How to talk to your partner about alcohol addiction
According to the NHS, last year over 350,000 hospital admissions were for reasons related to alcohol usage. This is a 6% increase over the previous year and a 19% increase over the prior decade. In a nation known for its pint glasses, talking about alcohol dependency and addictions can be particularly challenging. But the statistics underscore how important these conversations are in stemming the tide towards short and long-term health impacts.
In my role as a mental health therapist, I provide support to people going through difficult times. Surprisingly, it isn’t always the person who is suffering from a mental health condition or other problem who reaches out. Sometimes it is a loved one who needs help overcoming societal boundaries so they can speak up and have a conversation about addiction.
How do you talk to your partner about alcohol addiction?
When it comes to broaching difficult conversations about addiction, the question is less ‘should I’ and more of ‘when is the right time to say something?’ Individuals come to my colleagues and me to ask for guidance on pushing beyond the boundaries of niceties and into the realm of overwhelming, but important conversations. Should you find yourself in this position, here are some steps you can take to address the topic with your partner:
Step 1: Fostering an environment of open conversations
In healthy relationships, including friends, family and with our more intimate partners, we share information, both good and bad, creating an open and trusting environment. This applies both to those doing the sharing and those we wish to share with us.
Before jumping into a conversation about addiction, mental health or any other potentially sensitive topic, you need to lay the groundwork. You may want to start by sharing some of your own challenges, asking for support. Frank discussions about small topics build up the trust required for bigger conversations.
Step 2: Finding the courage to speak up
A common question I hear from partners is: 'Should we talk to people about their addiction?' Well, we would ask if we thought a friend or partner was ill or struggling in most other aspects of their lives. Addiction is no less real and is a medically diagnosable condition. It is clinically known as 'alcohol use disorder'. Like any other chronic condition such as diabetes or high blood pressure, leaving this unsupported and untreated can lead to significant consequences both emotionally and physically.
Step 3: Finding the right time and place
The most important thing is to start the conversation and let the other person know it is ok to talk. Pick a place which offers some degree of privacy out of respect for the significance of the conversation, and don’t do it during a point where alcohol is being or has been, consumed, or is too readily available such as a restaurant or bar. This is a moment for clarity. Don't worry about being word perfect, whatever the message is. The important thing is to speak in an honest, consistent and respectful way whilst attempting to maintain compassion.
Things to remember:
- Try to remain calm and supportive. Alcohol dependency isn't a lifestyle choice; it is a severe condition, with often-complex reasons behind it.
- If you're broaching the subject be specific about what you see, rather than making sweeping statements. Using 'I' statements such as 'I am worried about you…' or 'I am concerned about you…'
- Offer encouragement without judgment. It can be useful to discuss things within the context of the things that are important to the other person; 'I have noticed that you have been drinking a lot and I am concerned about the effect that it is having on your relationship…'
- Know what you want to say. Although we don’t always know how the other person is going to react, knowing what we want to say can both give clarity and structure to our thoughts.
Step 4: It may take more than one conversation
When opening the conversation about alcohol dependence, it is possible that your partner isn’t ready to hear your thoughts and concerns. The important message here is not to take this personally. At least they now know that you are open to having a conversation, and when they are ready, they are more likely to reach out. However, whether or not you are prepared to wait in order to have these conversations has to be a matter for you as an individual. It is important to note, at this point, that counselling and support groups are also available to you as the friend, partner or family member.
When we do open up the question of alcohol, either as the person who is fighting with dependency or the partner, friend or family member of the person, this can be a telling moment. It seems reasonable for everyone to want to feel heard, accepted and respected. But not everyone is as thoughtful or as diplomatic as they could be and a wrong word over such a sensitive issue can both be offensive and potentially cause rifts within any relationship, however well established.
Step 5: Getting support
The most important thing to remember is that you are not alone. You can turn to therapists and counsellors, alcohol non-profits such as DrinkAware or even to your local GP for advice and support. We can provide guidance on how to prepare for the conversation, or we can provide a safe space and impartial support.
Alcohol addiction impacts physical health and emotional and mental wellbeing. But it can often be the behavioural aspects, which can be first noticed and most troubling to friends, family and partners. Many therapists have experience of seeing people who have acted in ways that jeopardise jobs, relationships or even cause physical injury or self-harm. It is for these very reasons that speaking out can be so important.
This is the first in a two-part series of articles about alcohol addiction. The second article will be entitled 'Talking to people about your addiction.'
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