Living with an alcoholic spouse brings extreme challenges, but there are effective ways of coping and supporting your spouse’s recovery.

Article at a Glance:

One person’s addiction affects the entire family.

A spouse of an addict can choose to do nothing; it’s a common option but often a bad idea.

A spouse can confront the addicted person through a personal conversation or intervention.

Try not to enable your alcoholic spouse by excusing their behavior or caring for them when hungover.

It is important for individuals with an alcoholic spouse to get help for themselves, not just their spouse.

If you’re struggling with alcohol abuse or are involved with someone struggling with alcohol addiction, you’ve likely heard the phrase, “alcoholism is a family disease.” But what exactly does this phrase mean, and what steps should you take if someone’s addiction begins negatively affecting your family life?

“Alcoholism is a family disease” essentially means that one person’s addiction has effects on an entire family, whether that’s physical or verbal abuse, failing to fulfill duties, or the person’s personality changing in ways the family notices.

When this happens, all members should address the effects of alcoholism on themselves individually and as a family unit. Sometimes this means attending Al-Anon meetings, while other times, it means removing yourself from the situation.

The following are options to consider when dealing with an alcoholic spouse:

1. Do nothing. While this may sound like an awful option, it is the decision that many people with alcoholic spouses choose. Sometimes it becomes difficult to separate the person they married from the person their spouse has become. 

Some spouses hold onto memories of the person they first knew and cling to hope that this person will return on their own. In reality, an alcoholic spouse will likely not get better on their own, so doing nothing is not a wise option. In one study of wives of alcoholics, 13% indicated that they coped by viewing the alcoholic spouse as someone who could not change, and nearly one-fourth of the wives used avoidance as a coping method, suggesting that they simply did nothing.

2. Confront them. This could be in a one-on-one conversation or an intervention with others who are concerned about the person. Without confrontation, it’s unfair to expect a person to change. If you never tell them how their actions affect you, they will likely never know.

If not done carefully, confrontation can end badly, especially if the person is a functioning alcoholic in denial or someone who has a history of verbal or physical abuse. In general, it may be smart to have other people present when confronting the alcoholic.

3. Avoid enabling them. This means you can’t take care of them when they’re hungover, make excuses for their behavior, or bail them out of jail if they are arrested for drunk driving.

If an alcoholic refuses to get help, the last thing you should do is make it easier for them to drink and indirectly support their behavior and choices. Unfortunately, in a study involving 80 people with alcoholic spouses, nearly half of them were moderately codependent, and 41% were severely codependent, meaning they enabled their partners’ destructive behaviors.

To avoid enabling an alcoholic spouse, you may have to leave the home you share, which can seem like too brash of a decision. However, it sometimes takes a harsh reality to make an alcoholic see a situation for what it is.

4. Find support for yourself. There are groups, like Al-Anon, that offer support to people who are struggling or suffering because of a family member’s alcoholism or addiction.

Having an alcoholic spouse is not a situation you will be forced to go through alone. Some people have gone through and are going through the same situation, and they can offer insight, advice and understanding.

At The Recovery Village, we know how challenging it can be to cope with having an alcoholic spouse. We believe in involving the family in a recovering person’s treatment process, and we can offer the support you need. To learn more about how to get help for your loved one, contact us today to discuss our treatment programs.

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Editor – Melissa Carmona
Melissa Carmona puts years of writing and editing experience to work helping people understand substance abuse, addiction and mental health disorders. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Jenni Jacobsen, LSW
Dr. Jenni Jacobsen is a licensed social worker through the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker and Marriage and Family Therapist Board. She has over seven years working in the social work field, working with clients with addiction-related and mental health diagnoses. Read more

Cebi, Paul, et al. “Assessment of Level of Codependency and […]Dependence Syndrome.” International Journal of Nursing Education and Research, 2018. Accessed July 29, 2021.

Sharma, Nitasha, et al. “Living with an alcoholic partner: Proble[…]of alcoholic clients.” Industrial Psychiatry Journal, 2016. Accessed July 29, 2021.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.