Dealing with your spouse’s alcoholism can be a delicate tightrope to walk. If their behavior is not abusive or neglectful toward your family, there may not be reason enough to put down an ultimatum of “stop drinking or leave.” But the fact may still remain that your spouse’s drinking is leading them toward destructive, reckless behavior and causing emotional turmoil in the home.
First, it is important to understand what alcoholism is. Alcoholism is more than relaxing with a glass of wine at dinner or with a nightcap before bedtime. Alcoholism is a dependence on alcohol illustrated by excessive or continual consumption. This could be binge drinking once a month or a few drinks every single night — without ever skipping a beat. If your spouse chronically uses alcohol to regulate their mood, escape from their emotions or ease their anxieties, the whole family has a problem.
1. Support the person
Support the person, not the addiction. Provide your spouse with unconditional love and acceptance. And make it known that they as a person are always welcome in your home, but unhealthy, unbalanced behavior is not. And the addiction is not welcome in the family or in the home.
2. Release responsibility
Release yourself from the responsibility of saving your spouse from themselves, and their disease. You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. No matter how much you love or pray for your spouse, you cannot cure their addiction for them. They have to put in the work and they have to want to be healthy.
Also, release yourself from the responsibility of causing the addiction. No matter what you may or may not have done, your spouse chose to intoxicate themselves and medicate their problems instead of processing their emotions in a healthy way. Address their potential psychological issues appropriately. You are not responsible for this decision.
3. Disable the addiction
Do not enable their addiction. Don’t make it easy for them to stay addicted. Don’t buy them alcohol, drive them to the bar or even pick them up from the bar. This is probably the most difficult non-enabling standard to uphold. If they drive drunk and injure or kill themselves or others because you refused to get them home safely, it would be easy to blame yourself for such suffering. This blame is not justified and is not necessary. You must hold your spouse responsible for their own actions. If they choose to drive drunk they must be held accountable for the consequences of those actions. And literally giving them a free ride will let them know they can be irresponsible, and do not have to control their behavior, or know their limits. Enabling behavior does not encourage them to establish boundaries or make connections between their actions. Namely drinking and the consequences thereof, such as being too drunk to drive.
Alcoholism is a chronic disease, likely with genetic components, so seeking professional help is always advisable. Contact not only an addiction counselor, but a family counselor who can help your children understand the disease and the psychological and behavioral changes their parent is facing in their addiction. Counseling will also help your children learn to steer clear of addictive substances and behaviors and process their emotions effectively so the cycle of addiction does not continue.
5. Stay healthy
In the wake of your partner’s addiction, your number one goal is to keep yourself and your family healthy. Attend Al-Anon meetings and get support from other family’s dealing with addictions. Your family's health comes first — not the addiction. Come together and reconnect as a family and you will be able to get through this challenge. You'll be better and closer for it on the other side.
Any addiction can generally be characterized by continuing a behavior or process despite negative consequences. But an alcoholic can certainly be so even if there do not seem to be negative consequences for them. Often a spouse insulates the alcoholic from consequences — shielding them from the motivation they may need to stop drinking. A friend of mine would pack up her preschool-aged child at all hours of the night to go pick up her husband, also a friend of mine, from the bar any time he needed it. She couldn’t bear the thought of him hurting himself or someone else if she could prevent it. Now with both an infant and a child in elementary school, she physically cannot pack up two children in the wee hours of the morning to go pick him up from the bar. So she anxiously awaits his safe return several nights a week. Luckily he has not hurt himself or anyone else, but now he knows he has to take a bit more care and responsibility when he blows off steam with his colleagues. She has babies at home, and she can’t be there to baby him.
Alcoholism is a serious matter. Take it on with tough love and endless compassion. Put the focus on keeping your family intact and healthy. Show your alcoholic spouse and your children you’ll do anything to keep your family functioning.