What makes a person an alcoholic?
October 10, 2014 4:26 PM   Subscribe

I think my partner drinks too much. My partner thinks I'm overreacting. Who's right?

My partner and I lived together for one year and have been married for two years. That means that we have been together for three plus years total. For a long time, I thought their nightcap was harmless. You know, a glass of red wine before going to bed. No big deal, right? Millions of people all over the world drink a glass of wine before going to bed, right? It's even supposed to be healthy for you, so I've read.

But it is a big deal because over the last year I've come to realize that my partner's nightcap is not "a glass of red wine before going to bed." Most of the times it is. And, technically, what they drink from is a glass, but not a wine glass... No, my partner uses a tumbler or a water glass. Sometimes my partner drinks nearly the whole damned bottle of wine before going to bed. And over the last two years there have been times when I've literally had to pick them up off of the floor and carry their butt to bed, with my partner having no recollection of it in the morning. It doesn't happen often, but it happens often enough that it's causing friction because I will not stay married to an alcoholic. And I've told them so in so many words.

When I pointed out that we'd save money if my partner stopped drinking wine every night, they switched to boxed wine. My partner gave up smoking because it was too expensive, but with wine, they switched to cheaper wine. This started the whole "addiction" conversation. I told them that because they "need" wine before bed, they are addicted to it. But they think they don't "need" wine; it just helps them "relax" at the end of the day and they deserve it. My partner believes that their "one glass" of wine doesn't make them an alcoholic. My partner doesn't believe that they drink that much at all because they compare themselves to a friend who drank himself to death and their dad who drank whiskey. Wine, of course, is not a drunkard's drink.

What got me to ask this question is this: I keep vodka in the house for cooking purposes. It's cheap and nasty stuff because I cook with it. My partner has been trying to cut back on the wine after we had another falling down drunk episode a week or so ago. But I noticed this morning that the vodka is nearly gone. I haven't been drinking it, and normally they won't go near the stuff. That has me worried because now they're just drinking anything available. To me that spells addiction.

I think they have a drinking problem and need to get help. They think everything is fine and I need to leave them alone. I love my partner, but this is a deal breaker for me.

My question is, am I overreacting? Should I leave my partner alone with their nightcap and put up with the occasional overdrinking? Like I said, it doesn't happen often, but enough to make it irritating.
When does someone cross the line from casual drinker in alcoholic?
And, if you agree with me, how do I get my partner the help they needs without walking out of the door?
And, if you agree with my partner, where do I learn the coping skills to deal with the person my partner becomes when they indulge a little too much? Because I don't like that person and I have issues dealing with them (yes, we've talked about that).
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (43 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Some years ago, my partner said "your body stinks sometimes, I think it's related to when you drink, why don't you stop for a month and see if anything changes". So I did.

It seems to me that if one can't say "okay, honey, I'll skip it for a month and we'll see if it changes anything", they're an alcoholic. I think your partner is an alcoholic and you're right to be concerned.

And I doubly think so because you asked "...where do I learn the coping skills to deal with the person my partner becomes when they indulge a little too much?": That's where their drinking has gone from harmless hobby to something that impacts you, too.

I don't have any good suggestions for what to do, but I do give you permission to stand up for yourself, and give you reinforcement in thinking that your partner is an alcoholic and you have a right to be concerned.
posted by straw at 4:33 PM on October 10, 2014 [5 favorites]

I think you could get a lot out of Al-Anon.

When does someone cross the line from casual drinker in alcoholic?

That is totally a matter of opinion and the usual answer is that the answer comes from the person themselves. But it doesn't really matter if the impact on your life is unacceptable to you. I think you have to resign yourself that no ones's going to say either, "Your partner is an alcoholic and you have my blessing to leave them" or "No, your partner is not an alcoholic; you can stay and it will be OK." You have to decide with the idea that things are not going to change all of a sudden just because you can show them that they are alcoholic.

If you watch movies and stuff, it does seem like people have interventions and the light dawns and the family member goes away for treatment and comes back sober. This doesn't seem so common in real life and especially with someone who is maintaining with few obvious consequences at the moment.
posted by BibiRose at 4:39 PM on October 10, 2014 [11 favorites]

"My partner believes that their "one glass" of wine doesn't make them an alcoholic. My partner doesn't believe that they drink that much at all because they compare themselves to a friend who drank himself to death and their dad who drank whiskey. Wine, of course, is not a drunkard's drink."

This is a pretty telling defense. It does not bode well when you think your drinking is okay because at least you are not your dead-from-alcoholism friend. I'm afraid there's no easy way to get him to admit to it; certainly, the harder you press the more defensive he'll become. I highly recommend that you go to an Al Anon meeting: it might be helpful to get in touch with others whose loved ones are at various stages of what your partner seems like he's on track to go through. It would also be a good resource on learning how to learn the extent of your power in fixing this issue (i.e., not a lot), and how to set and enforce correspondingly healthy boundaries.

I'm sorry you're going through this. I wish you and your partner all the best.
posted by obliterati at 4:45 PM on October 10, 2014 [5 favorites]

You're right.
posted by oceanjesse at 4:51 PM on October 10, 2014 [10 favorites]

I generally tend to be on the side of omg srsly not everyone who enjoys a glass bottle of wine here and there is an alcoholic, but the blackout drunk stuff is a major red flag.

I mean, I've been known to unthinkingly drink most of a sixpack of beers and then toddle off to bed and regret it in the morning. I probably drink more than average, and have a relationship with alcohol that is more complicated than some. But I can count the times I've been blackout drunk. And the last time it happened, which was the only time it happened post-college, I made major changes in my drinking habits to prevent it ever happening again. If this is something that's going on periodically, and your spouse feels like it's OK that it goes on periodically and like no action needs to be taken, that is a huge red flag to me.

Things that are not going to get your partner to stop/cut down:

- We need to save money. Even as a non-alcoholic, my first thought is "NBD, Charles Shaw Merlot is perfectly OK with me."

- I Will Not Be Married To An Alcoholic. Easy to refute by explaining that one is not in fact an alcoholic and doing lots of rationalizing.

- Addiction vs. "helps me relax at the end of the day". The thing is, for people who don't have a drinking problem, drinking does help one to relax at the end of the day. The problem is when it starts impacting your health, as drinking to the point of blacking out on a regular basis does.

- What kind of alcohol and quantities thereof - this stuff is so easy to deny, either with a straight "I didn't"/"not that much" sort of denial, or the wavering "well it's not like I drink [worse sounding thing], jeeeez"

Re the vodka thing, I would be worried, but not like crazy worried unless it was there one day and gone the next. Again, even as someone who is just a normal regular person drinker, you sound kind of naive/silly trying to determine that because a person drank well liquor, therefore they need to go to rehab. I promise you drank worse if you've ever gone to a ladies' night or open bar happy hour type event.

If you were my spouse trying to have a serious come to jesus with me about my drinking, what would work best is for you to center your concern around the blackout/make-you-sick drinking. Because that's what really crosses a line. Everything is not fine if you're picking your partner up off the floor on a regular basis. (Even if "regular basis" is once every few months.) Also, it is very easy to see how that sort of behavior impacts you. It's no fun to be around, it inconveniences you, it makes your partner hard to deal with, you have to babysit them, dealing with their bullshit hangovers, worrying about their health, etc.

Conversely, if my partner came to me and said I must be an alcoholic because I like wine too much to abstain from drinking entirely, or that I must be an alcoholic because I drank vodka of dubious quality, I would laugh at them and call them square.
posted by Sara C. at 4:53 PM on October 10, 2014 [23 favorites]

Why insist on loaded terms like "alcoholic"?

If you are uncomfortable with how much, or the manner in which, your significant other drinks, you should discuss it with him/her. You should also set specific "dealbreaker" categorizations for both yourself and your SO, e.g. "If you repeatedly drink a water tumbler full of wine at night, I do not feel comfortable continuing in this relationship." This is clearer and leaves no space for arguing and waffling.

Accusing someone of being an "alcoholic", or thinking in terms of "how do I get them help?", does not tend to have have good results. Setting clear limits might. And getting help for drinking issues is, of course, up to the S.O.
posted by RRgal at 5:00 PM on October 10, 2014 [10 favorites]

There will be people who are convinced that this is alcoholism and there will be others who don't think that it meets that burden. You really have to decide for yourself what is and is not a deal breaker and whether having this disagreement over what's ok and what's not is something that you can live with. Tell your partner how seriously you're taking this and how close you are to considering what's happening a deal-breaker. You don't need an authority to tell you whether you should be disturbed by this if you are already disturbed.

Al-Anon can help. Marital counseling can help. Leaving things as they are will not help.
posted by quince at 5:02 PM on October 10, 2014 [6 favorites]

I think you're right. But first things first -- stop picking your partner up off the floor. If he can't get to bed under his own power, he sleeps where he landed. Maybe waking up on the floor with no memory of how he got there will help get through to him.
posted by KathrynT at 5:07 PM on October 10, 2014 [55 favorites]

Well, you have a problem with this person's drinking, so that is the main thing. The way you tell it, it certainly sounds problematic for you. But you're asking what we think about their level of drinking.

I live among people who drink a fair amount and I happen to think that a glass of wine at the end of the night - even a big glass each and every night - is not unusual and does not make someone an alcoholic. I know many people who do this who I would not consider alcoholics, but on the other hand I know many people for whom this would be a problem.

That the one glass sometimes becomes nearly a whole bottle doesn't sound too dramatic either, depending on how often it happens. Once a week? Not too bad, not great, but nothing to get worked up about.

I don't know how often you have to "literally had to pick them up off of the floor and carry their butt to bed," but this shouldn't happen after drinking a whole bottle of wine, even two. Does this happen a couple of times a year? For me, this would be normal, but you're entitled to resent it. A couple of times a month? That's an issue, if we're talking about just casual drinking at home.

The vodka thing, as Sara C says, depends on how quickly it disappears.
posted by cincinnatus c at 5:11 PM on October 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

But it is a big deal because over the last year I've come to realize that my partner's nightcap is not "a glass of red wine before going to bed." Most of the times it is. And, technically, what they drink from is a glass, but not a wine glass... No, my partner uses a tumbler or a water glass. Sometimes my partner drinks nearly the whole damned bottle of wine before going to bed. And over the last two years there have been times when I've literally had to pick them up off of the floor and carry their butt to bed, with my partner having no recollection of it in the morning. It doesn't happen often, but it happens often enough that it's causing friction

I don't think anyone can give you an informed opinion without the specifics of how often these things happen. I reread this paragraph a few times to try to get a sense of how often he's drinking the whole bottle and how often he's just drinking a glass and I couldn't really tell. His alcohol tolerance can't be too high if he still gets knocked out by one bottle of wine. How many times a week/month does he drink the whole bottle or blacks out? Similarly, when was the last time you looked at the vodka? Is it possible he had a little here or there over a long period of time vs. drinking it all super quickly?

Either way you are still well within your rights to be concerned about his drinking, especially from his cagey responses, but I really think that to fairly adjudicate this like you're asking us to, we'd need more specific numbers about his actual rate of drinking.
posted by dialetheia at 5:13 PM on October 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

It's an arbitrary, socially constructed category, but FWIW, I would personally not call someone who drinks a large glass of wine each night an alcoholic.
posted by dontjumplarry at 5:14 PM on October 10, 2014

If my spouse came to me and said, "X behavior is problematic. I want you to stop." That would be the end of it. There and then. Because if it's important to him, it's important to me.

Drinking alcohol is 100% optional in this life. If your spouse won't give it up...what does that say?

Go to Al-Anon. You'll learn a lot.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:20 PM on October 10, 2014 [10 favorites]

You've expressed your concern to him/her which is a great first step, of course. I'd definitely agree with KathrynT who said to stop picking him/her off the floor. And maybe, just maybe, that third or fourth time he/she does that, maybe you have friends over when he/she wakes up. Maybe that embarrassment is all the wake up call they need.
posted by destructive cactus at 5:25 PM on October 10, 2014

[This is a followup from the asker.]
My partner drank the vodka in two nights. Nearly a whole bottle in two nights, otherwise I wouldn't have worried about it. They claimed they splashed a bit in some juice in the dark and didn't know how much they were drinking. They said, as they always say, that they didn't "feel drunk". They never "feel drunk" even when they're bouncing off the walls.

As for picking them up off the floor, in the two years we've been married, it's happened about five times.
posted by cortex (staff) at 5:25 PM on October 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

There are online tests that might offer some idea. Here is one. This info from the Mayo Clinic might help you decide if he's "Officially" an alcoholic.

As the child of an alcoholic father & the sister of a meth addicted brother the biggy is simply, if you ask him to stop for you for even a short length of time & he can't or refuses to try. The moment the drug/drink (or the arguments about their "right" to drink even though it makes you uncomfortable) is more important than partners or family it's the time for decisions to be made. I also recommend you contact Al-Anon & maybe go to some meetings, if nothing else if he's not an alcoholic you can get some advice on how to handle when he does drink if it bothers you, and if he is the support you can get is very good.

Also have you talked to your husband about just how uncomfortable you are with his drinking and asked him outright to stop drinking, or just tried round about ways to discuss it by making it about money etc.
posted by wwax at 5:31 PM on October 10, 2014 [6 favorites]

I would call your partner alcoholic.

Alcohol is definitely problematic for your partner. Passing out, and "needing it to relax" are problems. Comparing herself to others and claiming that she's not as bad is a problem. Drinking the bad vodka is a problem. Alcoholics are liars and deniers and they will always rationalize. They may even blame you and have pity parties and excuses galore. Watch for it. Feeling sorry for themselves and complaining how stressed they are is an excuse to drink. Also be aware that alcoholism is a progressive disease and it will get worse if they continue drinking at this rate.

Also, that much alcohol doesn't help a person to relax. That much alcohol only increases anxiety and disrupts sleep.

You wanting them to stop won't make them stop. There are no magic words to make them stop.

It's a complex problem and she probably needs a lot of professional help.

Good luck, I'm wishing all the best for you, your partner, and your marriage.
posted by Fairchild at 5:36 PM on October 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

Recovering self-admitted alcoholic here. Nthing Al-Anon. Also, you might want to read the third chapter of AA's "Big Book", entitled, oddly enough, "To wives". Don't get hung up on the outdated language and social conventions. Free over at AA.org.
AA does aknowledge that there exist heavy drinkers who are not alcoholics.
There comes a stage in alcoholism where your tolerance actually goes down. Whether this is what is happening, I cannot tell you.
Sneaking the wife's liquor stash when I "only drink beer"? Yup, done that.
My friends didn't drink any more than I did. (Actually not true, but it sounded good).
I drank to help me go to sleep. If I didn't drink, I had trouble sleeping. No kidding, that's what withdrawal does!
You cannot tell this person they are an alcoholic, any more than anyone including my family doctor could tell me. It is a mental illness. You have to get sick and tired of being sick and tired. You cannot stop for someone else, you have to do it for yourself.
Really, the end for me was when I figured out that if I had more than two beers, I'd drink till I passed out. If I only had two beers, that was just no fun anyway.
But it is a progressive disease. Do you see progression?
I think your comment about the vodka pretty much nails it for me. Esp. since partner didn't come to you, and ask "hey, can I drink some of your nasty cooking vodka?" They snuck it.
posted by rudd135 at 5:39 PM on October 10, 2014 [15 favorites]

Did your partner drink the vodka* in two nights and then suffer visible ill effects on those nights?

Because, yeah, a bottle of wine, I'll get silly, but if I drink slowly and also eat dinner, I won't literally feel drunk.

But half a bottle of vodka would cause almost anyone to visibly exhibit signs of extreme drunkenness. I had a roommate once who polished off most of a bottle of Jameson one night and was literally on the floor. Even if your tolerance is high, that's a lot of liquor.

*We're talking about a large 750 mL size bottle and not one of those little hip flask style ones, right? If it's one of those little flask things, a couple of over-pours could deplete it quite a lot.
posted by Sara C. at 5:41 PM on October 10, 2014 [6 favorites]

Next time he falls down drunk, leave him there. Put a blanket over him if necessary, but leave him there. Waking up there might communicate something to him.

Honey, you have a problem. I had an alcoholic father, and know far too many people with alcoholic (ex-)partners. If he won't recognise the problem, there is no solution. He may recognise the problem some time in the future, when he may or may not be able to do something about it. He may never recognise the problem.

The question for you, put different ways, is - when do you bail (how bad does it have to get?), how much are you prepared to do for him, and how long do you want your life to be screwed up? These only you can answer.

Sorry, but there are no easy answers for this problem that I know of.

Try AlAnon, confide in friends because you are going to need that support.

Good luck
posted by GeeEmm at 5:50 PM on October 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

OP, I have been where you are, slowly starting to feel that something is wrong with my partner's habits and when finally admitting it to myself, being unable to convince him it was an actual problem. The truth is that it takes a lot for someone to get through the denial and come to acceptance that your partner's habits are not normal or healthy. It doesn't matter what the label is at this point; what he's doing is hurting himself, you, and your relationship. It also doesn't matter if he admits it; truth be told if he doesn't want to stop drinking he might never admit he's an alcoholic, even in the face of overwhelming, rational evidence.

What you need to do now is decide what you can live with. Were I you, I would not be wanting to pick my partner up off the floor even once in two years. Even once in ten years. It's not normal, adult, healthy behavior. Nor is secretly drinking a bottle of vodka in two days. But you know that.

You don't have to decide what to do right now, but you do need to come to terms with the reality that this situation may never change, and may well get worse rather than better. I can't recommend Al-Anon highly enough; it will help you regain perspective about what normal is and what healthy should be, and give you the confidence to begin trusting yourself again over whatever nonsense comes out of his mouth. It will also teach you pretty quickly that no amount of convincing or cajoling or manipulating on your part will ever keep him from continuing to do whatever he wants to do. I am sorry. It's really, really hard. But you do have power over your own life and your own decisions - just not his.
posted by something something at 5:55 PM on October 10, 2014 [10 favorites]

don't think anyone here is in a position to say whether your partner is an alcoholic, but I have been housemates with alcoholics and their excuses for drinking were the same as your partners. I've also known people who drank a lot but when confronted by their workplace, friends, or loved ones cut back or quit. So to me the issue is that your partner doesn't think they have a problem, and you think they do. Rather than collecting votes on whether or not they are an alcoholic, determine what behaviors are a dealbreaker for you, and talk to your partner about them. Don't use the word "alcoholic" because that debate can go on forever.

PS to all commenters: we don't know that the asker is female and/or that the partner is male.
posted by oneirodynia at 6:00 PM on October 10, 2014 [18 favorites]

It doesn't matter who's "right". If this is not the life you want, you are allowed to leave.

It's that simple.

Think about it this way: what if your partner routinely ate ice cream even though it left them in severe intestinal distress and occasionally incapacitated. But they eat it every night, and make excuses about switching to non-dairy ice cream because they don't want to, and just consider the constant diarrhea and gas a minor inconvenience even though it's significantly affecting their life and yours.

You are fully within your rights to decide they are a moron with no interest in taking care of themselves or concern about the impact on your life and happiness. You can't make them change, so your choices are choose to live with it or choose to leave.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:19 PM on October 10, 2014 [11 favorites]

You sound kind of naive/silly trying to determine that because a person drank well liquor, therefore they need to go to rehab.
If I was the OP, I wouldn't be worrying about the quality of the liquor as much as I'd be worrying about the fact that my partner was sneaking alcohol. That's a big red flag.

It sounds like your partner is the child of an alcoholic. That is another red flag. Children of alcoholics have a higher chance at becoming alcoholics themselves.

The biggest red flag of all is their refusal to discuss it or to change their behavior. This behavior isn't going to change unless they want it to change. Right now they don't want it to change.

If this truly was not a problem, your partner would say, "Huh, I guess I have been drinking a bit more than usual lately," and they'd cut back significantly or stop. They'd respect your opinion and they'd hear you out. They would not be arguing about other "real" alcoholics they knew, or about how they "need" it to relax. They are probably using alcohol as a self-medication strategy to help them cope with something. That is no way to take care of ones self. Whether or not they are an alcoholic frankly does not matter. The way they are treating their drinking is the problem.

I think you need to go to Al-anon and get some social support for yourself. If this is truly a dealbreaker for you - not whether or not they are an alcoholic, but whether or not this behavior is behavior you want to deal with for the rest of your life - there are steps you can take to take care of yourself.

Part of marriage is taking care of ourselves, and your partner is not holding up their end of the bargain. It is not fair to ask anyone to watch the person they love self-destruct. You may want to talk to someone at Al-anon or to a private therapist about how you can best let your partner know that you will have to leave if their behavior does not change.

Best of luck to you.
posted by sockermom at 6:21 PM on October 10, 2014 [8 favorites]

Sorry, lost my final paragraph: Even if you had some sort of alcoholic beep-boop device that could definitively pronounce your partner an alcoholic, that doesn't make them get treatment. I think sometimes people get caught up in "if I can prove it, that'll fix everything." It won't.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:21 PM on October 10, 2014 [6 favorites]

Unfortunately, you cannot reason with an addict unless they WANT to change. I'd also caution using "addict" without understanding the reasons why this continues.

The other thing about addicts is that rock bottom is unfortunately the point where they are suddenly motivated to change because it's then that they realize there are untenable consequences. The drink is the physical manifestation. Addiction has a HUGE psychological and emotional component. Like, you can change a popped tire, but if the engine is a mess then the best tires in the world won't make it better.

The good news is that "rock bottom" means different things for different people. Some people may have a high bottom, meaning that just the threat of losing you might be enough to change your partner (I have seen this happen) but if you are willing to pursue this argument then you also need to be prepared that your partner may have a low bottom, meaning they are of the variety where they will lose it all before they realize they need to change (with the irony being that it is far too late at that point).

It sucks, but addiction is a messy thing and not binary or linear and not limited to drugs/alcohol. Another common occurrence is that an addict may stop the behavior in question but replace it with something else (over eating, under eating, exercise, sleep aids, etc).

I would recommend talking gently about it to hear why they feel a need for this nightcap. Is it due to anxiety about sleeping/not sleeping? Work drama? Relationship frustration? What about recommending that you both have a cup of tea nightcap together? I love my standing nightcap date with my fiancée where we snuggle/read in bed together for about 15 mins each night before crashing. I'd also suggest couples therapy. Most folks who go, go when it is WAY too late. Being proactive about communication is the first step in doing some digging about this.
posted by floweredfish at 6:29 PM on October 10, 2014 [4 favorites]

Here's what I think. It's tempting to try to figure out how to define it, but I'm guessing that the big worry for you is what alcoholism means. You probably don't think it's a deal-breaker to help someone to bed, but I'm guessing that you would if it ends up being 10 times a month. You fear what it might become, correct? Because the behaviors now don't seem worth breaking a relationship over, simply because of a slippery definition. It might turn into something though that becomes deal-breaking behavior.

I would see if this becomes worse. Keep track of what you find, and see if there is a progression towards more problematic behavior over time. This would both indicate whether there is a problem and also whether you have accurate concerns about the future that perhaps drive your questions. Because at this point, if the current behavior stayed status quo, I wouldn't leave. If you love your wife, these things by themselves don't mean splitsville. But if there was progressively more hard alcohol being consumed over time and more black outs, I would have a serious discussion about the fact that it was become a drinking problem, and you don't like where it is going as a couple, rather than trying to figure out how to define it.
posted by SpacemanStix at 6:41 PM on October 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Alcoholism isn't about what you drink, how much you drink, or how often you drink, and everyone reacts differently so what is manageable for me may not be manageable for someone else. The problem right now isn't whether or not your partner is an alcoholic, the problem is your partner's actions are harming your relationship and that needs to stop. So ask your partner to stop.

The response to that request will guide your next step(s). They may stop altogether and they may try to stop and fail (and stop and fail and stop and fail and stop) but remember that if they are an addict they will have to want to stop and nothing you do or say will change that. I think you need to find out if they want to stop.

I've battled with my own (non-alcohol) addiction problems in the past and probably the biggest mistake the people that cared about me the most did was find ways to excuse and enable my behavior. I think the suggestions here to find an Al-Anon meeting are very wise because you will get the support and tools you need to help yourself so you can then help your partner if they ask for it.

On preview, in my case what the enabling did was simply put off my own (very inevitable) rock bottom and I'm strongly seconding floweredfish.

I will not stay married to an alcoholic. And I've told them so in so many words.

I would be careful with this language. It's not uncommon for recovering alcoholics to still consider themselves alcoholics, and this could be sending the message that if your partner admits to being an alcoholic you will leave them even if they seek help and it doesn't sound like this is the case.

Good luck, I'm sending you hugs.
posted by Room 641-A at 7:00 PM on October 10, 2014 [6 favorites]

Alcohol addiction is very poorly understood.

The new leading theory (and studies are starting to explore this) is that this is a form of sugar addiction.

Sugar Addiction is often related to deficiencies in certain vitamins and minerals. Again, studies are starting to help here.

What I'm saying is that your partner will have a difficult time quitting drinking, or even cutting back significantly without medical and (hopefully significant) nutritional support.

Alcohol does all sorts of things in the body - stripping it of nutrients, metabolizing into further toxic forms, and creating significant imbalances in gut flora.


Just telling you this isn't necessarily a willfulness or "will power" issue for your spouse. Dependency is poorly understood.

Think biological and less a moral failing.

It is safer to stop drinking with medical oversight, at any rate.
posted by jbenben at 7:02 PM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I had a good friend who drank several shots of whiskey a night, every night. Her doctor finally pointed out that this was well into the realm of problem drinking, which sort of floored her. She drank because otherwise she couldn't fall asleep, is all.

The doctor prescribed some anti-anxiety meds and a sleep aid (she tried a couple and I believe settled on Lunesta) and gave up booze entirely for a while. Lost a bunch of weight, felt great, and when she started drinking again it was at a perfectly normal, social level, because the problem she'd been self-medicating was now actually medicated.

Point being, if your partner needs to relax at night, there may be a better way than alcohol to get that effect. If they're willing to have a conversation about that, it'd be a good sign.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:17 PM on October 10, 2014 [15 favorites]

So my mom was in AA for thirteen years before she died of other causes in my early twenties, and I have been to several Al-Anon meetings and AA meetings (with my mom) and was into 12 step stuff for a while and I know how it works to be the family member of an alcoholic and also what alcoholism looks like.

Your husband may or may not be an alcoholic, but you're not going to bring him around to fixing his problem by willfulness or wanting to fix it for him. Your account of this was slightly dripping with… I don't know, but you sound frustrated and like you want more control of the situation, I mean, which is understandable, but that's part of being the significant other of an alcoholic and what Al Anon would help you grapple with. The fact that you don't have control of his behavior. And that you're not obligated (or able, really) to fix his drinking problem, that you're not obligated to drag him to bed, to stay married to him, to leave him or to be his caretaker when he's falling down drunk. Or to lift a finger in service of his alcoholism really.

Anyway, it may be that you will not stay married to an alcoholic in all bold, but what it kind of sounds like when you say it that way is that maybe you've put that ultimatum to him with the intention to get him to change and it's not working and you're frustrated. Don't get me wrong, you have every right and reason to leave, but you can do so at a moment's notice without so many or so few words, and you'll feel better about the decision to leave or not leave if you're coming at the decision from a clear place where you're not all wrapped up in his shit. Basically the function of Al Anon would be to help you not be so wrapped up in his shit. So that's why I am recommending that. Really, go to Al Anon.
posted by mermily at 8:20 PM on October 10, 2014 [6 favorites]

You're getting lots of good advice here.

I'd advise you to let go of the "alcoholic" label, at least for now, because I don't think it's going to help. If you imply (or act as though you believe) your partner's an alcoholic, he or she is just going to be defensive and upset: really then, the only likely path forward for them is denial. They're going to feel criticised and judged and they will dislike you. That'll go badly regardless of whether they're an alcoholic or not -- they will see you as a killjoy and an authoritarian, they will hide drinking from you, test limits, etc. No fun for anyone.

Sometimes people drink too much not because they are alcoholics but because they're self-medicating a physical problem, because they're depressed, anxious, unhappy or bored. If I were you, I'd experiment with replacing the alcohol with something else. Think about the things you'd rather be doing together --playing a game, going out to a movie, fixing up the house-- and see if you can replace the drinking with that, sometimes or all of time. Don't talk to your partner about what you want them to stop doing, talk to them about what you want your life together to be like.

If that doesn't seem to work, I'd try an explicit conversation, with your starting premise being "I love you, we seem kind of stuck in a rut, what can we do to fix it and be happier."

At the same time, figure out your bottom line. Don't threaten, but know it for yourself. If it stays like this, do you want to leave? Your partner doesn't have to be an alcoholic to be someone you don't want to be in a relationship with.
posted by Susan PG at 9:27 PM on October 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'd advise you to let go of the "alcoholic" label, at least for now, because I don't think it's going to help.

Yep. At the same time it's totally okay for you to have boundaries -- even ones that don't have to do with drinking -- that are for you in the relationship. Things like

- we go to bed at the same time
- you don't lie to me
- you don't sneak food/drinks from us
- you don't pass out on the kitchen floor

And enforce those and if they don't seem to be able to do that because of their drinking then they "have a problem with alcohol" and it's affecting your relationship. I had an alcoholic for a dad and it sucked. What also sucked was the people around him who thought it was "not that bad" because he only drank wine and only drank at night in the privacy of his own home. Which, hey sure it could have been worse, but it also could have been a lot better. Al-Anon is helpful. You learn how to appropriately manage your own responses to someone else's drinking. You learn that they don't hurt you on purpose. You learn that you're not doomed just because a person you love has a problem. At the same time you learn that you may have to just say "I'm not picking up after your drunken ass anymore" and walk out the door before they decide to do anything about it, and that they still might not.

For me one of the big indicators was the sort of weird "I'm not choosing you over the alcohol you're just really pissing me off right now so I'm not going to interact with you and go drink like I always do" games. Like once or twice you'd be all "Wow is it me?" and then after the 5th and 6th time you stop asking for anything. You're not overreacting. If I thought my partner was an alcoholic I'd toss him out of the house like he was on fire. But that's because I've been there and I know where it leads and I have a zero-tolerance policy towards people who choose alcohol over me even if they have a good reason. There are options and ways of at least trying for a while, and if you think ti's worthwhile to do that, I think no one would blame you. There are a lot of helpful meetings and people who can give you support no matter what you decide.
posted by jessamyn at 9:54 PM on October 10, 2014 [7 favorites]

I can't throw the term "alcoholic" on someone I haven't met. But from the sounds of it your partner does have a drinking problem.

If drinking is causing trouble in your life or someone else's, then that is a drinking problem, full stop. This applies to anything else, such as gambling or eating or anything else that starts to cause problems in a person's life. If they're not willing to face the issue and take steps to rectify the problem, then it's a much bigger problem. Your partner is trying to deny that there is a problem... and they're sneaking alcohol. It's about money? Fine, I'll drink cheaper stuff. I guarantee you that you've only seen the beginning of what kind of rationalization and excuses that problem drinkers are capable of.

OK, so what do you do about it? Well, here's the thing: you cannot do anything about it for them. You can only take steps to protect yourself. You can beg, cajole, threaten, or whatever. They may even respond to that to try to avoid worse consequences, but when that's the case the relapse is usually rapid. But in the end, the decision to stop drinking is theirs and they must make that decision for themselves.

That leads so something else: This is not your fault. Remember that. Whatever you do, remember that. Whatever happens, remember that. It's very common for a drinker to try to shift blame onto others, especially those closest to them. They may try to make you feel like it's your fault that they drink. They may try to make you feel like it's your fault if they suffer any consequences for their drinking. They may try to make you look like the bad guy if you have to take any drastic steps such as leaving. Doesn't matter. It isn't your fault.

You say you will not stay married to an alcoholic. That is perfectly understandable. Now, however, have you thought this out? The thought of leaving is easy enough, the action is much harder. Even though you may end up never needing it, you need to start formulating your escape plan. Where will you live? Do you have enough money? Are you prepared to go through with a divorce? What is your red line, your "enough, I'm outta here" trigger? Figure these things out, because otherwise it's very easy to stay muddled in the messy life of a problem drinker. Being able to go when you need to go is going to be a big help to you. You may never need it, but knowing you can is powerful.

Be clear in your communications with your partner about the drinking that this is not healthy, that you feel that the drinking is more important to them than you are, and that they need to understand that even though you love them, they need to respect you enough to be honest about things. Jessamyn's list above is a great set of boundaries. As so many have already mentioned, Al-Anon is something you need to look into.
posted by azpenguin at 11:01 PM on October 10, 2014 [5 favorites]

You know, instead of you (and all of us) trying to make a judgement about what your partner's drinking means, I suggest you simply start attending AlAnon meetings. Go and explore if they are relevant to you.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:29 AM on October 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

You should stop approaching this issue from the perspective "Does he have a drinking problem?", which is admirably fair but ultimately unproductive. I suggest you start approaching it with "Is his drinking a problem for me?", which is certainly unambiguous given this question. He doesn't need an "objective" drinking problem for you to have a personal issue with it.
posted by milarepa at 7:37 AM on October 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Why are people assuming the drinker is male. The person who wrote the question never once mentions a gender.

I think you are right to be worried. I don't drink much personally, and that might colour my perceptions but I find it a little worrisome being around people that drink a lot and often. It seems like a way to not be present in a relationship and I can see why you feel upset by it.
posted by thegoldfish at 8:04 AM on October 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

One problem with framing these things as an "is/is not an alcoholic" inquiry is, many people have an extreme image of what an alcoholic does, and, since they don't drink like that image - mouthwash and hand sanitizer, shaking in the parking lot waiting for the liquor store to open, that kind of thing - they think that means they are OK, no alcoholism here.
posted by thelonius at 8:52 AM on October 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think one of the more useful definitions of addiction is use of a substance to the point where it impairs daily functioning and quality of life. That appears to be the case here.

It seems to me, honestly, that you need to set very specific limits--and you'll need to stop keeping alcohol in the house unless/until the problem is resolved. The important, and horribly difficult, thing is sticking to those limits. Might be time to start socking money away in a spare account, if you don't already have savings, and looking at finding your own place.

posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:00 AM on October 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Why are people assuming the drinker is male. The person who wrote the question never once mentions a gender.

I agree. I noted the ambiguity when reading the post, but neglected to carry it over into my own comment, presumably because I had been awake only 10 minutes before writing it. I think gendering the answers doesn't make any of the advice less valid though.
posted by milarepa at 11:54 AM on October 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Man, your partner sounds exactly like me a few years ago. The cheap boxed wine, the drinking it every night (I was afraid I wouldn't be able to sleep without it), the justifying it by saying that hey, it's not hard liquor, so it's okay, even the sneaking of hard liquor on occasion.

Your partner might not have a physical dependence on the alcohol right now -- I didn't, in that I was able to quit cold-turkey without any withdrawal issues at all -- but they are at least psychologically dependent on it. Maybe talking to them about that angle might work better -- the word alcoholic is a scary one, and is likely to just make their defenses go way, way up. Talking to them about how they seem to rely on the wine every night and how that affects the two of you might work better. And if you need to talk, feel free to Mefi-mail me. Like I said, I've been that partner. It was tough to quit, but well worth it.
posted by sarcasticah at 12:11 PM on October 11, 2014 [5 favorites]

Forget the word alcoholism -- call it a problem with drinking. You judge whether someone has a problem with alcohol based on how the alcohol is affecting their life, their relationships, and their health. The best way for you to address it is in terms of how it affects you. "When you've had more than x amount of wine, seem distant and I feel shut out," for example. Or, " Having a lot of wine at night makes you very grumpy the next morning."

If you can't point out ways the drinking is having a bad effect, you might not have much of a case. When friends and family hold an intervention, it's all about specific things that have been going wrong, specific ways people have been affected. "You drink a lot and I'm worried about you" isn't going to have any effect.

I think the suggestion about your going to Al-Anon is very good. It's not your responsibility to get your partner to drink less. All you can do is talk about what you need from the relationship, and what you'll do if the drinking continues or gets worse. Al-Anon has really taught me a lot about paying attention to my own life, and breaking the automatic habit of "taking care" of other people in my life.
posted by wryly at 3:40 PM on October 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Whether your partner is addicted or is choosing to drink too much of his own free will, there's absolutely nothing whatsoever you can do to stop it.

What I would suggest is pushing the consequences back to him as much as possible.

I agree with the advice not to put him to bed if you find him passed out on the floor, but I would suggest putting him in the recovery position first. You want him to learn from the consequence of waking up on the floor with no memory of how he got there, not from the consequence of waking up dead after choking on his own vomit.

If he's ever used the stove when drunk, I would suggest making sure the smoke alarms are well maintained and placed throughout the house.

Separate your finances if you have to.

That sort of thing... but going to Al-Anon will help you to sort out what to do, and it's probably mostly going to involve protecting yourself rather than getting him to change. People are what they are, and they do what they do, even when addiction isn't part of the picture.
posted by tel3path at 4:13 PM on October 11, 2014 [8 favorites]

You are overreacting; this drinking isn't particularly heavy and you've haven't mentioned any problems it's causing your partner other than occasionally falling asleep. But it doesn't matter what any of us think. The question is whether it's a problem for you.

Thing is, all you've haven't really shared your problem. Is the drinking causing your partner to not carry out their responsibilities? Is it making them treat you poorly? Is anyone being put into danger?

It sounds like this is an issue of you judging your partner, not that it's actually causing you real harm. You just think less of them. You're allowed to do that, but that's your issue, not theirs.

But you are getting one very bad piece of advice above, "If my spouse came to me and said, "X behavior is problematic. I want you to stop." That would be the end of it. There and then."

No relationship that works this way is healthy. "My anxiety must be obeyed" is an absolutely terrible way to treat a partner. You need to actually talk to your partner and be willing to listen, not "I have a feeling and if you really loved me you would do what I say". Drinking is optional, but so are many joys in life, and the idea that you should give up anything optional, no questions asked, whether there is a good reason or not is horrifying.
posted by spaltavian at 10:07 PM on October 11, 2014 [5 favorites]

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