Living with an Alcoholic

Living with an alcoholic is quite a challenge to say the least and usually presents those affected with a variety of life-altering circumstances and difficult decisions that must be made.

Alcoholism in the household has long-term physical, emotional, spiritual and social consequences for everyone involved. The non-alcoholic spouse or partner will carry scars into their old age and children will carry their scars into adulthood. No one makes it through unscathed.

Approximately 18 million Americans are struck by alcoholism, so that means there are a great many families out there enduring this often unbearable situation. Unfortunately, when an alcoholic spouse is ready for help, all that is available to them is AA and the 12 steps, which most often results in a failure to stay sober.

Alcoholism is a health condition that originates within neurotransmitters in the brain, not the result of weak will, character flaws, mental disorders, spiritual flaws etc. and can be successfully addressed with nutrition, diet and changes in lifestyle. Learn the facts about alcoholism addiction and you won't have to live with an alcoholic partner.

The Nature of the Alcoholic

There's no way to candy coat it or spin it in a different light, living with an alcoholic is dysfunctional and abusive by nature, even if they aren't hitting you or calling you names; because they are unable to adequately meet the emotional needs of those around them.

Most active alcoholics are self-absorbed, incapable of seeing the reality of the situation, in denial, irresponsible, and incapable of healthy communication and true intimacy. They fail to recognize how their behavior hurts others and often fail to meet obligations or follow through with promises or commitments.  All of these factors have a profound impact on the lives of others.

Depending on the situation, the non-alcoholic partner will face at least several of these scenarios: increased stress, embarrassment, emotional pain, financial difficulties, anger, helplessness, sadness or depression, anxiety, loss of intimacy and connection. 

Children who grow up with an alcoholic parent or caretaker usually end up as adults who have great difficulty in intimate relationships, they have relationships with alcoholics or people with other addictions. They feel depressed, anxious, have low self-esteem and self-worth, develop addictions of their own, carry a great deal of buried anger, feelings of deep loss, internal deprivation, sadness and emptiness that they can't explain.

On the other hand, the alcoholic is not a bad person and likely has a lot of good qualities as well, so all those living with an alcoholic are likely to feel guilty and conflicted about the negative feelings they have towards the alcoholic. They often feel responsible, helpless, confused and desperate.

Living with an Alcoholic Spouse

Living with an alcoholic husband or living with an alcoholic spouse is more of a dilemma than it is for someone who isn't married because they have made a commitment -- for better or worse, in sickness or in health -- so their decisions and actions may be different from those who aren't married or don't have children together.  The unmarried partner can walk away a little bit easier.

Alcoholism is a chronic brain disorder, however it is a unique condition in the way that it impacts family, friends and significant others. In most health conditions, the one inflicted does not engage in destructive behavior that hurts the family. The family often feels conflicted, because on one hand they feel they should support the alcoholic who has this terrible disorder, but on the other hand they are angry and hurt by their actions.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

You will find some mental health professionals who say you should leave an alcoholic and others who don't. In my opinion, there is not a right or wrong answer and it will depend on many factors. 

For someone who isn't married I would be more inclined to lean towards leaving, after giving them ample opportunity to address the issue. However, not everyone will feel that is an acceptable option. If the alcoholic is not willing or capable of change, it can only get worse. Alcoholism and all the destruction that accompanies it will progress. There is no reason that anyone should feel they must subject themselves to a lifetime of destruction from alcoholism.

Those living with an alcoholic spouse have a much more complicated situation at hand. The impact of alcoholism on the marriage is vast and complicated. Their decision to stay or leave could take into account things like: how often the unacceptable behavior occurs, how deeply it is affecting them and other family members, how far alcoholism has progressed, how much the alcoholic contributes to the household, how many of their emotional needs are being met and whether the alcoholic is making a sincere effort to stay sober.

Men are a lot less likely to continue living with an alcoholic spouse than a woman is, because of stigma. If it is the woman living with an alcoholic husband ,there may be other factors that impact their decision such as finances, children, work skills, self-esteem etc.

What is right for one person, may not be right for another. So whether you decide to stay or leave, there is no reason to feel guilty - either option is okay.  Do what is right for you and your situation and what you can live with. You are always free to weigh your options again at any time and change your mind. Perhaps you'll choose to stay for awhile, but leave at a later date. Maybe you'll leave for awhile, but decide to return.

However, whatever you do, always do it with your eyes wide open. Be aware of the consequences of staying, know what your dealing with and face it head on. Don't be in denial or oblivious to the challenges you face and the impact it will have on your life. Be realistic and honest with yourself and don't enable the alcoholic.

Do's and Don'ts for Living with an Alcoholic

If the non-alcoholic partner continues living with an alcoholic, the crucial key to maintain their sanity is they must set firm boundaries on what is acceptable behavior and how they will interact with the alcoholic. They must protect themselves, and the children, as much as possible from the wrath of alcoholism.

  • Under no circumstance is physical or verbal abuse acceptable. If physical abuse occurs, then you should have them arrested and press charges. Make them face the consequences of their behavior.
  • Do not ever cover for the alcoholic. Again, they must always be forced to accept the consequences of their behavior.
  • Do not fix things for them. If you cover for them and fix things, they will never feel motivated to change.
  • Do not protect them from themselves.
  • Do not lie for them.
  • Do not call them off work.
  • Do not make excuses for them.
  • Do not lie to the children.
  • Don't deny the children's reality. If the alcoholic spouse or partner does something that hurts them, acknowledge the behavior is inappropriate and validate their feelings. Allow them to be angry and express themselves.
  • Do not allow the alcoholic to abuse the children.
  • Try to minimize the impact on the children as much as possible, but always be honest and up front.
  • Educate children about alcoholism and explain that it is the disorder that makes their parent behave in this way, the parent is not a bad person.
  • Find other ways to get the emotional needs of the family met with friends, family, social programs, Big Brothers or Sisters program, etc.
  • Don't engage in name-calling, belittling or berating in front of children.
  • Have your own life and keep it as full as possible.
  • Get emotional support from friends or a counselor. Make sure you have someone that you can vent with.

There is not a clear-cut or easy answer for living with an alcoholic. The most that can be achieved is making the best of a bad situation. It's crucial to be aware that the primary factor that brings an alcoholic to the point that they desire to change is pain and loss. It will be the consequences they must face either/or physically, emotionally, socially, financially, familial, etc., as a result of their drinking, that will motivate them to seek recovery. That is why it is essential that you do  not protect, make excuses, cover up or lie.

If there is ever any hope of recovery, the alcoholic must be held accountable for their actions. Not only that, it is honesty, awareness and no enabling that will get the other members of the family through the situation with the least amount of damage. Once the alcoholic is ready for change, then present them with the truth about alcoholism and they can achieve craving-free and permanent sobriety.