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How to Help Your Spouse (Husband or Wife) With Alcohol Addiction

The term alcohol use disorder is now used to signify any type of alcohol abuse problem or addiction (alcoholism). The diagnostic criteria used for deciding if a person has an alcohol use disorder are developed by the American Psychiatric Association (APA).

While people without formal training might believe these diagnostic criteria are straightforward and easy to apply to others, they are not qualified to apply them to anyone, especially a relative. Only licensed health care professionals with formal training in diagnosing addictive behaviors can effectively apply them.

However, this is not to say that the spouses or partners of individuals who are abusing alcohol do not readily recognize that their partner has a problem. Very often, they are the first people to recognize that their loved one may have a drinking problem.

How to Tell if Your Husband or Wife Has a Drinking Problem

  • The person demonstrates problems controlling their use of alcohol.
  • The person frequently drinks more than they initially intended to drink.
  • They frequently drink alcohol for longer periods than they intended.
  • They have stated that they will cut down or stop drinking more than once but seem unable to do so.
  • The person’s drinking problem may be obvious to others, but the person may deny them.
  • They may experience problems at work, school, or in personal relationships.
  • They may give up important activities, fail to meet important obligations.
  • The person frequently displays cravings or urges to use alcohol.
  • The person drinks more alcohol than they once did (rising tolerance).
  • The person has withdrawal symptoms after they have stopped drinking.

It should be noted that there are no specific amounts of alcohol consumption that can be used to identify a potential alcohol use disorder. Whatever the person’s consumption habits are, their use of alcohol leads to significant issues with functioning.

More specific standards are used to identify binge drinking and heavy drinking. Individuals who are binge drinkers or heavy drinkers often also have alcohol abuse issues.

  • Men who consume five or more drinks on the same occasion qualifies as a binge drinking episode.
  • Heavy drinking is defined as 15 or more drinks in a week for men.
  • For women, consuming four or more drinks on the same occasion qualifies as a binge drinking episode.
  • Heavy drinking is defined as eight or more drinks a week for women.

Obviously, individuals who binge drink or are heavy drinkers are at a higher risk to develop alcohol use disorders, but it should be stressed that the amount of alcohol use alone cannot be a diagnostic indicator that a person has an alcohol use disorder. Instead, a person’s use of alcohol must lead to significant distress or dysfunction in daily activities.

This means that even individuals who do not binge drink or do not qualify as heavy drinkers could receive a diagnosis of an alcohol use disorder if they meet the specific diagnostic criteria put forth by the APA.

Because there are so many issues to consider, only licensed mental health care professionals trained in the diagnoses of these types of disorders can formally make these diagnoses in anyone. That being said, if you notice some of these issues in your husband or wife, it may be time to talk to them about getting help.

What Is a Functional Alcoholic?

The notion that someone is a functional alcoholic is actually somewhat of a misnomer. Some individuals meet the diagnostic criteria for alcohol use disorder and/or have developed a physical dependence on alcohol (tolerance to alcohol and withdrawal symptoms) who can still maintain their employment, remain married, and appear to live a “normal” existence. But when the actual case is evaluated closely, it can be seen that the person has numerous problems associated with their use of alcohol.

In nearly every one of these cases, the person is supported (enabled) by their partner despite having a dysfunctional relationship. Also, in nearly every case, when the person gets into recovery and can address their substance use disorder, they often look back at their life from a different perspective and agree that their alcohol use was problematic for them, even though they once thought their use of alcohol was normal for them.

Your Partner Drinks Too Much: What Next?

Certainly, attempting to approach a partner and tell them that you believe they have an alcohol use disorder can be quite intimidating. When people approach a partner or spouse with this topic, it often leads to arguing, regret, and resentment between the partners.

It is not unusual for individuals to deny that their alcohol use is a problem for them and to be very defensive and even aggressive when their notions are challenged. If you believe your partner has a potential alcohol use disorder, you should attempt to organize a substance use disorder intervention.

A substance use disorder intervention will involve getting help from important family members and friends of the person with the suspected alcohol use disorder. Ultimately, the group will attempt to persuade the person to get treatment for their problem.

There is strength in numbers. An intervention can assist in getting one’s loved one into a treatment program and in reducing the stress and resentment that may occur when the person is confronted in a one-on-one situation.

There is a general approach to organizing a substance use disorder intervention for your spouse.

  • First, discuss the issue with a small number of concerned family members and close friends. Explain your concerns and get their feedback.
  • Once the group has agreed to take action, someone in the group should be designated as the group organizer. Generally, as the person’s spouse, this person will be you. You should then contact a mental health care professional who specializes in treating addictive behaviors or a professional interventionist, a person trained in performing substance use disorder interventions.
  • Discuss the meeting with the interventionist. The professional can provide guidance for putting together the intervention and should be at all other meetings.
  • There should be one or more practice sessions before performing the intervention where the members decide what they will say to the person, how they will say it, and then practice with one another. It is typically best for each person to write down what they will say. As the closest person to your partner, what you say will likely have the most impact.
  • The group should also identify at least three potential treatment programs that the person can enter immediately before they hold the intervention and contact these programs.
  • There should also be agreed-upon consequences for your spouse if they do not agree to get treatment. This may involve moving out of your shared home or limiting access to your children.
  • The intervention should be performed in a neutral place. Generally, this won’t be the home you share.
  • During the intervention, each person takes their turn and speaks to the individual and explains how that person’s alcohol use affects them. Even though you are undoubtedly deeply hurt by your spouse’s actions, remember that addiction is a mental health disorder. Avoid judgmental language and stress your love for your spouse.
  • Once every person has spoken, your husband or wife must make an immediate decision on whether they will attend treatment now. This means that the group has already prepared everything and made all the necessary arrangements that allow the person to go right into a treatment program.
  • If your spouse does not commit to getting into treatment, the intervention is over, and the consequences must be implemented. If they decide to get treatment, they are taken the treatment program directly from the intervention.

It’s tough when anyone you love is struggling with addiction, and it’s even more difficult when this person is your spouse. It’s important that you have support throughout this process.

There are support groups, such as Al-Anon, that are designed to help those who have a loved one struggling with Alcoholism. In addition, it can be helpful if you see your own therapist.

Sources

(October 2018). Fact Sheets-Binge Drinking. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. from https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/binge-drinking.htm

(July 2011). The Community Reinforcement Approach: An Update of the Evidence. Alcohol Research & Health. from http://communityreinforcement.nl/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/MeyersRoozenSmith2011.pdf

(2019). Learn About interventions. The Association of Intervention Specialists. from https://www.associationofinterventionspecialists.org/

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