The scene is all too familiar. He has come home, late – again! And he is smelling strongly of alcohol, something that has been happening more and more often. You feel angry, disappointed, frustrated and powerless. You have tried to discuss his drinking with him but he won’t talk about it. In fact any time you raise the issue he just gets more and more angry and you end up in a fight. You suggest (strongly) that he might have a drink problem he denies it, so who is right? Does he have a drink problem? (Please note we do recognize that women can have an alcohol problem also, but it tends to be more common in men.)
This is a scenario that is played out in many homes on a daily basis. Wives, and husbands, worry that their partners have a problem, parents that their children have a problem and children that their parents have a problem. In the majority of these discussions the drinker will deny having a problem, rarely will they agree. Let’s face it no one wants to admit that there might be something wrong with them and that they cannot drink safely. So even when there is a positive response the drinker will say that they are under stress, going through a difficult time or some other temporary situation that is causing them to drink more than they usually would.
You probably feel that it when you mention his drinking it is almost impossible to get a straight answer. He has been becoming increasingly less reliable, not being where he said he would be or when he said he would be there. He has been hiding drink or denying having had a drink, or says that he has only had a couple when he has clearly been drinking heavily. So when can you tell if he has a drink problem?
Let’s look at the issue in a different way
This is not a problem that only affects him, most drinkers impact on at least three other people. Heavy drinkers, whether they are alcoholics or not, usually disrupt the life of their family. Research shows that partners of alcoholics have more illnesses, are more prone to depression, tend to more social isolation, have lower self esteem and more debt than the partners of non-alcoholics. It has also shown that the children of alcoholics tend to be less successful at school, have more absences genuine or truancy, more illnesses, and more psychological problems than the children of non-alcoholics. So there are often many problems, social, physical and psychological, that can be found in a home where there is a heavy drinker.
So let’s look at the question in a different way. Psychologists call the process of looking at an issue in a different way reframing and that is what we need to do here. Reframing gives us a different perspective and allows us to approach the problem in a new way. So instead of asking whether he has a problem, the more appropriate and more accurate question is “Is alcohol causing a problem in OUR life?”.
So how does that help?
You are probably thinking yeah, ok so we can reframe the question, but how does that help anything? Anyone who works with drinkers, drug users or people with any type of addictive behaviour, will tell you that one of the biggest obstacles to change is ‘denial’ or problem recognition. As we said above, no one wants to admit having a problem, especially one that makes them seem weak. So reframing allows you to approach the issue in a different way.
For example instead of saying “You drink too much, or you have a problem”, which he can, and probably will, deny, you can concentrate instead on the consequences of the drinking. The focus can now shift to the problems that you are aware of and that are more difficult to ignore or deny, his behaviour, time keeping, spending too much money or whatever his drinking pattern disrupts in your home.
You can then talk about these issues and how much they affect both of you, your family, friends, work, income, lifestyle and any other issues. Since the focus has moved from alcohol, there should be much less denial, in fact if you concentrate on issues that are obviously a problem you may be able to ask the questions, “Do you think that alcohol contributes to this problem? In what way do you think it contributes? What can we do about it?”
So don’t ask the question does he have a drinking problem where the focus is on him and his drinking. This approach generally leads to denial by him and frustration to you. Instead ask does his drinking adversely affect our life. It is a less threatening approach and opens the door to discussions that could have a more positive outcome.