic life situations. Are the alcoholic’s current goals and values in line with what they want their life to be about? If not, they need to be revisited. Do they need to look for better employment? Change the crowd they hang out with? Often we become concerned when someone wants to drop out of school or change jobs. Make sure the motive is good, but find out what they really desire and value in life. Maybe they are telling you they have a better idea and path for their life. Explore the options and motivations for what the alcoholic wants their life to be about.

– Giving dignity to the alcoholic spouse or husband by allowing them to own their problem. We sometimes assume that someone who overuses alcohol is incompetent or unable to decide for themselves what options they need. They know. They are just too unsure of themselves and afraid to act on these options. Think about it, if they currently use alcohol they are already telling you they are not happy with current life situations. Help them find and explore the right ones.

– Understanding the alcoholics immediate needs. Whatever the alcoholic believes is impairing their life situation needs to be explored. I have made the mistake of trying to motivate change in someone while ignoring the fact that they have nowhere to live and not enough money to eat on. Be practical and realistic with how you help. Don’t just throw out ideas. Set practical goals for the specific needs of the individual.

So What can We do To Give The Alcoholic Help?

– We must empower the individual struggling with alcohol. We do this by taking away all the excuses the alcoholic spouse or husband may have to why they cannot stop drinking. As we have seen, the alcoholic will have many of these excuses. But, the bottom line is that they do not believe they have the necessary personal resources to overcome their drinking.

– Self-confidence is the key. Find and emphasize the alcoholics talents. I do not believe someone who struggles with alcohol is weak willed or spiritually deprived. Their wills have taken them places no one else would want to go. If they wanted to drink they found a way to do it. Use this strength to re-focus them and give the alcoholic help.

– Their spirituality is normally quit strong inside them. They are searching for something, a meaning. Help the alcoholic develop and find this meaning. Victor Frankl wrote that if you give a person purpose and meaning, they will find a way through anything no matter how hopeless it seems. Even atheists believe in something, even if it is life itself.

– For every choice to use alcohol, there is an alternative choice also available. The alcoholic husband or spouse may have forgotten this part. The alternative choice will most likely impact the problem more directly to resolve it and not further its existence. Fear may enter here, for it is scary to take on responsibility. The alcoholic spouse or husband may have avoided responsibility like the plague. But when they finally realize that their control comes from responsible choices, they are more willing to attempt it. The key is when they can see how choosing the responsible choice will positively impact their life situation. When life situations can’t be seen as improving, change will be hard fought.

– No one truly enjoys their drinking behavior. They don’t drink because they “like it”. Think back to the first few times you drank. The taste was awful and it most likely made you sick. No one I have ever encountered formed their desire to use after the first drink. It took some work.

– Make sure goals are clear and achievable. The alcoholic husband or spouse must develop a clear vision and plan of what they want and who they want to be. This is most important, for through their use of alcohol most have lost sight of the dreams and goals they once had. Remind them. Most healthy people look at the world as their playground. The alcoholic looks at the world as their prison. Help them find the key.

– Avoid cleaning up their mess. Don’t get involved with the blame game. Alcoholics are real good at this. They can twist any situation to support their misery. Let choices and consequences be theirs. This way there is no one to blame but themselves.

– Let them know that it is OK to feel. Most alcoholics don’t know how to do this. Teach them. To them, feelings are the enemy and have to be avoided. Feelings come and go and feelings will not kill you. It’s how you respond to them that matters.

– Fear is at the root of all problem drinking. Get the alcoholic spouse or husband to tackle one of these fears head on and they gain some ground. Build on these small successes so they can start to see their innate abilities to change.

– Get them out of their heads! There is no destructive force in the world greater than an alcoholics self-centered thinking. Mental illness has been defined as perceiving without testing. We perceive according to the stories we tell ourselves in our heads. It does not matter the reality of these stories. They are how we see the world. The alcoholic husband or spouse has such a selfish view (story) that if they are left in their own heads, there is little chance of positive change. What works well here is to have the alcoholic help out others. If they are thinking of someone else, they will not be thinking of themselves. There is no greater fulfillment in the world than one who truly gives to another and expects nothing in return. Teach them to give.

– Perhaps the most dangerous idea in the treatment field is the phrase “You have to do it for yourself”. Who do you think the alcoholic has been serving all this time? His family and friends? No, themselves. Get them out of their heads! Teach them to help others. Help them find their vision and meaning!

– Motives drive an addiction. Teach them to examine the motives behind their drinking behavior. Most of their motives will be fear based. Remember their drinking is their attempt to control an internal feeling of fear and helplessness. A good rule of thumb in checking motives to a behavior is to ask, “Will this hurt or harm myself or others?” If the answer is yes, then difficulties lie ahead. Behaviors with fear as their motive will only result in self-protecting behavior. They will not focus on a solution to a problem and will not satisfy.

– Fear and guilt do little to help the alcoholic abstain from alcohol! Most professionals focus on the negative consequences as a reason to abstain from alcohol. This is the wrong approach. The alcoholic already knows, or has experienced the negative consequences associated with drinking. This has not hindered their use. They may cut down for a while after experiencing a negative consequence only to resume normal use as time goes on. This is because alcoholics do not like to live in fear. They want to escape it. Guilt is the same thing. Alcoholics want to avoid it. Fear and guilt focus on the problem not the solution. Teach the alcoholic husband or spouse to focus on the solution. This is done by having them see that change occurs when they focus their life on something other than drinking.

– Don’t define them as “in recovery” or by “sober time”. This is a focus on the problem. When the alcoholic husband or spouse realize they can handle stress in life, not because they are “sober” or “in recovery” but because they are alive and equipped with the ability to do so, alcohol will be irrelevant. They choose the right way because it is simply right for them, not because they fear the consequences. This may be difficult for them to see at first until they clarify their goals and who they want to be.