What to Do with an Alcoholic Spouse
Dear Dr. Harley,
My wife and I have been married 12 years and have two children, ages seven and three.
We have always had a good relationship, but things have turned sour in the last year. I
know that she still loves me, but I don't know what's going on. My best guess is that my
wife has a drinking problem.
When I have confronted her with my suspicions, she thinks I'm crazy because she holds
down a job and is very good at what she does. But her drinking problem is affecting our
She goes to the bar after work once or twice a week, and has been drunk at least once a
week since October. When she doesn't go to the bar, she drinks two to four beers a day.
Her mother and three siblings are all alcoholics. I have been trying to spend a lot more
time with her because of what I have read on your web site because I thought that this
would eliminate her need to go out drinking, but it has not. It is like she has to have a fix.
She tells me that we cannot go out together because we do not have enough money. Then
she will go out and spend $50 or more at a bar. Last Friday she spent almost $100! We
have many bills that are late because she feels that it is her right to have a good time. She
works about 10 hours of overtime and insists that the overtime pay is her party money.
When we do finally go out together she is burned out from either working or partying.
Last Thursday we were to have a lunch date. She went to the bar Wednesday night and
could not work her overtime Thursday morning because she overslept. We had to cancel
our date so she could work through lunch.
When we were first married we both liked to party. I still like to go out and have a good
time but the alcohol does not control me. I seldom drink at home because of my children.
I am not in very good standing with my wife right at this moment. I wrote a letter
explaining how I felt about her behavior and she did not take it too well. She takes great
offense when confronted about her drinking.
What do you think that I can do?
Alcohol addiction can sneak up on a person. It's an addictive substance, which means that
if you drink enough of it, you will develop a physical and emotional need for it. Even you
could become an alcoholic if you got into the habit of drinking regularly. Who knows,
maybe you are already an alcoholic and don't even know it.
A good test of whether or not you are an alcoholic is to ask yourself, am I willing to stop
drinking entirely if it would make my spouse feel more comfortable? If total abstinence from
drinking would be very difficult if not impossible for you, even if it made your wife more
comfortable, you're an alcoholic. Alcohol, in that case, would be more important to you
than your wife's feelings.
My test for alcohol addiction is simply an application of the Policy of Joint Agreement. In every marriage, spouses
should avoid gaining at each other's expense, and the policy is followed, thoughtless
behavior is eliminated. But when something is so important to a spouse that it prevents
him or her from following it, whatever is that important will ruin the marriage.
Some alcoholics have told me that they can stop drinking whenever they like, but they
choose not to. They claim that they're not alcoholics, it's just that they don't want to follow
the Policy of Joint Agreement. But that explanation
makes it even worse from their spouse's perspective. What they're saying is that they
freely choose to hurt their spouses feelings. With addiction, at least, their thoughtless
behavior is attributed to their being out of control. In most cases, it really is addiction that
makes them so reckless with their spouses emotions.
Your wife's addiction to alcohol may have developed very recently, and that's a very
positive factor. Treatment for an alcohol addiction is much more likely to succeed if the
addiction began within the past year. Another encouraging factor is her love for you.
Prior to her addiction, you and she seem to have had a loving relationship and that fact
will also help pull you both through this crisis.
Sometimes those who love and care for someone addicted to alcohol get together to
encourage him or her to admit themselves to treatment. It's called an intervention. Your
wife's alcoholic behavior is described to her by each person in the group who has
witnessed it, and a treatment program that you have already investigated is ready to admit
Your local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous can help you learn what it is and organize
one for you. If your wife has a mother and three siblings who are alcoholic, at least one
of them may have already been exposed to an intervention, and may be willing to help you
The down-side of an intervention can be resentment. Alcoholics often feel that the very
ones who have cared for them the most are ganging up on them. They often agree to go
to treatment, not because they think they need it, but because of the threats made by their
friends. When the treatment has ended, they no longer feel that they can trust their
In your case, you may be able to encourage your wife to enter treatment without making
any threats. And during treatment you may be able to prove to her that you care about her
as much as ever. If it's done right, when treatment is over, she will have a better
relationship with those who joined the intervention than she had with them before it
Since your wife became addicted to alcohol, it has become her lover, and you will not be
able to compete with it. Her need for alcohol will override all of her other interests,
including you and your children. When you suggested to her that she slow down on her
drinking, she became angry with you, because she needs it so badly.
She does not want to believe that her drinking is a problem, and short of an intervention,
you may not be able to convince her. Your efforts will only make her angry, and she may
try to find someone else who will support her dependency. An intervention has proven
to be one of the best and most effective ways of delivering help, and it may be your only