How to cope with an alcoholic partner
When someone you love is an alcoholic.
We’ve all heard the saying that the first step to recovering from alcoholism is to admit you have a problem. What happens, though, when you discover someone close to you has a problem with alcohol? For me, the realisation that my partner’s drinking was not normal came slowly. There had been embarrassing incidents with her social drinking and I’d caught her drinking alone at home a few times. She had even tried to hide the bottles. When I finally confronted her, I was shocked to learn the extent of her drinking. How had alcohol become such an important and necessary part of her life? What caused this? Was it me? How can I help? How can I deal with this? Where can I get support?
These questions and feelings are commonly raised by people struggling to cope with this situation, but assistance and information on alcohol abuse tend to focus on the abuser. If you have a partner or loved one with a drinking problem, admitting the person you love is an alcoholic and dealing with the results can be just as difficult, painful and confusing. Finding myself in this situation, I was faced with these questions and more, and I felt like I had to deal with it on my own.
Recognise your feelings
When I learnt the truth I felt angry, lied to, cheated and confused. As time went on I found that living with an alcoholic was a rollercoaster ride with an overwhelming mix of emotions. In search of answers I turned to books, the internet and the experiences of others. I discovered that these feelings are common. If you are close to the problem drinker it is natural to feel upset and, as you struggle to cope with all that’s happening to you, feeling bad can become a way of life. You learn not to expect very much pleasure or happiness, thinking instead about avoiding or escaping further trouble and upset. You experience a range of emotions, from anxiety to anger, to feelings of helplessness and worthlessness.
People experiencing alcohol and other drug problems often feel they only hurt themselves. This isn’t true. The National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information (NCADI) states that for every one person with an alcohol or other drug problem, at least four others are affected by their behaviour. This may include families, friends, co-workers, employers and others. I realised I was allowed to feel affected by the problem and that it’s not selfish to consider my own feelings.
To stay or not to stay
Often, advice from those not involved in the situation is to simply leave. For many, the image of an alcoholic is one of a destructive loser who can’t be helped. These myths have done harm to alcoholics and those who would help them. Ingrained public attitudes see alcoholism as personal misconduct, moral weakness, or even sin. These untruths make it easy for the outsider to suggest that you leave the alcoholic and, rather than support you, they can’t understand why you would remain in the situation.
Leaving an alcoholic is not an easy option. It’s like the person has two personalities: the one you love and want to be with and the ‘creature’ driven by a lust for drink. Unfortunately, you can’t just leave one side of them. Only they can let that part of themselves go.
The reality, however, is that living with the horror of alcoholism can take over your life until you are totally consumed and confused. You get tired of the craziness and begin to wonder, "Is it me or is it them?" You feel that everything revolves around alcohol. Telling them straight out what they are doing to their bodies has no effect. I began to get obsessed with trying to catch my partner out. I kept finding empty bottles and it just made me angrier and more inclined to leave. She kept promising to stop and, when she didn’t, I wondered why she continued to hurt me by continuing to drink.
Change your thinking
While these feelings are a natural reaction, positive change can only happen when you concentrate on yourself rather than the alcoholic. In Living with a drinker, Mary Wilson points out that while your negative feelings are a result of the drinking problem, your own way of coping and your thoughts also have a part to play. Changing the way you see and think about things can make you feel better about them. The way forward is to understand what’s been happening to you and then take a greater control over your own life.
The realisation that you are powerless over alcohol enables you to begin recovering and see beyond the world the problem has created. When you understand there is nothing you can do, you can then reach out to others for support. It helps to know there are others in your situation.
Don’t keep the problem to yourself and don’t be afraid to talk about it openly and honestly. Being able to talk about your experiences is an important step in dealing with the effects of alcohol on your life. A good first step is to find a supporter to discuss your feelings with, to work out how to improve things and to air your feelings of frustration. It helps to consult someone removed from you and the problem. For me that person was a counsellor and therapist. Talk out your feelings, because that’s how you’ll start to deal with them. Talking brings relief and release. It brings acceptance. It reconnects you with the rest of mankind. It brings feedback. It’s the best form of reality testing there is. In fact, through regular sessions I realised there were issues I had to deal with, quite removed from the alcohol problem.
There are places where people can go to talk with others about their problems and free themselves of the isolation they are experiencing. While alcoholics have Alcoholics Anonymous, partners can attend AA’s sister organisation Al-Anon. Al-Anon is a non-religious fellowship of relatives and friends of alcoholics who share their experiences in order to solve their common problems. This worldwide organisation offers a self-help recovery program based on the principle of helping and changing yourself, not the alcoholic, and dealing with the fact that you cannot control the drinking, nor can you cure an alcoholic.
Central to this theme is the principle of detachment. The message is to let go of the responsibility you take on for the alcoholic’s problem. You learn that you are not responsible for another person’s disease or their recovery from it. The key is to let go of your obsession with another’s behaviour and begin to concentrate on your own happiness.
This can be a difficult concept to accept, as I found at my first Al-Anon meeting. I had so many questions in my head and I needed answers. I even wrote them all down, expecting to deal with the problem point by point! I felt like the character in the movie When a Man Loves a Woman — I thought I could fix the alcoholic. Initially, I was annoyed by all the talk of detachment; irritated that the focus was not on the alcoholic’s problem but on mine. How could I just switch off from the way the alcoholic was making me feel? Listening to others talk, I realised all my questions were about my partner’s problem and how to solve and react to that rather than what I could do for myself.
While there is no magic formula for success, most advice points to these concepts and they do seem to have their benefits. You will still have days of depression and anger, but you will find happiness more often. You will begin thinking about yourself and what you want out of life, instead of tallying up all the wrongs done to you. Regardless of whether or not you stay in the relationship and forgive the person, you will know you can stand alone if need be. One person described this feeling as her empty bottle, or the shell of herself filling up. It’s important to put together a workable plan for the future again and learn not to obsess. Make positive change for yourself because your happiness is more important than eternal martyrdom.
It’s tempting to believe the problem is over when the alcoholic stops drinking. But living with someone who is recovering brings its own challenges as they adjust to a new way of life. You have to understand what it’s like for an alcoholic to learn to live without alcohol. For a person who stops drinking, it’s like going out into the bright sunlight after being in a dark shed. Suddenly they become aware of all these feelings they’ve been blocking out for so long. How do you relate to people when you’re feeling sober? How do you learn to cope with the normal pressures of life without alcohol as a buffer?
As painful as this process can be for the alcoholic, it also takes courage to support the person as they recover. The NCADI advice is to be compassionate and patient — but be willing to act. Experience shows that preaching does not work. A nudge or a push at the right time can help. It also shows you care. You cannot cure the illness, but when the crucial moment comes you can guide the person to competent help.
Each alcohol abuser is different, as are their reasons for drinking, but because you have made the effort to understand the problem and are close to the person, you are in a good position to help and address their specific needs.
While each individual will have their own needs, there are common areas to be dealt with. Support is particularly important to the person’s need for self-confidence and feelings of competence, self-worth and dignity. What may be needed most is warm, human concern.
While there are things that can be done to help your partner, it’s important to continue to make things better for yourself. Neither your world nor your partner’s will necessarily change because he or she has agreed to tackle the problem. There may be setbacks and there will be adjustments to be made. For example, the alcoholic may feel resentment if you still drink, and refuse to attend social occasions or to even be around you where alcohol is involved. Just as the alcoholic can’t give up for someone else, changing the way you live, for them, doesn’t work, either.
Recovering from the effects of alcoholism is a slow process. Filling up your own empty bottle takes longer than a drinker takes to create one. The good news is you get more out of your bottle and it’s worth the effort.
What not to do
- Don’t attempt to punish, threaten, bribe or preach.
- Don’t try to be a martyr. Avoid emotional appeals that may only increase feelings of guilt and the compulsion to drink or use other drugs.
- Don’t allow yourself to cover up or make excuses for the alcoholic, or shield them from the realistic consequences of their behaviour.
- Don’t take over their responsibilities, leaving them with no sense of importance or dignity.
- Don’t hide or dump bottles, or shelter them from situations where alcohol is present.
- Don’t argue with the person when they are impaired or high.
- Don’t try to drink along with the problem drinker.
- Above all, don’t feel guilty or responsible for their behaviour.
What to do
- Try to remain calm, unemotional and factually honest in speaking about their behaviour and its day-to-day consequences.
- Let the person with the problem know you are reading and learning about alcohol and attending Al-Anon and other support groups.
- Discuss the situation with someone you trust — someone from the clergy, a social worker, counsellor, friend, or some individual who has experienced alcohol or drug abuse personally or as a family member.
- Establish and maintain a healthy atmosphere in the home and try to include the alcohol abuser in family life.
- Explain the nature of alcoholism as an illness to the children in the family.
- Encourage new interests and participate in leisuretime activities the person enjoys. Encourage them to see old friends.
- Be patient and live one day at a time. Alcoholism generally takes a long time to develop, and recovery does not occur overnight. Try to accept setbacks and relapses with calmness and understanding.
- Refuse to ride in a car with anyone who has been drinking.