You Can't Help An Alcoholic — Until You Take This One Important Step

What can you do to help your alcoholic spouse?

wife talking to her husband, who is crying Just Life / Shutterstock

When a loved one is struggling with alcohol addiction, the effects can reverberate among family, friends and coworkers.

In the most extreme cases, the addiction can bring with it intimate partner violence. But, even in less severe situations, addiction is a source of deep emotional upheaval.

More often than not, the bulk of the pain and frustration fall hardest on a spouse or intimate partner.

Partners of those struggling with addiction often feel desperate to change the situation or even believe it's their responsibility to repair it. But this is not true.


In fact, to truly help an alcoholic spouse or partner, sometimes the best thing you can do is focus on your own mental, emotional and physical health. That is the one thing you need to do before you can be a supportive partner to an alcoholic — or any other type of addict.

RELATED: Being Raised By Alcoholics Forged My Identity

What do you need to know as the spouse of an alcoholic?

It's easy to see why someone caught in this position would try every means possible to change their circumstances. 

Just as the first step of the well-known 12-step addiction recovery program is for the addict to admit powerlessness over their addiction, the first step for an intimate partner is to accept that they're powerless to create change in another person.


Warning Signs

An alcoholic might be able to hide the extent of their disease from friends, family, or co-workers, but it’s harder to hide things like regular hangovers, hidden stashes of alcohol, or repeated failed attempts to cut back from an intimate partner.

Other signs a partner might notice are problems meeting work, school, or family obligations, cravings, blackouts, skin issues like broken capillaries, a consistent inability to say "no" to a drink, avoidance of situations where drinking can’t happen, or symptoms of withdrawal. 

What a partners can — and cannot — do to help an alcoholic spouse

If you're the partner of an alcoholic, you can offer love, support, guidance, resources, a sounding board, a steady hand, a sympathetic ear.


But you cannot make another person change, assume you're responsible for "fixing" them nor blame yourself for another person’s self-destructive choices.

We can't control what our partners do. We can only control what we do and how we respond.

Partners of addicts must take their power back and stop blaming themselves. Instead, they should be encouraged to try to heal themselves and prioritize self-care so they can provide appropriate care to their partner. 

Ask yourself:

  • Do I set healthy boundaries?
  • Do I make time to focus on and fulfill my own needs?
  • Do I let my partner take responsibility for their own problems, and sometimes suffer the consequences of their own mistakes?
  • Do I enable the addiction by trying to insulate them from consequences?

Nurture yourself and your own mental health so you can be a strong source of support when your partner is ready to start moving toward recovery. 


RELATED: Two Ex-Alcoholics Share The Secret To Sobriety And Their Marriage

What a partner should avoid

Caring for your partner doesn’t mean solving their alcoholism or prodding them into treatment they aren’t ready to commit to. 

Many people believe in the group "intervention," in which family and friends gather en masse to confront the alcoholic about their condition and push them into treatment.

However, that strategy can also backfire and make the person feel ambushed and defensive rather than supported and cared for. 

People who are pushed, goaded or bullied into treatment programs by well-meaning others are rarely successful.

I won’t make an appointment to counsel a person who's not a fully willing participant. It simply doesn’t work.


Until an addict wants to make a change, change will not happen, no matter how deeply concerned, sincere and caring their partner is. 

Although it’s natural to examine the circumstances around the addiction, don’t let this manifest as blaming yourself, or thinking, "I haven’t done enough" or "If I can just do more, I can fix this."

Even if you have shared drinks with your partner in the past, alcoholism is the responsibility of the alcoholic, not their sober partner. 

If you’re dealing with a partner who's in the worst throes of addiction, it’s also important not to abandon your hobbies, passions, and the things that bring you joy.

It’s taxing to have an addicted partner, but if you can steal a half-hour here and there to keep your own goals, pleasures and dreams alive, do it.


In short, don’t abandon your own needs in favor of your partner’s

RELATED: I Had To Reclaim My Strength While Pregnant And Married To An Alcoholic

Supportive actions a partner can take

When your alcoholic partner is finally ready to seek help, they will say so. They might even come to a point where they beg for it.

But if they're seeking help yet still struggling, the sober partner can hold space for them, listen to them, and be patiently encouraging.

Accept that they may only proceed in baby steps, or that they may walk to the door and then, terrified, turn back.

As painful and disappointing as this may be for a partner, it's a common occurrence. This is a moment to praise the baby steps. 


Only when your partner asks for your assistance in doing so is it appropriate to help them select resources like rehab centers, therapists, addiction programs or physicians.

Your partner may have their own opinions about which of those options they would prefer, so listen, and don’t take over their recovery.

As much pain as you've suffered as a partner, this is their recovery. Let them take the lead. It's what they need.

The most supportive thing you can do is thoughtfully detach and refocus on your own well-being.


That may include educating yourself as much as possible about resources specifically made for partners of alcoholics.

AlAnon is the most widely known of these, but find what works for you.

You need support in coping with your own pain and trauma, not only that of your partner.

Remember to be kind to yourself. 

Realizing that your partner has an alcohol abuse problem requires finding the line between supporting them yet not trying to take on the responsibility of fixing their problems. It's a difficult journey.

Seek support from others who have walked that path. And set an intention to be of service by first being of service to yourself.

Self-care is not selfish. In fact, it’s essential. 


RELATED: What's A Functioning Alcoholic? How To Tell The Difference Between Having A Drinking Problem & Staying In Control

Kristine Ovsepian is an intuitive healer, certified hypnotherapist, life coach, and author, bringing Universal Wisdom, love, light, and healing to all who seek her services. For more information, visit her website.