What to Do with an Alcoholic Spouse
Introduction: Alcohol addiction is a clear example of what I call a Love Buster because it causes so much suffering in
marriage. Besides being physically and emotionally harmful to alcoholics themselves,
addiction is also harmful to those whose lives touch them. Addiction makes people
insensitive to the feelings of those who care most for them, and they will stop at nothing
to feed their addiction. I am witness to many people whose lives have been ruined
because they married alcoholics.
Alcoholics commonly engage in their most painful habits while under the influence. Acts
of infidelity are common. The fact that he or she is drunk at the time is no consolation to
a grief-stricken spouse.
Women often suffer cruel physical and emotional abuse from their alcoholic husbands.
Even when he is not overtly abusive, he's often disgusting in the way he talks and behaves
when he's drunk.
Children of alcoholics, particularly girls, suffer greatly from the emotional turmoil of their
childhood. Mental health clinics throughout America are aware of the high percentage of
their female clients who have had alcoholic fathers. A survey conducted by an Iowa
mental health clinic found that about 70 percent of the daughters of alcoholic fathers had
been sexually molested at least once by their intoxicated fathers.
Wives of alcoholics usually know about their husbands' sexually abusive behavior toward
their daughters and offer themselves as "bait" to prevent their abuse. The pain suffered
by these women in the privacy of their bedrooms, during these frightening sexual
encounters, is extraordinary.
Many of you who were raised by a parent who was addicted to alcohol can testify to the
nightmare that it brought to your family.
One of the first things I do when couples see me for counseling is to evaluate them for
drug and alcohol addiction. If I feel that either is addicted at the time, I refer the addicted
spouse to a treatment program. The Love Buster,
drug or alcohol addiction, will prevent them from resolving their marital conflicts because
it controls them. It must be eliminated before marital therapy has any hope of being
My job as a marriage counselor begins after successful treatment and sobriety.
If the addicted spouse refuses treatment, then I direct the unaddicted spouse to Alanon or
some other support group for spouses of alcoholics. Sometimes, I encourage an
That's what I learned to do after discovering that an alcoholic is so much in love with
alcohol, that while in the state of addiction, there is no way for them to consider their
spouse's feelings whenever they make decisions, a necessary condition for a great
marriage. Alcohol always comes first, even when it is at the spouse's expense.
But even after sobriety is achieved, it's an uphill battle for the couple. The spouses of
alcoholics are usually so relieved when treatment is successful that they often think their
marital troubles are over. It's true, addiction makes it impossible to resolve marital
conflicts. But sobriety itself doesn't solve them -- it simply makes them solvable.
Once addiction is overcome, a couple is faced with the legions of other Love Busters that were ignored in the shadow of
addiction or were created by addiction.
Some people wonder if they are really alcoholics. They may not go to bars, and they may
not even get drunk very often. What is an alcoholic? My definition of an alcoholic is
someone who cannot follow the Policy of Joint
Agreement because of their craving for alcohol. If your drinking in any form bothers
your spouse, and you cannot or will not give it up for his or her sake, I consider you an
alcoholic because alcohol is more important to you than the feelings of your spouse.
This week, I am posting three letters from victims of addiction. Each one provides a
different perspective on this marital problem that is very difficult to solve.
Dear Dr. Harley,
I have been married 25 years next month, to a man who has an alcohol addiction. After
reading most of the information you have, I can see how your methods could work, but
I don't see how I can apply them to my situation. I also feel that I am probably suffering
from depression, but our marriage is in big trouble - he now feels that he is probably in
love with another woman, who doesn't seem to mind his drinking.
He says that he loves me and can't imagine life without me. I've always hoped someday
we could have a close, loving relationship, but I just don't know what to do. Should I first
get help for my depression, or should I get him to marriage counseling while he is willing?
I have tried before, but he never would agree to it, and I'm afraid if we don't do it now, he
might not be willing again.
We have three children, the youngest being 18, and I had hoped that maybe we could
somehow grow back together when the demands of children weren't such a priority. Is
there any chance of marriage counseling being effective if one partner has an addiction
problem? One of his main complaints is that I don't want to go out drinking with him.
I just need to know where to start.....
You are right. Although they would work if applied, my concepts and methods are very
difficult to apply to your situation. In every marriage, spouses should take each other's
feelings into account whenever a decision is made. I have put that concept into what I call
the Policy of Joint Agreement (never do anything
without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse). If your husband would
have followed that basic rule throughout your marriage, he would never have become
addicted because you would not have enthusiastically agreed to it. The first time he came
home drunk would have been his last.
The Policy of Joint Agreement eliminates all Love Busters, including drug and alcohol addiction.
But it works only if people will apply it to their bad habits. If your husband were to follow
the policy from now on, his addiction would come to an end, and you and he could begin
Because your husband is in love with alcohol, he will not take your feelings into account
when he has an opportunity to drink. He goes to a bar after work, when he knows it will
upset you. Then, doesn't come home for dinner, upsetting you further. He may call,
telling you where he is, thinking he has made an incredible effort to be considerate.
Finally, at 3:00 in the morning, he comes home drunk. The next day he wants you to forget
Your husband is not willing to follow the Policy of Joint
Agreement when it comes to his alcohol addiction, and for that reason alone, my
concepts are difficult to apply to your situation.
Why would anyone want to put up with an alcoholic husband? It's usually because he or
she keeps holding out hope, as you have, that some day the addiction will be over. But as
you become older, and the best years of your life seem to be behind you, a feeling of
hopelessness will grip you, and a deep and pervasive depression caused by the destructive
behavior of your alcoholic spouse will overcome you.
If you want to remain married to your husband, and avoid depression at the same time,
I highly recommend that you do something other than hold out hope for his recovery. I
suggest that you attend an Alanon support group (it is listed in the white pages of your
telephone directory). You will learn what co-dependency is and how you've been co-dependent all these years. Then you will learn not to be co-dependent. For your situation,
I support Alanon enthusiastically in their efforts.
You must learn to regard your husband as hopelessly lost to his alcohol, and that any effort
you make to try to please him will not be reciprocated. His lover will always be alcohol
and that's that. You have never had a chance for a normal marriage with him and never
will have a chance as long as he's addicted.
This message of mine may seem depressing to you when what you want is hope. But
actually it is the path that will lead you out of your depression. As soon as you realize that
he will not meet your needs, and you cannot meet his, you will find your depression
lifting. It would also help if, while you are attending these meetings, you would ask your
doctor to prescribe anti-depressant medication to you. The Alanon people won't support
me in that suggestion because most of them don't encourage the use of any drugs. But
there's a world of difference between alcohol and anti-depressants. One is addicting and
the other is not. And anti-depressant medication will help you rise above the crippling
depression you have been experiencing.
One of my articles that I've posted is, "How the
Co-dependency Movement is Ruining Marriages." In that article I explain that the
co-dependency movement was created for people just like you, and is very appropriate in
situations like yours. But when it's applied to all marriages, it can have devastating effects.
The Co-dependency movement rightfully acknowledges that emotional needs cannot be
consistently met by an alcoholic spouse, nor can someone meet an alcoholic's needs. It's
also hopeless to try to "fix" alcoholic spouses. They either fix themselves, or they don't get
fixed. With these realities in mind, if you want to remain married to an alcoholic, you
must learn to raise emotional defenses in order to survive the pain of the marriage.
The training you receive in Alanon will teach you how to be emotionally withdrawn from
a husband who does not have your best interests at heart. But if you were to have married
someone without an addiction, the same advice could ruin your marriage because you
would be encouraged to withdraw from a man who actually could have met your needs.
In your case, however, your husband cannot, and will not meet your emotional needs, and
you will never be able to meet his, until he becomes sober. So if you want to remain
married to an alcoholic, you may have no other choice but to accept the advice of the co-dependency movement and be emotionally withdrawn from him. Alanon is a good place
to learn how to do that.
Although you should not expect it to happen, your husband may decide some day to be
treated for his addiction to alcohol. If his treatment is successful, I would suggest to you
that you make the very difficult decision to lower your defenses, and try to build a
marriage with him based on the Policy of Joint Agreement. It may take you quite a while
to learn to meet each other's needs after his sobriety, but I've seen many couples achieve
it after treatment, and go on to have a very fulfilling marriage.
But your husband's decision to become sober (not a single drink of alcohol for the rest of
his life) is a long-shot. A better prediction is that you will learn to have a very happy and
fulfilling life without depending on your husband for your happiness or fulfillment.
(Another approach to this problem, an intervention, is described in my answer to the next