Recognising an Alcoholic Problem in Your Spouse

alcohol abuse

Figuring out how to help an alcoholic spouse can be challenging, especially when you’re not sure entirely sure they have a problem yet. Start by trying to understand their problem and what your husband or wife’s alcoholism involves first. Assessing the extent of their alcohol problem gives you a fuller understanding of how you help them.

Alcoholism doesn’t just involve a few too many drinks at the pub on a Friday night. It’s more about patterns. For example, when a person tries to control their drinking, is preoccupied with drinking, or is causing health problems, they may have an alcohol use disorder.

But you may still be wondering if all this fuss is necessary. You may wonder if you are overreacting over your spouse’s extra drink with lunch, which turns into a glass with dinner, and then a couple of nightcaps. If this is happening regularly, you are probably not overreacting. But there are some signs and symptoms of alcohol abuse that you can look out for.

Signs of Alcoholism

  • Drinking most days or more often
  • Preferring to be alone when at home
  • Developing a higher tolerance to alcohol
  • Being unable to cut down on their drinking
  • Avoiding activities that don’t involve alcohol
  • Reduced or no interest in hobbies, activities, or hygiene
  • Physical signs of alcohol consumption, such as slurred speech
  • Being secretive or dishonest about where your partner is going
  • Changes in attitude or behaviour; becoming more moody, aggressive, or irritable
  • Showing signs of regular or constant withdrawal; including tiredness or moodiness [i]

Coping With a Husband or Wife’s Alcoholism


It can be tough to cope once you’ve accepted that your spouse has an alcohol problem. Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to cope with an alcoholic spouse, but there are coping mechanisms you can put in place to make the journey easier.

Some of the best self-help tips include:

  • Make time for self-help to improve your emotional or physical state. Self-help can be in the form of meditation, exercise, hobbies or even a long soak in the bath.
  • Ask for support from friends and family and let them know what type of support you need. [ii]
  • Therapy is helpful in many instances, but it can be beneficial for the non-alcoholic spouse to cope with stress. [iii]
  • Join a peer support group that helps families of alcohol abuse. Peer support groups allow you to learn coping skills to de-stress from your spouse’s alcoholic behaviours. Having the support of others going through the same can also make you feel more understood.
  • Educating yourself on alcoholism and what your partner may be going through is paramount. Understanding that alcoholism is a chronic medical condition that cannot just be ‘cured’, that they cannot just quit, despite the consequences to their lives, will help you as much as them. Accepting this face allows you to adjust to living with someone with an alcohol use disorder. What’s more, learning about what your partner is going through and what treatments and resources are available is useful when you are ready to talk to your partner. 

The Do’s and Don’ts of Helping an Alcoholic Spouse

dos and donts

The Don’ts

There are most certainly actions that you can take that will not help you or your spouse.

Trying to Control the Situation

Family members often try out every avenue possible to convince their alcoholic spouse to stop drinking, which is entirely natural. However, this usually leads to frustration and hopelessness on both sides.  No matter how many times you tell yourself there must be something you can do, you’re not the one that can control the drinking.

Even the alcoholic spouse themselves cannot always control their drinking.

Stop obsessively trying to monitor your spouse’s drinking patterns. Activities like throwing away their alcohol, pleading with them to stop, making ultimatums, checking on their whereabouts and constantly keeping tabs never work. You cannot cure your partner; only they can control their drinking.


Many people don’t realise they are an enabler, not understanding what counts as a behavioural enabler. For example, buying your partner alcohol, covering for them when they phone into work sick or miss social gatherings, bailing them out of prison and lying to both of your families about their alcohol use are the type of things that count as enabling behaviour.

Enabling does not help you or your spouse. If you want to help them get sober, you’re going to have to set some healthy boundaries, learn to say no, and allow the consequences of their actions to occur. [iv]

Delaying What Needs to Be Said

You’ve probably been skirting around the issue for some time, even years, maybe. Unfortunately, it’s common for partners of alcoholic spouses to put off having the conversation about an alcohol problem for quite some time.

But even when you do feel like the conversation can’t wait any longer at all, it can feel wholly impossible and daunting.

Every day, countless people find help for addiction through support groups, treatment plans and other solutions that have led to serenity in their lives. So please don’t put the conversation with your spouse off any longer. If they have a problem, they need help now.

The Do’s

Now for something more positive. There are plenty of ways you can actively help your alcoholic spouse.

Approaching Your Spouse About Their Drinking Habits

Once you’ve decided that your spouse needs help, the best thing to do is open a line of communication to help them understand they have a problem and need help. Now, this conversation can go very wrong if you’re unprepared, but you can follow methods to get the best out of the conversation.

Communication is not the same as a conversation; it’s an ongoing process involving verbal and non-verbal communication. For example, emphasising what makes you uncomfortable when they drink may help your spouse see how their drinking hurts you.

This communication is more effective when you find a suitable time, when no one is intoxicated, to talk about your worries and concerns.

It’s essential when you are talking to listen, to not blame, accuse or demand they stop drinking. Instead, listen to their responses without interruption.

Hopefully, your partner will have come to terms with their problem and be willing to accept that they might need help.

This means you can try to find solutions together. Talk through their options and help them to discuss what route might be best for them.

Consider Staging an Intervention

It’s terrific when a spouse only needs one conversation to agree that they have a problem, but that’s often not the case. The first conversation may likely not go as you expect it to, and that’s ok. As mentioned above, communication is a process.

So, if your husband or wife isn’t ready to seek treatment or accept that they need help, you can try staging an intervention. An intervention is best staged with friends and family who love your spouse and a professional to facilitate, such as a drug and alcohol counsellor, doctor, or intervention specialist.

The effectiveness of intervention comes from you and the participants letting your spouse know how their addiction affects you and encouraging them to seek professional help. In addition, it can help to have some pre-prepared examples of when their drinking has hurt you, which is especially useful if your spouse refuses to get help.

Finally, to get the most out of an intervention, you can try to have a pre-arranged, prepared treatment plan in place. [v]

Alcohol Treatment Help


Because alcohol use disorders are chronic conditions, they are often tough to beat without the benefit of treatment and ongoing recovery plans. There are plenty of treatment options that vary in therapeutic interventions, length of treatment and intensity of services.

These treatment options can include inpatient treatment in a residential or outpatient treatment centre, medically managed withdrawal, group therapy, individual therapy, and more.

The first thing to do is head to your GP with your partner. Your GP will talk through your partner’s alcohol use disorder and discuss the best treatment options.

Their doctor may offer your spouse treatment at the centre or refer them to local alcohol service.

It’s helpful if you can go with your GP to ensure your spouse is completely honest about the extent of their alcohol abuse. However, if your husband or wife is uncomfortable talking to their GP, they can approach their local alcohol treatment services themselves.

Approaching, helping, and learning to cope with your spouse’s addiction is a journey that can feel strenuous at times. However, arming yourself with some of the above tips and taking positive steps to help your spouse will only bring positive outcomes in the long run, negating any negative feelings you may have.