If things have gotten to the point where you’re even asking yourself this question, you’re not alone. It can be difficult to confront the possibility that someone you love may be an alcoholic, and harder still to know what to do about it. We’re here to help.
Like any addiction, alcoholism isn’t an indicator of flawed character. It’s an illness. Good, upstanding, kind people become addicts every day. It doesn’t happen overnight, either—alcoholism is the result of many small decisions that pile up over time. One more drink than usual. Moving from beer to liquor. It happens so slowly you don’t even notice.
Not everyone who drinks regularly or to excess is necessarily an alcoholic, just as someone who takes ibuprofen often isn’t necessarily addicted to painkillers. Alcoholism is an addiction, and there are signs that can help you tell the difference between it and casual drinking. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a drink after work or overindulging at the occasional party, but if you’re wondering whether your husband is an alcoholic, chances are you’ve gotten to the point where things are worrisome.
So where’s the line, how do you know when he’s crossed it, and what do you do about it?
What outcome do I really want?
By reading this article, you should have a better idea as to whether he’s an alcoholic or not, and if so, what you can do to help him.
However, before you seek an answer to the question, “Is my husband an alcoholic?” there’s another one to consider: What outcome do I really want?
This is an important question to ask yourself. Not every marriage is strong enough to survive the process of intervention and recovery, let alone relapses or broken promises. If you’re already at your wit’s end and give him an ultimatum, are you truly prepared to walk away? Will you be able to look people in the eye and admit your husband is an alcoholic? Are you ready to deal with the rumors that will swirl around your relationship or the friends you may lose as a result? Will be contrite or defensive? If you’ve been researching rehab options without his knowledge, will he resent you for “going behind his back?”
You may already feel like he’s not the man you married. You may have doubts about his ability to get and stay sober, or whether he’s committed enough to the life you’ve built together to quit drinking. And even if he manages to do so, will you be able to trust that he isn’t sneaking out to take a drink?
Obviously, you can’t know the future. Chances are, you’ll look at everything you have and decide that yes, you love and believe in him enough to give him this chance to get sober. That you committed to seeing each other through sickness and in health, and that this is part of the deal. If so, that’s great. You will need each other. But if not, and your marriage is already hanging by a thread, consider whether you have what it takes to move past it.
And then there are kids. Depending on your kids’ age and relationship with your husband, you have to consider their feelings. If he enters recovery, they’ll need to know why he’s going away for a while or why he’s going to “classes.” You’ll have to decide how much truth they can handle and what he’ll miss out on while he’s in recovery. If you deliver an ultimatum and have to follow through on it, are you ready to explain what happened?
The line between casual drinking and alcoholism
The classic warning signs of alcoholism fall into two related areas: self-control and erratic behavior.
Alcoholics frequently don’t have control over their drinking. Once they start, it can be very difficult or nearly impossible for them to stop. This lack of self-control is usually noticeable. Say you’re at a party and most other people have had only one or two drinks. An alcoholic would almost certainly have more than everyone else, and drink more quickly. If asked whether he wants another, he’ll almost always say yes. He rarely, if ever, leaves a glass of beer or booze anything but empty.
Many alcoholics have a great deal of control over their life in other respects or control over the lives of others. First responders, for example, are at high risk for alcoholism. One reason is to escape the trauma and stress of their work life. But another reason is that drinking is a way to escape responsibility for a while. Executives, entertainers, salespeople, and other high-stress professions can lead to alcoholism. If he’s very much in control when sober but out of control when he’s drunk, he may be an alcoholic.
Behavioral changes are probably the most common indicators of alcoholism, though some mirror those of co-occurring mental-health disorders like depression or post-traumatic stress (PTSD). An alcoholic may become preoccupied with drinking, even at the expense of other activities he enjoys. He may lose interest in family or friends, or exercise, or even sex. He may even start to hide alcohol around the house or in the garage, especially if he knows or suspects his behavior is being watched.
Not all alcoholics become violent, but violent behavior or wild mood swings may indicate alcoholism, especially when confronted about their drinking. Alcoholics rarely see themselves as others do and may become defensive if anyone says something like, “Hey Steve, maybe you’ve had enough.”
Behavioral changes will likely be noticeable even when he’s not drinking. He may seem more irritable than usual or develop strange habits or speech patterns that make him seem like he’s not quite himself. He may toss and turn more when he goes to bed or experience erectile dysfunction for no apparent reason. Alcoholics are often secretive or cagey about where they’re going or why, and may even develop resentment toward anyone who they feel is prying. Denial is a powerful force.
A common behavioral pattern for alcoholics who have been confronted about their drinking in some way is to make bargains, promises, and assurances that are soon broken. They want to make you happy while admitting that their drinking has become a problem or caused you distress, so they say things like, “You’re right. I’ll have no more than one drink during the week and maybe two on weekends or if we go out.”
Not every person who abuses alcohol exhibits the classic warning signs. Sometimes a friend or family member who you would never suspect is actually struggling with it in secret. They seem in control and happy, with healthy relationships and seemingly normal family dynamics. They’re successful, in good shape, witty, sharp, and well-educated. But beneath this veneer of control and confidence, they’re battling an addiction. Sometimes it’s a mental-health issue or a related matter, but sometimes it’s alcohol or drugs. Estimates suggest that 1 in 5 alcoholics fall into this “high functioning” category.
A high-functioning alcoholic often is aware he has a problem but takes steps to convince himself (and others) that he’s in control. For example, he might say he only drinks on weekends or with friends. He might forget an anniversary or meeting but chalk it up to being busy or stressed. He’s likely asked a friend or family member to cover for him, like, “If my wife asks, tell her I only had two beers. She freaks out about stuff like that.” In this example, he’s aware he had too much to drink but won’t own up to it, instead blaming his wife for being too sensitive or touchy. High-functioning alcoholics often shift responsibility or blame to others as a way to protect their own denial.
Is your husband an alcoholic? Take our quiz.
The Michigan Alcohol Screening Test (MAST) has been around for more than 40 years, but alcoholism has been around much longer. It’s still a very good and specific assessment to help you decide whether your husband has a drinking problem according to commonly accepted clinical definitions of the word.
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0-3 Points: No apparent problem
4 Points: Early or middle problem drinker
5 Points or more: Problem drinker (Alcoholic)
Do you feel your loved one is a normal drinker? (By normal we mean he drinks less than or as much as most other people)
Has your loved one ever awakened the morning after some drinking the night before and found that he could not remember a part of the evening?
Do you ever worry or complain about your loved one’s drinking?
Can your loved one stop drinking without a struggle after one or two drinks?
Does your loved one ever feel guilty about their drinking?
Do friends or relatives think your loved one is a normal drinker?
Is your loved one able to stop drinking when they want to?
Has your loved one ever attended a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)?
Has your loved one gotten into physical fights when drinking?
Has your loved one’s drinking ever created problems between you, a parent, or other relative?
Have you (or other family members) ever gone to anyone for help about your loved one’s drinking?
Has your loved one ever lost friends because of drinking?
Has your loved one ever gotten into trouble at work or school because of drinking?
Has your loved one ever lost a job because of drinking?
Has your loved one ever neglected their obligations, your family or their work for two or more days in a row because they were drinking?
Does your loved one drink before noon fairly often?
Has your loved one ever had liver trouble? Cirrhosis?
After heavy drinking has your loved one ever had Delirium Tremens (D.T.s) or severe shaking, or heard voices or seen things that really were not there?
Has your loved one ever gone to anyone for help about their drinking?
Has your loved one ever been hospitalized because of drinking?
Am I to blame?
In a word, no. Many factors contribute to substance abuse, including relationship troubles, but ultimately, an addict is the one responsible for his addiction. Let’s define “enabler.”
Put simply, an enabler makes it easy for an alcoholic to continue being an alcoholic. It doesn’t mean you dutifully stock the liquor cabinet or bring him beer after beer. It doesn’t mean you’re responsible for what’s happening or why, but it means your actions (or inactions) aren’t helping the situation.
Do you ignore it or give a “pass” when he gets out of control? Do you lie for him or accept his lies about drinking? Do you keep quiet or avoid confrontation out of fear what will happen? Do you resent having to clean up after him, literally or figuratively? If so, you may be an enabler without even realizing it.
Alcoholics often try to shift the blame to others, especially if they become defensive when confronted. He may say something like, “Maybe I wouldn’t drink so much if you weren’t always on me about working late.” Don’t believe it! Relationship problems, challenges with children, work stresses and the like may fuel alcoholism but they’re separate problems. Don’t let anyone lead you to believe that their addiction is somehow your fault.
Even though you’re not the problem, you can be part of the solution. That starts with recognizing enabling tendencies in yourself and being mindful of them. Do you make him aware of the consequences of his actions or stay quiet and end up feeling guilty yourself? Do you accept a lie or seek the truth? The first step toward correcting enablement is to recognize it in yourself.
What is an intervention?
In the social sciences, an intervention is basically a course correction—an action taken by one person or group to specifically shift someone to a new and better path. Interventions aren’t just for addicts—they’re for kids struggling to read at grade level or with behavioral issues.
If you’re convinced that your husband may indeed be an alcoholic, then the next step is to intervene. Movies and television have a classic depiction of an intervention: Someone with a problem comes home to find their living room full of friends and family who are there to let them know that they care and that something needs to be done about the problem. Drama ensues. Sound familiar?
This type of intervention does happen from time to time, but it’s not typical. Most interventions start with a 1:1 conversation. Like any other problem in your relationship, it can be hard to confront. Most people avoid conflict. Even if you’re very open with each other, chances are you haven’t been open about his drinking problem because you want to protect your happiness. But that’s short-term thinking. Even high-functioning alcoholics will eventually lose control, sometimes with tragic results. You’re smart to want to nip things in the bud, but there’s a right way to do it.
How to approach him about his drinking
Unless you’re a trained clinical psychologist or therapist, you probably don’t know the right way to start this difficult conversation.
- Ask for guidance. If you decided to take up golf but had never even touched a club, you’d probably ask someone to show you the fundamentals, right? The same goes for an alcohol-related home intervention. See if there’s an Alcoholics Anonymous group in your area. Most have websites and phone numbers, if not 24-hour hotlines. Otherwise, make an appointment with a counselor or therapist and ask them. Get advice from people who have been there. In particular, talk through how to handle various reactions, from denial to anger to agreement.
- Tell someone what you’re doing—preferably several someones. You’re venturing into unknown territory. Would you hike or camp in a remote area without telling someone where you were going? Confide in someone you trust that you’re going to confront your husband about his drinking and get him help. If you have timing in mind, share that, too. Not only will they support you, but they’ll likely follow up to see how it went. If your husband has a mean or violent streak, consider having someone nearby, perhaps in the same room, to help keep him calm and step in if things get physical.
- Rehearse. Ideally, ask one of the people you’ve told to role-play so they (and you) can hear what you have to say. Let them decide how to react at the moment and see how you deal with it. Have them challenge you.
- Choose the right time. If he’s drunk or under a lot of stress, that’s not a good time to have this conversation. Consider waiting for a time when he’s already feeling guilty, like forgetting an occasion or hungover. He’ll be more receptive to what will seem like criticism.
- Think about the possible outcomes and have a plan. In other words, do your homework. Research recovery centers in your area and asks a million questions. What does it cost? What are the treatment options? What is detox like? What’s their track record? In addition, think about your husband’s personality and identify his possible reactions. Will he become angry and defensive or simply deny he has a problem? Will he immediately promise to change or ask you for examples of why you think he has a problem?
- Be honest, firm, and clear. You’re having this conversation because you’re unhappy about this aspect of your life together. It’s having a negative effect on you or your kids and you want it to stop. Think about how you feel when he drinks, or forgets, or acts in ways that make you feel uncomfortable or even unsafe. Write down some of the words that play in your own mind and be prepared to use them, even if they’re likely to sting. Be ready with specific examples of incidents that have made you feel this way, or times he’s disappointed your kids as a result of his drinking. Men tend to focus on the most recent examples, not the months or years of incidents you can probably recall. Make it clear why you see this as a pattern of destructive behavior. If it’s time for an ultimatum, be prepared to deliver it and commit to following through if he doesn’t get sober.
- Don’t be in a hurry to end the conversation. This is going to be uncomfortable for both of you. Resist the urge to say what you came to say, take the first promise of change you get, and skip to the warm hug or make-up sex that follows. As you well know, listening is a skill but hearing is a mindset. He’s not going to want to hear what you have to say, but he needs to. He may say, “That’s it. I’m done. I’ll never drink again,” but he can’t say that yet because he probably doesn’t know what recovery really entails. An immediate promise to change is a knee-jerk reaction to causing you pain, but if he’s truly an alcoholic, quitting cold turkey probably isn’t going to work no matter how badly you both may want it to.
- Commit to your role in recovery—or not. You’re a team. You’re in this together. Neither of you intended for this to happen, but it has, and now you either have to deal with it or move on with your life. It’s not much different from losing a job or watching your house burn down. You can’t change the past, but you have a much better chance of changing the future if you work together. Successful recovery depends heavily on the involvement of the addict’s family, especially his spouse.
What happens after an intervention?
Simply getting to this point is a big deal for both of you. Emotions were shared, tears cried, promises made. The important thing is that it’s out there in the open where something can be done about it.
If you did your homework, then you already know about recovery options in your area—whether they’re accepting new patients, what type of treatment they offer, etc. If he’s truly committed to change, then sit down and talk through these options. Making the decision together is the way to go, and reflects your mutual commitment to recovery.
Inpatient rehab is what we offer at Lake Hughes Recovery. If it seems like your best bet, he’ll need to talk to his employer. The Family Leave Medical Act contains provisions that may allow him to take a temporary leave of absence but keep any health benefits that help pay for the cost of rehab. Intensive outpatient therapy is an effective option that allows patients to keep a regular work schedule as they progress through recovery. The point is, you have many options and should choose the one that best suits his personality and situation.
Many insurance programs help pay for rehab, while others don’t. If you carry health insurance, either independently or through an employer, check with the provider or his HR department to see what type of coverage is available.
What to expect from rehab
The rehab process typically begins with a consultation or intake assessment. You’ll learn more about the facility, the program, and what to expect. They’ll learn more about what has brought you there and make some recommendations about whether you’re a good fit for their program. If not, they’ll help refer you to one that is.
A comprehensive evaluation and onboarding by a licensed clinician will help identify the nature and extent of his addiction. During this process, staff get to know him better and he, them. Good facilities customize the treatment to the individual rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach. They’ll also help identify if there are any co-occurring disorders like depression or anxiety that also need to be addressed.
Most rehab programs start with detox. Sometimes this is medically supervised, sometimes not—it depends on the patient and the substance(s). This process can be very difficult for someone with a chemical dependency, but those with loving and committed partners to support them have more success.
From there, therapy sessions can begin. Along with other patients, he’ll share his story and hear stories from peers who can relate. Typically therapy is mixed in with other activities like yoga or hiking which are therapeutic in themselves. It’s not all fun and games, but fun and games are part of it.
Addiction doesn’t only affect the addict, as you well know. Spouses, children, and extended families often are the ones most affected by his drinking and must also learn techniques to help him stay sober well beyond his short time in rehab. There is a strong correlation between committed family support and a successful recovery.
Hopefully, you’ve considered the possibilities, taken the quiz, done some soul-searching, and made a decision about how to proceed. Confronting addiction can be scary and embarrassing for everyone involved, but each day, addicts from all walks of life find a path forward and live the life they deserve. In fact, many alcoholics emerge from recovery with a fresh perspective on what it means to be a respectful and loving partner and are better for it. The communication and coping techniques that addicts and their families learn in recovery often benefit other aspects of their lives, like being more present or more attuned to each other’s feelings.
Relationships aside, the decision to enter recovery can literally save lives—not just the life of the addict but potentially the lives of others. A successful recovery could mean not driving under the influence, for example. It could mean pulling him out of a suicidal depression or self-destructive behavior that could lead to alcohol poisoning, liver disease, or other complications that could cause death.
Above all, know that there are more resources than ever to help you navigate these waters. The SAMHSA National Helpline is a great starting point to find help for alcohol or substance abuse. Local agencies are also usually available. The only thing neither of you can afford to do is pretend there’s not a problem or to think it will fix itself. Just as you don’t rehab an injury right away, recovery from alcoholism is a process that takes time and commitment. But with the right tools and support and your side, you’ll emerge from the process happier, healthier, and more confident about the future.