The Effects of Living With an Alcoholic Spouse
The effects of living with an alcoholic are both short-term and have lasting consequences. Spouses of alcoholics are more likely to be victims of domestic violence, may suffer emotional harm, may neglect their own health, and may become socially withdrawn. Many relationships affected by alcohol end in separation and lasting effects like physical injuries, emotional trauma, additional addictive disorders, financial problems, and broken relationships. To avoid or minimize these effects it is important to directly address the issue of drinking, to try to help the alcoholic, and to leave the relationship if necessary.
Living with someone who has an alcohol use disorder severe enough to be considered alcoholism presents a number of challenges. Spouses of alcoholics may suffer emotional harm, be victims of violence and domestic abuse, develop health problems, or even develop their own addictions. The consequences of living this way and doing nothing to try to make a change can be long-lasting and may include mental illnesses, chronic health problems, permanent injuries, and damaged relationships.
People who drink too much often cause harm to those they love. Making excuses or avoiding the problem doesn’t help and in fact will lead to more harm for everyone involved. It is important to address the issue, to take steps to help the individual who struggles with drinking, and to know when to leave for self-protection if necessary.
The Challenges of Living With an Alcoholic Partner
There are many challenges that a person might face when living with a partner, husband, or wife with an alcohol use disorder. These may vary depending on the situation and the people involved, but studies have found that there are many commonalities. In one study, for instance, researchers interviewed 30 women who were wives of alcoholics about the issues they faced and the coping mechanisms they used.
The results showed that these women faced challenges that were financial, social, emotional, and also related to physical health and violence. The problems they listed during the study included:
- Having anxiety
- Feeling frustrated
- Displacing that frustration on their children
- Ignoring their children’s needs
- Feeling mentally disturbed
- Difficulty sleeping
- Not paying attention to their own health
- Spending less time socializing with others
- Feeling ashamed when around others
- Having financial difficulties
- Being threatened, or hearing spouse threaten to kill himself
- Being physically harmed
- Thinking about suicide
Most of the issues these women faced were emotional, but it is clear that living with an alcoholic partner also impacts social health, physical well-being, relationships with children, and finances. Other studies and statistics indicate that violence and being harmed is one of the biggest problems that spouses and partners face.
According to the World Health Organization, 55 percent of assaults by one partner against another in the U.S. occurred after the perpetrator had been drinking. It has also found that heavier drinking and drinking more frequently are risk factors for domestic violence. Being unsatisfied in the relationship also increases the risk that one partner who drinks heavily will assault the other. Other studies have also shown that a leading trigger for violence when one partner is drinking is an accusation of infidelity.
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Unhealthy Coping Strategies
The drinking of a partner who has an alcohol use disorder can cause many of these challenges and potentially others. As a result, a man or woman in this situation may rely on coping strategies that are not healthy or productive, and that cause further harm. For instance, withdrawing and hiding is a strategy of avoidance that may provide some temporary relief. Over time, though, the spouse who withdraws simply waits while the problem gets worse, and in the meantime becomes more distant from friends and extended family.
Other strategies of avoidance can be equally damaging, including covering for a spouse’s responsibilities, providing them with money, not confiding in anyone but putting on a brave face and pretending everything is normal, making excuses for a spouse’s behaviors, taking on extra work to cover money problems, and others. These are unhealthy because they ignore the real problem as it gets worse.
Some spouses may turn to even more directly damaging or harmful coping strategies, such as substance use, taking out frustrations on the children, shopping and overspending, playing video or online games excessively, overeating and emotional eating, having an affair or being promiscuous, or engaging in any other risky behaviors. These coping strategies cause their own harm, from developing substance use disorders or behavioral addictions to extending financial problems or causing harm to the children in the family.
Lasting Effects of Living With an Alcoholic
A man or woman who lives with a partner with an alcohol use disorder may face any or all of the possible challenges in the present. But, these can also lead to lasting issues that a person has to cope with indefinitely. Trauma, for instance, may be caused by an assault by a partner, watching a child being abused, emotional abuse, or other factors.
Another important lasting effect, with many other potential consequences, is the break-up of the relationship and family. There may be estrangement between children and the parent, divorce, and separation that causes emotional issues for a long period of time. Studies have found that heavy drinking, by either or both partners, leads to greater dissatisfaction in the relationship, which in turn often leads to separation. In fact, alcohol and substance abuse is the third most often cited reason for divorce according to women.
Other possible lasting effects of living with an alcoholic partner or spouse include long-term financial problems, even losing a home or car, losing a job because of missed time, physical injuries, mental illness that requires ongoing treatment, poor physical health because of neglect, social isolation, and withdrawal from family and friends.
How to Help an Alcoholic Spouse
Offering help to a partner with an alcohol use disorder can be tricky. But not addressing the situation will only make it worse. Start by reading up on alcohol use disorder to know the signs that someone has a problem with drinking. This will help make a stronger case that a spouse’s behaviors and actions are not healthy.
Choosing the right time to talk about drinking is also important. Never try to talk to or reason with someone when he or she is intoxicated. Wait until they are sober and make sure there is plenty of time to talk, and there is quiet and privacy. Address concerns calmly and patiently without being accusatory. Then, listen to what the other person has to say. Be honest but emphasize concern for the individual’s health and well-being rather than listing personal complaints.
Have options available for how to change drinking habits or stop drinking. If the problem is severe, this may mean having a list of treatment options. Having a spouse, especially when there are children, leave to attend treatment in a residential facility certainly poses additional problems. But these are worth the positive outcomes that come with therapy and dedicated treatment to help a partner stop drinking.
When offers to help, pleas to stop or slow drinking, and additional interventions with loved ones fail to help moderate behaviors, a spouse may have no choice but to end the relationship or at least separate for a time. It is important to look out for one’s own health and well-being, and that of any children involved, by leaving the situation if all efforts to help are ignored and the negative and harmful behaviors continue.
Support for Loved Ones of Alcoholics
Spouses of alcoholics are often overlooked when it comes to treatment. The partner who struggles with drinking may get professional help, even residential care, while the other is left to get through the aftermath. It doesn’t have to be this way, though, and there are plenty of ways for spouses of alcoholics to get much-needed support:
- Reach out to trusted friends or family to confide.
- Ask other family members for help with child care, transportation, or just chores that are sliding because of coping with an alcoholic spouse.
- Join a support group for loved ones of alcoholics, either in person or online or both.
- Work with mental health professionals to get evaluated for mental health issues and to get therapy and other types of treatment if necessary.
- Learn and practice positive coping mechanisms, such as relying on social support, exercise, meditation, and deep breathing.
- Spend more time socializing with friends and family.
- Take care of the needs of any children involved and make sure they have the tools they need to cope with having an alcoholic parent.
Living with an alcoholic partner is challenging. There are immediate issues, like violence, stress, and worrying about children, as well as lasting issues that cause harm for years to come. It is crucial to address and deal with the issue of drinking and to offer help but also to know when it is time to remove oneself from the situation for self-preservation.