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Living as the Spouse of an Alcoholic

woman struggles with spouse's addiction

Hi, my name is Lori. Unlike most who write for this website, I am neither an addict nor someone with expertise on addiction. What I am is the former spouse of an alcoholic. If you’ve happened across this article, you may be living with addiction or alcoholism in your family. Perhaps my story will reassure you that you are not alone and that there is support available for you that can help you cope and make your life better.

My Prince Charming

I worked with Tom. He wasn’t at all the type of guy I usually dated but he was incredibly charming. He had an ear-to-ear smile and just wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. I’d say “I can’t go out tonight, I need to clean my house.” He’d show up at my house with a broom in one hand and flowers in the other. How could I resist him? We really were only dating a few months when the psychological abuse began. He had a hot temper and a jealous streak but I would only see it when he had been drinking. Sober he was still my Prince Charming. If he’d had even a single drink, his personality would change and he would accuse me of cheating. I never once even considered cheating and didn’t behave in a manner that would lead anyone to think I was interested in cheating. Still the accusations would come, but only when he’d been drinking. I would get angry and tell him to go home. He would burst into tears, get down on his knees and beg me not to send him away. Somehow he’d end up convincing me my life would be tragic without him. He’d often show up the next day carrying flowers or a gift for me. I thought it was romantic. I was young and dumb.  I’d forgive him.

We tried counseling

Eventually he proposed and I said “yes.” After all, I was 24 – an old maid in my mind, and he was so charming. I wanted a family.  The fights continued and he’d get really mean. So I finally suggested we seek out a therapist. I told the therapist that he was only like this after he drank. To this day I’m still appalled that the therapist tried to negotiate a compromise instead of calling this out as alcoholism. Maybe they just didn’t know as much about alcohol abuse in the 1980’s. All I know was that I was sitting in our sessions begging for him to swear off alcohol forever, and the therapist was “well, can’t he have one or two and still make you happy?”

I soon became the spouse of an alcoholic

Despite the volatility and verbal abuse, I married him in April of 1985. My life became a rollercoaster. When it was good, it was very, very good. After all, he loved me and was very charming. Except when he wasn’t. The verbal abuse escalated and was sometimes accompanied by minor physical abuse. A shove here, a push there. He would shove his fat finger in my face when he was trying to make a point. He would follow me from room to room so I couldn’t even escape the screaming. I cannot tell you how often I left him, but I would go back because I wanted a baby and I loved him. He always promised he would get better. Yet he continued to refuse individual therapy. We tried couples counseling more than once. Not one therapist in all those sessions ever asked “is Tom an alcoholic?”

Then came motherhood

We were actually separated for what I believed would be the last time when I found out I was expecting our first child. He was so excited and like before, he promised to do better. How could I tear apart our family by divorcing him? So I moved back in. For the most part the hostilities stopped when I was pregnant. We had only one incident where he upset me so badly I jumped out of a moving car and hid in a motel for a few days, under an assumed name. No one tells you that living with an alcoholic spouse might make you do crazy things too. Our daughter was born near our second anniversary. She was a difficult newborn. She screamed for five hours straight the night we got home from the hospital. I was sore and tired, both from a delivery that involved both a prolonged labor and a cesarean section. Still I was the one that was supposed to “shut the damn baby up.” Sometime that night, I took the very first slap to the face from him.

As I fell into a deep depression

I waited for life to calm down and for me to be ready to return to work. I needed financial independence to leave. Just as that was about to happen, I was pregnant again. He was thrilled until the day the ultrasound said it was another girl. He wanted a boy. The day I came home from the hospital with our second daughter, he took off on a bender with friends. In the meantime, I was left home with a newborn and a 20 month old. I was soon severely depressed. I was so sick with postpartum depression that I had to have 24 hour help to keep myself and the girls safe. Additionally, I wouldn’t take medication so I was attending therapy sessions several times a week. It was this therapist who finally got to the root of the problem.

I was married to a high functioning alcoholic

It finally had a name. Only those privy to my private hell knew this was the truth. To the public he was smart and charming. He was the top salesman in his company. The outside world didn’t see it. His parents did see his addiction, but didn’t want to get involved. This hurt me as his father, and his father before him, had both nearly destroyed their families as alcoholics. They had been sober for decades by the time I married Tom. I finally laid down the law. He had to stop drinking and participate in couples’ therapy or I was going to divorce him. I set the appointment. We didn’t make it. I left before our first daughter’s 2nd birthday. I am so proud that I finally had the courage to leave for good. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Developing a healthy life for myself and our daughters

Eventually, I was motivated to leave for the welfare of my daughters. While I hadn’t yet owned up to needing to leave for myself, I did it for them. It minimized their exposure to him and his violent temper. Eventually I had to move them out of state to minimize his time with them because he continued to drive with them in the car while under the influence. The courts would do nothing unless he got arrested with them in the car. That day never came and I wasn’t going to risk their lives waiting for it.

Getting support as a spouse of an alcoholic

I had heard of Al-Anon but genuinely thought I didn’t need it. I don’t know what other support options may have existed. Fortunately I had my own family, good friends and a good therapist. I should have gone to meetings. My life as a single parent has not always been rosy and thirty years later I have not remarried. I’m gun shy.  For the first few years I tightened up any time a man ordered himself a drink. I have relaxed on that issue but I still watch closely for how well anyone I date handles alcohol. Over time my girls began to understand their father was ill. Still I can see that it has impacted their willingness to seek serious relationships. I also drilled it into their head that the illness of addiction is genetically linked and that they must exercise care to prevent developing addiction disorders of their own. So far, so good. They are 31 and 29 and doing fine.

Seek out support

I made a mistake in not seeking out support as a family member of an alcoholic. I can see now that we would have healed faster. My family is blessed with zero addiction issues so they really couldn’t help me with this issue and my in-laws saw fit to “stay out of it.” Professional help is a really good idea. Support groups for family impacted by addiction have become more commonplace. Most are free of charge and open to anyone who needs and wants help.  If you’re in the Austin, Texas area, Arbor Behavioral Healthcare has a Family Support Group that meets twice a month and is open to anyone in the community. If you’re not near Austin, there is likely a similar support group near you. Call a local addiction treatment center and ask for a recommendation. Al-Anon has programs for family members and teens. If you want, or need, a deeper understanding of how to cope with and support an addicted family member, The Arbor holds a 3 ½ day intensive course on the ranch in Georgetown, Texas. This helpful program is designed to support you, as well as to teach you how to support the addicted family member to live a sober life. It can help to heal your family.

How is my ex doing?

Sadly things have not improved. He has had several spouses and a few more children since our divorce. None of his children want a relationship with him. I know that breaks his heart, and yes, there is still a heart in him. However, he brought this on himself. Surprisingly, he has never been arrested for drunk driving. He was and still is a high functioning alcoholic, though the quantity of alcohol he consumes each day has risen considerably. We had dinner last year with one of our daughters (the other refused to go). He admitted to 4 drinks before we got to the restaurant, downed 2 bottles of wine by himself and another drink with dinner. Then he went back to his hotel mini-bar. The one thing I’ve learned is that I am, and always was, incapable of curing him. This is something he has to do for himself. If it doesn’t happen soon, he probably won’t live that much longer.  He’s not in good health. He’s nearly double what would be a healthy weight and he smokes like a chimney. His knee replacement didn’t heal well as a result. It is still heartbreaking to watch even if my love is long gone. I’d love to see him well so he can re-establish a relationship with his children. In the end, he’s hurt himself, all his wives, his parents and most of all, his children.