Living With an Alcoholic: How to Cope with an Alcoholic Spouse

Published On: May 10, 2023

When assessing if a person who drinks alcohol excessively should be diagnosed with alcohol use disorder doctors take into account the impact that their heavy drinking has on their family members and the person’s ability to carry out tasks that ensure the family continues to function adequately.

Being a spouse of a person diagnosed with alcohol use disorder means you are likely to be put under severe pressure to work harder than usual to make up for the fact that your partner is not contributing their equal share of the workload due to their preoccupation with alcohol which they are not able to overcome. (4)

Living with a partner with alcohol use disorder brings many problems to their spouse, which can differ from case to case.

Problems faced by partners of people with an alcohol use disorder

Men chatting

Research into the types of challenges faced by partners of people who drink alcohol to excess has unearthed five main areas in which they tend to be affected, these are:

  • Emotional Increases in arguments with their spouse.
  • Health-relatedPhysical exhaustion due to the extra workload created by their spouse neglecting their domestic duties.
  • SocialYour spouse’s behaviour can disrupt and harm your social life and tarnish relationships with friends and relatives.
  • FinancialA significant amount of family income is spent on alcohol instead of food and rent.
  • Physical violenceHeavy alcohol use significantly increases the risk of violence. (14)

Signs of alcoholism/Alcohol Use Disorder


Anyone who has been drinking heavily several times a week and has been doing so for several months is probably alcohol-dependent and in need of treatment.

This can be evident if:

  • They drink every day or 4/ days a week.
  • They suffer from withdrawal symptoms when they go 24 hours without alcohol, these symptoms may include anxiety, fatigue, nausea, insomnia and irritability.
  • They are spending a lot of their family’s income on alcohol.
  • They become angry when you confront them about their drinking.
  • They cannot stop drinking even though they would like to.
  • Their physical health has declined and they are showing signs of anxiety, stress and irritability.
  • They have neglected, or are unable to engage in, a range of important activities, duties and appointments related to work and family because of their drinking. (4)

What can the partner of a heavy drinker do?

Two men talking at a table

Looking out for the signs of alcoholism is an important consideration as they indicate that your partner’s alcohol use is seriously impacting many areas of family life, and therefore needs addressing quickly before it gets worse and has serious health implications for your partner, and wider-reaching implications for you and the rest of the family.

Establish the seriousness of their drinking problem

People at a table toasting to a mix of drinks

It is important initially to establish the seriousness of your partner’s drinking behaviour, you may feel that they are drinking too much but are not sure whether they have a drinking problem that needs to be curtailed or if they are addicted to alcohol and need to seek professional treatment.

Worryingly a lot of men and to a lesser degree women are currently drinking over the recommended 14 units of alcohol a week and while this does not do them any physical harm or affect their lives in the short term, it will over the long term have a detrimental effect on their well-being and on the mental well-being of people who live in their proximity.

People drinking this volume of alcohol will need to cut down to improve the quality of their life.

Contacting medical professionals to talk through your concerns would be a good starting point if you are concerned about your spouse’s drinking, as they can help you to clarify your situation and advise you on your next course of action.

Local NHS alcohol teams

Two doctors in white coats and stethoscopes talking

Many local NHS trusts have designated alcohol teams that offer services, treatment and support for people whose lives have been affected by alcohol, and this includes spouses and family members not just patients.

You can either contact these local alcohol teams directly or ask your GP for their details so that you can contact them for support and guidance.

They will be able to advise you on many aspects of your situation, including how to talk with your partner about their drinking, treatment options and a list of organisations that can support all the members of your family.


Woman and two blonde girls hugging near a lake, backs to the camera

An important priority would be to monitor your own physical health as it is very common for partners of excessive drinkers to experience many physical health problems due to exhaustion, stress, worry and poor sleep due to the circumstances they find themselves in.

If these are not addressed they can lead to a wide range of physical symptoms and a decline in their mental health.

Improving your self-care involves making changes and introducing strategies to help you re-organise your life so that you do not overstretch and overburden yourself.

This may include:

  • Asking for help from family and friends to help with certain tasks.
  • Eating regular, healthy meals and getting a good night’s sleep.
  • Setting boundaries in several areas of your life (for example not working extra hours at work or not missing important social, recreational and therapeutic activities such as the gym, yoga sessions or cinema visits)
  • Maintain a good support network and talk with close friends about your situation.

Book counselling sessions


In order to protect yourself from emotional harm and help you cope with the situation you find yourself in it may be worth arranging counselling sessions to help you process everything that is happening and to help you develop the emotional resilience to get through this challenging period in your life.

There are charities and local mental health projects that offer free counselling services for relatives of individuals who are drinking alcohol to excess and talking to a trained mental health professional offers an opportunity to unburden yourself from many of the negative feelings you are experiencing.

Try and understand the reasons for your spouse’s drinking


By understanding the nature of alcohol addiction you may be able to understand the reasons for your partner’s drinking, and while you may view this behaviour as unacceptable it may benefit you, and your relationship with your partner to understand the emotional and psychological reasons behind their drinking.

For example:

  • They may have experienced a tough upbringing or suffered from trauma in their past which can lead to heavy drinking.
  • They may have been diagnosed with a mental health or medical condition that they are struggling to come to terms with.
  • They may have experienced a bereavement or loss.
  • They may have been made redundant or are struggling to adjust to a new way of life.
  • There is usually a traumatic event or emotional reason behind anyone’s alcohol addiction and making sense of what has happened will at least help you to understand your partner’s situation and not see their behaviour as their fault. (7,9)

Protect other family members

An older couple linking arms

It is important to look out for the needs of any children in the family unit who will undoubtedly be affected by your spouse’s drinking behaviour.

You may be required to find alternative accommodation for the rest of the family if the situation is severely disrupting your children’s development and mental health.

If you do not have any friends and relatives whom you can turn to, then local NHS alcohol teams and specialist charities have the knowledge and the contacts to help you deal with the situation and talk you through your options. (2,9)

Sources of support

Two people sitting across from another, signing paperwork.

There are several organisations that provide support and advice for partners and children of people who have been diagnosed with alcohol addiction.

Understanding the needs of family members has been a prominent consideration in addiction treatment services in recent years so there is no need for families to deal with this alone anymore.

Depending on the nature of the problem there are support groups and social service projects that you can turn to for advice and emotional support and develop a planned course of action.

Al-Anon support groups


The main activity of Al-anon is to run support group meetings throughout the UK which offer reassurance, support and guidance to spouses and the children of people diagnosed with alcohol use disorder or who are in denial that their drinking has spiralled out of control.

Al-anon is a free service and all attendees can participate in the sessions and remain anonymous while expressing their emotions and thoughts about living with alcohol dependents in the presence of other families who are going through similar experiences.

It is a mutually supportive group where everyone can draw strength from each other and encourage each other.

Attending these meetings helps members realise that they are not alone in their suffering and also helps them understand the nature of alcoholism and why their partner is behaving like they are.

The other group members will help you to come to terms with your situation and give you the courage to help you make important decisions regarding how you can move forward.

Al-Anon’s website does inform visitors to the site of the time, day and locations of support group meetings throughout the UK. (1)

Alateen (which is part of the al-anon organisation)

If you have teenage children in your family then there are Alateen meetings also available for them to attend that provide a platform for teenage relatives of problem drinkers to talk about their feelings and receive support from other teenagers experiencing the same challenges.

Change Grow Live

There are several charities throughout the UK that receive statutory funding (financial support from the government) to support and assist people with the various social problems they may be encountering.

Change, Grow, Live is an example of such a charity and offers support and specific interventions to help people recover from substance misuse and domestic violence and also has an excellent track record in helping families affected by the negative consequences of alcohol addiction.

Change Grow Live will be able to help you with many of the consequences of living with an alcoholic spouse including:

  • Help you organise a professional alcohol intervention.
  • Advice on how to talk with and interact with your spouse.
  • Discuss the range of treatment options open to your partner.
  • Organise emotional support and counselling for family members (including family therapy)
  • Educate you about the nature of alcohol use disorder. (5)


If you are experiencing any form of domestic abuse at the hands of a partner because of their excessive drinking then Refuge provides a 24-hour support line.

Remember emotional abuse and psychological bullying are unacceptable and now fall under the umbrella of domestic abuse so if this is a regular occurrence you can turn to organisations like Refuge for support and advice. (13,16)

Show empathy and understanding towards your spouse

Woman support

It is important to show empathy, compassion and understanding towards your partner rather than be confrontational and make demands, remember they are suffering from a mental health condition and if they were physically unwell it is unlikely you would be so angry towards them and feel let down.

This is understandably not easy so it is important to work with addiction professionals who can advise you on the best way to interact with your spouse, as it is important that angry confrontations are avoided and there are experts trained in communication skills who can advise you on how to adapt your behaviour to ensure that tensions are not escalated during your interactions with your spouse.

Research suggests it is more productive and beneficial for spouses to support their partners and avoid blaming or judging them. (7,9,11)

Set clear boundaries (and stick to them)


Partners of problem drinkers need to set clear boundaries in many aspects of their relationship and family life and set down a range of terms and conditions that your spouse should adhere to so that everyone can work toward a positive outcome. (15)

Even though you may have accepted your partner’s condition and are willing to stay with them and support them, this may be on the condition that they receive treatment for their alcohol addiction.

You may also wish to set down several other conditions so that it develops into a psychological contract between you. This may include:

  • Not drinking alcohol at all in the family home.
  • Attending weekly AA meetings.
  • Engagement with alcohol addiction treatment services.
  • Two sober days a week.
  • Attend couples counselling to talk through problems and feelings.

It is best to be realistic at first and set boundaries that your partner can realistically achieve, and a good start would be getting them to admit to you that they have a problem with their drinking and to visit their GP and start seeking the help of addiction treatment services. (15)

Use intervention services

Support network

If your partner’s drinking behaviour is impacting you and the rest of the family and your partner is refusing to admit they have a problem with alcohol despite all the evidence to the contrary then you can contact specialist services to help you persuade your loved one into treatment by setting up an alcohol intervention.

Alcohol interventions are essentially behaviour change strategies employed by trained professionals who utilise a range of communication and behavioural strategies to modify behaviour.

Families will receive professional training on how to communicate and interact with the relative they are concerned about and over time they will hopefully come to acknowledge that they need to receive treatment for their alcohol disorder.

Your GP, local NHS alcohol misuse teams and addiction/mental health-orientated charities will be able to provide you with the contact details of organisations that carry out intervention services.

Make sure you do not enable their behaviour


Enabling is engaging in behaviour that supports your partner’s excessive drinking which may be carried out intentionally or out of conscious awareness.

Examples of enabling behaviour include doing things for your partner that they should be capable of doing themselves but are not able to because of their alcohol addiction.

Enabling this behaviour will allow your partner to carry on the same way they have been doing for some time as they remain unchallenged and show no signs of changing themselves. (7,10,11)

Enabling probably helps to reduce any conflict within the family home but in the long run, enabling your partner’s drinking will only maintain their alcohol addiction, and the problems will only get worse.

Examples of enabling behaviour include:

  • Avoiding the problem by carrying on as normal.
  • Denying there is a problem and that things need to change.
  • Making excuses for your partner’s behaviour, you may claim that your parent is drinking because they are under a lot of pressure at work.
  • Providing financial assistance, for example, if your partner is not working or has spent a lot of money on alcohol then you may take on extra work to cover the shortfall in finances.
  • Covering up for their actions when conversing with other people about your partner’s alcohol-related behaviour.
  • Neglecting your own needs, for example, because your partner is out drinking and neglecting his/her domestic responsibilities you take on the extra duties rather than confront them which will eventually lead to you becoming stressed and exhausted.

Over time this will create tension and their drinking could escalate further and get out of control, remember they have a mental health condition that requires specialist treatment. (7,10,11)

Research treatment options for your spouse

Support groups

Your partner may be more responsive to receiving treatment if he/she feels that they are supported rather than judged or criticised, so as well as understanding the nature of alcohol addiction it can be beneficial for the spouse to educate him /herself in the treatment and recovery process for alcohol addiction.

This can involve speaking to addiction professionals to find out more about how alcohol addiction develops, and the interventions commonly used to treat alcohol use disorder.

Build connections with addiction professionals


Specialist NHS addiction practitioners and rehab staff are happy to speak with partners of people diagnosed with alcohol use disorder and by building a good relationship with members of the treatment team you are laying the foundations for a successful outcome for your partner.

It is now considered good practice to involve family members in the treatment process for alcohol addiction and treatment services fully understand the needs of family members and know the type of support they need to help them deal with their spouse’s heavy drinking and have developed specific interventions to help families.

Become involved with the treatment process

Couples counselling and family therapy are important interventions that now feature in many alcohol rehab programmes.

This means spouses and other family members can become involved in the treatment process and express their true feelings about their situation which can play a vital role in helping your spouse recover.


(1) Al-Anon (2022) Al-Anon: For friends and families of alcoholics.available@ Al-Anon UK | For families & friends of alcoholics

(2) Barnes, P. (ed) (2005) Personal, Social and Emotional Development of Children, Blackwell Publishing, The Open University.

(3) Beck, A, Heinz, A. (2013) Alcohol-Related Aggression: Social and Neurobiological Factors. Deutsches Arzteblatt International. 110(42) pp711-715.

(4) Black, D., Grant, J. (2013) DSM5 Guidebook: The Essential Companion to Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition. APP. London.

(5) Change, Grow, Live (2022) Change, Grow, Live. available@Change Grow Live | Charity | We can help you change your life

(6) Gadd et al (2019) The Dynamics of Domestic Abuse and Drug & Alcohol Dependency. British Journal of Criminology. 59(5) pp1035-1053

(7) Institute of Alcohol Studies (2022) Alcohol and the Family. available@ Microsoft Word – Alcohol and the family.docx (

(8) Javaid, A. (2015) The Role of Alcohol in Intimate Partner Violence: Causal Behaviour or Excusable Behaviour. British Journal of Community Justice. 13(1) pp75-92.

(9) Lander, L. et al (2013) The Impact of substance use disorders and families and children: From theory to practice. Available@The Impact of Substance Use Disorders on Families and Children: From Theory to Practice – PMC (

(10) Leonard, K. & Eiden, R. (2007) Marital and family problems in the context of alcohol use and alcohol disorder. available@Marital and Family Processes in the Context of Alcohol Use and Alcohol Disorders – PMC (

(11) Marshall, M. (2003) For Better or for Worse: The effects of alcohol use on marital functioning. available@For better or for worse? The effects of alcohol use on marital functioning – PMC (

(12) National Institute on alcohol abuse and alcoholism (2022) Alcohol Problems in intimate relationships: Identification and Intervention – A guide for marriage and family therapists. available@ Alcohol Problems in Intimate Relationships: Identification and Intervention – A Guide for Marriage and Family Therapists (

(13) Refuge (2022) Refuge. available@ Refuge – For women and children. Against domestic abuse.

(14) Sharma, N. (2016) Living with an alcoholic partner: Problems faced and coping strategies used by wives of alcoholic clients. Industrial Psychiatry Journal. 25(1) pp 65-71. available@Living with an alcoholic partner: Problems faced and coping strategies used by wives of alcoholic clients – PMC (

(15) Whitfield, C. (1993) Boundaries and relationships: Knowing, protecting and enjoying the self. Health Communications Inc.

(16) World Health Organisation (2006) Intimate Partner Violence and Alcohol



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