How to Help an Alcoholic Spouse

Alcohol use disorders (AUDs) can cause great harm to families and marriages. This is usually the outcome of a progressively worsening situation around the alcohol abuse of an individual. Seeing a partner’s drinking habits spiral out of control is distressing.

There can be a sense of powerlessness, as well as other mixed emotions such as frustration, anger, guilt, and shame. All of which can affect your own mental health. When a spouse’s alcohol use has gone beyond manageable limits, it’s certainly time to take action.

Here we look at some of the ways you can help a spouse or loved one overcome their addiction.

How to Tell if Your Spouse Has an Alcohol Use Disorder

The language around alcohol addiction has changed over the past couple of decades. While the term “alcoholism” is still often used in everyday conversation, medical professionals generally refer to alcohol use disorder (AUD). When establishing an alcohol use disorder diagnosis, doctors refer to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

The manual lists a large number of diagnostic criteria, and if the medical professional feels the person meets enough of these, they may give an AUD diagnosis. They will then suggest treatment options.

Obviously, the above is not something anyone can do on behalf of their spouse. And it’s possible that some people are able to just go through a bad patch, during which they start drinking alcohol to excess. Needless to say, a phase like this comes with its own risks to physical and mental health, not least of which is developing an alcohol use disorder.

Addiction can also affect the family. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), nearly 29% of children in the U.S. are exposed to alcohol addiction within the family.

Signs of Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol abuse often begins in a seemingly innocent way. Moderate alcohol consumption may appear harmless enough – but if someone has a predisposition to easily developing substance abuse habits (whether they know it or not), their alcohol use will rapidly escalate.

And if your spouse is battling a potentially serious alcohol problem, there will be telltale signs, beginning with the way in which they drink. You may notice:

  • episodes of binge drinking
  • regular heavy drinking
  • systematically drinking more alcohol than originally intended
  • inability to control drinking, cut down, or stick to moderate alcohol consumption
  • drinking when it’s dangerous, such as before or when driving
  • being unable to stop drinking in spite of an apparent desire to do so.

On a more general level, a simple, overall indication that someone has an alcohol problem is that they continue to drink in spite of negative consequences. These can be specific consequences, such as missing work or abandoning household responsibilities. Or a more general worsening of a person’s life situation – strained relationships, mental health issues, financial concerns, a decline in physical wellness and personal hygiene, and so on.

How to Help an Alcoholic Spouse

How to Help an Alcoholic Spouse

It can be very difficult to know how to help an alcoholic spouse, especially if you know little about alcohol use disorder. You may have trouble understanding why your spouse appears unable to break free from excessive alcohol consumption habits. You may also feel confused about why nothing you do seems to help them. But know that you are not alone. There are numerous resources you can turn to for guidance and peer support groups that bring together people who’ve experienced what you’re going through.

Steps in Helping a Spouse With an Alcohol Problem

There are practical steps that can help with alcohol problems and can, in fact, be of benefit to both you and your partner.

Ask Directly About your Partner’s Drinking

In order to genuinely help a person struggling with alcohol abuse, there needs to be clear and open communication between all parties. If the situation has reached the point where you feel your spouse needs help, it is unlikely they are kidding themselves and believe you are unaware of their drinking habits. On the contrary, they probably know you’ve noticed their alcohol use, and may well be trying to pretend everything is okay. They may brush the topic off as no big deal or use other avoidance strategies.

Talking to a spouse directly about their drinking problem is not easy and is something many people may try to avoid for as long as possible. There may be a feeling the topic is the elephant in the room, so to speak. It’s not unusual to feel reluctance around bringing the subject up and looking at the situation head-on. However, an open, frank conversation in the early stages can be hugely beneficial.

If your spouse is willing to open up and share what they’re going through, it becomes much easier to seek help together. And if they’re in denial, aggressive, or unwilling to talk much about the issue, you’ll at least know where you stand. More patience may be required or bringing in outside help. Your spouse may be more amenable to speaking to people from peer support groups made up of other substance abusers.

Be Aware Your Spouse is Suffering from a Medical Condition

The disease model as an explanation of alcohol use disorder is an approach that is not unanimously approved. However, the mental health services administration (SAMHSA) recognizes it as a genuine medical condition and one that can be treated.

Using online resources or literature, such as the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website, to find out as much as possible about the disorder is a good place to begin. Educating yourself about the condition is useful in order to understand better what your spouse is up against.

Finding out more about what alcohol treatment options are available helps to maintain a positive outlook and not lose hope. Though some groups in the recovery community look at alcoholism as a chronic disease, the general consensus is nevertheless that it can absolutely be treated.

Be Supportive, Not Controlling

Being a supportive partner to an alcoholic spouse requires patience and fortitude. As much as you would like your spouse would put down the bottle at once and do what it takes to be free of their substance abuse, things rarely happen like this. They may need time to recognize and admit to themselves, and then others, that their alcohol use has gotten out of hand. They may resist the idea strongly and make attempts, or even promises, to sort themselves out alone.

It’s helpful to make your spouse know and feel that you are there to support them – especially their commitment to getting well. It’s important to get this nuance across – you wish to be by their side while they go through this difficult period. This will be vital in their endeavor to break free of their destructive alcohol habit, which is the first priority. No other life issues or challenges can be successfully or sustainably addressed while someone remains in the grip of an alcohol use disorder or any substance use disorder for that matter. Some in the recovery community call this “dealing with the alligator nearest the boat”.

In times of frustration, or when it becomes too painful to see your spouse hurting themselves, it may be tempting to want to control their drinking. But this can be a slippery slope and may just put extra pressure on them, which they might not respond well to. As difficult as it is, it’s best to give your spouse their space. Which doesn’t mean you can’t make it clear that witnessing their downward spiral is causing you pain and suggesting they reach out to a support group outside of the home.

Prioritize Self-Care

Prioritize Self-Care

Even in the best-case scenario where a spouse recognizes they can’t stop drinking unaided and are considering seeking treatment, the recovery process is a long one – some would even claim it is a lifelong work in progress. There will be ups and downs, challenges and discouragement both within the relationship and the addiction treatment process. There will, of course, be progress and reasons for positivity too. But if a person wants to be able to help his or her partner effectively, they must be able to last the distance.

Self-care is essential, the strain of living with an alcoholic spouse will take its toll if you don’t ensure you are looking after your mind and body. Seeking support from a nearby support group, particularly to preserve your mental balance, could prove invaluable. Al-Anon, for example, brings together people who have all experienced or continue to try and cope with the presence of a family member with AUD.

Set Healthy Boundaries

When under the influence of alcohol, a person may become selfish, thoughtless, and irresponsible and say or do hurtful things. Frequently, when they sober up, and if they remember their actions, they will feel bad about themselves. So it’s often not helpful to berate them or get angry, and more productive to be caring and compassionate.

However, just because there is a reason behind unacceptable behavior does not make it acceptable. A spouse with alcohol use disorder must still face the consequences of their harmful habit. You should be clear with your spouse – and say so kindly but firmly – every time they overstep the mark.

It is advisable to set very clear boundaries regarding personal freedom and well-being. If your spouse is depriving you of your freedom or derailing your plans (for example, by using the car to buy alcohol just when you need it or because they’re not back home from the bar), they are encroaching upon your rights and your life.

Also, make it very clear that you will not facilitate their drinking. You will not be an accomplice in sustaining their habit. At the same time, it’s best to try not to seem as though you’re trying to police their drinking patterns. This could cause stress, friction, and ultimately be counter-productive.

Finally, it’s important to avoid self-blame. Even if you feel you’re not always the perfect spouse, know that you have nothing whatsoever to do with the root cause of your spouse’s drinking or why they turn to drinking alcohol.

Be Realistic About Potential Dangers

Mention must briefly be made of possible unfortunate outcomes when living with someone with AUD. It is a fact that some people change considerably when they drink alcohol. In a situation with an alcoholic husband who is prone to domestic violence, it is clear that the sober spouse must take measures to protect themselves, as well as their children and other family members if there are any.

Similarly, if the spouse drinking alcohol becomes unable to work or bring in income or is in any other way threatening the livelihood of the household, steps may need to be taken for self-preservation. Ideally, it would be possible to help your spouse and spare yourself and your family these extreme situations. But it is good to simply be aware that severe alcohol use disorder can have consequences you may not be able to manage alone.

Treatment Programs

When efforts to help an alcoholic spouse are successful, there should come a time for discussing treatment. (However, there is no cause for despair if outside help ends up being necessary for this difficult conversation – from social welfare workers to intervention specialists, there’s always a professional to call upon). Ideally, the actual decision to enter treatment should come from the person requiring treatment.


For severe alcohol use disorder, a residential stay in a treatment center is often recommended. Aside from anything else, a person who has been drinking large amounts for a prolonged period will inevitably experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop drinking. For some, a stay in rehab is not a realistic option, and outpatient treatment is also possible in this case. But in either case, the detox period while withdrawal symptoms pass is best done under medical supervision, as the person may risk seizures. Their body will, in a sense, be in shock from the sudden lack of alcohol.

Types of Therapy

Types of Therapy

But the above can only address the physical aspects of alcohol addiction. Individual therapy is generally the only way to help a person address the deeper causes of their condition. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t certain contributing factors that can be addressed with the help of a supportive spouse.

Problems within the relationship, for example, may have played a part in the drinking habits of the alcoholic spouse. Challenging family dynamics may also be involved. Where this is the case, family therapy offers the opportunity for all family members to express themselves freely. They can voice their feelings and frustrations in the presence of a qualified counselor. Couples therapy can help identify what issues are causing the most upset, thanks to the impartial and objective third-party perspective of a therapist.

Helping an alcoholic spouse is a task that requires commitment, perseverance, and patience, not to mention faith and trust. And while it can make all the difference in getting your spouse into treatment and safely onto the path of recovery, support alone can never replace proper care and therapy by qualified professionals.


Sometimes it can be hard to convince a loved one they need help, and not everyone has the time or resources to find out where the best treatment program is. In these cases, an intervention can make all the difference. Trained interventionists will be able to design and manage the formal intervention. They are able to communicate the feelings and needs of loved ones without any emotional complications attached.

Knowing what the best and most appropriate treatment for an alcoholic spouse would be is another challenge. Interventionists are able to recommend the best treatment options based on their assessment of the situation and in-depth knowledge of the available resources.

That’s where we come in. At Feinberg, we work with you to make a thorough assessment of what your loved one needs, so we can connect them to the best facility. We are experts in the field of case management and interventions and can help guide you and your spouse through their recovery.

Reach out to us today, and find out how we can support and guide you to a happier, healthier place.

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