How to Overcome an Abusive Marriage

What to Do with an Alcoholic Husband Who is Abusive

Letter #5

Dear Dr. Harley,

I've read your Q&A columns and you don't mention a husband who drinks. When my husband drinks he becomes completely irrational and dangerous. The suggestions you make to overcome abuse doesn't seem to address this particular problem.

If a man who is abusive when he drinks will not get help for his drinking, is it right to give an ultimatum? Since this behavior affects not only me, but also our children and their future, what is your take on this?

I have grappled with this problem for eight years. His needs are always ahead of mine and the children. What can you do to change that? Is there ever a point where a woman is justified in leaving? I endured years of physical abuse and emotional abuse. Yet I am still not happy. I want to do the best I can for the children. Please touch briefly on these issues if you will. I know many women who are also in my situation who need the same advice.


Dear C.M.,

A problem drinker is someone who causes problems when he or she drinks. For some, drinking never causes any offense, but for others, it can turn an otherwise thoughtful person into a killer.

The person best suited to identify the problems created by drinking is usually the spouse of the problem drinker. That's because it's the spouse who usually gets the brunt of problems. But the children of the problem drinker are also seriously effected by the problems, and can usually testify to the harm that it has done to them. A study released in Iowa a few years ago reported that about 70% of alcoholic men sexually abuse their daughters at least once. It's done while they are drunk, but that's no excuse for one of the worst acts of child abuse imaginable.

Those who cannot control their behavior when they drink should not drink. But I also feel that those whose drinking bothers their spouse in any way should not drink either. One complaint from a spouse or child should get a person thinking about the appropriateness of their drinking, and a second complaint should be enough to end drinking entirely.

My Policy of Joint Agreement helps create a rule that identifies a drinking problem for what it really is. The policy says, Never do anything without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse. That means if you are not enthusiastic about your spouse drinking alcoholic beverage, he should not drink even a teaspoon of it. If your spouse feels that you are being unreasonable, that he really doesn't have a problem with alcohol, and then he goes ahead and drinks anyway, he is announcing that alcohol is more important to him than your feelings. He is willing to see you suffer, just so he can have a taste of liquor. If that's the case, he is either incredibly thoughtless or addicted to alcohol, or both.

From your letter, it sounds as if it isn't just alcohol that creates conflict in your marriage. It could be that alcohol just makes it much worse. I'll bet that the Policy of Joint Agreement is rarely followed when you have tried to make decisions. That failure has led to your feeling that "his needs are always ahead of mine and the children." That's because you have not built into your marriage foundational principles that help you solve your problems with mutual respect and thoughtfulness.

You also state, "I endured years of physical abuse and emotional abuse. Yet I am still not happy." When I read that, I wondered what you were expecting. Is enduring physical and emotional abuse supposed to make us happy? I always thought it made us unhappy.

If you want a happy marriage, you must first understand what it is that makes marriages happy. It is making decisions with mutual respect and thoughtfulness -- not simply trying to endure each other's disrespect and thoughtlessness. Each decision made in marriage by either spouse should take the feelings of the other spouse into account. But if either spouse tries to sacrifice their own feelings so that the other spouse gets his or her way, the marriage is sure to suffer. Without mutually thoughtful decisions, marriage is usually a nightmare.

The Policy of Joint Agreement is simply a reminder to take your spouse's feelings into account whenever you make a decision. If you don't, that decision will ultimately hurt your marriage.

If you feel that a separation is necessary to protect yourself and your children, I would encourage you to do that. But when you try to restore your marriage after you are separated, begin with the Policy of Joint Agreement, not with your husband's drinking. That's because if you can learn to become thoughtful with each other, by following the Policy of Joint Agreement, you will learn how to resolve all of your conflicts, not just the one about drinking.

I have witnessed many recoveries from alcohol addiction, where the wife thought that once her husband stopped drinking, their marital problems would be over. But it wasn't just alcohol that ruined their marriage -- it was the way they made decisions, the use of alcohol being only one example. They needed to come to grips with alcohol addiction, but even more importantly, they needed to create a thoughtful way to make all decisions, not just the ones having to do with alcohol.

If you make the Policy of Joint Agreement the foundation for your marriage, your husband's drinking problem will be much easier to address. Once he accepts the policy as a cornerstone for the way both of you make decisions, he will see that his drinking violates that policy. In his effort to stop drinking, he will either discover that he is addicted to alcohol, and see the need for professional help, or he will voluntarily quit drinking.

Before you return to your husband, be sure that he agrees to follow the Policy of Joint Agreement. And in following that policy, make sure he has stopped drinking long enough to prove that he is no longer in withdrawal.

Let me make one other suggestion that I learned having operated ten treatment centers for chemical dependency: Before your husband returns home, come to an agreement that if he has just one drink, he will admit himself voluntarily into a treatment center. If he objects to that bargain, that means he is planning to drink after he gets back home with you, and he is not safe to invite back. However, if he agrees to the bargain, and actually admits himself whenever he has that first drink, he will not only protect you from future abuse, but he will save his liver, his brain and most of his other organs as well.

Most alcoholics slip every once in a while. But if a slip gets them right into treatment, it never has a chance to ruin their lives. When in treatment, their family is not terrorized and they do not ruin their own health. Treatment Centers may not cure an alcoholic for life, but they sure can do a good job keeping the addiction at bay, so that an alcholic can live a happy and prosperous life.

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