Help Me Grok Al-Anon
April 17, 2013 2:26 PM   Subscribe

My husband drinks too much, and I just attended my first Al-Anon meeting. I have some questions about it.

By way of background, we dated for five years before we got married and lived together for two, and are in our 30's. We were married last fall. I knew he drank a lot and seemed to enjoy drinking his drink of choice (a particular hard liquor), but it was not until he started working from home this past year that I noticed just. how. much. he. drinks. I have no idea how I didn't ever notice before.

Anyway, I have a lot of feelings, and finally allowed myself to go to an Al-Anon meeting for the first time last night. It was actually a really pleasant meeting and I felt at home right away with people who "got it." The reading couldn't have been better chosen; it was something about a wife who felt like the credit line to her alcoholic husband's debit line. Plucked the words right out of my head. But as the meeting progressed, my head spun with questions about the whole concept of Al-Anon that I didn't feel were quite right to ask right there in the flow of a meeting. I know everyone is different and every meeting is different, but I figured it couldn't hurt to ask here and get more perceptive, since it helps to ease my general anxiety.

I've read this question and feel like I relate to it a lot, even though we don't have kids. Especially the unfairness, and the financial aspect. I did not have any formative life experiences with alcoholism, this is all new territory for me.

- How do I keep my attendance secret from my husband? I am lucky to have a hobby that gets me out of the house, and adding a meeting once a week or so is an easy pass, but what about the more probing questions? The literature?

- Does rolling with my husband's alcoholism (detachment) have to mean not helping him recognize his own alcoholism and seeking treatment for it? Because I'd much rather he get help, obviously.

- How do I go about cultivating forgiveness for things that are so literally existential, like forgiving him for knowingly shortening our time together on this earth?

You can also feel free to email me at Thanks.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Take it easy/ take it one step at a time. I think you will eventually need/ want to talk to your husband about his drinking. I would not hide your attendance aggressively, but would not share it until you're really ready. It will be hard to find acceptance or forgiveness while he's still drinking, and while you haven't discussed his drinking. As far as shortening his lifespan, we have to accept the people we love as they are. I had to reconcile my Mom's drinking and tobacco addictions, and my Dad's work addiction, all life-shorteners. Maybe take a moment to appreciate him for the good guy he is, and use that as motivation to get yourself ready to ask him to deal with his drinking.
posted by theora55 at 2:42 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Why are you keeping your attendance a secret? If you think he is an alcoholic and it's not good for him, why don't you want to help him recognize his alcoholism? If you resent him for shortening your time on earth, then why is your first instinct to find a way to forgive him rather than working towards change? How can you blame someone else for your unexpressed suffering? Tolerating the intolerable makes you complicit.

The real question is why do you tolerate the intolerable? Why are you letting yourself be the credit to his debit?

I can only guess:

If you're afraid that your complaints will diminish his affection, then it's a question of developing your emotional independence.

If you think your effort would be wasted because you don't think he can change, then after you've put in all the effort you want to you have to leave him.

Perhaps you have been conditioned to be "ever-supportive". Despite how we all like being served sometimes, I don't think anyone can love or respect a partner that isn't genuine and doesn't express herself. That is a servant — not a wife. Everyone wants to date his equal, and his equal has a voice.

When you say "literally existential", I guess you mean pertaining to "existence". But, it also means pertaining to "existentialism", and then drinking may be the behaviour he deems most authentic given his emotions, and since you don't express yours, he doesn't take you into account at all. Whose fault is that?
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 2:58 PM on April 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

Well, the short answer is that if you can manage to keep going to meetings, all of these questions end up answered. Usually more than one way, alas... but that's the nature of it- it's made up of people and there aren't a lot of rules.

Here's how I understand it, in order:

If I had to keep my attendance secret, I would mention it in meetings, so that people will be extra careful not to slip up and say something if they meet you in the street. 95% of people are good about that, but it doesn't hurt to remind the other careless 5%.

People often keep their literature at work, in their cars, or some other place that the rest of their family isn't interested in (Tampax box?). Or you can pass it off as something you're reading for a friend or coworker who wanted your opinion about it. Often that's true so it's easy.

The detachment part is completely YMMV but in general they recommend that you don't do anything big for 6 months (unless you're being beaten or something), because your perspective will change. The things that are front and center now may not be in 6 months (I know they weren't for me) but other things will turn out to be super important. Just hang tight til then.

Don't worry about cultivating forgiveness. Just recognize that you're pissed off, and there's nothing you can do about it at this moment. That is incredibly hard when you're the sort of person who Gets Things Done! but it's vital. When you're about to go ballistic on your husband, call someone in Al-anon, go for a walk, go to a meeting. This isn't forever- just 6 months- You will have a lot more clarity, and whatever confrontation you decide to do will be a lot less nuclear, (which tends to hurt everyone, including yourself.)

Short answer: stay busy with Al-anon and yourself. Join the gym. Take up welding or whatever hobby you like, even though it will feel completely like you have no time for this! Hang out with people who understand your understandable hurt and rage and helplessness and see what changes happen. Sleep well. Eat well. Make sure you have a social life outside of your husband- if you're like a lot of us, he's become 95% of what you spend your energy on, mentally and otherwise.

The rest of your answers will come. I know that make NO logical sense but it totally worked for me and for a lot of us.

(And feel free to memail me if you'd like.)
posted by small_ruminant at 2:59 PM on April 17, 2013 [20 favorites]

And, obviously, I disagree with the first two commenters; don't tell your husband if you don't want to. I wouldn't, until I felt like I had my feet under me, which is something I sure as hell DIDN'T feel when I first walked in.

Also, a lot of people are in there because their parents or someone else had a problem with addiction. If you have it in your family at all, you can 'blame' them for your attendance if you feel like telling him at all.

Do whatever feels safe.
posted by small_ruminant at 3:02 PM on April 17, 2013 [8 favorites]

Based on my experience with Al-Anon, your time there is about you, not about getting your husband to stop or even to want to stop. This is because while you cannot get him to take care of himself, let alone get sober, you can be happier no matter what.

Do not be afraid of asking probing questions to your fellow Al-Anons. They are friendly, helpful and open-minded and there is no heresy in Al-Anon. Whatever you are thinking, someone else has thought it and tried it.

Try it for a while and see if it helps you. Feel free to MeMail me.
posted by shothotbot at 3:03 PM on April 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

esprit de l'escalier it is not the poster's 'fault' that her husband drinks (whether to excess or not) regardless of how she acts or behaves. She didn't at any time say that she doesn't express her emotions, and even if she didn't that does not give her husband license to drink to the point that it causes problems within their marriage and not face his responsibility in the matter.

Anonymous, I emailed you a few thoughts about Al-anon.
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 3:06 PM on April 17, 2013 [7 favorites]

esprit de l'escalier it is not the poster's 'fault' that her husband drinks (whether to excess or not) regardless of how she acts or behaves.

Dear God yes.

For those Metafilter-ers who don't know about Al-Anon's concept of detachment, please read about it before insisting that the OP stage an intervention.

Attendance at Al Anon is about the person who's going to the meeting, and not the alcoholic in his/her life.

I'd play it by ear. Do you have to take literature home with you? I think most of their stuff is available online.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 3:14 PM on April 17, 2013 [13 favorites]

Mod note: From this point forward, answer the questions being asked, don't argue with other commenters.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 3:17 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Based on my experience with Al-Anon, your time there is about you, not about getting your husband to stop or even to want to stop.

Seconding. One thing you learn (hopefully) is that nobody can stop an alcoholic from drinking except the alcoholic.
posted by scratch at 3:34 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

There is a saying that all the Anonymous groups for loved ones of addicts have: you didn't cause it, you can't cure it, and you can't control it. Attendance at Al-Anon is about you and support for yourself.

Al-Anon has a website ( you can peruse.

Finally, if you are keeping your attendance at Al-Anon a secret from your husband because you are afraid of him and what he might do to you if he finds out, then you might want to call a domestic abuse hotline. It's all well and good to keep your attendance private to "get your feet under you" but if you are scared of something your husband might do and you are afraid of consequences, please get help.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 3:43 PM on April 17, 2013 [11 favorites]

At your next meeting, mention that you're keeping your attendance a secret? Maybe someone else has been in your shoes.
posted by oceanjesse at 3:44 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

I attended al-anon as a teenager and the alcoholic in my life at that time was my mother.

She did find out that I was going to meetings, and boy was she mad. My advice about any fallout from the alcoholic in your life is two things.
  • First, people do not have a problem until they decide they do. This includes alcoholics. And you. You seem to have decided that you have a problem with your husband's drinking. And you are allowed to have made that decision. But you cannot control or cure his drinking. And you damn sure don't cause it.
  • Second, if he gets angry at your for attending meetings, that is about him. It is not about you. It is not a reflection on your personhood, your worth, nor on the rightness or wrongness of you having a problem with the amount of drinking that someone you love is doing.
The amount of drinking that drives one person to al-anon is not necessarily going to match the amount for another person. Please, do not ever feel that your husband is "not enough" of an alcoholic. Or is "too functional" for you to belong in al-anon. You have a problem with his drinking, and you want help in dealing with it. Because of these two facts, al-anon is there for you. I have found that some people use al-anon as a pissing match for comparing the behavior of their loved one. Try to let these people just roll off your back.

If you do decide to approach the subject of the drinking with your husband, keep it focused on what you want or need. (you don't need to label it anything other than drinking. Drinking is pretty concrete, but the term "alcoholic" is one that he can deny for as long as he wants.) You mention the financial aspect of this. So maybe you want to be saving more money as a couple. Maybe you want to travel more, or be more active in your community. Be specific about what you want.

As far as you being upset that he is shortening your time together, this might be a question for a qualified impartial third party (therapist).
posted by bilabial at 3:50 PM on April 17, 2013 [6 favorites]

First: You are brave and you are doing the right thing.

I don't know how to keep it a secret from your husband, but if you feel that's the best idea for now by all means, do it. In general, what you should be doing right now is listening to yourself, re-learning to trust your own gut, and doing what feels right. You don't have to force yourself into thinking or feeling or (especially!) doing anything you aren't comfortable with.

As far as all your other questions: just keep going to meetings. You will learn a lot there, and I personally have found a safe space to think my thoughts and feel my feelings very helpful in figuring out the answers to questions I have. For reference, my husband is a (recovering) addict, and my dad was an alcoholic who died an active drinker. Please feel free to memail me at any time. I've been going to meetings for seven years and I think they will always be a part of my life.
posted by something something at 3:52 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

oceanjesse's suggestion is good on all levels- whatever questions you have, bring up in the meeting. You will end up with 4 people telling you what worked or what didn't when they were in the same situation. You can say something like: "Hey I'm new and I have no idea what to do about forgiving my husband for what screwing over our future. If you have any suggestions about that, maybe give me some ideas after the meeting?" Or, "Hey, I'm new and my husband doesn't know I'm here, and I'd love to hear your experience on keeping my attendance on the down low- what DO you do about your literature collection, for instance? If you have any experience, please talk to me after the meeting."

People ask for ALL SORTS of help in that format. What DO you do about childcare? What DO you do about having parties and things turn into a scene? What DO you do to safeguard yourself and your kids financially?

One of the biggest assets of Al-anon is its hivemind. It's often even better than metafilter on these questions, not to denegrate the awesomeness that is AskMe. People will have solutions that would never have crossed your mind. I think of a lot of their suggestions as "hacks"- ways to navigate life with less sturm und drang and with just generally more grace. This grace, as clumsily as I manage it, has bled over into other relationships: work, family, friends... very helpful in all arenas, though I didn't start going into Al-anon in for that, obviously.

Al-anon is meant to be very very gentle, because people come in there usually being very hard on themselves (and sometimes, everyone else in their lives, though they don't recognize it.) No one goes to their first Al-anon meeting because they're having a great time in life. If you find yourself making hard decisions, run them by a few other Al-anon folks. They'll likely have ideas about how to gentle them for all concerned. By the same token, they aren't going to tell you that you HAVE to do this or that, or you MUST NOT do this or that. (OK, some will. They're human, after all.) There is a saying, "God* can work with any decision." The idea is that even if you make a bad decision, it's not the end of the world.

*I'm atheist, but the saying still works.
posted by small_ruminant at 3:59 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I came in to talk about something bilabial mentioned - some people will have far worse stories than yours, and some won't be as bad - make sure you keep your story and your feelings yours. Don't get too caught up.

I've known some longtime al-anon members that were true drama llamas. I've also seen people get help and perspective.

You know, you don't have to stay married to someone who drinks more than you are comfortable with. It is not clear from your Ask if your husband is aware that he drinks too much and/or that you are not OK with his alcohol consumption.

My point is, I'm not sure why you are bothering down this road too far. Your husband is not your parent, you are an independent being, you don't have children together.


Don't get too sucked into al anon and all of the drama there (even tho it IS so nice to feel validated!) before you explore talking to your husband directly to fix things and/or simply end the marriage.

Life's too short. You're not stuck in this situation. Use your time in al anon wisely, don't let it use you.

Keep your momentum moving forward and you can't lose no matter what happens.

(For the record, I hope your husband comes around. Good luck.)
posted by jbenben at 4:16 PM on April 17, 2013 [5 favorites]

Does rolling with my husband's alcoholism (detachment) have to mean not helping him recognize his own alcoholism and seeking treatment for it? Because I'd much rather he get help, obviously
There is alot of good 12 step literature that describes what detachment is and isn't. Having a daily reading of the literature is really helpful to clarify and solidify the ideas.
Do you know the story about the oxygen masks in the airplane? You can't help anyone until you are in a good place yourself, so focus on that first.
And when you are in a meeting remember this saying: Take what you need and leave the rest.
posted by SyraCarol at 4:16 PM on April 17, 2013

I like the advice about reflecting seriously about your marriage and whether or not you would be willing to put up with your husband's behavior over the long term if it continues without changing. You don't have to do that right now, and probably shouldn't right now, but it's something to keep on the mental back burner.

I think the thrust of Al-Anon is changing how you deal with your husband's alcoholism rather than deigning to change his alcoholism. It's part of Step 1 and admitting powerlessness. I don't think it's about hiding your desires for him to get help, but knowing that ultimately it's not within your direct control whether he decides to get help or spirals deeper into his problem.

Regarding your question about how to go about cultivating forgiveness, if you do decide to stick out Al-Anon, getting a sponsor would help you sort out these types of questions.
posted by mermily at 4:43 PM on April 17, 2013

"How do I go about cultivating forgiveness for things that are so literally existential, like forgiving him for knowingly shortening our time together on this earth?"

I'll offer a comment from this perspective: A few years ago, my partner asked me to stop drinking for a month or three (I don't remember any more), to see what happened. I did, and never started up again. Sure, I may have a glass of wine or two a year, but to a rough approximation, I stopped drinking.

Consider that the person you know, and presumably enjoy sharing time with, is the person who drinks. This has a large impact on their personality, their energy levels, their life outlook, and so forth. If this person stops drinking, or approaches alcohol in a different way, they will be a different person.

They may be more fun to be around. They may be less fun to be around. They may be more fun to be around but have less energy. Or more. Whatever the result, your time together on this earth will be different. It may or may not be longer, or shorter. Or an asteroid could crash through the roof of your house tomorrow and the impact of his drinking on his lifespan could become instantly irrelevant.

Don't play the "what-if" game that deeply, and concentrate on your own quality of life first. I'm not terribly versed in the 12 step process, but I'd suggest that you work on remaining in the present. Perhaps a better framing is: how can we improve the quality of the hours we spend together?
posted by straw at 5:06 PM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

forgiving him for knowingly shortening our time together on this earth?

I'm guessing you are seeing this as him knowingly shortening his own time on this earth, and therefore shortening the time you will have together.

However, you have no way of knowing how much time you will have on this earth yourself. None of us do.

It's uncomfortable to think about, but you have no way of knowing that this thing you are concerned to forgive him about will come to pass.
posted by yohko at 9:51 AM on August 29, 2013

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