November 14, 2006
Living With An Alcoholic
One of the commonest questions anyone working in the addiction field is asked is “How can I stop my wife/husband/partner from drinking so much?” Unfortunately the short answer to that is – you can’t. They will stop when it suits them, whether that is because they hurt so much or because circumstances change. That is painful to hear, but nevertheless it is true.
There is some good news, however, and that is if you can’t actually stop them drinking then there are things that you can do, or stop doing, that will make it more likely that they will take action and/or seek help for their drinking. Below I have listed a number of things that you should avoid doing as they often have the opposite effect to intended, making the situation even worse. I will discuss the things that you should do in another article.
Don’t protect the drinker from the naturally occurring consequences of drinking. If they embarrass themselves don’t make excuses, or if they fall don’t pick them up. Only intervene if there is a danger of the drinker being injured. For most people this kind of ‘tough love’ is a difficult thing to do, just ignore a loved one when they are drunk goes very much against the grain. However, protecting the drinker means that they never suffer the consequences and so are never aware of the severity of their drinking. Since many believe that problem drinkers only seek help when they are hurting, so protecting the drinker only delays that time coming and that it could be argued is more cruel.
Don’t protect the drinker from other consequences. If they take time off work through being too drunk or too hungover, don’t phone the boss and give an excuse. The problem drinker is only too happy for someone else to accept responsibility whereas they need to accept responsibility for their own behaviour if they are to change.
Don’t collude with the drinker. If they spend all their money on drink don’t lend them money or pay their debts. Again this is protecting and delays recognition of the extent of the problem.
Don’t join in and drink along with the drinker. It may seem a natural thing to do – “if you can’t beat them join them” but this just makes the drinking behaviour appear to be normal, which of course it’s not. Besides if you try and keep up you could end up needing help yourself, and one drunk is more than enough for any household.
Don’t scream and shout and nag about the drinking behaviour. This just provides an excuse to drink even more. That is, the logic that is used here is “I drink because you nag” rather than “You nag because I drink”. Yea, I know that is not logical but hey this is not about logic, its about drinking.
Don’t make threats and give ultimatums. Unless you are actually prepared to carry out these threats and ultimatums they will lose any power to influence the drinker. In fact, they may even provide an excuse for drinking, especially if there is a pattern of drinking to avoid stress and painful circumstances. Therefore you could be left feeling even more frustrated than before.
Don’t cry and sulk and withdraw to punish the drinker. The drinker can again view his as behaviour best avoided by getting drunk, perhaps with the immortal words “No wonder I drink, look at you!”.
Don’t try and have a meaningful conversation about the drinkers behaviour or your lives together when the drinker is intoxicated. It is easy to get lured into a conversation – don’t. Wait till the morning or when they are sober.
I have worked in the addiction field for over 25 years. In that time I have worked as a therapist, university lecturer and researcher and have published about 50 articles in scholarly journals and books.