Living with an Alcoholic
By The Recovery Village
Editor Abby Doty | Medical Reviewer Jenni Jacobsen, LSW
Last Updated: June 6, 2023
Editorial Policy | Research Policy
Alcohol abuse is common in the United States. Recent research2 shows that within a given year, around 13.9% of the population meets diagnostic criteria for an alcohol use disorder — the clinical term for alcoholism or alcohol addiction. Furthermore, data8 from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) shows that 25.8% of American adults engage in binge drinking within a given month.
With alcohol abuse being so common, it may be difficult to determine whether you’re living with an alcoholic. There are some signs that can point toward alcoholism and give you a clearer picture of whether your spouse has an alcohol problem.
Alcoholism Is a Family Disease
You’ve probably heard someone say that alcoholism is a family disease, and there is truth to this. Studies8 show that about 50% of alcoholism is heritable, meaning that around half of a person’s risk of developing alcoholism is due to genetics. It quite literally runs in families.
It can also be a “family disease” in that research1 shows that the wives and mothers of those with addictions are likely to become codependent, meaning that all of their energy becomes focused on “fixing” or “saving” the person with the addiction. This results in poor physical and emotional well-being, self-sacrifice and neglect of one’s own needs. For this reason, close family members of an alcoholic often also require treatment.
Related Topic: Is Alcoholism Genetic?
Is My Spouse an Alcoholic?
Binge drinking is common in the United States, but not every case of binge drinking means that a person is an alcoholic. If someone is truly an alcoholic, they will demonstrate signs of alcoholism. Sometimes, the signs may be more subtle, as a person can have a mild case of alcohol use disorder in which they only show two or three symptoms. On the other hand, some cases of alcoholism may be more severe, and a person will show many symptoms.
If your spouse is an alcoholic, they may show some or many of the following signs5:
- Being unable to cut back on drinking, even if they have a desire to do so
- Consuming larger amounts of alcohol than they intend to
- Continuing to drink, even when it causes problems in their relationships
- Drinking even though alcohol worsens a physical or mental health problem
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not drinking
- Developing a tolerance, meaning larger and larger amounts of alcohol are needed to achieve the same effects
- Giving up other activities because of drinking
- Being unable to fulfill duties at work because of alcohol consumption
- Spending a considerable amount of time drinking or recovering from the effects of alcohol
- Having strong alcohol cravings
- Drinking in situations in which it is dangerous, such as drinking and driving
Your spouse may have subtle signs, such as craving alcohol and having a high tolerance, but otherwise be able to function. If your spouse’s alcohol addiction is more severe, they may demonstrate many of the above symptoms and have difficulty functioning at work or keeping up with their family duties.
In some cases, a person can have a problem with alcohol but still manage to keep up with responsibilities at work and fulfill their family obligations. In fact, addiction experts4 have identified five subtypes of alcoholism, one being the functional alcoholic. A functional alcoholic4 is likely to be well-educated with a stable job and family, and one-third of them have multigenerational alcoholism within their families. Unfortunately, because a functional alcoholic can still maintain a job and generally care for themselves and their families, they may be in denial that they have a problem.
The functional alcoholic is likely to have a high tolerance for alcohol. They may even spend all their free time drinking or occasionally engage in dangerous behavior. However, they may use their successful career and lack of serious consequences as reasons why they do not have a problem with alcohol.
Rates of depression are fairly high in functional alcoholics, affecting around 25% of this group4. This suggests that mental health symptoms may be a risk factor for this type of alcoholism.
Alcohol and Relationships
If you’re living with an alcoholic, you probably already know the toll that alcohol takes on relationships. Keep in mind that one of the signs of an alcohol use disorder5 is continuing to drink even when it causes problems in relationships. If your spouse continues to drink, even though you express concern and have had arguments about their alcohol use, this is a pretty clear sign you’re living with an alcoholic.
Alcoholism can cause close relationships to deteriorate because you may lose all trust in your partner. They may hide their alcohol abuse from you or lie about the amount of money they spend on alcohol or legal troubles they are facing.
As noted above, alcoholism can also lead to codependency1. Over time, if you’re living with an alcoholic, you may take on a caretaking role and neglect your own well-being. Trying to save the alcoholic from the consequences of their addiction can take a toll on the relationship.
How To Help an Alcoholic Spouse
When you realize that you’re living with an alcoholic spouse, you probably want to do all you can to help them. After all, you likely long for the days before alcohol took hold and when your relationship was more functional.
If you truly want to help your alcoholic spouse, it is essential that you stop engaging in codependent behaviors. This can include calling them off work sick when they are hungover from drinking, trying to get them out of trouble or giving them money for alcohol. Certainly, you don’t want to see anything bad happen to your spouse, but in the end, codependent and enabling behaviors only make it comfortable for your spouse to continue drinking. They also end up harming your emotional and physical well-being.
If you want to help your spouse, it is critical you have an honest conversation about your concerns. Pick a time when they are not under the influence, and they seem to be in a positive mood. Avoid blaming them or judging their behavior. Instead, be prepared to express your concerns, remind them that you are coming from a place of love and give specific examples of concerning behavior and the negative effects of their alcohol abuse. You might be met with denial and anger, but it is important to remain calm and avoid fighting back. You might have to give your spouse an ultimatum and tell them that you would be glad to help them get into treatment; but if they choose not to go, you may have to step aside from the relationship until they are ready to seek help. This may be difficult to do, but in the end, it could end up saving their life.
Treatment for Alcoholism
When you come to realize your spouse needs treatment for alcohol abuse, there are options available. In most cases, it is critical to start with a professional detox program, as severe cases of alcohol withdrawal can lead to seizures and a potentially fatal condition called delirium tremens. After detox, your spouse can enter either an inpatient or an outpatient rehab program. Those who have a supportive living environment may begin with outpatient alcohol rehab, whereas most patients begin with an inpatient program. In that form of treatment, they live onsite at a treatment facility and then transition to outpatient care in the community after completing inpatient rehab.
For those in the state of New Jersey and the Greater Philadelphia area, The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper offers comprehensive alcohol treatment services in South Jersey and treatment for co-occurring mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. Our medical detox program helps patients stay as safe and comfortable as possible during alcohol withdrawal. After completing detox, they transition to inpatient or outpatient care. Give us a call today to discuss your situation, verify your insurance and begin the admissions process.
Our Recovery Advocates are ready to answer your questions about addiction treatment and help you start your recovery.
- Bortolon, C.B., et al. “Family functioning and health issues ass[…]milies of drug users.” Ciência & Saúde Coletiva, January 2016. Accessed December 12, 2021.
- Grant, Bridget F., et al. “Epidemiology of DSM-5 Alcohol Use Disord[…]lated Conditions III.” JAMA Psychiatry, August 2015. Accessed December 12, 2021.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol Use in the United States.” June 2021. Accessed December 12, 2021.
- National Institutes of Health. “Researchers Identify Alcoholism Subtypes.” June 28, 2007. Accessed December 11, 2021.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder.” April 2021. Accessed December 12, 2021.
- Sachdeva, Ankur, et al. “Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome: Benzodiazepines and Beyond.” Journal of Clinical & Diagnostic Research, September 2015. Accessed December 11, 2021.
- Verhulst, B., et al. “The heritability of alcohol use disorder[…]adoption studies.” Psychological Medicine, August 29, 2014. Accessed December 12, 2021.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” March 2022. Accessed October 25, 2022.