What to Do with an Alcoholic Spouse

Letter #1

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 successful.

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 intervention.

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.....


Dear B.L.,

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 creating compatibility.

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 about it.

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 prepare for a separation. Don't threaten him with it -- simply do it. After you are separated, explain to him that he can have a relationship with you or alcohol, but not with both.

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 until he is sober, you will find your depression lifting. It would also help if you would ask your doctor to prescribe anti-depressant medication to you. 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.

Until he is sober, your husband cannot, and will not meet your emotional needs, and you will never be able to meet his. 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 when you separate, your husband may decide to be treated for his addiction to alcohol. If his treatment is successful, I would suggest to you that you 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 be separated for a while, and then eventually divorce. But even it that is the outcome, you will be far happier with that, than what it is you have been going through being married to an alcoholic.

(Another approach to this problem, an intervention, is described in my answer to the next letter)

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