The Art of Relating: Is Your Partner’s Drinking Affecting Your Relationship?

Christine Kniffen, MSW, LCSW
visit: www.ChristineKniffen.com

A recent national study found that approximately 21% of Americans experienced at least one alcohol related problem in the prior year, and roughly 1 in 3 Americans engaged in risky drinking patterns. Risky drinking patterns include high-volume drinking, high-quantity consumption on any given day. Alcohol abuse plays a role in many individual’s relationship conflicts. It is a diagnosis that is hard to nail down, as the term “problem drinker” is still so subjective. Alcohol abuse does not necessarily entail a consistent pattern of heavy drinking but is defined by the adverse consequences associated with the drinking pattern. When someone experiences alcohol problems, the negative effects of drinking exert a toll, not only on the drinker, but also on their partner and other family members. Drinking problems may negatively alter marital and family functioning, but there also is evidence that they can increase because of marital and family problems.

Thus, drinking and family functioning are strongly and reciprocally linked. Not surprisingly, alcohol problems are common in couples that present for marital therapy, and marital problems are common in drinkers who present for alcohol treatment. In addition, recent data suggest that approximately one child in every four (28.6%) in the United States is exposed to alcohol abuse or dependence in the family. So, if you think you are dealing with a potential alcohol problem in your intimate relationship there are several factors to keep in mind.

First, it is essential that you become educated in alcohol abuse. No, you don’t have to be out of work and drinking from a paper bag to have a significant issue with alcohol. This is part of the misunderstanding that surrounds the subject. Far too many people believe that if you are getting up and going to work every day, then you don’t have a real problem. However, as mentioned above it is not necessarily about quantity and frequency, as it is about an accumulation of negative consequences that are associated with the drinking. Is your drinking causing a degree of interpersonal conflict in your intimate relationship, as well as those with family and friends? Has the trust in your relationship become eroded and damaged through lies associated with your drinking? Is your drinking really masking a larger issue such as depression or another mood disorder? There is a well-documented association between alcohol use disorders and other psychiatric disorders. In my field there is a term called “self-medicating”. Often people with mood disorders attempt to medicate the negative symptoms with alcohol or other drugs. These include feelings of loneliness, hopelessness, unhappiness, etc. And, I was taught that there was no use trying to treat the addiction, without first treating the depression.

Second, it is essential that you realize that you are not alone and that there are places you can go to get support. Al-Anon is a great comfort and help to many people who have a relationship with a problem drinker. Most people have heard me say, many times, that being alone with your problem makes it feel so much worse. It is imperative that you be able to share your feelings with people who “get it”. Even more importantly, you need feedback on what to do and what to expect. Remember, this is your journey as well.

Coming to acknowledge and accept that there is a problem is not just something with which the drinker must come to terms. It will be your job to gain strength through knowledge and understanding of the problem. Strength comes from not personalizing. It is very common and quite understandable to take things personally when you are lied to about the problem behavior. “How could you do this if you loved me?” “How could you look me in the eyes and lie to my face?” Unfortunately, it really doesn’t have anything to do with you. This is about the lying and denial that comes with addiction. Get support as soon as you think there is an issue. Educate yourself and learn from others who have traveled this road before you. This will help tremendously in soothing your ego and the accompanying hurt feelings that naturally come with involvement with a problem drinker.

Lastly, you will at some point have to make it ultimately about you. This is the time when you may need professional guidance and support as to how to set your boundaries, defining exactly what you will and won’t tolerate in your relationship. It is very common to feel helpless, hence victimized, by a partner’s drinking. After all, something very upsetting is affecting you and yet you have no control over it. However, ultimately only you can make things better for yourself if your partner is unable or unwilling to take a serious look at his or her behavior and what is it doing to the relationship. All change is a process, not something that takes place overnight. You may set your boundaries firmly, only to find yourself backslide with time and begin to slowly allow the behavior to creep back in. With addiction, it is not unusual to experience this up and down many times, as the alternative (leaving the relationship) is not something that your heart can face. I’ve said many times that “it sucks being responsible to yourself”. This is yet another reason that support of some type is so imperative.

In short, if you are on the other end of an addiction problem, be sure to seek support and not try to go it alone. Educate yourself on what people commonly experience when they are in a relationship with an addict, so you don’t personalize and feel so victimized by their predictable behavior. Most importantly, start thinking about you, as you have probably already put more than enough time and mental energy into them. Regroup and seek advice to regain your bearings.

Christine Kniffen, LCSW is a Relationship Coach and Therapist. For a free consultation call 314-374-8396 or e-mail theartofrelating@hotmail.com.