There are many reasons why marriages don’t last and usually it’s not just one. That’s what makes each situation unique. However, alcohol or drugs are often involved so you might wonder when does drinking become a problem in a marriage. Is it when the drinker recognizes they have a dependency? Is it when the non-drinker says they have a problem? Is it when the drinking is interfering in the relationship? What is the difference between social drinking and a drinking problem?
Joining me to talk about alcoholism and its impact on relationships is Al. J. Mooney, M.D. co-author of the The Recovery Book: Answers to All Your Questions About Addiction And Alcoholism And Finding Health And Happiness In Sobriety.
Mandy: We often think that it is or it will be obvious when someone has a drinking problem but I don’t think that’s the case. How do you know when someone’s drinking could be called a problem? What does that look like?
Dr. Al: If two people want to have a life together and alcohol is interfering with that desire to have a life together, then you just stop drinking. A person doesn’t have to drink. It’s not a social obligation.
There are some references we can use for how much people drink before it’s abnormal, but there’s a fairly wide range of consumption that can be normal for individuals. Generally, we look at is the chemical alcohol or other chemicals, it’s usually alcohol, interfering with what we want to get out life.
In my relationship if I was eating too many cucumbers, my wife just says, “Honey, I’m really having trouble with all the cucumbers you’re eating because I think it’s interfering with our marriage.” And I ask her for an explanation and it doesn’t matter what she says, I’d say, “OK, honey, cucumbers are not that important, you are. So I’ll just cut out cucumbers and make it easy.”
An alcoholic has invested in their chemicals though, and it doesn’t take much alcohol to create an alcohol problem. There are a number of people that build relationships around alcohol, yet the relationship stays amazingly healthy. My mom and dad were that way up until they both crashed and burned as far as their mental state and freedom. The quantity is not a very good measure.
Most people in America do not drink at all. A third of the people in America drink occasionally, I say when they have to—maybe once a month or something like weddings, Christmas, New Year. And a third of the people in America drink essentially all the alcohol. So a person who is a social drinker is in the top third risk group for having the disease of addiction that could steal everything that’s meaningful in life, including their life.
Normally, the way we distinguish in statistical ways what we call a risk drinker from a social drinker is a normal drinker never drinks more than four drinks in a 24-hour period. A drink is defined as half ounce of pure alcohol. For a woman that’s four or more is abnormal. It doesn’t say you’re an alcoholic, but it says this is a risky amount of alcohol that you drink. A lot of people think that’s normal drinking, but it’s absolutely not.
So what we do is like having an ugly mole. We don’t know that it’s melanoma, but as a physician I tell people that you’ve got a risk factor. Go in and look at it in the microscope, examine it, and learn what to do if doesn’t rectify itself because especially with addiction you could save your life by learning these things.
Mandy: So let’s say if your wife tells you she thinks your cucumber-eating is a problem and instead of saying, “Well, then, I’ll do something about it,” you say to her, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s not a problem.”
Dr. Al: Of course, the problem’s in the eye of the beholder. Now cucumbers are not very important in my life, so I’ll say, “Honey, you may be wrong. But you’re too important for me to trust in the cucumber instead of you.”
With alcohol a person who continues to hold on to alcohol in spite of recognition by their network or by their friends, or by their spouse, is by definition an alcoholic. Alcoholics give up the most important things in life to continue drinking. We never do that with cucumbers or rice, or whatever. So somebody who stonewalls the argument is an alcoholic.
Mandy: So are they essentially choosing alcohol over their spouse?
Dr. Al: Yeah. My daughter had an issue like this. She comes from a long line of alcoholics with my parents. The genetics are still in the family. When she was dating, she was attracted to someone that she had to let go, because he smoked marijuana. She said, “Alcohol and drugs have been a negative factor in my family’s life, so I’m not interested. If you ever give up the drugs, let’s talk about going out.”
They actually crossed paths years later, and he said, “I’ve given up my drugs. You should be dating me.” She said, “Sure, I told you I was attracted to you.” After about six or eight months she found out that he was smoking marijuana again. She got upset, and I told her, “You don’t have to worry. If a person has an alcohol or drug problem it serves to identify itself eventually.”
She’s grown up in this recovery attitude, and she went back to him and she said, “Well, we’re going to have to break this thing off because I told you that alcohol and drugs are not going to be part of my future and you knew that, and you picked them up, so one of two things is going on. Either you lied to me and we have a relationship based on dishonesty, and in that case, hit the road. I can’t have a meaningful long-term relationship with you. Or option two, you have a disease that gives you an urge to put things between you and the person like me that you say you love so much. And that’s not normal; it’s a sickness called addiction.”
And Jonathan, her boyfriend, said, “You know, you’re right. I did tell you I was going to stop using. I did care much more for you than drugs, and yet I went out and smoked marijuana.” And he said, “What do you mean by disease?” because he was totally unaware. And she said, “I don’t— I just knew something wrong with my family. I’m not going to run another generation cycle with.” And Jonathan says, “Tell me more,” and that’s where I come into the picture. She said, “Look, I don’t know much about this. My dad is kind of an expert. Why don’t you call him up?”
She gave him my cellphone number, and I’m talking with Jonathan. It’s an amazing phone call. He says, “You know, I love your daughter, and we felt we have a future together. But I went out smoked marijuana, and she’s told me that either it’s going to be her or the marijuana, and I want to try that and she said it’s a disease.” And I said, “Yeah, it sounds like it if you care as much about her as you think you do.” And he was confused, but he did ask me, “What would you do if you had this disease?” I said I’d go and have treatment.
And he did. He was in treatment the next day, never had a drink or drug since. He’s my son in law now, two grand kids. It’s the most beautiful, family story that you could imagine but it came with her taking the stand of, “You got a choice. It’s me or the drugs.”
The Divorce Coach Says
I have to say I was surprised to learn that only a third of the population drinks alcohol on a regular basis. That would say about only a third of my social circle should drink and I would guess that it’s more like maybe an eighth that doesn’t. I have friends who don’t drink for medical reasons and I do have some friends in recovery but the vast majority drink alcohol regularly and alcohol is part of most social functions. Anyone else surprised by those statistics?
I have found it very difficult to say to someone that their drinking is problem. To me, it has seemed judgmental – who I am to say what’s normal and what’s a problem? But by adding in the impact on the relationship, Dr. Al takes that judgment away. It’s the elementary school principle of using an “I” statement … “I feel that your drinking is interfering with our relationship.” And you could use that approach on virtually anything: working out, video games, pornography, diet.
So it doesn’t have to be a recognized or diagnosed condition, or for your spouse to hit rock bottom for it to be a “legitimate” concern for your marriage. If it’s causing problems in your relationship, then it is a problem.
What happens next starts with you having the courage to confront the issue. Are you willing to sit down with your spouse and to share with them the ways in which their drinking is damaging your relationship? Don’t assume that the problems are obvious to your spouse and they’ve already chosen to ignore them. And don’t assume your spouse won’t listen to you. Surprising as it may sound, your spouse may not have the same perspective as you. You do have a responsibility to your marriage to speak up because if you don’t then it’s as if you are choosing alcohol over your marriage, you’re facilitating or enabling your spouse’s behavior through your silence.
Not sure how to handle this on your own? Then you might want to consider counselling. This article, Couples Therapy Cost: Is It Worth It? from Regain.us discusses the benefits of couples counselling and with respect to addressing alcohol problems getting mediation on goals and commitments would be particularly helpful.
Coming next: My conversation with Dr. Al continues as we discuss whether confronting your spouse’s drinking means divorce and how to get help.
Al J. Mooney, M.D. is co-author of The Recovery Book: Answers to All Your Questions About Addiction And Alcoholism And Finding Health And Happiness in Sobriety. He is the Director of Addiction Medicine and Recovery at Willingway, and lectures internationally on the latest science and treatments for recovery.