Alcohol use disorder impacts an estimated 14.5 million Americans, or 5.5% of the population. That means one in 20 of us has a substance use disorder. While Substance Use Disorders (SUDs) are most impactful to the people drinking, they go on to impact their friends, family, and home. Alcohol use disorder results in reckless behavior, it changes personalities, and it harms people physically and mentally. Knowing that you’re not alone in watching your loved one fall apart under a mental health disorder doesn’t help. But, it does mean that there are plenty of resources available to help you help them.
Eventually, the hardest part about helping an alcoholic spouse is the realization that you can’t force them. You can’t make them go to treatment. You can’t make them quit. They have to find the personal motivation and willpower to do so. All you can do is support them and offer nonjudgmental listening until the time where they decide to do so.
Importantly, that starts with taking care of yourself. It’s incredibly crucial to step back, to ensure you’re not burning yourself out, and to give yourself and your family space to heal and be happy around that disorder. You and your family have to live with behavioral changes, health problems, and a loved one who is now prioritizing an addiction over family, financial responsibilities, friends, or even work. That is immensely difficult for everyone.
Making space means ensuring that you spend your time on things that are not caring for your loved one. You should continue to invest in your own life, your own goals, your own happiness. You should be able to take days off. You should be able to tell the truth to your friends and family. You need support as much as your loved one does.
For this reason, many families of addicts choose to join support groups. For example, Al-Anon, which is based on the 12-Step Group Alcoholics Anonymous, is made for the families of alcoholics. These support groups offer education, support, a listening ear, and direct problem solving. They can help you to feel heard, they can give you an outlet, and they can help you to move out if that becomes necessary.
Making space also means setting boundaries for yourself. But, as you know, that is difficult. Good boundaries include hard lines which cannot be crossed without consequences. But, you break those boundaries and don’t have consequences, your spouse will never respect them again.
These kinds of boundaries are clear, straightforward, and bound by logical next steps. If the boundary is compromised, you immediately know what to do. Sitting down and setting these, in ways that makes sense, and going over them with your spouse is important. You want your spouse to feel involved. And you want them to understand that these boundaries come from you struggling.
It’s difficult to help anyone if you don’t understand the problem. And, for addiction, many of us know much less than we should. Alcohol use disorder is a mental health disorder, classified as a temporary disability. If you’re struggling with it, your insurance is required to help, your boss is required to give you time off work for treatment, and you have rights to keeping your job and getting medical assistance.
Taking time to research what your spouse’s alcohol use disorder actually means for them can mean a lot to them. It can help you to better understand their actions. And, it can help you to make peace with those decisions. You can try books like:
Of course, you can also attend 12-step meetings like Al-Anon for insight, input, and perspectives from your peers.
Non-judgement, or the act of listening without judgement, of responding without judgement, of acting without judgement, is incredibly difficult. Most of us are raised with these ideas of alcoholism as a personal failing. When your spouse drops everything to get drunk and blacks out or breaks something, they’re failing. The thing is, the modern understanding of alcoholism has changed considerably over the last 30 years. We know that alcohol use disorder involves irrational behaviors, and the person suffering cannot help themselves. They need treatment to overcome behavior, chemical dependence, and mental reliance.
So, what is practicing non-judgement? It means avoiding placing blame. It means treating alcohol use disorder like you would depression or cancer. The person in question has to take accountability and take steps to get treatment and get better, but they are not to blame.
You can show this by talking to your loved one. By putting their health and wellbeing first. And by making sure that when you talk about their problems, they come first. That means avoiding what will the neighbors think, avoiding talking about personal accountability except in the instance of getting help, and openly talking about stigma and how it is wrong.
The eventual goal of helping your alcoholic spouse is to get them into alcohol rehab. Building that trust and offering the option to move them into treatment will take time. You also want to offer rehab from the right perspectives. Tell your loved one you miss getting to spend time with them. That you will go with them and will attend family therapy with them. Offer to support them even if they don’t go to rehab but talk about difficulties and stresses and how it impacts you as well. Being honest without imposing blame is important. That can also be very difficult.
Eventually, being there for your loved one also means helping them to choose a rehab center. For example, you have to choose a type of treatment, like inpatient or outpatient. You have to make sure insurance covers that facility, You also have to be supportive with your habits and your goals. And, after they do go to treatment, you have to be supportive with and around alcohol – largely by abstaining while in their presence.
Living with an alcoholic spouse is difficult. It can be incredibly stressful and emotionally taxing. Eventually, it’s important to ensure you take care of your own health and step out if need be. Hopefully, you can get your loved one into treatment well before that point.