Here is October’s installment of “Ask Shelby” from Chester County’s own Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Shelby Riley.
My husband drinks a lot. I think it’s a problem, but he doesn’t seem to think so. It’s true that a lot of our friends drink a lot, too, but I don’t think that makes it okay. I hate that he chooses drinking over me. I don’t want to be his mother and make ultimatums, but I hate feeling scared and angry every time I see him drinking. What should I do?
Signed, Angry at Alcohol
Dear Angry at Alcohol,
We see this a lot with couples in our practice. There are many people (both men and women) in this area who have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. I have heard many times over the years that a client drinks eight to ten beers a day, often with friends from the neighborhood. Whether its beer, wine, vodka and juice, gin and tonic, or any other form of alcohol, if you are drinking large quantities on a regular basis, you are drinking too much.
Often people will become defensive if a family member complains about their drinking. People make excuses, like, “It’s not like I’m drunk,” or “I’m drinking that many over eight to ten hours, it’s not like I’m pounding shots by myself at home.”
Moderate/sensible drinking as defined by the American Medical Association and Center for Disease Control is one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men. If your husband’s drinking consistently exceeds that, than yes, I would agree he has been drinking in an excessive manner.
I suggest talking with him when you two haven’t been drinking. I encourage you to share your thoughts is a calm, loving, and safe manner. I find talking about how his alcohol use affects you is sometimes a helpful eye-opener. When I explain that alcohol use gets in the way of the drinker being present and focused for their family members, I often see a softening in the defenses. When we talk about how the partner feels lonely because the alcohol use gets in the way of an intentional, authentic relationship, when we highlight how the partner and kids are in a relationship with the drinker and alcohol, not simply the authentic person, I see eyes begin to open. Sharing your concerns about his physical health, like how alcohol affects his liver, his brain, his internal organs, his ability to sleep well, his appetite for healthy food, and many other aspects of his physical health, sometimes helps him hear your concerns.
Your husband may need help recognizing that he has an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. Some people need professional guidance to better understand why they drink. Are they masking pain? Numbing out from stress? Avoiding intimacy? Or simply engaging in a bad habit? Some people have a genetic predisposition to be addicted to alcohol, so if he has alcoholism in his family, he may need help changing his drinking habits, once he’s decided it makes sense to drink less or stop drinking altogether.
We have worked with many couples through this process. Some people were able to quickly decide to change their drinking, and some people really wrestled with the decision. Some were able to fairly easily change their behavior, and some needed more extensive help. The common factor in every scenario, though, was the loving, clear feedback of a loved one who wanted to see things change for the better.
I hope you will communicate your love, care, and concern with your husband. If the two of you need help addressing his drinking, there are some helpful websites, which I’ve listed below. Also know that therapists, substance abuse specialists, and rehab facilities can all help at different stages of the process, if necessary.
I wish you, and your husband, well,
Shelby Riley, LMFT is the owner of Shelby Riley, LMFT and Associates, LLC. She is currently the Past President of the Pennsylvania Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (PAMFT). Remember to check out Shelby’s website www.shelbyrileymft.com for useful information about therapy for individuals, couples, and families.