Health Agenda

Mental Health

How to help an alcoholic partner

Supporting an alcoholic partner as they try to manage addiction can take its toll on your own health and wellbeing.

Being in a loving relationship often means accepting some less-than-lovable habits in your partner. Whether it’s leaving dirty socks next to the bed, or never washing the dishes, the little things can be irritating. But some habits are more serious and much harder to live with.

For those living with an alcoholic partner, the main focus is helping their loved one manage their addiction. However, protecting their own physical and emotional health is just as vital.

Alcohol and asking for help

While we may forget (or choose to ignore) it, the fact remains alcohol is a drug and its prevalence in society makes it the most used and accepted drug in Australia.

Alcohol abuse is widespread, with 1 in 6 of us drinking enough to put us at risk of an alcohol-related injury or disease. There’s also the stigma attached to alcohol addiction, which means people often don’t seek help. For loved ones watching from the sidelines, not knowing where and how to help can also stop them from asking for support.

Asking for help and having good support is often enough to turn it all around, says Dr Vicky Phan, an Addiction Psychiatrist at Turning Point Eastern Treatment Services and a lecturer at Monash University.

“It’s possible to have healthy relationships even if someone is experiencing or recovering from addiction,” says Dr Phan. “People should reach out at the earliest opportunity to receive treatment and support. Families shouldn’t feel like they have to manage it alone.”

What is alcohol addiction?

Enjoying a beer with the footy or a glass of wine with dinner does not indicate an addiction to alcohol.

Alcohol addiction is defined by an inability to control drinking, even when it starts to impact your health, relationships and lifestyle.

HealthDirect lists common symptoms of addiction as:

  • having a strong urge to drink
  • a lack of control of how much to drink
  • physical effects like nausea, sweating, shakiness and anxiety when not drinking
  • needing to drink more over time to get the same good feeling
  • drinking alone, or hiding alcohol from family or friends
  • struggles with work, education or relationships for no obvious reason
  • lying about how much you drink
  • drinking early in the day or feeling anxious about when you will be able to drink
  • forgetting what you said or did while drinking.

How alcohol addiction changes a relationship

It’s important for a support person to appreciate how integral they are to the recovery of their alcoholic partner, but to also acknowledge the personal impact it has on them.

“The addiction can change the way someone behaves or functions. It can also change the relationship,” Dr Phan says. “The loved one really travels on that journey [of recovery] with the [addicted] person. Often any kind of words or action from family and friends can help steer the person to get support, so a partner can be crucial to recovery.”

The burden of responsibility may extend far beyond worrying about an alcoholic partner’s health, especially if there are children involved, and work and financial commitments to meet.

Feelings of shame, guilt and embarrassment can stop a support person from confiding in others, and from reaching out for help when they need it themselves.

“We know there’s a stigma around addiction, which puts up barriers,” Dr Phan says. “But if people don’t seek the care and support they need, and things go on for longer than they should, the consequences may be more severe.”

If this sounds familiar, here’s how to set you and your partner on the road to recovery.

Helping your alcoholic partner

Dr Phan recommends doing some research around addiction before raising your concerns with your partner. “It can help you approach your partner with a greater understanding and awareness about what they’re experiencing.”

Once you’re ready to have the first conversation, keep these tips in mind:

  • Choose the right time and place – ideally somewhere private and quiet, and while your partner is sober.
  • Don’t use blaming or accusatory language, such as “you need to get help; you’re messing things up; you need to change”.
  • Instead, take a collaborative approach with phrases like, “I’m here for you; I want to support you; I want to hear from you; I’ve noticed these things.” This can make your partner feel less isolated and more convinced you want to help them.
  • Keep in mind your partner may not be ready to manage their addiction. Dr Phan suggests giving them some time to sit with what you’ve said. Leave them with something like, “let’s talk about this again in a few days and see how we both feel then. I’d really like to work through this together”.

Taking the first step

If your partner agrees to seek help, a good first step is to see their GP. Your partner may or may not want you to be at the appointment with them; either way, let them know you’re there if they need you.

“Some people love having a support person at appointments,” Dr Phan says. “Others may find it hard to talk openly with a partner in the room. There may be things they haven’t been honest about yet. Ask if they’d like you to be waiting outside. See what works for them.”

Making a plan together

When supporting a partner with an alcohol addiction, communication is key. Ask yourself how and where it will impact your life together and discuss ahead of time how you’ll navigate tough situations, like social events.

“Decide what your narrative will be,” Dr Phan says. “It might be that, together, you decide your partner is the designated driver to an event, and that’s why they’re not drinking. It’s an easy out [if people ask questions].

“The most important thing is to have open communication, so that you feel prepared and your partner feels supported.”

It can take time for people managing addiction to create better coping strategies and start to live healthier lives. As the partner of someone with an addiction, it’s important to realise recovery is an ongoing process.

How to take care of yourself

As much as we instinctively want to help the ones we love, we’re not superheroes and we can’t always fix everything.

“The temptation is to try to rescue your loved one,” says Dr Phan. “But you can only be there for that person as much as you’re able. You need to protect your own health and practise good self-care.”

Dr Phan also points out your role in a relationship is to be a partner, not a counsellor or addiction therapist. “People need to recognise their limits and boundaries around what they’re comfortable with and what they’re skilled to manage. Know when to reach out to the community and professional support services to fill those gaps.”

Ways to practice self-care for you include:

  • regular exercise
  • eating healthily
  • talking to a trusted friend or counsellor about how you’re feeling
  • getting regular, good quality sleep
  • giving yourself permission to take a break when you’re feeling overwhelmed.

Believing change is possible

While there’s no quick fix for an alcohol addiction, there are many support services and effective treatments to explore.

“Change and recovery is possible for everyone, irrespective of age or where you’re at in your life,” Dr Phan says.

Help is at hand

If your partner needs help to change their drinking habits, there are resources to support you.

Reset drinking habits with the Daybreak app*, Hello Sunday Morning’s online behaviour change program giving you access to 24/7 digital support. The program connects you anonymously with a like-minded online community trying to change their relationship with alcohol.

The Daybreak app is fully subsidised by the Australian Department of Health, which means all Australians get free access.

HCF members may also have access to additional mental health support. For more information contact HCF’s Health and Wellbeing Team at wellbeing@hcf.com.au

Download the Daybreak app on the App Store or Google Play.

Where to find more help for alcohol support, counselling and information:  

If you're struggling with depression or anxiety, and need to speak to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Words by Kerry McCarthy
June 2021

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