How to Talk to Your Alcoholic Partner
One of the many things that addiction takes away is the ability to communicate honestly and directly. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to begin with.
But intermarital communication can be even more of a minefield because of the hurt and anger and plain chaos wrought by addiction. Also, in most cases each partner grew up in a family where basic truths — the elephants in the room — were not okay to talk about, or where addiction’s tyranny meant that hurts and fears were ignored or ridiculed.
In other words, if you are now in a relationship with an actively addicted partner, or close to someone who is, try not to judge too harshly. Judgment just keeps the relational wheels locked in place. It’s not that those of us in such a situation are cowardly or weak, it’s just that we are most likely following an unconscious order (instilled in us from the beginning) to protect the status quo, even when that status quo brings misery and loneliness.
I thought I’d offer a suggestion for people who feel stuck or trapped in an alcoholic marriage, who may want to communicate how they’re feeling, even though doing so might be scary or uncomfortable. Unfortunately, if you’re interested in change — even baby steps — some discomfort is inevitable. Of course, one could argue you’re already uncomfortable, so why not be uncomfortable and at least speak the truth? Usually in taking a new action step, however small, there’s discomfort, then a shaky “was that okay for me to do?” feeling, followed by — over time, with repetition — a reconnection or repair to one’s own self-esteem and integrity.
The two rules of thumb here are: keep it simple and tell the truth. It’s so simple and pared down that it takes practice. (There’s no shame in practicing with a close friend, or in front of the mirror. This isn’t crazy; in fact, doing this takes great courage and is probably going against your early developmental “software.”)
Here’s what I mean by “keep it simple:” Imagine you’re the partner of an alcoholic who comes home late, drunk, wakes up the kids (who start crying) and then wants to argue about how you’re a lousy partner, unsupportive and all sorts of other stuff that all relates to your partner’s insecurity but is angry-making and hurtful nonetheless. You’re left feeling shaken, hurt and royally ticked off.
The next morning, your partner staggers out of bed and sits, hungover, at the breakfast table. This may or may not be the time to do this; you’ll have to gauge. (And the idea is communicating, not “getting even” when he or she’s hungover.) Whatever you do, don’t engage when he or she is still drunk. It’s just wasted energy, your partner is tanked and won’t remember anyway; it’s like shouting at the wind. Your best bet is to wait until your partner is sober enough to listen, so that you can sit down and say as calmly as possible, “I want to say something, and please just hear me out.”
This probably sounds like a very tall order, but any empathy you can scrape up (and this can be tough) will help; try to remember your partner is most likely (inwardly) frightened, ashamed and psychologically lost at sea. I think the idea you want to embody is, alcoholism is your (plural) enemy. Empathy and compassion for yourself is good too: Both of you are being held hostage by a demon.
You might say something, as calmly as possible, like: “You came home drunk last night. You woke up the kids and started yelling at me.”
The reaction might be defensive, or silence, or whatever. It doesn’t matter. This is not a conversation, at least initially. This is you making a point of what happened and how you feel about it. You might try, “Wait, just hear me out.” Or, “Please just listen. This is hard to say and I need to get it out.”
Here’s the second part regarding telling your emotional truth: “You really scared me last night.” Or, “It really hurts me when you act like that. You say such mean things when you drink.”
Stop and let it sink in a moment. You might try, “You woke the kids and freaked them out. I’m worried about how it’s affecting them, and our relationship. You’re not a nice person when you drink.” Or, “I can’t live like this. It has to stop. I miss the person I married. What can we do?”
The anxiety, fear and pressure of a moment like this might lead to one or both of you saying, or at least thinking, “Is the relationship over if it doesn’t stop?” Or, “Is this a line in the sand, ‘stop or else’?” I would encourage you not to go there for now.
First, try a period of non-dramatic but honest communication about the emotional effect of the addiction or alcoholism. The idea is to soften armor and defensiveness so that both of you can really understand the toxic effect of the addiction on your relationship. Justified though you may be, going into a conversation “loaded for bear” isn’t going to work. You’ll just be met with defensiveness and counterattacks, increasing loneliness and frustration on both sides. It can help to vent your frustration to a friend or counselor first, then try this approach.
The frequency of your partner’s alcoholic “episodes” are irrelevant. Whether daily, weekly or monthly, it is still disruptive and causes suffering. That’s enough to warrant this kind of exchange. (Obviously, if you or your children are in danger of being harmed, a plan for getting everyone out of the house — to a friend’s or relative’s for the night, or to a shelter, if need be — clearly is in order.)
No matter what your partner says — even if grand promises to stop come gushing forth — try to avoid a conclusive “plan.” Sometimes such promises are made as a way of stopping a painful conversation. Let it sink in first. Grandiose promises are just as empty as stony deflection. Your partner may say, “Well, I’ll stop if you stop nagging me.” You can always say, again, “Please hear me out first, and let’s talk later.” Cooler heads usually lead to more balanced assessments.
Don’t list previous similar incidents. Keep it simple and non-dramatic with a line like, “This isn’t the first time.” Or, “It keeps happening and needs to stop.” Less is more.
Don’t rush coming up with an action plan. An “action plan” has the best chance of succeeding after some reflection and discussion has occurred. Until then, stand in your truth. Support yourself for being honest, as you would a good friend or one of your kids standing up to a bully. Because alcoholism is a bully, no doubt, and malevolent. As they say in recovery, “it prefers death but will settle for misery.” One thing it hates is quiet, honest emotional truth. It loves drama, screaming, curses and threats. But to paraphrase Marlon Brando, “Powerful people don’t have to shout.”
You’re scared, you’re hurt, you’re completely overwhelmed — and you know it’s not right, and it’s not who your partner is at heart. That’s enough of a start.
Haber, D. (2016). How to Talk to Your Alcoholic Partner. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2016, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/how-to-talk-to-your-alcoholic-partner/