Identifying and addressing a drinking problem can be an extremely touchy subject. Not only can it be tough to determine if someone’s drinking is truly a problem (and how severe that problem is), it can be even more challenging to try to approach him or her with that problem. People tend to be resistant to accusation or criticism, and can react unfavorably to the suggestion that they might have a problem. In fact, denial and resistance are extremely common components of alcohol dependence.
But before we get too far, let’s get a few things out in the open.
First, a “drinking problem” is a very broad definition. There are some established criteria for identifying “alcohol dependence” (which we’ll get to in a moment), but defining a “problem” is going to be a little more unique to your marriage. Only the two of you can determine what’s problematic for your relationship. Even if it doesn’t meet the textbook descriptions of alcoholism or alcohol dependence, if drinking is causing issues in your marriage in any way – it’s a problem that needs addressing.
Next, alcohol dependence has less to do with quantity than many people think, and is instead determined more by people’s behavior surrounding alcohol, as well as the physical toll it has taken on their bodies. The two physical signs to look for are:
- 1. Tolerance – if the person has developed a high tolerance for alcohol, meaning that they are having more drinks than they used to, or more than other people to achieve the same effect.
- 2. Withdrawal Symptoms – If a person is experiencing withdrawal symptoms, it means that their body is becoming more and more accustomed to imbibing alcohol on a regular basis, and when they don’t, their body reacts negatively. Symptoms include nausea, sweating, shaking, and anxiety. These symptoms tend to get worse over the course of the day (and are different than a typical hangover). Withdrawal symptoms are an extremely telltale sign of addiction.
Other behavioral factors also indicate when excessive drinking is becoming a true addiction. If people are drinking more than they intend to on a regular basis, or if they are talking about drinking less or quitting, yet continue to fail to change their behaviors, these are indications that they have trouble with self-control.
The third phase of factors that indicate alcohol dependency has to do with how alcohol affects an individual’s ability to participate in other factors of their lives. If your spouse is arranging their social life around places they can drink, avoiding events or places without alcohol, or is choosing to stay home and drink instead of attending family or social functions, drinking has become a lifestyle choice – and that likely indicates problems and addiction.
This can go even further, when people are seeking to cover up the amount they drink, are overly concerned with how and when they are going to acquire alcohol, or if they’ve been approached about the problem but continue to drink anyway. If it’s beginning to affect work and day-to-day function, things have certainly become a serious problem.
Now, even if you can readily identify your spouse’s behavior as alcohol dependency, approaching them about the issue can still be very difficult. Again, denial and resistance are common components of addiction.
It’s going to be a tough road no matter what, but if your spouse is struggling with alcohol dependence, they need your help. Here are a few tips to help you approach this difficult conversation:
1. Outside Counseling
Marriage counselors, couples counseling, addiction recovery groups, substance abuse counselors, etc., have the tools and expertise to help you and your spouse navigate this difficulty. Even if you haven’t approached your spouse about their problem, contacting organizations that specialize in alcohol dependence and addiction recovery can help equip you to deal with the challenges ahead.
2. No Cover Ups
Stop covering for your spouse in terms of their job or questions from the family. Don’t lie for them or minimize their behavior. This may seem harsh, but you can’t let them rely on you to cover up their addiction. In some ways, you’re facilitating their bad habits, and allowing yourself to protect them from the consequences of alcohol dependency.
Don’t say they’re sick or make up excuses why they couldn’t attend a function. Be honest and transparent, and also, allow your spouse to explain themselves (instead of covering for them by default).
3. Throw Away The Generalities
When you do approach them about the problem, don’t talk about broad things that alcohol addiction does, talk specifically about what your spouse is doing. This is usually best when they are sober, and perhaps feeling guilty or sheepish about their behavior. They need to understand exactly the damage they are causing specifically.
You don’t have to face this problem alone. Recruit friends and family members to help you. There is strength in numbers, and showing your spouse that there are other people concerned for their wellbeing will resonate with them – and hopefully make them admit to their problem. You can approach the person individually, or come together for a more “intervention” style sit down. Be sure to include people that love and care about your spouse – the primary message is that you want what’s best for them.
5. Line In The Sand
After you’ve talked about the problems at hand, sought counseling, etc., it’s important to let your spouse know how badly they are hurting the relationship, and let them know in clear terms that you can’t stay if they don’t change their ways. This isn’t meant to be a threat or to scare tactic – it has to be true, you have to stick to your guns, and they have to understand exactly what they are doing if they choose not to find help with their alcohol dependency.
This is an extremely sensitive subject, and there’s a certainly a wide range of specifics that are going to make every case unique, but hopefully this information and these tips can help you understand the severity of your spouse’s problem, and give you some confidence when approaching them about the tough topic alcohol dependency.