Pages Menu
Categories Menu

Posted by in Savvy Minds

Ask Dr. V: An Alcoholic Husband

Ask Dr. V: An Alcoholic Husband

Venus Nicolino, Ph.D. of clinical psychology answers your questions in this section. This week: an alcoholic husband
Dr. V,

I’m really at my wits end with my alcoholic husband! While he admits he “may” have some issues with “chemical dependency,” he refuses to admit he is an alcoholic. I don’t know what to do. He started drinking from the stress of his work. He also sometimes does cocaine when he’s out with his work buddies. He’s starting to miss work, which scares me because we have two infants at home. I’m also noticing large sums of money missing from our bank account. I just don’t know what to do or how to even talk to him about it. Most of our conversations revolve around him denying he’s an alcoholic. I feel that if he’d just accept who he is, he’d be able to accept help. Can you offer any suggestions on how I deal with this?

Currently, your husband cannot accept the label of “alcoholic,” but seems open to seeing “issues” and this is a very good start. One of the major hassles couples get in regarding drug and alcohol problems is that one person tries to convince the other he or she is really drug addicted or alcoholic.
This is fine if your partner is open to accepting this label, but much of the time he or she isn’t convinced the problem is serious or merits diagnosis. Contrary to what you may have read or heard, many people deal successfully with substance abuse problems without ever accepting the label of addiction or alcoholism. The more important issue is to deal with the drinking or drug-taking behavior and its consequences. You can spend crucial time and energy on this more peripheral issue and alienate your partner in the process. Stick to what is important. Choose your battles wisely.
Talk It Over

Often the first step is to have a heart-to-heart talk with your partner about substance abuse and how you see it affecting your relationship and family. State clearly what it is you want your partner to do. Ask if there is anything you can do to help. After you have done this and have met any reasonable requests for assistance, accept that you have gone as far as you can to directly change your partner’s abuse. If he doesn’t make changes, you need to take steps designed more to take care of yourself than to change the behavior. Some people respond to consequences presented by their partner, but if you are providing consequences, don’t do it with the intention of getting the user to change. It will usually be seen as manipulation.
Set Clear Boundaries and Make Specific Agreements Regarding the Problems Related to the Substance Use

A better approach than arguing about labels is to set clear boundaries for what is acceptable and unacceptable or dangerous behavior and stick to those boundaries. “Clear” means setting the boundaries in a specific way so that you and your partner both know when those boundaries are honored and when they are violated.
For example, if your partner routinely tells you that he will be home at a certain time and shows up late, make sure the boundary is clear. “If you are going to be any more than 15 minutes later than you said you’d be, please call telling me what time you expect to be home.”
Or, if your partner has been missing work due to drinking, focus the boundary setting on getting to work consistently and make the limits clear and unmistakable. “If you miss any more days of work, I think you are putting your job at risk and hurting our family finances. I would like you to do what you need to do to get to work every day for the next month.”
In many cases, if you focus on the drinking itself, you are likely to get into an unproductive argument. But in some situations, you might be able to make a clear agreement about the amount of frequency of drinking.
Don’t Make Excuses for Your Partner’s Substance Use

From decades of experience with drug and alcohol problems, we have learned one of the things able to inadvertently keep these problems going much longer than they otherwise would have lasted is if one partner develops a habit of making excuses for their partner’s drug or alcohol use or buffering the person from the consequences of their behavior. If he is hung over, don’t call in to work for him saying he is sick if you can’t wake him up.
Don’t let him off the hook for inappropriate behavior just because he’s been using drugs or alcohol. For example, if he gets violent when drunk, don’t explain the violence away as a result of the alcohol. Hold him accountable for the violence (and the alcohol use).
Take Care of Yourself

When you travel on an airplane, they make an announcement during the initial safety orientation. “If there is an emergency, oxygen masks will drop from the overhead compartment. If you are traveling with small children, put your oxygen mask on first, then assist your child with putting his or hers on.” Why is this? Because if you pass out, your child will be very unlikely to help you, but you could help him or her if they passed out first.
In a similar way, it may be important for you to take care of yourself first in situations in which drugs and alcohol have come to affect you and your family. What might the oxygen mask represent to you? Do you need to have a separate checking or savings account in order to take care of yourself and your children? Do you need to go to an Al-Anon meeting (a group offering support to family members) while you are dealing with your partner’s problem? Do you need to make sure you exercise or take vitamins regularly? Don’t get so focused on your partner’s problem that you neglect to care for yourself.
Here is the link to Al-Anon’s official Web site:
Here is the link to find the nearest Al-Anon meeting in your area:
Check out this useful resource:

Note: All information in the Ask Dr. V column is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnosis and treatment, please feel free to call or email Dr. V, or consult your doctor.
Please feel free to email Dr. V a confidential question for posting at; questions may be edited for grammar and length; emails are only read by Dr. V.
visit her Web site at