Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a chronic brain relapsing disorder which impairs ability to control alcohol use in spite of adverse consequences. However, it can be hard to diagnose, especially if the person suffering is unwilling to get help.
Here are some signs to look out for if you suspect your loved one is suffering with alcohol use disorder:
- Craving alcohol.
- Struggling to stop drinking once they have started.
- Having a drinking “ritual” (i.e. needing to drink at set times).
- Becoming agitated if they can’t access alcohol.
- Secretive drinking in an effort to conceal addiction.
- Keeping alcohol in places they frequent (e.g. in their car).
- Neglecting hobbies and responsibilities.
- Experiencing issues in their relationships or at their job.
- Alcohol tolerance (your partner may become a “functioning alcoholic”).
While these signs are not a conclusive way to diagnose AUD, they are at the very least a cause for concern and likely indicate a drinking problem. If this list describes your spouse or partner, you will certainly want to help them. This article will show you the best ways to navigate this difficult situation and support your partner.
Step 1: Educate Yourself About Alcohol Use Disorder
If you suspect that your loved one is suffering from alcohol use disorder, a helpful first step is to learn about the disorder. Understanding why they engage in alcohol/substance abuse can help you gain some perspective on their situation. Understanding that AUD is a mental health issue can reduce the amount of resentment you may feel towards your alcoholic spouse/partner, which will allow you be more supportive. It may also be helpful to encourage other family members and loved ones to educate themselves about about AUD and alcohol/substance abuse, so that you are not alone throughout this difficult journey.
You may also wish to consider attending Al-Anon meetings as part of your efforts. It is a support group for loved ones of alcoholics. It can help you and friends or family to cope with the effects of your partner’s alcohol abuse.
Al-Anon can teach you about:
- the disorder itself
- the unhealthy role you may be playing in your loved one’s recovery
- enabling behaviours you should make sure to avoid
It is not only a source of education, but also provides coping mechanisms and emotional support. This may be especially helpful if friends and family members are not around to provide this.
Step 2: Confronting Your Loved One
As previously mentioned, those suffering with alcohol abuse and alcoholism are often in denial. This makes confrontation difficult. It is vital that your loved one does not feel as though they are being accused.
Although confrontation is tough, it is a necessary first step. However, if you do not feel safe or comfortable to do so, recognise that it is not your responsibility. You should always prioritise your own wellbeing. If appropriate, you may want to consider enlisting the help of a family member.
Here are a few tips about how to approach this difficult conversation:
- Plan what you are going to say ahead of time.
- Consider your timing: Choose a good and appropriate time to raise your concerns. This has to be a time when your partner is sober, and in a good headspace.
- Be sensitive and show empathy: Empathy means experiencing the world from the person’s perspective without judgment or criticism. Your partner may be aware that they are drinking alcohol excessively, even if they tell you otherwise. Chances are, they may be experiencing a lot of negative emotions, or may be under a lot of stress which has lead to them relying on alcohol to cope with their feelings, and can often experience guilt or shame.
- Avoid argument: Arguing, confronting, blaming, shaming and lecturing do not invite change, they invite resistance
Psychologist Joanna Kirlagitsi notes; “following these steps will enhance the likelihood that your partner will be more receptive to your concerns and see the connection between their drinking habits and the impact it has over both your lives and/or your family”.
Here are several key points you may wish to touch on during the conversation:
- Discuss how their drinking is impacting friends and family.
- Discuss how their drinking is affecting their physical health.
- Make them aware of financial/relationship issues stemming from their addiction.
- Offer support.
- Offer to assist in finding the right treatment for them (e.g. Alcoholics Anonymous or a rehabilitation facility).
- Ask what you can you do to assist them in recovery (e.g. offer to take over some of their responsibilities).
Even if you go into this conversation with the best of intentions, you should expect some pushback from your alcoholic partner. Outright denial is common and those suffering with alcohol abuse and alcoholism often think they are capable of quitting on their own. However, this is rarely possible. If your partner suggests this, you should ask them to provide you with a plan and timeframe for their recovery. Making excuses is a common part of AUD so by holding them accountable, you will have grounds to start up the conversation again if they do not succeed.
Step 3: Intervention
Although the initial conversation is necessary, know that it is rarely successful. Even if all goes well and your loved one is committed to change, those suffering with alcohol/substance abuse usually need several rounds of treatment to recover. This can take years. After confronting the issue, the best next step to take is intervention.
CRAFT (community reinforcement and family training) intervention is the preferred method of intervention recommended by addiction experts due to its high success rate. It is used to help your loved one get formal treatment for their alcohol/substance abuse issues.
CRAFT will also provide you with many tools. It will help you to:
- Recognise your loved one’s triggers and break patterns that trigger your partner’s drinking.
- Communicate with your partner about their struggles.
- Develop coping mechanisms to look after your own mental and physical health during this strenuous time.
- Identify signs of violence in your loved one.
- Establish a plan to keep you (and your children) safe in the case that your partner becomes abusive.
Step 4: Take a Step Back
Living with an alcoholic can be extremely taxing on your own wellbeing. This is especially true in the case of an alcoholic husband or wife.
It is difficult to watch someone close to you suffer. However, remember that you cannot force someone to seek help. Treatment is a decision that your loved one will need to make on their own.
All you can do as a partner is offer support. Becoming overly invested in your alcoholic partner’s wellbeing may be defined as codependency and this can be detrimental to your own mental health. Al-Anon stresses this point and as previously mentioned, will provide you with tools to cope.
Hopefully your alcoholic partner is committed to getting better. However, recovery is not often a straightforward path. This will likely be a tough time for you too and even the strongest of relationships tend to suffer. It is important not to neglect your relationship during this time, especially if children are involved and may be worth seeking support in the form of relationship counselling.
Note: Please seek help immediately if your partner engages in emotional or physical threats, or is abusive towards you or your children. You should always prioritise your own safety.
24/7 Crisis Lines:
- Emergency 000: For immediate danger
- 1800RESPECT 1800 737 732: For issues related to sexual assault or/and family and domestic violence.
- Mensline Australia 1300 789 978: Support for men or boys dealing with relationship issues.
- Lifeline 13 11 14: For any one experiencing personal crisis or contemplating suicide.