Alcoholism can destroy relationships. But spouses of high-functioning alcoholics have a particular challenge because their mates often function enough to make it seem like they don’t have a problem. They may deny your concerns about their drinking habits by defending what they are doing right: “Well, I pay the bills” or “I work hard, I deserve to unwind.”
“A high-functioning alcoholic is typically someone who is able to work and stay employable,” says Sergio Muriel, LMHC, CAP, EMDR and Executive Director at Lucida Treatment Center. “In some cases they are able to participate on the surface but they are not really present. The person may go to work and then come home and drink every night. They don’t participate in family life or support their marriage or children emotionally or socially.”
A high-functioning alcoholic could also be someone who perhaps doesn’t drink daily, but when they do they drink to blackout. “That’s typically when issues may arise,” says Muriel. “There may be infidelity, money, employment or family issues.”
The sober spouse of an alcoholic suffers greatly, and often silently. They may be ashamed to tell anyone, or they may second guess themselves about whether their spouse is really an alcoholic. They may develop with depression, anxiety or other mental health disorders.
“If you’re in a relationship with a high-functioning alcoholic, it’s going to have an effect on your mental health and emotional well-being,” says Muriel. “Before you try to help them, you have to learn how to cope with their illness in the healthiest way possible.”
The Importance of Self-Care
Can a marriage survive drug addiction? In many cases, the sober partner has to take on more responsibility, at least at first. It is impossible to control a high-functioning alcoholic. But there are certain things you can control, such as taking care of your own well-being. Focus on doing the things that will make your life easier and enhance your ability to cope, such as:
- Assess danger. First, consider whether you and your children are in danger. Is there violence or abuse when your spouse is drinking? Your relationship may have varying levels of dysfunction, some being tolerable and others unacceptable. Allow yourself to be removed enough from the situation that you can see where danger lurks. Err on the side of caution when it comes to finding a safe place to go or getting you and your children out of harm’s way.
- Set boundaries. Decide what you’re willing to accept. You can say to your spouse, “I’m not telling you what you have to do, but I will let you know what I’m able to put up with.” Setting boundaries allows you to take care of your own needs.
Take care of your mental health. Make sure you have therapeutic support for any mental health issues. It’s important to have someone to talk to rather than hold feelings inside. Ignoring your own mental health care leads to more problems as your spouse’s disease progresses.
- Find a support group. Al-Anon has long been a staple of helping the spouses of alcoholics cope. There are also 12-step alternatives. “When dealing with an alcoholic spouse you may feel helpless, isolated and like no one understands what you are going through,” says Muriel. “Support groups can give you a tribe and a community that can lift you up. There is a power in knowing you’re not alone.”
- Address your own trauma. The healthiest way to heal is to look into your own childhood trauma and pain, as well as addressing the more recent trauma of being married to an alcoholic. Often people find that past and present issues are directly connected. You may discover patterns, such as having an addicted parent who behaved similarly to your spouse, that need to be addressed to help you heal.
Can This Marriage Survive Drug Addiction?
Building your own resilience will put you in the best position to help your addicted spouse. It can help you stay strong and make better decisions, even in the most difficult times. You will need that strength to overcome your spouse’s denial about their illness, especially since they will often claim that you are the one with the problem, not them.
“A high-functioning alcoholic may participate in life 95% of the time,” says Muriel. “They may have friends and be good in social situations. They can show up to work in the sharpest clothes. This is a person who’s employable, has a nice home, has money in the bank, is still married and has children.” So how do you convince someone who has all these things that their drinking is a problem?
“All it takes is that one evening where something goes wrong,” he says. “It’s hard to convince them that they need help until there’s a crisis. If there’s no crisis, they’ll convince themselves that everything’s okay and that it won’t happen again.”
You may have to act quickly when a crisis occurs. Here are a few steps you can take to be ready:
- Encourage your addicted spouse to seek help. Never approach them when they are drunk and try not to start the conversation from a place of anger. Speak calmly and communicate what you believe is true even if they reject the idea. And don’t let their denial stop you from putting plans into place.
- Select a treatment center. Even if you believe your spouse would never agree to go to rehab, research an inpatient addiction treatment program that may be a fit. Find out all you need to know about getting someone enrolled in alcohol treatment. Have that information in your back pocket. Something may occur to open the door to getting your spouse help.
- Create even stronger boundaries. Left to their own devices, a high-functioning alcoholic may never seek help. If everything remains status quo, and they can come home and drink, they may not be motivated to change. It sometimes takes a serious threat from a spouse who says they will leave if the alcoholic does not get help.
- Plan an intervention. Sometimes an intervention can be conducted with a small group of concerned friends and family. But often a professional interventionist is needed to come in and create the right environment for a successful intervention. This is someone who can advise you and help get your spouse into inpatient treatment.
As impossible as it may seem, there is hope. There are professionals and programs that can help your spouse get sober and give you both a chance to repair your relationship.