This story may resonate with those who question whether they have a partner with a drinking problem:

If you put a frog into a pan of boiling water, it will jump out immediately. But if you put the frog into a pan of water that is the frog’s body temperature, and then slowly turn up the heat, the frog will stay in the water–even to the point of boiling alive. Why? Because the frog does not notice the gradual change in temperature.

Alcoholism works the same way: as the disease progresses, the “heat” is constantly turned up, but often in such small increments, you don’t notice right away. It may start out with excusing unacceptable behavior: Oh, he didn’t mean that, he just had too much to drink last night.

A few years later, the behaviors have become more and more intolerable, but are now the “norm.”

Eventually, you end up with chaos in your own home that not that long ago would have been unthinkable. If you looked out the window and saw the same kind of things happening at the neighbor’s house, you would probably call 9-1-1!

Alcoholism affects the entire family, not just the person with the problem. As the partner of an alcoholic, there are important considerations you need to make in order to stay mentally healthy.

  1. Family members of alcoholics need as much support as the addicted person does. When faced with a loved one who drinks too much, partners tend to either constantly be mired in relationship struggles over the effects of the drinking, or the healthy partner covers up the drinking problem as much as possible, enabling the alcoholic. Neither solution is optimal. Your own individual therapy and Al Anon or other family support programs are essential to support you.
  2. Getting your partner to stop drinking is not your responsibility. It is terribly painful to see someone you love struggle with an addiction. Wanting to help your partner is natural, but it is up to the person with the problem to decide to seek treatment. See this article for some perspective.
  3. The fact that your partner drinks is not your fault, either. Unless you are literally pouring the alcohol down your partner’s throat, your partner is responsible for what they consume. (Okay–it is not quite that black-and-white when discussing an addiction, because if it was, there would be fewer addicted people, but the bottom line is that your partner can make the choice to stop, seek treatment, and recover.) You are not the reason your partner drinks, and reminding yourself of that fact is important.
  4. Covering for the alcoholic is doing no favors for anyone. Denial of the problem is an integral part of the disease. When you as the healthy partner do things to cover your partner’s drinking, such as calling them in sick to work when they are hungover, it lets the alcoholic off the hook, and allows the behavior to continue. Your partner is more likely to realize the extent of their problem when they suffer real consequences.
  5. You must protect yourself from abuse. Not all people who drink become violent, but alcohol use does increase the risk of physical violence in a relationship. As the partner of an alcoholic–and especially if children are involved–you must have an emergency plan in place in case of family violence. The Domestic Violence Awareness Handbook can give you information about creating a safety plan.


Quiz: Are You Helping or Enabling?

Dealing with denial in alcoholism

Treatment of Alcoholism

How Do You Know If You Are Affected By Someone’s Drinking?

Family Involvement is Important in Substance Abuse Recovery