Is Your Spouse an Alcoholic? Tips to Help Deal with the Problem

The 1994 film When a Man Loves a Woman tells the story of a woman causing her family pain because of her drinking problem. It was a hit for Meg Ryan, but for many people, this is real life.

Nearly 14 million people in the United States —“ one of every 13 adults —“ abuse alcohol or are alcoholic. And more than half of all adults have a family history of alcoholism, with more than nine million children living with a parent who has an addiction of some sort, according to information from Brown University. “Alcoholism is an illness, and it’s something like diabetes or any other sort of illness,” says Lee Holmes, a therapist in Helena, Montana.

According to, some of the symptoms of alcoholism include insomnia, blackouts, chronic depression, loss of employment, financial difficulties, frequent intoxicated appearance and weight loss. But many alcoholics go unrecognized by doctors because they have learned to conceal the amount of drinking they’re doing — and the body can help, adapting physically to the increasing amount of alcohol in the bloodstream.

And, according to the website, spouses sometimes minimalize the problem, taking over family obligations like finances as a way to avoid the situation or because they don’t want others to find out about it. But the stress from that illness can eventually cause marital problems, including separation and divorce.

“It’s often difficult to advise families dealing with alcoholism because each alcoholic is different,” says Ed Azzam, a Lutheran minister and therapist in Athens, Alabama. “Some [alcoholics] are very quiet and just keep off by themselves, but some are very aggressive,” he explains.

And the problems alcoholics create are often different in each family, adds Azzam. “Sometimes [alcoholics] have learned to excuse themselves for their attitudes and blame their wives for creating a situation for which they get in trouble … He then has this little slave child who he can blame all his faults on, and anything that goes wrong is her fault.”

Azzam says talking to a spouse directly is the best way to deal with the problem. “In order to help an alcoholic, you have to use tough love, and tough love is the only way. It can be very difficult,” he warns.

He suggests an intervention, which is a gathering of friends and family, who all take turns talking with the person who has a problem. “Each one has to say the things they love about him, they like about him, and the things they dislike, and when it’s all done, say, ‘We have a representative from the rehabilitation center who will take you to the rehab center right now, because an alcoholic doesn’t believe he’s at fault, she’s at fault. They believe the world is bad and deal with it by drinking.”

But Holmes says the key to successfully overcoming alcoholism is for an alcoholic to find out why he or she drinks. “If they drink to escape, they need to understand what they’re trying to escape from. Alcoholism comes from a pattern of behavior, but it isn’t promoted only by drinking but unresolved feelings, and they need to resolve what that issue is, and that’s where the healing comes from.”

Azzam adds, “An alcoholic generally starts sometimes, before he’s 10, maybe 12 years old. Most of the really bad ones, they’ve never learned how to live a life. You must first teach them.”

Once an alcoholic is in recovery, reading often helps them progress, according to Azzam. “I have a set of books called ‘the classics.’ I offer them biographies and autobiographies of famous men. I give them one of these, and say, ‘Read as much as you can handle, and come back and tell me about it,” Azzam says. “They say, ‘That was quite a guy,’ and I say, ‘No, that was a regular guy who knew how to focus on things to do them very well.'”

Many haven’t learned simple life skills, so he coaches them. “Not every alcoholic is that bad. Some of them manage to get very good jobs. They’re alcoholics all through high school and college, and their jobs, but it gets to them, and eventually they need retraining, and I teach them how to live,” Azzam says.

If you’re a spouse dealing with an alcoholic, Holmes offers several points to examine when considering divorce.

1. Has the alcoholic tried to get help?

“I think the best approach is simply to evaluate what has gone on in the past, and if there’s any sort of attempt to change the behavior. Everyone needs a chance to do that. It’s really a tough syndrome to work with, because it has the occasion to return,” Holmes says.

2. Has the alcoholic tried to change their behavior?

“It has to be determined not by verbal communication, but by behavioral patterns that have to be observed, and actions. It really is determined by the level of commitment, so if you were to step into a relationship, that needs to be something to really be considered,” explains Holmes.

3. If they’ve made an effort, try to support it.

“I think it’s a tough situation, and a tough thing to really do, and it can’t be done alone,” he stresses.

If you or your spouse have problems with alcoholism, contact the National Drug and Alcohol Treatment Referral Routing Service at 1-800-662-HELP (1-800-662-4357).


Alcoholism is one of the problems leading to marriage complications. The Medical College of Wisconsin has some helpful information about alcoholism:

1. Remember what is considered a safe level of drinking.

That’s usually two drinks a day for men and one for women.

2. It is hard for a recovering alcoholic to have normal drinking control.

Abstaining is usually the only course for recovery.

3. Alcoholism strikes everyone.

Abuse cuts across gender, race and nationality.

4. You don’t need to drink all the time to be an alcoholic.

5. The older you are, the worse the symptoms can be.

This can mean anything from slower reaction times to problems seeing and hearing to ulcers and high blood pressure.

6. Alcohol is stronger in women.

The same amount of alcohol that may not affect a man can make women more impaired, because they have less water in their body than men, so it’s more concentrated.

7. Alcohol will interfere with prescription medications.

8. Success doesn’t always follow treatment.

Some people stop drinking altogether. Others stop and relapse. Still, others can’t stop for any length of time.

9. Alcoholism is a disease.

But it has a treatment.

10. Alcoholism is never cured.


With alcoholism being a large cause of divorce, the Medical College of Wisconsin has eight points of advice for alcoholics and people affected by their illness:

1. Don’t cover up or make excuses for alcoholics.

He or she must experience “the consequences of drinking.”

2. Hold interventions right after an incident.

Find a time when the person is sober and calm.

3. Tell them exactly why you are worried about their drinking. 

Give examples of how drinking has caused a problem.

4.Tell the person what will happen if they don’t get help. 

But don’t tell them something you aren’t prepared to do. For example, if you plan to file for divorce, don’t say it unless you plan on doing it.

5. Get help.

Know the treatment options and call for an appointment if your spouse agrees to get help. Offer to go with your spouse to support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

6. Ask friends for help.

If your spouse doesn’t want help, ask friends to talk with them. Intervention usually includes more than one person.

7. Get professional support.

A healthcare professional can help with the intervention.

8. Join a group. 

Know that you are not alone. Al-Anon holds regular meetings for spouses, and Alateen is geared to children of alcoholics. These groups help family members understand that they are not responsible for an alcoholic’s drinking.

About the Author: Krystle Russin is a freelance journalist in Austin, Texas. She graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in government (pre-law), and minors in journalism and history.