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Frequent or heavy alcohol use can pose a range of challenges, when it comes to maintaining a strong, healthy relationship.

Maybe you have noticed that your spouse or long-term partner is using more alcohol but are unsure about how to support them or bring up the changes you have noticed.

It can help to start by recognizing that terms like “alcoholic” and “alcoholism” are both outdated, inaccurate ways to describe alcohol use disorder (AUD). This shift in language reflects current awareness of AUD as a mental health condition, not a personal choice.

“Alcoholism, which isn’t a clinically recognized term, can hold some stigma,” says Sabrina Spotorno, LCSW, CASAC, a therapist at Monument.

AUD describes a medical condition that is diagnosed by criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Spotorno says that the clinical term is a medical condition, not a moral failing, which helps break down stigma.

Brent Metcalf, a licensed clinical social worker at Tri-Star Counseling, adds that calling someone with AUD an “alcoholic” can further stigma by equating the person with the condition.

Above all, it can help to recognize that your partner didn’t choose to have AUD. That said, they certainly can choose to get help — and you can support them with starting that recovery process and sticking with it.

The 8 strategies below are the starting point for navigating your relationship with a spouse or partner who has AUD.

Spotorno says that learning to recognize the signs of AUD is an important first step, because it can make it easier to identify when they need help.

She says that addressing AUD early can help prevent future consequences.

Key signs of AUD

Some of the most common signs of AUD are different from person to person.

  • They used to enjoy hobbies and activities.
  • frequent changes in mood
  • changes in sleeping habits, appetite, or both
  • withdrawal from family and friends
  • Lying about alcohol use is a crime.
  • irritability when not drinking alcohol
  • blackouts or memory loss after episodes of drinking
  • It can be difficult to fulfill obligations at work, school or home.
  • regularly experiencing withdrawal symptoms once the effects of alcohol wear off, including shakiness, sweating, nausea, a racing heart, anxiety, depression, or restlessness

Not everyone who drinks alcohol frequently will meet criteria.

The diagnostic criteria for AUD are explained.

Spotorno suggests the following steps if you notice some of the signs.

  • When they are sober, choose a time when they can have a private conversation.
  • Give some examples of the behaviors you notice and why they worry you.
  • Explain how those behaviors affect the relationship as a whole.

Spotorno recommends using “I” statements to avoid coming off accusatory and putting them on the defensive. From there, you might ask questions and listen to their answers with empathy.

Try this

You might say something.

  • You have skipped a lot of family gatherings to go out drinking. I feel sad and lonely when I have to go to these events alone. Can you tell me why this has been happening? I want to understand.

There are a number of ways that AUD can affect your relationship. It can affect other people in and out of your household.

According to Brinn Flagg, awen co-founder and family recovery and relationship coach, potential effects of AUD might include:

  • Spending money on alcohol or missing work can cause financial problems.
  • physical, verbal, or emotional abuse that happens during or after an episode of drinking
  • Driving under the influence of alcohol is a reckless or risky behavior after a drinking episode.
  • They try to hide or lie about their drinking.
  • feelings of stress, anxiety, or depression — for both you and your partner — related to their drinking

In a small 2016 study, 30 women whose husbands were receiving treatment for AUD reported a range of physical and emotional health effects:

  • “93.4 percent of them said their husband’s drinking upset them.”
  • 70 percent said they felt anxious.
  • 60 percent of them said they experienced mental distress.
  • “50 percent of people said they were frustrated with their husband’s drinking.”
  • 10 percent said they experienced disrupted sleep

Erika Dalton,LMSW, Creekside Recovery Residences and Buckhead Behavioral Health therapist and case manager, adds that AUD can also raise your chances of relationship codependency. This dysfunctional dynamic happens when one partner begins to sacrifice their needs to better prioritize what they think their partner needs.

Learn how to overcome codependency.

Because alcohol use can also exaggerate emotional states while decreasing self-awareness, it may also lead to problematic behavior, including verbal aggression, according to Metcalf. Even if your partner blacked out and doesn’t remember treating you this way, this behavior still counts as abuse.

Triggers — anything that brings up the urge to drink — can be external or internal.

External Triggers might include people, places, things, and situations.

  • People are hanging out with friends.
  • stopping by a drinking spot
  • There is a bottle of alcohol.

Feelings of loneliness, frustration, or rejection are some of the thoughts that can cause internal triggers.

“Knowing your partner’s drinking habits can make it easier for you to support them when they try to avoid certain factors that might prompt a drinking episode.”

According to a small 2019 study, one of the most common triggers for people with AUD is simply being at a party or bar. That’s why Flagg advises planning and encouraging other social activities that don’t include alcohol.

You could go bowling or to the museum on a date night and have a meal with friends around board games.

It’s OK to ask

“Not sure if your partner’s reaction is related to you?”

Asking questions is possible.

  • When do you like to drink?
  • What happened before you had an urge to drink?
  • Do you feel more like drinking when you are feeling good or bad?

You wouldn’t blame yourself if your partner had cancer, heart disease, or arthritis, would you? In a similar vein, try to keep in mind that your partner’s AUD isn’t your fault — no matter what type of conflict or other challenges you’ve faced in your relationship.

“Blaming yourself for your partner’s drinking will cause undue feelings of guilt and shame,” explains Dalton.

You can\’t cure or control AUD, but you can keep the “3 Cs” in mind.

Beau Nelson, LCSW, Chief Clinical Officer at FHE Health, notes that Al-Anon meetings can often help you reframe your role in your partner’s recovery journey.

The support groups for family members of people with AUD involve discussions.

  • Accepting AUD as a medical condition.
  • Trying to control their behavior is over.
  • learning to prioritize self-care

“Your partner drinking doesn’t mean they want to hurt you or not care about you”

People often drink alcohol because it provides some desired effect, like relief from anxiety, stress, or sadness, Flagg says.

“Nelson encourages cultivating a sense of compassion for any pain they may be dealing with as they experience the consequences of your partner’s drinking.”

Very often, he says, people with AUD feel shame and disappointment in themselves around their drinking. So, nagging and lecturing, name-calling, or making judgmental or critical comments may only further wear away at their self-esteem.

“Make sure they know you are interested in how they feel. It doesn’t hurt to say that you want to learn more so you can support them on their journey to recovery.”

Establishing a safe space can build trust, so showing them you won’t use harsh language or say unkind things can encourage them to open up more candidly about their drinking.

Try this

Instead of:

  • Your drinking at the company dinner really embarrassed me.

Spotorno suggests something.

  • “You didn’t stick to the one-drink limit you set for yourself. Do you want to discuss why that happened?”

You can’t make your partner get help, and you can’t force them to change. Still, you can play an important role in encouraging them to seek support with care and compassion.

When discussing treatment options, aim for a time when they are alert and sober. You might introduce this topic on Saturday afternoon, not before bed, after a long and stressed workday.

Spotorno suggests presenting them with multiple options.

  • A therapist who specializes in treating AUD has counseling with them.
  • Inpatient or outpatient treatment programs are available.
  • Enroll in an online support group.

They may be hesitant to seek support first. If you can dig into what is holding your partner back, you might be able to find some answers. Do they have any specific concerns about treatment?

Spotorno points out that it can be a great way to build empathy and encourage open communication.

If your partner continues to deny drinking and shows little interest in treatment, it may be worth taking a step back. You might revisit some of your concerns about their alcohol use, including how their drinking affects you, any children or other family members, and your relationship as a whole.

They might not feel ready to seek support until they realize how drinking affects their daily life and relationships.

Having a partner with AUD can take a toll on your well-being, which makes it essential to take care of your personal needs — physical and emotional.

Self-care includes setting healthy boundaries with your partner around behaviors you will and won’t accept, says Flagg.

There are boundaries around alcohol-related behaviors.

  • There was no drinking in the house.
  • No joint bank accounts are used to pay for alcohol.
  • Family get-togethers are not attended while under the influence of alcohol.
  • The family car was not being used after drinking.
  • No lying about alcohol use.

Sharing these boundaries with your partner is important, but it is also important to communicate the consequences for ignoring them. For example:

  • If you start drinking at home, I will take the kids and you to my parents house.
  • I will stay the night with a friend if you come home drunk.
  • If you drive my car after drinking, I will take the key away.

When it might be time to take a break from the relationship, clearly defining these non-negotiables can help you.

It may be worth getting support from a therapist as you try to navigate a marriage or partnership with someone living with AUD.

A therapist can offer assistance with devising a self-care plan and coach you on setting boundaries that align with your needs. But they can also help you identify any key signs suggesting it’s time to consider leaving the relationship, if only temporarily.

A therapist can help you explore your options for moving forward in your relationship.

You might suggest marriage counseling if your partner:

  • “Doesn’t seem to be concerned about your needs.”
  • ignores the boundaries you have set.
  • “Doesn’t seem to realize that their alcohol use affects your relationship.”

If a couple is willing to do some self-work at the same time, they will likely benefit from couples therapy.

Couples counseling for relationships that involve abuse is not typically recommended by therapists.

Prioritize your own safety

Spotorno emphasizes the importance of a safety plan for leaving a relationship.

  • Your partner can engage in any form of abuse.
  • “You don’t feel safe when your partner drinks.”
  • “They don’t want to get help because they feel burned out by their drinking.”

She says that love does not have to mean deprivation of safety needs. You deserve the same support and care.

Nelson suggests talking to a trusted loved one, a trained therapist or both if your partner has been abusive.

You can also get confidential support and guidance on safely moving forward by calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE (7233).

There are more resources for relationship abuse.

A partner’s AUD doesn’t just affect their health and your relationship. It can also damage your overall health and well-being.

“You can encourage them to seek support for themselves, even though you can’t force them to. Setting clear boundaries, avoiding self-blame, and pursuing therapy for yourself are all things that should be supported.”

Remember, you can’t cure them. All the same, offering compassion and kindness while communicating your concerns and suggesting avenues for treatment can play a pivotal part in their decision to work toward recovery.

Rebecca Strong is a Boston-based writer who writes about health and fitness, food, lifestyle, and beauty. Her work has appeared in a number of publications.