Are you afraid to talk to your husband or wife about their drinking? Have you tried but don’t want to keep putting in more effort than they do? Have you heard advice but don’t know what works in the real world? If so, this article will give you the real world answers you’re looking for.
It’s sad to watch your partner self-destruct, frustrating if they resist your effort, and overwhelming when you don’t know how to help. That’s a lot of bad feelings! 😩
I’m a Psychiatrist who has helped over two thousand people with this, and I teach nationally on the subject. I know what’s going on in both side’s minds. Rest assured: if you understand what’s happening psychologically, helping becomes easy (and even emotionally connecting).
Ever try a home project with the wrong tools, only to learn later how easy it is with the right ones? It’s the same here… get the right special tools to reach your partner and it will be so much easier.
By the end of this article, you’re going to have a plan that makes sense to you, that works, and that you feel good about.
I’ll walk you through the most proven concepts to navigate this tricky spot. For each concept, we’ll also go over specific examples so you really have an idea of what to do.
USE REGULAR LANGUAGE
This first topic is a good example of how doing less can actually do more.
It’s not usually helpful to use the word ‘addiction’ or ‘alcoholic’. I’m aware it seems important to nail down diagnoses and call out the issue, but using loaded terms can introduce unnecessary road blocks.
In fact, you’ll see in a second that using more specific and regular language is actually better at calling out the issue.
When I sit with alcohol dependent patients, they usually express how misunderstood they feel when someone calls them an alcoholic. Their defenses go up, and needless friction gets in the way right at the start.
The problem with the term is it means different things to different people. Unless you’re going into addiction research, you’re better off leaving it alone.
Who cares whether five drinks a night vs the occasional binge is called alcoholism. (I wrote a piece on this here) If it’s causing problems then it’s causing problems. There’s just no reason for either of you to get hung up on definitions, yet I see this all the time.
In either case, you want to bring the conversation to your concerns, not a definition.
Before we get into some examples, let’s cover the next topic so we can apply it there…
STICK TO THE FACTS
Now that you’re ready to use regular language, what are you supposed to say? Again you’ll see that less is more.
You want to stick to the facts, kind of like a detective. This isn’t the time to inject your opinions or judgment about your partner. The more you try and pack into a conversation about alcohol, the more derailed and nasty it will get. It’s not that we’re only trying to avoid conflict, it’s that we want our words to be effective.
Examples of what NOT to say:
- “You’re an alcoholic, and you’re a liar!”
- “You drink way too much, and you don’t even care about me anymore”
- “You never listen!”
The more you can stick to indisputable facts, the more agreement you will have.
Imagine if you know you’re always late to work. In one scenario your boss accuses you of being a slacker or not caring. You’ll probably get pissed off and defensive – even if it’s true!
Now imagine another scenario where the boss simply states that you’ve been late at least three times a week and asks what’s going on. Which scenario are you going to be more open to?
The concept here is to stick to specifics, and don’t jump to accusations of character.
Now we’re ready for examples of how to stick to the facts about their drinking:
- “Honey, I’ve seen you drink every single night for the last three weeks.”
- “We had two bottles of whisky on this shelf last weekend, and I didn’t have any.”
- “You used to get drunk a few times a year. I can think of five times you got drunk just last month.”
This is just the beginning. Now let’s see how to add to this.
EXPRESS WHAT WORRIES YOU, AND WHY
If your whole case to make is that your partner drinks too much, don’t assume that’s enough reason for them too. Remember: it’s not really the act of drinking itself, but the things that come with it (dangerous driving, irresponsible/undependable, angry, isolative, etc.)
I’ve worked with lots of couples where they’ve gone in circles arguing about what amounts and frequencies of drinking is OK to them. And it’s such a waste of conflict!
The focus should be on why it’s scary or sad for you.
The concept here is that you can argue all day long about drinking and get nowhere. But when you bring the focus on why you care, you’ll get much more buy in. It’s like shifting the car from neutral to drive… the gas finally does something!
That changes the framework away from alcohol itself, and towards shared values. Away from you policing, and towards a partnership.
Building from the last concept, you still want to be specific and stick to the facts. And what can you be most certain about? Your worries.
Don’t tell your husband or wife what they should be worried about. As close as you are to them, only they know what concerns them. All you need to do is state your concerns, because that’s all you can know for certain.
Here are some examples of specific statements about what worries you, followed by why:
- “You’ve been going upstairs early every night. I’m worried we’re getting more and more distant from each other.”
- “You’ve been skipping more and more events with the kids. I’m worried they’re missing out on daddy time.”
- “Since you’ve been drinking more, you’ve had a lot more medical issues. I’m worried I’ll lose my wife.”
See how much more inviting that is? And how there’s not much to argue with? Those are some keys about using specific, regular, and personal language.
I talk more about this concept on a podcast about addiction in relationships: here.
Next let’s get into the relationship.
YOU DON’T NEED TO DO THE HEAVY LIFTING
In case you haven’t put words to it yet, understand this: you’re getting stretched between two roles. You’d prefer to remain an equal and loving partner, but their destructive behavior has forced you to become their tireless helper.
But there’s really good news. You don’t have to do the lifting for them!
If this was a gym, you wouldn’t help them get stronger by lifting their weights would you? No. But you could certainly “lead the horse to water” by giving them a ride to the gym, offering to get dinner ready so they had time to go, etc.
If you do too much lifting, bad things can happen: (this is a real picture;)
Each thing you do for your partner is one less thing they’re doing for themselves to grow.
It’s not your job to do all the work for them. It IS your job to make it easy for them to work on themselves. [Helpful hint: if it’s too hard for you to watch them suffer and you always cave and help too much, then you might want to reflect on your own discomfort]
Wondering what I mean by offering change instead of doing it for them? Here are some specific examples:
- Offer to be sober – at least for a while – with them
- Make plans with your mutual healthy friends to get together
- Make it easier for them to do a hobby they enjoy
- Give them a pass to sit out on an obligation they hate (like a gathering with family they don’t like)
But you don’t have to do any of these. These are things you should only do because you want to.
WIN WITH A CARING TONE
Underneath your frustration, there’s undoubtedly care. In fact, that’s why you’re reading this now!
My advice to use a caring, loving tone isn’t because you need to go easy on them. It’s because that’s the tone that will land and create the shift you’re looking for.
I worked because it appealed to the better nature of the people driving the tanks.
Trust that your partner already lives with enough shame. If you pile on even more shame, it’ll generally end the conversation or lead to more self destruction (stubbornness!).
I totally understand if you feel extremely upset and don’t want to be nice to someone making your life hell. But to that I say: Are you looking to win a fight, or are you looking to win your partner back?
I see some partners get hung up on this one since there’s so much anger with all they’ve been through. To help with that, point your anger at their behavior, not them as a person. When you’re being loving, you’re supporting them (not their habit).
It might also be a relief for you to know you’re allowed to express how upset you are. It’s all about the setup though.
Ever heard of the sandwich technique? It’s where you start with something nice, then lay out the hard part in the middle, then end with something nice again.
Doing this will dramatically help keep the conversation positive and effective. It shows your partner that you’re not just beating up on them. You’re reminding them what the whole point is: to get back to a fun loving partnership.
Here are examples of sandwiching a controlled expression of anger with love on either side:
- “I really miss having the husband I love so much. I know you’re in there and it’s been incredibly frustrating to watch you do this to yourself. I want to get back to where we were because I remember how much love we felt for each other”
- “I want to be with you forever because I chose you ten years ago. But it’s been terrible for me needing to step up in the areas you used to help with. Let’s make our relationship fun again.
- “I’m with you because you’re an amazing person I knew I needed to be with. What you’re doing now though has been infuriating, and I don’t know how much more I can take. I just want to see enough of that old you so I get excited about us again.
OFFER AN EASY FIRST STEP
You want to offer a first step that “saves face” and doesn’t require a big dramatic admission of fault or addiction.
Imagine if your first demand is that they call all their closest supports and apologize for being an alcoholic. That’s way too scary! That would just throw an enormous boulder in their path forward.
Instead, be creative and help your partner design an environment for just one small step. In the same way things can snowball for the worse, things can snowball for the better.
One of the best places I recommend to start is to simply help them pause for long enough to take stock of what’s going on. That in itself is already a step. See, not so daunting right? That’s the beginning of the good kind of snowball.
An intentional pause will invite your partner to notice what’s unfolded. You want them to respond to their own self reflection. That way you’re not the one carrying the load forever, tirelessly correcting them. Remember your role is to invite, not lift.
Everyone is different, and odds are you know what might work for them. Try to think of something they wouldn’t have any reason to say no to.
Here are some examples of activities for them to start the snowball with an intentional pause (I’d recommend they do it solo, and with the prompting to reflect on what they want for themselves):
- Go fishing
- A long walk/hike in nature
- Sitting in a serene place they love (or even just a hotel lobby) with music
- Drive to an overlook
You’ll notice we aren’t asking for them to give up drinking by tomorrow. We’re trying to show them this process can be interesting, and even rewarding.
STEER TOWARDS SOMETHING PSYCHOLOGICAL
I’m a Psychiatrist, so I can’t let you leave this part out! For your partner to go the distance, they must recognize the underlying issues.
Like before, it’s not your job to diagnose them or be a therapist. Your job here is to just be a loving partner who understands their drinking reflects something deeper.
Know that addictive behaviors are always driven by underlying pain. (for more on that: read here) In all the cases I’ve treated, I haven’t seen a single one where emotional pain wasn’t there.
Here’s the model I use to explain how addiction works. You’ll notice where it all begins.
That underlying pain can be anything from boredom or emptiness, to trauma or depression. It’s most often a case of not being happy with where we are in life. Amidst the frustration you feel, it helps to trust there’s something they’re dealing with.
There are tons of ways people can start or keep working on their psychological discovery. As with the other tools, make this an easy step they’re excited to say yes to.
Here are just a handful of psychologically focused activities:
- A heart to heart with someone they admire
- Books (my favorites are: “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts” and “The Biology of Desire”)
- YouTube channels or podcasts on topics of feelings and behavior
- Feel free to use this guide I made as a crash course for them to learn how addiction works: https://www.selfrecovery.org/6-day-unwanted-habit-challenge/
- Mindfulness/meditation apps or series (top ones are Gil Fronsdal, Headspace, and Calm)
I’ll also shamelessly plug my own program here since it’s designed just for these situations where you’re trying to help them grow, but not sure if they need/are ready for rehab. I created Self Recovery to be the simplest, most effective way to build the tools needed to change. It’s on demand, fully private, you don’t have to leave work or family, less than 1% the cost of rehab, and 9x more effective than traditional programs.
There’s a full program for your partner: https://www.selfrecovery.org/enroll/
… and there’s another course specifically designed for friends and family: https://www.selfrecovery.org/addiction-toolbox-for-friends-and-family/
If you’ve found any of this guide helpful, just imagine how different life would be with a complete map of how to get to the finish line.
RINSE AND REPEAT
Most people need to go through cycles of the above to get real traction. That’s expected. Don’t imagine you’ll have one conversation that lands perfectly and everything gets fixed tomorrow.
We want to make personal growth feel rewarding and worthwhile – that’s how the snowball will keep rolling and growing. As much impatience or resentment as you might have, try your best to acknowledge each tiny step they make and offer positive feedback.
If you can keep coming back to the concepts above, you’ll get closer and more secure and more open with each other. You’ll build a process for dealing with conflict that doesn’t just address alcohol, but the next conflict to come (because they will come).
You’ll learn that problems present opportunities to grow, not the end of the relationship.
And a good last thing to know: contrary to what you may have heard, the natural course for addiction is to improve!
Now it’s time to do the work – but not their work 😉 – and put this strategy into action. Share this with anyone that could benefit from these tips. Best of luck!
Are you ready to work with your partner?
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