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My wife’s drinking is out of control and I can’t cope

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Dear Bryony,

I love my wife but I’m not sure I’m that keen on her anymore. We have been married more than a decade, have two beautiful children and a lovely house, and on paper everything is great. Behind the scenes, we are falling apart. The problem is my wife’s drinking, or rather her inability to stop. 

When I met her 15 years ago, I loved that she was the life and soul of the party, but it’s not so attractive now that she’s in her 40s. For a long time I could convince myself that she needed a drink to cope with the pressure of motherhood and that it was good for her to embrace her “fun” side. Now I just find it embarrassing. She can go a few days without drinking but as soon as she starts again she can’t stop. She falls over, she’s sick, she says things to our friends that no amount of apologies the next day can undo. 

I’ve tried telling her to moderate, but she doesn’t seem to listen. She cries and tells me she can’t and, to be honest, I find it really frustrating. She’s mentioned alcoholism, but I can’t believe that’s what this is, because she has periods where she can go without and she doesn’t fit the stereotype of someone swigging out of a paper bag. Surely it’s just a matter of her employing a bit of willpower? How can I get her to drink normally, and stop being such a liability?

– Annoyed 

Dear Annoyed,

Thank you for your letter, which sums up perfectly one of the great problems of being human: an inability to have any patience for someone else’s behaviour when it bears no resemblance to our own. How much easier life would be if we could accept that not everybody is cast in the same mould! In your longer message you speak of how much you enjoy a nice glass of wine with your meal, and how integral it is to your social life, but that you find you can’t stomach more than one. Firstly, lucky you. And secondly, believe me when I say that this way of drinking is probably as incomprehensible to your wife as hers is to you. 

Listen, I’m not saying you should be blasé about her behaviour, or even excuse it, just that you might want to listen when she weeps on you and tells you she can’t stop. You could waste the rest of your life trying to get her to “drink normally”, or accept that all the evidence suggests she can’t. Do you truly believe that she actually wants to be throwing up, crying and generally making a fool of herself? I’m sure that if she could have just one drink, she would. As it is, it seems she might be the kind of person for whom one is too many and a thousand is never enough. (I wish I could take credit for that marvellous quote, but like most of the wisdom I have in my head, I borrowed it from Alcoholics Anonymous.)

Speaking of which, it’s not my place to diagnose your wife as an alcoholic. Only she can do that. But I can tell you that this assumption that all people with a drink problem are old, male and live on a park bench does a lot of alcoholism’s work for it. I spent years telling myself I couldn’t be addicted to alcohol because I did reformer Pilates. What a shock it was to learn that both things could be true at the same time! I used up so much time and energy trying to prove I wasn’t an alcoholic, but the jumping off point for me was when I realised it was far easier to simply accept I was. Almost seven years on, I no longer embarrass my husband (that much), he really likes me again, and I don’t have a problem with him enjoying a glass of wine (or two) with his dinner. 

Here is the simple truth: for some people, having no drinks at all is much, much easier than having one. It sounds as if this might be the case for your poor wife, who, as annoying as she may be right now, will probably be hugely fun and fanciable again if you just accept her for who she is – and most importantly, allow her to accept herself for who she is. If she wants to be an alcoholic, and embrace sobriety, let her. It will do your family the world of good! But know that recovery rarely happens in a straight line, and it is hard at first. Not as hard as the alternative, of course, which is more tears, more embarrassment and more vomit. 

All of this is to say that if she finds being sober a struggle, it doesn’t mean she should give up. You can make things easier by temporarily removing alcohol from the house, and avoiding any social gatherings where friends might be getting boozy. A bit of temporary pain for long-term gain is surely worth it for the happiness of your young family, and in particular your children. 

We hear a lot about resources for people with a drinking problem, but what about those who love the person with the drinking problem? Al-Anon, which was set up by the wife of the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, is a place where the loved ones of addicts can go to talk about their feelings. There are online groups, and in-person meetings, and you can find out more on its website.

There are some brilliant books that you could also have a look at. Codependent No More by Melody Beattie is considered the gold standard for people living with an alcoholic. If you want an insight into your wife’s brain, you could try reading The Sober Diaries by Clare Pooley, and if you want an understanding about alcoholism, I always recommend Moments of Clarity by Christopher Kennedy Lawford (if your wife wants to get sober, this is an excellent start). Action on Addiction provides excellent resources that help to remove some of the stigma around these illnesses. 

Finally, words like “addict” and “alcoholic” sound big and frightening. But believe me, trying to ignore them is way more scary. They’re just words. People all around the world go through this every day. Neither you nor your wife is alone, not least because you have each other and your lovely children. Pull together. Accept your differences. When you do that, you might be surprised by how harmonious your relationship can be.

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