Many people recognise that being an alcoholic or having another addiction is a huge challenge. However, others suffer as well. Living with or being around an alcoholic or addict can be just as difficult. Whether you’re a friend, family member or a partner of an alcoholic, life is likely not easy for you. It gets even more difficult if its your spouse or cohabiting partner who is addicted. Arguments, lies, financial and social hardships – does this sound familiar? You may even be enabling your partner in their addiction. So whether you have just realised there is a problem, or whether you have reached the end of your patience, what can you do to help your loved one?
“If you think it’s hard being an alcoholic, try living with one!”
Addiction clinics and treatment centres have started offering counselling and support for families and friends of alcoholics for a reason. It has long been known that addiction takes a toll on everyone around the person in question. That is why it is called “the family disease”.
According to studies, the wives of alcoholics face many of the same problems. A similar effect on the husbands of alcoholics must also be true. They include:
- Taking our their anger on or ignoring their children
- Feeling mentally unstable
- Poor self-care
- Decreased social life
- Shame and embarrassment
- Financial problems
- Physical abuse
- Suicidal thoughts
There are a number of issues that arise from living with an alcoholic, including emotional, psychological and physical ones. It is important to understand how they are impacting you and what could happen as a result. Not only will it help you make the best decisions going forward, but it will also make it easier to help your partner.
Even if there are no visible consequences of cohabitation with an alcoholic, it does take an emotional toll on you. Addiction has the power to change people, so it may be that the person living with you now is not the same person you fell in love with.
They may directly blame you for their problem, or act out by pouring themselves a drink if you begin to nag. They can also make hurtful comments, which you may not take to heart at first, but which plant a seed of self-defeatism in your mind.
This can cause you to “walk on eggshells” around them, afraid to trigger their alter drinking ego. That, unfortunately, does no good for anyone. Surely, you’re not perfect, but no one is. You should never fear speaking up about something that bothers you in a healthy relationship.
The emotional impact is quite strong, because even if you don’t realise, you will naturally react to being hurt. The consequences of your reaction can be just as damaging as your partner’s drinking, and can make the problem worse.
Emotional stress can hurt your physical well-being over time. Being constantly reminded that you’re not worth it can cause you to take poor care of yourself. You may even pick up a bad habit such as drinking, smoking or drugs as well.
Even if you don’t harm yourself, you may end up in a violent or abusive relationship. This is often the case for women, who tend to feel the need to take care of their partner no matter how bad their behaviour is, and thus become codependent.
Secrets and Lies
Because we are a social species, many of us are concerned about what others think. So, it is normal to take extra steps to make your life seem better. Oftentimes, we do so simply to boost our own self-esteem.
So, what happens when things do downhill, and your once-perfect partner is now a mess? You may try to ignore the problem and cover up their mishaps, thus enabling them to keep drinking.
Alternatively, you may accept and forgive their behaviour, because you believe that’s what a good partner does. You may even end up lying to yourself about the severity of the situation.
Being honest about the issue is normally the best course because we can then open up to a friend or receive professional help. There may be a danger in speaking to a person not knowledgeable about addiction or alcoholism, as they may not understand your situation. Worse, they may even blame you for making a problem worse. But provided that you are careful whom you choose to talk to, it will have a beneficial effect.
Hiding your partner’s addiction can hurt your social life as well. Whether you feel judged or are simply uncomfortable about your living situation, you might be inclined to drop out on meet-ups with your friends.
Even if you don’t feel awkward, taking care of an alcoholic can force you to forgo social outings because you fear losing control of the situation. However, if you’re too busy taking care of your partner’s problems to socialise, this will affect your own well-being adversely.
Social considerations extend to other aspects of life such as work. Also, by limiting your social life, you may end up inadvertently hurting those around you. This includes your children, if you have any. For example, because you’re angry with your partner or too busy cleaning up their mess, you may ignore your children’s social needs, or even take out your frustration on them.
Living with an Alcoholic: Robert’s Story
As Robert puts it, “Living with an alcoholic is like having another child.” His wife, who is an alcoholic, created numerous problems for their family. She also caused a lot of emotional damage for her husband. He sums it up as, “Her problem was constantly my problem.”
Because of her drinking, she lost her driving licence, resulting in her having to rely on cabs to get anywhere, creating a financial burden. Robert had no time to be his wife’s personal chauffeur. Because they also have children, Robert was forced to take care of the kids on his own, in addition to holding down a career. To make matters worse, his wife’s drinking and lack of transportation made it hard to get or keep a job herself.
Unfortunately, his wife did not agree to treatment, and was eventually arrested for an undisclosed reason. Despite their many years of happiness and time spent together, the later half of their relationship left him broken. He confessed, “I was secretly happy when she finally got incarcerated.” Because of everything that’s happened, he does not even “miss” his partner.
Just because the problematic person has been removed does not mean that everything has suddenly become fine for Robert. He and his children have been severely damaged by the experience and need to recognise the fact. In such cases, counselling to deal with the emotional pain, such as anger, guilt, and sadness that they must feel, is essential. The continuing support of self help groups for all family members, such as provided by Al- Anon or Alateen, would also be highly recommended.
Claire’s Story of Living with an Alcoholic
“I think I fell in love with my boyfriend because of his drinking. Because I like to drink myself, it was nice to finally find a ‘partner in crime’ that I could go to a bar with. My girlfriends always limited themselves to a couple of glasses of wine or mimosas, but I was more of a tomboy in that aspect. Well, things were perfect, until they were not.
I never questioned his drinking habits because we were young and everyone in their 20s drinks like there’s no tomorrow. It was only after we moved in together that I realised he was using it as self-medication.
I complained about his habits for a year, and let me tell you that was not a pleasant year. Whenever he got drunk, he would randomly sputter out hurtful comments. It’s like he was a whole different person. I seriously thought about leaving him, but couldn’t go through with it. At some point I think I started drinking out of stress instead of enjoyment, and that was when I realised I definitely needed to leave. It wasn’t easy, in my situation, so it took time to figure out where to move to and how to live on my own.
But, then a miracle happened. ‘Miracle’ being that he lost his job exactly when I told him I was done. I saw him transform again in that moment. He changed into the same person I met, and promised me to get treatment and get himself together. Honestly, I was hesitant to stay at that point, but since he finally admitted to having a problem, I thought I would be a horrible person not to help out. It was the right decision. He went to AA and got therapy, and now he’s sober.”
Where Do You Go From Here?
If you haven’t already, at some point you will start to evaluate your next steps. What do you do now? Do you help them or do you leave? These are big questions affecting the rest of your and your family’s life, and you should take as much help and advice as you can get before deciding. Consider consulting family, friends or professionals, and perhaps try a fellowship such as Al-Anon. Remember that you may be emotionally damaged yourself and not in a condition to decide such things alone.
If your partner’s drinking has been going on for a long time, you may be tempted to get up and leave. This is certainly the best option if you feel you are in danger.
Although you may be fuelled with negative emotions, it is almost always best to at least try to help the person. It may not be easy, but it is best to try. They may not have anyone else looking out for them.
How to Help Your Partner
Living with an alcoholic can have its ups and downs. In many cases, things are not always horrible 24/7, which may make you forget the problem at hand, or hope that things will get better.
However, alcoholism is a progressive illness and it tends to get worse. Hence, it is important to address the problem and seek treatment sooner rather than later.
First, try to talk to your partner about their drinking. Choose a time when they’re sober and not hungover, so they can properly listen. Then, encourage them to talk to an addiction specialist, their GP or even attend an AA meeting. None of these options obligate them to receive treatment should they choose not to.
Alternatively, stage an intervention, and don’t hesitate to invite someone you trust or they trust to support you. Your partner may not be aware of how serious their drinking impacts you. This may help them come to terms with the truth.
Should you Leave?
If you are living in a toxic or threatening environment, and the situation appears to be getting worse, it is best to leave. If your partner becomes violent, or makes you fear for your life, you should seek help for yourself right away.
You may hesitate if you have children, or other tying obligations with your partner. However, if you are truly living in danger, you need to realise that any benefits of staying outweigh the benefits of leaving.
This is especially true if you have children. Even if they are not aware of your partner’s alcoholism, they are still affected by it. In addition, living with an alcoholic parent will cause more harm than the hurt they will feel from your separation.
If instead, it is about your partner’s refusal to seek treatment, it may still be best to leave as well. It can work in both your and your partner’s benefit. There are many cases when such an action acts as a “rock bottom” for the alcoholic. In this case, they may finally take responsibility for their behaviour.
Next Steps for Someone Living with an Alcoholic
Whatever your situation may be, you should seek professional support at least for yourself. This can be done via an addiction clinic, counsellor, or a group like Al-Anon. They can give you advice as well on how to deal with your situation, and help you cope with the circumstances.
You can also contact Castle Craig Hospital for advice. Our counsellors and admissions staff can provide you with information about treatment options and help you decide what steps to take next. We can be reached at:
Freephone (UK only): 0808 231 8169
International: +44 1721 788 259
General enquiries: +44 1721 788 289
Page last reviewed and clinically fact-checked | August 19, 2020