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What to Do When Your Spouse has an Alcohol Problem

Alcoholism can put a tremendous strain on families but it can pose a special threat to a marriage. In a marriage, you’re supposed to look out for one another. It’s a partnership and each partner is responsible for the other. But what happens when your spouse is struggling with a disease that is infecting multiple aspects of their life and there seems to be nothing you can do about it? Alcoholism can feel like a betrayal but it can also feel like your spouse’s life is dwindling away before your eyes.


There are a variety of marital problems that can be caused by things that relate to alcohol without actually involving an alcohol use disorder.

If your spouse spends too much time at bars and clubs with friends, it can cause some resentment without slipping past the boundaries of normal social drinking. However, they may begin abusing alcohol before they meet the qualifications for dependency or addiction.

Alcohol abuse has its own dangers and concerns. It can lead to alcohol poisoning, a variety of health risks, and accidents caused by intoxication. If a person is under 25-years-old and engaging in frequent binge drinking over a long period of time, it can cause cognitive issues and stunted brain development.  Alcohol abuse can lead to alcoholism when tolerance builds and a chemical dependence develops. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, there are 11 signs that point to an alcohol use disorder (AUD) that you could potentially notice in your spouse. Generally, they have to do with drinking cravings and being unable to cut back or stop using alcohol.

Another telltale sign of an AUD is drinking alone at odd hours. It’s a major red flag if a spouse requires a drink to start the day. Alcohol’s half-life usually means it is significantly reduced after five to eight hours. This will cause a person who is dependent to start feeling withdrawal symptoms in the morning, after a night of drinking.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines addiction as compulsive drug seeking despite negative or harmful consequences. If alcoholism has led to health problems, issues at work, or put a strain on your relationship, and your spouse still continues to drink, it can be a sign of alcohol addiction.


The term functioning alcohol is often used in American culture and society. But is there really such a thing as an alcoholic that is functional? Alcoholism is marked by alcohol dependence and a deep seeded chronic brain disease. Addiction, in general, controls your life, and your schedule is centered on avoiding withdrawal symptoms and maintaining your addiction. Plus, it usually progresses as your tolerance grows. You need more alcohol and to drink more often to stave off painful and dangerous withdrawal. While some people maybe be earlier on in the process, alcoholism is a complex disease. Even if it doesn’t seem debilitation now, it may become worse soon.

Plus, alcohol withdrawal can be potentially deadly. If your life is centered on having to find your next drink to maintain your addiction, what happens if you find yourself in a situation where you can’t drink? Things like surgeries, medical procedures, and pregnancies are complicated by the presence of alcohol in your system. It can also be difficult to travel safely while under the influence. If you are put in a position in which you don’t have access to alcohol, you can experience dangerous withdrawal symptoms like seizures and delirium.

Functional alcoholism may just be a distinction that points out that a person suffering from alcoholism is still in their early stages. However, there is no version of alcoholism that is safe and functional in the long-term.

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When alcoholism comes into a marriage, it can cause a rift to form between you and your spouse. However, it can also cause some specific problems and pains among spouses. You may fear for their safety, your future as a couple, or the impact it’s having on your family. Addiction is often referred to as a “family disease” because of the way it can negatively impact friends, family members, and loved ones. Spouses, in particular, feel a sense of responsibility that can lead to the following negative feelings:

  • Blame. Though alcoholism is caused by a number of factors like genetics, environment, and upbringing, it ultimately comes down to the individual decision to use alcohol in excess. Still, it’s not uncommon for spouses to feel guilty or for an intoxicated person to blame their spouse.
  • Taking alcoholism personally. Addiction, in general, often involves a lot of lying and secrets. Users often try to hide drug and alcohol use from people they are close to. People who suffer from alcoholism may declare to a spouse that they will never drink again, but without treatment, this can be incredibly difficult and relapse is likely. A spouse may feel hurt, betrayed, or lied to when alcoholic relapses. However, it’s important to realize that addiction is out of a person’s control and requires treatment.
  • The need for control. A spouse might feel the need to control or fix a problem with alcohol. If your husband or wife spends too much time at the bar, you may try to keep them at home. You may try to otherwise coerce them into quitting to keep them safe. However, you can’t control their addiction any more than they can.


Alcoholism was once a highly stigmatized issue in the United States. And even though it has come to be recognized as a chronic disease, rather than a simple moral failing or bad habit, it’s still considered an embarrassing diagnosis. If you approach your spouse by simply saying, “you’re an alcoholic,” it’s more likely to lead to resentment than real change. Instead, try bringing up recent consequences and how they are connected to drinking. Things like insomnia, depression, fatigue, and high blood pressure are consequences of frequent drinking and alcohol abuse. Pointing out issues and how they can be caused by drinking can raise your spouse’s awareness that there might be a problem.


Ignoring alcoholism and addiction is often a person’s first instinct when it comes to substance abuse in a loved one. It’s hard to address big topics, especially one as sensitive as addiction.

However, ignoring the problem can often prolong the issue.

If you have been drinking more often and you think you might have a problem, but the people closest to you have never said anything, you might use it as a litmus test to justify more drinking.

They may think, “If it’s not bothering anyone then maybe it’s not a problem at all.”

Imagine all of the behaviors and idiosyncrasies in your life that you didn’t even realize until a friend pointed them out to you. The same thing can happen with addiction.

If your own spouse doesn’t mention a potential problem with alcohol, maybe there isn’t a problem at all.

On the other hand, if your spouse does notice changes and negative impacts of your drinking, maybe your alcoholism has gone beyond normal social drinking.


It’s important to avoid enabling behaviors, and this might be especially challenging for a spouse. Enabling is defined by protecting a person from consequences that are caused by their addiction. This can be small things like lying to cover for them when they miss an event because they were hung over. Or then they can be big things like sacrificing your own health and well-being to save them from their own self-inflicted consequences. Here are some other examples of enabling behaviors that you should do your best to avoid:

  • Ignoring behaviors that are unacceptable and inappropriate
  • Putting your needs behind covering for alcoholism
  • Avoiding the expression of your own emotions
  • Lying to cover a mistake caused by alcoholism
  • Fearing that not covering for them will result in terrible consequences (divorce, violence, argument).
  • Blaming other people or yourself for issues caused by a spouse’s alcoholism
  • Continuing to offer help when it is unappreciated, unacknowledged, or even resented


The friends and family members of people who are going through addictions may feel powerless at times. In some cases, it’s difficult to convince someone that they need help before they feel that they’re ready. It’s difficult to watch a loved one, especially a spouse, go down the path of addiction. However, while you can’t force someone into realizing that they need help and you can’t control their addiction, there is something you can do. And if your spouse is struggling with alcoholism and you’re reading this now, you’ve already started. Educating yourself about how alcoholism works, the difference between enabling and helping, and how addiction can be treated can help you become a valuable member of your spouse’s support system.


If you believe that your spouse might have a problem with alcohol, you may feel powerless but there is something you can do to help. Learn more about addiction treatment and how to get help for your spouse so you are prepared for when they are ready to seek help. Speak to the addiction treatment specialists at Delphi Behavioral Health Group to learn more about the treatment options that can help your spouse achieve sobriety and make it to the road to recovery. Addiction may be a chronic disease that’s difficult to overcome on your own, but with help, you may be able to make it to lifelong recovery.


National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Alcohol’s Effects on the Adolescent Brain. Retrieved from

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Alcohol Use Disorder. Retrieved from

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018, July). Drug Misuse and Addiction. Retrieved from




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