How to Help When Your Partner Is a Problem Drinker – And Grow Closer As A Couple
WARNING: This Post Might Make You Cry… and want to help your partner with their most troubling problems.
One of the most touching stories I have heard in my practice came from a husband and wife who had just married after dating for three years. Before they married, the husband struggled with problem drinking. In the six months since their wedding, the husband still struggled with his drinking.
Why, then, did his wife decide that she’d had enough of his drinking only six months into their new marriage? And, what did his wife do to help him with his problem drinking?
WHEN LIFE CIRCUMSTANCES CHANGE, SO DO RELATIONSHIPS
For many couples that seek counselling, change usually precedes problems. A change in life circumstances leads many of us to ask ourselves large existential questions, like, “Is this really the person I want to spend the next 40 years with?”
Questions like this are completely normal. But, it’s important to remember that in good times – like when we land a new job – we usually aren’t questioning our decisions. In fact, we’re usually celebrating our decisions.
WHAT ARE LIFE CYCLE EVENTS & WHY DO THEY MATTER?
It is also common that relationships encounter stress following a life event like a wedding, birth of a child, or job loss. They can even falter to the point of dissolution. That’s why I recommend that couples shift a great deal of the blame for their troubles on life circumstances. I argue that we’re still the great people we always were – we are just under more stress.
We need to stop blaming ourselves (and our partner) and acknowledge that life events play a much bigger role in our relationship than we often think.
“There is more impacting your relationship than just your partner. A change in life circumstances (like getting married, losing a job or having a baby) leads us to question our decisions – even the most important one – such as why we married our partner in the first place.”
READY TO LEAVE BECAUSE OF PROBLEM DRINKING
When Missy and Chad (names changed to protect identity) came to see me, they were near divorce. Missy was ready to walk out the door: she’d had enough of Chad’s drinking. Chad admitted he drank too much. He spoke of how, after he was paid, he would give Missy his share of rent, bills and groceries. After that, Chad would spend the rest of his weekly earnings buying vodka – he usually had enough for three bottles.
Missy spoke of how Chad’s drinking was getting worse. After coming to three therapy sessions, Missy still could not get past Chad’s drinking. Chad, on the other hand, offered that he’d been drinking less. In fact, the week before, he had drunk only two bottles of vodka rather than three. Now, in my line of work as a psychotherapist, any time someone begins reducing their negative or maladaptive behaviours, that’s a win. For Missy, however, that win was hard to see. And that’s completely understandable.
It is difficult to see solutions when we’re in the thick of the problem. And I’ve seen it go both ways, where both partners have a hard time seeing improvements – heck, I even struggle to see improvement myself.
LOOK FOR WHAT’S BEEN BETTER
At our fourth therapy session, I asked, “What’s been better since the last time we met?”
Missy replied, “Nothing’s been better. He’s still drinking.”
But Chad disagreed. He shared that last weekend, he only drank one bottle. I asked how he did that.
He said, “I didn’t have enough money for three bottles.”
I asked Chad why.
He explained that he’d spent most of his money on Missy’s kids (Missy and Chad were raising three kids together, but Chad was not their biological father).
I asked, “What led you to spend your money on the kids?”
Chad replied, “Well, they wanted to go to the movies so I took them out for McDonald’s and then to the movie. And it wasn’t cheap – I spent almost $100!”
“Wow!”, I replied. “I guess you couldn’t buy three bottles then.”
“No, I guess I couldn’t”, Chad replied.
IF YOU ONLY LOOK FOR PROBLEMS, THAT’S ALL YOU’LL FIND
In that session, Chad and Missy looked at each other and, for the first time, I noticed the tension begin to thaw.
Chad had always loved Missy’s children. His love never wavered in their three years together. What did waver was Missy’s view of Chad. In part because of the life event of getting married, it became increasingly difficult for Missy to see Chad’s love for her children. It essentially became easier to only see the problem.
TRY LOOKING FOR SOLUTIONS
Missy and Chad came to counselling twice more after that session. In their final session, they said they were ready to continue forward on their own.
Chad said he was still drinking, but doing his best to reduce it even more. And Missy agreed that while she wasn’t happy about the drinking, she still wanted to stay in the marriage and keep making progress together.
When I asked what told them they were in a better place, Missy replied,
“I looked over one morning at Chad playing with our youngest, and I didn’t see a drinker, I saw a Dad”.
When I heard those words from Missy, I almost cried. Never have I been more touched in a therapy session.
At that moment, I witnessed that if a problem (like drinking) can affect a family, without a doubt, a family can affect a problem. Chad’s love for Missy’s children (who had really become his own) clearly showed that we have a decision to make when we look to characterize someone.
We can choose to see their faults. Or we can choose to see their beauty.
It’s time to see our partner’s beauty. Their internal greatness.
Of course, changing the way we view someone doesn’t solve all our relationship problems.
But one thing is for sure. Nothing has ever been truly solved by focusing on the negative. No one has ever given up problem behaviour (like drinking) because we only see their faults. Focus on their strengths, and you’ll be amazed at what can happen.
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About the Author
Jonathan Van Viegen is a full-time relationship coach and licensed psychotherapist helping adults and couples improve one of the most important relationships in their life – the one with their partner. Jonathan’s approach has helped 100’s of clients struggling to maintain a lasting, loving relationship while navigating the challenges of parenting. Jonathan’s goal with this blog is to offer you a behind the scenes look at his life to show that it is possible to create the kind of relationship you desire – using simple skills that anyone can learn.