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How to support an alcoholic spouse in recovery

One of the most challenging situations in any marriage can be when one spouse is battling an addiction to alcohol. From the feelings of powerlessness a spouse might feel while their partner is actively abusing alcohol through to the odd combination of hope and anger that arises when a spouse finally enters drug rehab, there is no easy path or solution to deal with this kind of scenario. With the persistent threat of relapse hanging over a marriage or partnership, the emotional roller coaster created by living with an alcoholic spouse can continue for many years. If you, or someone close to you, is experiencing this kind of situation and needs help, then read on to find out more about how to support an alcoholic spouse in recovery.

The immediate effects of recovery

When your alcoholic spouse finds recovery, you may think you can all finally relax and your relationship problems will be over. Unfortunately, it isn’t quite as easy as that. Once the alcohol is out of their system, your spouse has to learn to live an entirely different lifestyle, one that involves a “game plan” for when the chaos of that cycle of addiction blocks them once again from thinking clearly. Your spouse is almost certainly going to have setbacks along the way and the goal of reaching complete recovery and sobriety may take many attempts.

Your first instinct might be to protect your recovering spouse from any environmental factors that could cause him or her to start drinking again. One of the most important elements in learning how to support an alcoholic spouse in recovery is to realise that, just as you were unable to control their drinking, you are also powerless over their recovery process too.

Early recovery is sometimes the most challenging time for a married couple, because of all the significant life changes happening in that first year of sobriety. During that time, addicts and alcoholics will need to be selfish focusing on themselves in order to maintain their sobriety and rebuild their lives and their self-esteem. This can leave spouses feeling neglected and resentful.

Changes in relationship and roles

When an alcoholic enters recovery there can be a sense of relief for everyone involved. The spouse and their partner will be relieved that finally the nightmare is over and everyone will now be able to function normally as a family plus finances will also improve. Adjusting to life in sobriety can be difficult though, not only for the individual who has walked away from their alcoholic lifestyle, but also everyone else around them, particularly a spouse.

The spouse who may have become ‘co-dependent’ can find this change particularly difficult. For years, their life has revolved around their partner’s addiction, but now that is over. The care-giving role that once provided an identity has disappeared. This type of change can come as a shock and it may be necessary for the ‘co-dependent’ spouse to attend a support group or receive counseling.

When an alcoholic becomes sober, it usually changes the dynamics within the family. Although life will have been dysfunctional, the family has most likely adapted into different roles. The newly sober husband or wife will change the dynamics inside the family, and this can take a lot of getting used to. Change can be stressful, and it can sometimes lead to resentment and further stress on the family. However, things can improve over time as people adjust to the new situation.

Giving support

You can be there for your spouse – and help preserve your marriage – by taking the following steps:

Educate yourself

Learn about the process of recovery and the risk factors for relapse, and work with your spouse on their relapse prevention plan. Try to understand their journey into sobriety and the obstacles and personal torment they might have faced.

Open the lines of communication

Talk to your spouse about the kind of support they need, without sacrificing your own emotional, physical or mental health. Share your hopes and expectations so that you can work toward the same goals.

Know that your relationship is going to change

Your spouse’s progress may be slow, or it may be surprisingly quick. They may meet new friends, excel at work and perhaps even outshine you. Allow your spouse some freedom to explore who they are without drugs or alcohol, knowing that a shift in responsibilities and power dynamics can bring greater happiness to your home.

Know that you and/or your spouse may consider leaving the marriage.

In the process of getting reacquainted, you may feel that you never knew or loved your spouse, or that you no longer have anything in common. The emotional ups and downs of recovery may place a great deal of stress on the relationship, and it can be difficult to repair the damage, particularly if legal or financial problems continue to impact on the family. Having counseling can help you both to reconnect and remember why you came together in the first place.

Be patient

Even without drugs or alcohol, your spouse may not become the person you’d always hoped they would be – at least not immediately. It will take time for them to renew family responsibilities, and it may take time for you to be ready to place those responsibilities back into their hands.

Work on forgiveness

Partners often have a lot of pain and anger built up after years of dealing with living with an addicted spouse. Those feelings are unquestionably valid, but holding on to them may prevent you from healing and moving forward.

Avoid blame

Remember that addiction is a disease – not a moral failing or lack of willpower – and your spouse will more than likely feel a great deal of shame and guilt for their past behaviour.

Praise your spouse’s progress

Encourage them to go to 12-Step meetings and meet with their sponsor at any time, even if this is inconvenient to you.

Prepare for setbacks

Even after completing their drug rehab, your spouse may struggle on the path of addiction recovery. Hurdles to face may include lying, manipulative behaviour and selfishness through to a full-blown relapse.

Don’t take relapse personally

Your spouse’s recovery involves you, but it is always about them. If your spouse falls back into old patterns, continue to lend your support and get them back into rehab as soon as possible.

Spend time getting to know each other again

You may not recognise the individual you are now living with, but the chances are you’ll grow to like this person far more than the person they were under the influence of alcohol.

For most couples with a spouse in addiction recovery, life doesn’t magically fall into place without a lot of hard work by both partners. Recovery can deepen the bonds of marriage, but only if you take care of yourself and each other. Although recovery may be your spouse’s number-one priority right now, there’s an important place for you in the process.

About the author: Martin Preston

Martin is our Founder and Chief Executive. Martin is himself in long term recovery and started Port of Call to help families navigate treatment options. In 2020 Martin will open Delamere Health Ltd, the UK’s first purpose built addiction treatment clinic.

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