July 26, 2021

How To Help An Alcoholic Spouse Consider a Life in Recovery (Part One)

Very few people wake up in the morning and say, “Today is a beautiful day! I think I will go into treatment.”

Yet, again and again I hear family members say things like:
“It has to be his choice.”
“I will not tell him he has to go into treatment.”
“She doesn’t want to stop. There is nothing I can do.”
“I’ve tried and he was in treatment three times. None of it lasted. This time, I’m keeping my mouth shut.”

My favorite response to that last statement is:
If your husband had three heart attacks and had a fourth, would you walk away? Would you tell him it’s his decision what he wants to do next and not be in touch with doctors or take professional advice about next best steps? Of course not. 

But, when it comes to addiction, also known as substance use disorder (sud), alcohol use disorder (aud), etc., families, and sometimes even the professionals in the ER, leave it all up to the person who landed in the ER with an overdose or alcohol toxicity or cannabis induced psychosis.

What is wrong with this picture?

What is wrong can be better understood in studying the family’s role, what it has been and what it could be.

In the past (and for many, in the present), family love meant doing everything you could for a loved one. So if your husband or wife ‘requires’ more alcohol, you buy it for them. If your adult child lost his driver’s license and needs a ride to his dealer’s house to get drugs, you take them and wait til they get the drugs and bring them home. If your loved one is lying on the floor in a drunken stupor, you get them to bed and don’t mention it the next morning.

Of course, in most families this kind of behavior gets interspersed with lots of yelling, screaming, and begging. But suffice it to say, the drinking or drugging, the addiction, wins and the loved one’s chances at a healthy life going forward are diminished.

Back to the heart attack analogy, a failing heart would be attended to medically, again and again, but often, a loved one’s alcohol disordered brain is left to further decline in the name of ‘choice’ or ‘it’s his problem’ resulting in progression of the use disorder and broken hearts and relationships in the family system.

So what is the family’s role?

How does a loving family member help a person who is falling apart before their eyes, all while denying they even have a problem?

Principle One of the BALM Family Recovery Program states “The family has a crucial role to play in a loved one’s recovery.”

The key to understanding this principle and what it implies is to know that family members have tremendous powers of influence in each others’ lives. The BALM calls this influence contribution and says: In a family, contribution is a given. 

You are either contributing to your loved one’s recovery or to their substance use disorder. 

Think of it this way. If addiction were a race, the entire family would be involved in it, not just the person with the addiction. The person with the addiction of course would be drinking or drugging. The rest of the family would be playing supporting roles.  

The choice the family members have is not whether or not to be in the race, rather, it is which race you are running: the race to help them get into recovery or the race to help them further deteriorate as a result of their addiction. 

But isn't it their problem?

In a family, a loved one’s addiction is not THEIR problem, it’s OUR problem.

Going back to the heart analogy, would you ever, in your wildest dreams, watch your husband, wife, or child have a heart attack in front of your eyes and walk away saying, “There they go again. I hope they figure this out!”

No, you would call the ambulance and get them to the hospital. 

Then, once at the ER, they would get the help they need to get better, whether that help is medicine, further treatment, surgery, rehab, etc. A person in need of heart surgery won’t be sent home if they need help - and if the professionals in the hospital don’t insist on getting them help, the family will advocate for it.

Same family and the problem is alcohol toxicity or drug overdose. The hospital does what it can to ‘dry the person out’ or give them NarCan and sends them home to a family who often has NO IDEA what to do. The loved one is insisting they can handle it and it’s really not a problem and everyone just shrugs their shoulders, saying, “What can we do? It’s his choice.”


To learn how to contribute to recovery, read part two of this series “My Husband Drinks Too Much.”

About the author

Beverly Buncher, MA, PCC, CBFRLC, CTPC, known as the "Foremost Family Recovery Life Coach in the Nation", is the Founder and CEO of Family Recovery Resources, LLC, and the BALM® (Be A Loving Mirror®) Institutes for Family Recovery Coach Training and Family Recovery Education.