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How to Cope with a Spouse's Alcoholism

Learn how to cope with a spouse's alcoholism in this Howcast video featuring addictions specialist Paul J. Rinaldi, Ph.D.


In my practice I'm frequently called by the spouse or the partner of someone who has an alcohol problem, and they are usually calling to ask me what they should do. Usually they're calling me to say, "How do I get my partner into treatment with you or into treatment with someone else?"

When I hear that, I focus more on that person who's calling me. What's their experience? What do they need because it's extremely stressful to be the partner of someone who has an alcohol problem because that person often is creating a very stressful environment in the home. And the partner is the primary person, even if there's children. The partner is the primary person who's having to deal with that person who's having the problem. There's several ways of supporting people who are the partners. Often they're angry, and they don't want to hear about their own issue. They just want their partner or spouse to go away and get help and come back fixed.

But we often talk about alcohol or substance abuse disorders as being a family disease. And what that means is there's often really very typical family dynamics that exist that within that system that need to be addressed. Because if they're not addressed, what happens often is that there's great strife between those partners as the person gets better who's having the problem with alcohol. So we want to get that spouse into their own treatment. That doesn't mean that they have to go to therapy although that's often recommended. But, again, it's to make sure that they get some kind of support.

What kind of support can that be? Well, there's 12 step meaning based on the 12 step traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous., There are groups called Al-Anon for the significant others of people with alcohol problems. Those are 12 step based groups where those are groups facilitated by someone who has been the partner or the significant other of someone with an alcohol problem. And it's just like AA where then there's other people in there who are experiencing the same thing.

And so someone right there that you can go in and I always recommend that to people because it's free and you can then find other people who are experiencing remarkably similar things to you. And that often, in and of itself, is extremely comforting to find other people who are having the same issues that you are because when you're in it you often think this is just me. And often partners collude with their partner in the shame of it. They don't want to talk about it. They don't want to out their partner. They don't want to out themselves as being in this situation. It's extremely lonely, and extremely painful.

So there's Al-Anon for people, and there's also within treatment centers, most treatment centers have either support groups or have family therapy for the significant other. Sometimes with the partner or without the partner or both, and that's really what we recommend in treatment for people. We always recommend that the family become involved in the treatment so they can also change how they react to the person having the problem so they can get healthier. Because the disease of alcohol really can bring down the whole family system and bring the whole family system into it.

So what I recommend more than any other thing is that people get support, people get help. And there's all these different avenues in which to do so. But not go it alone, get help

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