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Marriage and Alcoholism

cpCathy Patterson-Sterling MA, RCC

Former Director of Family Services 

Sunshine Coast Health Center


In relationships that are impacted by alcoholism, individuals with substance abuse issues focus on their drinking and/ or gambling opportunities at the expense of their relationships. As alcoholism progresses, individuals obsess about obtaining and using alcohol as their largest priority. Such people will start to neglect their professional as well as personal responsibilities. The result is that partners and family members begin to compensate by taking over these duties. Meanwhile, alcoholics are reduced to throwing tantrums, demanding more money or time so they can drink or gamble. Partners of these individuals may feel like they are raising another child because the addicted people are self-absorbed, demanding, and give very little in return. Parents of grown addicted individuals may worry that these people will never grow up and become independent. For example, addicted people in their 40’s and 50’s may still be pestering their parents for money so that they can use more mood-altering substances. Therefore relationships that have been impacted by alcoholism have a power imbalance. Both members are not equal because one person is doing all the giving and the other is taking all of the time. This dynamic will not necessarily change even once people quit using alcohol or gambling. In these relationships, the individual in recovery from alcoholism and their loved ones need to work on having equality in their relationships in order to find happiness. There is no giver or taker because both people work together as a team.   

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Alcoholism Recovery: Becoming a Team   

People in relationships touched by alcoholism should not be opponents at war who use their love as an opportunity to further manipulate each other. Instead, individuals in relationships should have common goals while still nurturing each others’ interests. Partners and family members can work together as a team. In relationships impacted by alcoholism, addicted people need to step up to the plate and become active members of their relationships. Furthermore, partners and family members need to adjust their roles so that they allow help from addicted individuals who are now moving toward recovery from alcoholism.

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Ways to Create Equality

Examples of how to create equality in a marriage impacted by alcoholism include:

  • Decide what you both want out of life and help each other attain these goals
  • Express your needs so that you can get help (when you feel alone describe how you are both in a rowboat moving toward the same goal, however, you feel like you are doing all the paddling. Encourage the other person to pick up the paddle)
  • Show appreciation when you do receive help from the other person.   

Enhancing Intimacy after Alcoholism Treatment

Once addicted individuals start the recovery journey after alcoholism treatment, they may struggle with issues of intimacy. During the active stage of alcoholism, people did not have to feel because they altered their moods chemically with alcohol. Even if individuals had gambling problems, they numbed their feelings by obsessing about winning at various games. Therefore addicted people always had an outside distraction to focus on and they were likely not completely emotionally-connected in their relationships. Now in recovery from alcoholism, individuals may have challenges being back in their bodies, having natural feelings, and enhancing intimacy in relationships. Intimacy is the ability to let others see who you really are. With intimacy, people express their hopes and desires in life as well as share their real personalities with others. Intimacy means “in-to-me-you-see” and some individuals recovering from alcoholism are afraid that if they let people “see into them,” that they will be rejected or abandoned. Therefore, people would rather play a role by being funny or tough so that others do not get to know them on deeper emotional levels. Intimacy is not just sexual and instead this emotional closeness of sharing who you really are with others can exist not only in romantic relationships, but in friendships as well as family relations.

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Ways to Enhance Intimacy

Enhancing intimacy doesn’t happen overnight. Intimacy stems from being connected to something that you can look forward to, that inspires you. The second key aspect of enhancing intimacy is that you and your partner are both engaged in this inspiring journey.

Suggestions on enhancing intimacy include:

  • Develop a better idea of who you are and what you want out of life. What are you passionate about? What makes you excited? Go on a journey of self-exploration to find out what makes you happy
  • Write about your experiences in a journal
  • Begin to have conversations with others about your passions and goals in life
  • Learn to express your feelings. Explain the moments in which you feel happy, scared, sad, excited etc.
  • Take a risk and tell others how much you appreciate having them in your life. Explain what type of gift they give to you emotionally and how they impact your life.   


“Intimacy means in-to-me- you-see …“   

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Family Members of People with Alcoholism Also Struggle with Intimacy

Loved ones of people with alcoholism may also struggle with intimacy because they are so used to dealing with a never-ending series of crisis or outside distractions that they may even forget what it is like to share who they are with other people. For example, partners and family members may feel so drained from dealing with addicted people’s problems that they do not feel like they have “a self “ or personality to express. Such people feel like empty shells completely drained of any vitality or joy. Intimacy is essential for thriving relationships. In fact, people learn, grow, and experience deeper satisfaction when they have intimacy in their relationships. With intimacy, there is a synergy or vibrancy in people’s associations with each other. There are certain skills that individuals can use to enhance intimacy in their associations with others. These steps can be followed by both individuals in recovery from alcoholism and their loved ones.

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Becoming Emotionally Available In Relationships   

In alcoholism, people become spiritually bankrupt and emotionally unavailable. This means that they are unable to think outside of their own needs of using alcohol. Furthermore, individuals are emotionally unavailable because they are always distracted. In active alcoholism, people do not want to sit down with their loved ones and discuss issues. Instead, alcoholics want to run out the door and drink so they can drown feelings like guilt away. Therefore once people start the journey of recovery from alcoholism, they may initially feel disconnected from their feelings. For example in relationships such individuals may not be able to focus because they are easily distracted by outside issues. They have an active challenge of being in the moment (attentive) and listening to others without having their minds wonder on to other thoughts. In order to be emotionally available, people also need to be able to acknowledge and respond to others’ needs.

While in alcoholism, people did not care about the needs of other people. Now in recovery, individuals may experience the challenge of thinking outside of their own immediate needs to then help others achieve their goals. This is not an easy transition for some people especially if they are used to focusing only on themselves and their desires to use alcohol. Such a change involves walking alongside people in life and giving back instead of always taking from others. Loved ones may also experience challenges being emotionally available in their relationships with individuals recovering from alcoholism because they may feel emotional burn-out from dealing with all the crisis related to the drinking. Such people begin to shut down on an emotional level and they do not want to work on rebuilding their relationships because they are still dealing with the exhaustion of contending with alcoholism. Relationships thrive when all the individuals involved are emotionally-available with each other. People’s senses of safety as well as connection flourish when they are able to be emotionally- available and have these feelings reciprocated in their relationships. There are a number of steps individuals can follow in order to be more emotionally- available in their relationships.

Steps for Becoming Emotionally- Available: 1) Focus on really listening to what other people say without letting your mind wander. 2) Paraphrase or repeat back parts of what people say. 3) Don’t try to fix people’s problems and instead provide support while listening. 4) Share some of your experiences that are similar to others during conversations. 5) Be attentive to other people’s needs and help them to feel comfortable. 6) When you have conflicts, talk your problems out by finding ”win-win” solutions so that everyone can be happy. If not, make a compromise.   

“People’s senses of safety as well as connection flourish when they are able to be emotionally-available…”   

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The Gift of Alcoholism   

“In all of us there is a gift. Sometimes it is in our darkest hours that we can finally see the light that shines from within.” (Patterson- Sterling, 2004). Such advice is especially true for relationships impacted by alcoholism. Both people in recovery and their loved ones have endured numerous challenges throughout the alcoholism. There may have even been moments when both parties felt like they were going crazy. The positive aspect of this journey is that during the chaos or crisis of the alcoholism, people had opportunities to really find out what they were made out of in terms of their strengths and overall characters. As Richard M. Nixon stated: “The greatness comes not when things go always good for you.” But the greatness comes when you’re really tested, when you take some knocks, some disappointments, when sadness comes. Because only if you’ve been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.” Therefore once people survive the impact of alcoholism on their relationships, they can later realize how truly blessed they are in life. In many ways, individuals can view the alcoholism as a gift. Often people’s relationships grow stronger and they have a better sense of themselves. Furthermore, both individuals in recovery and their loved ones can live each day with a feeling of being blessed because they appreciate that they are liberated from the dramas related to the alcoholism. When individuals can spend the day in peace without battling with debts, legal issues, health problems, money difficulties, etc. then they are appreciative. Furthermore, people learn a lot about themselves and what they want out of life. Such individuals often become clearer about their goals and priorities so they are not as apt to waste time. Instead, people realize they are not invincible and appreciate their second chance at fulfilling their goals. Both individuals in recovery from alcoholism and loved ones can also make sense of their previous suffering and use these past experiences as learning lessons to help others or as motivation to complete their own goals. In recovery, people will still experience problems and they are not immune to difficulties. The difference, however, is that when people do have problems they can still feel blessed that at least they are on the journey of recovery.   

“Your family and your love must be cultivated like a garden. Time, effort, and imagination must be summoned constantly to keep any relationship flourishing and growing.” Jim Rohn  

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I arrived at SCHC a broken frightened man. I was met by some of the kindest people I have ever had the fortune of meeting. Souls that could understand how mine was broken. I am thankful that I have had the opportunity to spend seven weeks here. I have never cried so much in all my life, and on the other hand, I have never laughed so much. I have seen disappointment and I have seen tremendous growth and success. I have discovered close relationships that I never knew existed. There are experiences that you carry for life and I know that my stay here will be one. You have all helped me to discover who I am. Most importantly, you have all helped me to stay sober and clean, one day at a time.

- Fort McMurray, AB

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