Alcoholic Spouse in Addiction and Recovery

Alcoholic Spouse in Addiction and Recovery

Alcoholism is a Family Disease

Living with somebody who has a drinking problem is traumatic. Not only is this person damaging their own physical and mental health, but they can be the source of dysfunction within the family. Alcoholism is associated with different types of abuse, and the spouse may feel that the addiction is destroying their life as much as it is the addict’s life. There can also be financial problems and a great deal of shame about the situation. The spouse may spend a lot of time covering up for their poorly functioning partner. Alcoholism is often referred to as a family disease because of the havoc it can create inside the family unit.

The Spouse of an Alcoholic

While the focus of addiction treatment will tend to be on the addict themselves, it is often the case that their spouse can be in need of help too. This is because the coping strategies they have developed to deal with the situation can be maladaptive. In some instances, the spouse will have developed mental and physical problems as a result of the abuse. Chronic stress is harmful if it is not dealt with appropriately. The spouse of the alcoholic may feel that they are to blame for the situation and almost instinctively make excuses for their partner’s poor behavior.


Some spouses will adapt to the abnormal situation by becoming co-dependent. They unconsciously become so impacted by their spouse’s behavior that they make it part of their own sense of self. The needs of the other person take over. The co-dependent partner becomes almost addicted to the chaos, and this means that they can start to be part of the problem. The partner who becomes co-dependent will suffer from low self esteem and be willing to follow the often tyrannical rule of the addict. They may even deny that there is an alcohol problem, and by doing so further enable the alcoholic.

Coping with an Alcoholic Spouse

The alcoholic can be a highly destructive force within a marriage. It may almost appear as if they are holding their family hostage, and in a way they are. Outsiders might wonder why the spouse of an alcoholic just doesn’t leave. However, this can be a lot more difficult to do when the individual is actually in the position. Abandoning a partner they love and breaking a marriage vow is difficult. Children may be involved. Many spouses of alcoholics will hang on, in the hope that things will change in the future. Those who have become co-dependent may have reached a stage where they are convinced they would struggle to cope outside the dysfunctional relationship. There are some highly functioning alcoholics who are able to keep things together much of the time, creating hope that the problem may abate.

Responsibility and the Spouse of an Alcoholic

The spouse of an alcoholic is not responsible for the actions of their partner. This might sound logical but many of those living with an alcoholic will blame themselves. This is one reason why they may put up with behavior that appears completely unacceptable. In order to better deal with the situation, the spouse needs to accept that they are not responsible for their partner’s alcoholism. All the responsibility for their drinking belongs to the alcoholic spouse and so does the responsibility for recovering from addiction. It is not possible to get somebody else sober, but it is right to support their efforts to do so.

Helping an Alcoholic Spouse

The only way that an alcoholic can escape addiction is when they develop the willingness to enter recovery. This willingness may occur as a result of hitting rock bottom. This bottom occurs when the addict has fallen as low in life as they want to go. They can’t face another as an alcoholic, and so now they now have the motivation to change. While it may not be possible for the spouse of an alcoholic to make this day arrive, they can do a lot to stop preventing it from occurring. This means not enabling the addict and not protecting them from the consequences of their behavior.

Once an alcoholic has become ready to get help, there is a lot that the spouse can do to support them. It is important that the alcoholic seeks this help quickly before their resolve begins to fade. The person seeking help will need to do a lot of the work themselves, but their spouse can help by finding information about treatment options and offering encouragement.


Al-anon is a 12 step group that offers support to spouses and other members of the alcoholic’s family. The aim of these groups is to provide an outlet for those affected by alcoholism to share their problems. Like members of AA, the spouse is encouraged to practice the 12 steps. This involves knowing when to let go and when to offer support. Those who attend these meetings can find that it makes living with an alcoholic a lot easier. Members are encouraged to continue attendance even when their partner is in recovery from addiction.

Problems in Recovery

When an alcoholic enters recovery there can be a sense of relief for everyone involved. The spouse will be relieved that finally the nightmare might be over. Their partner will now be able to function normally within the family and finances will also improve. Adjusting to life in sobriety can be difficult though, not only for the individual who has walked away from the booze, but also everyone else around them, especially a spouse.

The spouse who has become co-dependent can find the change particularly difficult. For years, their life revolved around the partner’s addiction, but now that is over. The care-giving role that once provided an identity has disappeared. This type of change can come as a shock. It may be necessary for the co-dependent spouse to attend a support group or receive counseling.

When an alcoholic becomes sober, it will usually change the dynamics in the family. Although things will have been dysfunctional, the family likely adapted into different roles. The newly sober husband or wife will change the dynamics inside the family, and this can take a lot of getting used to. Change can be stressful, and it can sometimes lead to resentment and stress on the family. However, things can improve over time as people adjust to the new situation.