Relationship Q&A: I'm Concerned About His Drinking
Q. I'm concerned about my husband's drinking problem, which has been getting worse over the past 10 years. He drinks between 6 and 12 beers at night, and as many as 24 on weekends. At what point do I consider him an alcoholic? He has a stressful job as an investment manager, and I know that's part of the problem. I understand that his job requires him to keep things confidential, but he is completely withdrawn emotionally. Often, I don't know where he is or how to contact him except to leave a message at his office. Our sex life has disappeared -- by the time he comes home and has his beer, he's unable to perform. I don't want to break up my marriage, but I don't know how much more of this I can take. If you can't talk about your day with your husband, what do you have in common besides your children?
Bonnie Eaker-Weil, author of Make up Don't Break Up: Finding and Keeping Love for Singles and Couples (Adams Publishing, 1999), answers:
A. You're wise to realize the importance of talking to someone. The situation you describe is difficult and you need a sounding board and support system. Pick up the phone and call for professional counseling. The American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (AAMFT) is a good resource. You can get a list of therapists in your area at www.aamft.org. The Coalition for Marriage, Family, and Couples Education. (www.smartmarriages.com) is another good source.
Alcoholism is a chronic, often progressive disease with symptoms that include a compulsion to drink despite negative consequences. Whether or not your husband can be diagnosed as a true alcoholic or as someone suffering from alcohol dependency is not clear -- often it's not the number of drinks a person has, but rather how the drinking affects the person that defines the illness. Nevertheless, your husband is clearly using alcohol to escape from something and to avoid communication with you. You need to figure out why, and help him realize that he needs to get a handle on his drinking. The true alcoholic cannot simply reduce his alcohol use without stopping altogether.
Whenever there is an alcohol problem there is a sexual problem. Your husband can't connect to you since he's connected to alcohol instead -- and is using it as a way to keep his distance from you. If he's unwilling to seek help on his own, you must realize that almost all distancers require ultimatums for change to occur. Start with a gentle talk. Let him know how upset you are about the distance in your marriage and how it makes you feel. Ask, without anger, accusation or blame, what you might be doing that is pushing him away. Perhaps you are not allowing him to feel psychologically safe enough to talk openly with you. Perhaps your anger and resentment, though totally understandable, is causing you to hold grudges or be critical. Let him know you want to change, that you are willing to listen to how he feels but that it's equally essential for him to listen to how you feel. Ask him point-blank: "Are you willing to put me and our marriage first?" It's not easy to find the confidence to voice your feelings. However, by avoiding this kind of direct discussion, you are allowing this situation to continue. Keep in mind that countless studies have shown that the number one predictor of divorce is habitual avoidance of conflict.
The next challenge is to tell your husband you are concerned about the excessive amount of alcohol he consumes and want to be supportive in getting help. Back up your concern with examples of the ways in which his drinking has caused problems for both of you. You may need to give him what I call a "brush with death," a temporary break up that will shake him and wake him up to the crisis in your marriage. Tell him that while you love him, and want to save your marriage, you can't continue unless you both get the help you need.
What if he doesn't budge or continues to shut you out? Find strength and support in others. Investigate local Al-Anon groups, which hold regular meetings for spouses. If you believe your children will benefit from similar counseling and support, check into Alateen groups for them to join. (Check the phone book under Alcoholism or call 1-800-344-2666). These groups all help family members understand that they are not responsible for an alcoholic's drinking and that they need to take steps to take care of themselves, regardless of the situation.
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