In presenting tips for dealing with an alcoholic spouse, there are many ways in which it is like many other progressive and ultimately fatal diseases. Alcoholism is painful. It is painful to the alcoholic and to partners, children, parents, siblings, co-workers and others who are affected by the tornado of this disease as it roars through their lives.
In some ways, it is different however. If one’s spouse has brain cancer, or kidney faiure or Lou Gehrigs disease, there is a sense of blamelessness. There is usually an absence of shame in acknowledging the illness of our family member and there is a general feeling that everyone is willing to pitch in and and “try to beat this thing”. Alcoholism inspires a different response in the sufferer, the spouse and the community at large.
The first tip for dealing with an alcoholic spouse is to push back against the shame and secrecy of alcoholism. If alcoholism is a disease, which it is as defined by the American Medical Association, it is something to openly acknowledge. Self-honesty is essential. If one is married to an alcoholic, a disease has invaded the couple and the family, if there are children. There will be erratic behavior, emotional distress, sometimes drunken episodes. There will be a lack of consistency and control. There will be irritability, broken promises, depression and despair. Our spouse is ill and there is no point in concealing it.
If we remain secretive, or as some like to phrase it initially, “private” about it, those symptoms often become part of our own psychological make-up. It is healthy and forward-looking to openly acknowledge to ourselves, our families and friends that our spouse has a disease and it is alcoholism. If he or she is willing to seek treatment, either medically or through Alcoholics Anonymous, we may continue on together.
After we are open with ourselves, our spouse and our support system about the problem, the next step is setting the limit that treatment or some very structured form of self-help must be sought. If our spouse is unwilling to do this, or unconvinced of the problem, we face a hellish crossroad. We can continue on in the downward spiral of alcoholism or we can leave. Either one of these choices can be excruciating but remaining with a drinking alcoholic is a pain that rarely progresses into something more constructive. Many alcoholics have achieved sobriety when they realize they are in danger of losing their spouse or family. There are some who insist and persist on descending all the way to the bottom of their disease but in that case one would need to save themselves and their children at any cost.
Enabling the alcoholic to continue drinking and damaging him or herself and others is not love. Accepting abuse is not love. Fueling another’s disease is not love. Exposing children to a drinking parent is child abuse. Acknowleding the disease and setting painful limits are the first steps for the spouse of an alcoholic in moving toward health and a new freedom.