Frequent or heavy alcohol use can pose a range of challenges, when it comes to maintaining a strong, healthy relationship.
Maybe you have some concerns about your spouse or long-term partner’s increasing alcohol use but feel unsure about the best way to bring up the changes you’ve noticed or offer them support.
It can help to start by recognizing that terms like “alcoholic” and “alcoholism” are both outdated, inaccurate ways to describe alcohol use disorder (AUD). This shift in language reflects current awareness of AUD as a mental health condition, not a personal choice.
“AUD, on the other hand, describes a medical condition diagnosed by criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). It’s characterized by drinking more than you want and for longer than you want, despite wanting to cut down,” Spotorno says, going on to emphasize that the clinical term reframes AUD as a medical condition, not a moral failing, which helps break down stigma.
Above all, it can help to recognize that your partner didn’t choose to have AUD. That said, they certainly can choose to get help — and you can support them with starting that recovery process and sticking with it.
The 8 strategies below offer a starting place for navigating your relationship with a spouse or partner who has AUD.
Learning to recognize the signs of AUD is an important first step, says Spotorno, because it can make it easier to identify when they may need professional help.
“Addressing AUD as early as possible can help prevent further consequences, like health issues or relationship damages,” she explains.
Key signs of AUD
While AUD can show up differently from person to person, some of the most common signs include:
- abandoning or losing interest in hobbies and activities they used to enjoy
- frequent changes in mood
- changes in sleeping habits, appetite, or both
- withdrawal from friends and family
- hiding or lying about alcohol use
- irritability when not drinking alcohol
- blackouts or memory loss after episodes of drinking
- sudden difficulty fulfilling obligations at work, school, or home
- regularly experiencing withdrawal symptoms once the effects of alcohol wear off, including shakiness, sweating, nausea, a racing heart, anxiety, depression, or restlessness
Of course, not everyone who drinks alcohol frequently or regularly will meet criteria for AUD.
If you notice some of these signs in your partner, Spotorno suggests the following steps:
- Choose a time when they’re sober to have a calm, compassionate conversation in a private setting.
- Offer some specific examples of behaviors you’ve noticed and why those behaviors worry you.
- Explain how those behaviors affect not only you, but the relationship as a whole.
You might say something like:
- “I noticed you’ve skipped a lot of family gatherings lately to go out drinking. I feel sad and lonely when I have to go to these events alone because they’re more fun with you there. Can you tell me more about why this has been happening? I want to understand.”
AUD can affect your relationship with your partner in a number of ways. It can also affect other loved ones in and out of your household, including children, siblings, friends, and parents.
- financial problems due to spending money on alcohol or missing work from drinking
- physical, verbal, or emotional abuse that happens during or after an episode of drinking
- reckless or risky behavior during or after a drinking episode, including driving or working under the influence of alcohol
- erosion of trust when they try to hide or lie about their drinking
- feelings of stress, anxiety, or depression — for both you and your partner — related to their drinking
In a small
- 93.4 percent said their husband’s drinking often left them upset
- 70 percent said they often felt anxious
- 60 percent said they often experienced mental distress
- 50 percent reported some frustration about their husband’s drinking
- 10 percent said they experienced disrupted sleep
Erika Dalton,LMSW, Creekside Recovery Residences and Buckhead Behavioral Health therapist and case manager, adds that AUD can also raise your chances of relationship codependency. This dysfunctional dynamic happens when one partner begins to sacrifice their needs to better prioritize what they think their partner needs.
Because alcohol use can also exaggerate emotional states while
Triggers — anything that brings up the urge to drink — can be external or internal.
External triggers might include people, places, things, and situations:
- hanging out with friends while they drink
- stopping by a habitual drinking spot
- seeing a bottle of alcohol
Internal triggers can stem from certain thoughts or emotions, like feelings of loneliness, frustration, or rejection.
Knowing your partner’s triggers can make it easier for you to support them when they try to avoid specific factors that might prompt a drinking episode.
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You might, for example, go bowling or to the museum on date night and center get-togethers with friends around board games or preparing a meal together.
It’s OK to ask
Not sure your partner’s triggers are?
You can try asking questions like:
- “When do you feel most like drinking?”
- “What happened right before the last time you had an urge to drink?”
- “Do you feel more like drinking when you’re feeling good or when you’re feeling bad?”
You wouldn’t blame yourself if your partner had cancer, heart disease, or arthritis, would you? In a similar vein, try to keep in mind that your partner’s AUD isn’t your fault — no matter what type of conflict or other challenges you’ve faced in your relationship.
“Blaming yourself for your partner’s drinking will cause undue feelings of guilt and shame,” explains Dalton.
Dalton suggests keeping the “3 Cs” in mind: You didn’t cause AUD, you can’t control it, and you can’t cure it.
These support groups for family members of people with AUD involve discussions about things like:
- accepting AUD as a medical condition
- letting go of attempts to control their behavior
- learning to prioritize self-care
Your partner’s drinking doesn’t mean they want to hurt you or don’t care about you.
People often drink alcohol because it provides some desired effect, like relief from anxiety, stress, or sadness, Flagg says.
While it’s natural to feel upset as you experience the consequences of your partner’s drinking, Nelson encourages cultivating a sense of compassion for any pain they may be dealing with.
Very often, he says, people with AUD feel shame and disappointment in themselves around their drinking. So, nagging and lecturing, name-calling, or making judgmental or critical comments may only further wear away at their self-esteem.
Instead, make sure they know you’re genuinely interested in how they feel from day to day. It also doesn’t hurt to emphasize that you want to learn more so you can better support them on their journey to recovery.
Establishing a safe space can build trust, so showing them you won’t use harsh language or say unkind things can encourage them to open up more candidly about their drinking.
- “Your drinking at the company dinner last night really embarrassed me.”
Spotorno suggests something along the lines of:
- “I noticed you didn’t stick to the one-drink limit you set for yourself. Do you feel like talking about why that happened?”
You can’t make your partner get help, and you can’t force them to change. Still, you can play an important role in encouraging them to seek support with care and compassion.
When discussing treatment options, aim for a time when they’re sober, alert, and at ease. You might introduce this topic while relaxing on Saturday afternoon, for example, not right before bed after a long and stressful workday.
Spotorno recommends presenting them with multiple options to consider, including:
- counseling from a therapist who specializes in treating AUD
- participating in an inpatient or outpatient treatment program
- enrolling in an online support group
They may resist the idea of seeking support at first. If so, you might take the opportunity to dig into what’s holding your partner back. Do they have specific worries or concerns about some aspect of treatment?
“Normalizing the fear of change, or any other fears, can be a great way to build empathy and encourage open communication,” Spotorno points out.
If your partner continues to deny their drinking and shows little interest in pursuing treatment, it may be worth taking a step back. You might, for instance, revisit some of your concerns about their alcohol use, including how their drinking affects you, any children or other family members, and your relationship as a whole.
In short, they might not feel ready to seek support until they begin to recognize the ways drinking affects their daily life and relationships.
Having a partner with AUD can take a toll on your well-being, which makes it essential to take care of your personal needs — physical and emotional.
Self-care includes setting healthy boundaries with your partner around behaviors you will and won’t accept, says Flagg.
A few examples of boundaries around alcohol-related behaviors:
- No drinking in the house.
- No using joint bank accounts to pay for alcohol.
- No attending family get-togethers while under the influence of alcohol.
- No using the family car after drinking.
- No lying about alcohol use.
When (calmly) sharing these boundaries with your partner, it’s important to also communicate the consequences for disregarding these boundaries. For example:
- “If you start drinking at home, the kids and I will go to my parents’ house for the night.”
- “If you come home drunk, I’ll stay the night with a friend.”
- “If you drive my car after drinking, I’ll take back the car key I gave you.”
Clearly defining these non-negotiables can help you recognize when it might be time to take a break from the relationship.
It may be worth getting support from a therapist as you attempt to navigate a marriage or committed partnership with someone living with AUD.
A therapist can offer assistance with devising a self-care plan and coach you on setting boundaries that align with your needs. But they can also help you identify any key signs suggesting it’s time to consider leaving the relationship, if only temporarily.
“A therapist can help you navigate your thoughts and feelings about the relationship and explore your options for moving forward,” says Metcalf.
You might suggest marriage counseling if your partner:
- doesn’t seem concerned about your needs
- ignores the boundaries you set
- doesn’t seem to recognize that their alcohol use affects your relationship
Just know couples therapy will likely only have benefit if they’re willing to do some self-work at the same time, either through individual therapy or an AUD treatment program.
Keep in mind, too, that therapists typically don’t recommend couples counseling for relationships that involve any kind of abuse.
Prioritize your own safety
Spotorno emphasizes the importance of working on a safety plan for leaving the relationship if:
- your partner engages in any form of abuse
- you don’t feel safe in your home when your partner drinks
- you feel burned out as a result of their drinking and they don’t want to get help
“While you care for this person, love does not have to mean deprivation of your own safety needs,” she explains. “You deserve support and care, too.”
If your partner has been abusive in any way, Nelson advises talking to a trusted loved one, trained therapist, or both.
You can also get confidential support and guidance on safely moving forward by calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE (7233).
A partner’s AUD doesn’t just affect their health and your relationship. It can also damage your overall health and well-being.
Although you can’t force them to get help, you can take steps to encourage them to seek support for themselves. At the same time, make it a point to support yourself by setting clear boundaries, avoiding self-blame, and pursuing therapy for yourself if necessary.
Remember, you can’t cure them. All the same, offering compassion and kindness while communicating your concerns and suggesting avenues for treatment can play a pivotal part in their decision to work toward recovery.
Rebecca Strong is a Boston-based freelance writer covering health and wellness, fitness, food, lifestyle, and beauty. Her work has also appeared in Insider, Bustle, StyleCaster, Eat This Not That, AskMen, and Elite Daily.