The truth about marriage to an alcoholic


Walking downhill, on my way back from work. It’s 7pm and the night has already crept up around me. A leaf lies curled on the pavement, one of many littering the walkway. A thought drifts down, sparked by an earlier encounter: me at the corner shop this morning, waiting to buy a packet of mints, standing behind an alcoholic who fumbles for his money and mishears the shopkeeper when he quotes the price for whatever it is the man is buying.

“Been drinking all night,” says the man, by way of explanation. His Pitt Bull terrier is sitting in the doorway, harmless enough though sufficiently frightening to make me think twice about entering the shop, before I actually enter it. Anyway, I stand there and watch the man search his pockets for change. I’m not really looking at him. I’m imagining what he’s doing based on what I can hear.

Then he leaves, and I’m standing where he stood, the air still smelling of him. I bat the odour away, frowning. “It stinks,” I say.

“Drunk,” says the shopkeeper, and I nod. He’s smiling, I’m not. “What to do?” he adds.

“It’s a disease,” I say. And we both shrug at each other. I can tell he’s good-natured about this brand of client – that he recognises they, too, are paying customers and so deserve some respect. I can tell that he has some sympathy for them, as well. I can tell that when he said drunk, the word was infused with pathos. Unlike my mollifying “disease” mantra which I trot out unconvincingly at times like this.

Even now that smell – that boozy B.O. stench – makes my stomach lurch and anger twitch in my gut. It recalls buried observations, emotions. It disinters a dormant fury.

So, back to the hill.

I’m walking down it, thinking of the drunk in the shop this morning, slowly equating him with pre-rehab Ben. This soon morphs into a question to myself, not quite clearly articulated. It goes something like: What does it really mean to be married to an alcoholic?

I ask this, because I know that most people think they have some idea of what this means. I also know that most of these same people have no idea what this really means.

So, what does it mean to be married to an alcoholic?

It means:

  • waiting up into the early hours of the morning, wondering whether your partner has been killed in an accident.
  • trying to ignore the guilt you feel at the relief that thought brings you
  • counting the buses that go by, wondering whether he will be on the next one
  • hoping he won’t be covered in blood again when he returns (and hoping you won’t need to clean the outer door, walls and floors again to avoid snarky comments from the neighbours)
  • thinking up plausible explanations for why daddy died for your 3/4/5/x-year-old child
  • wondering whether to ring the police or whether they’ll bring him home again
  • ringing his mobile obsessively to find out where he is
  • listening to him tell you he is coming home right now, while knowing he won’t turn up for another eight hours
  • praying he won’t crap his pants again and bring it into the flat
  • hoping he doesn’t try to cook something in the middle of the night – and forget about it while it’s on the gas stove
  • buying him beer when he’s in withdrawal… because otherwise he might fit
  • cleaning up his vomit
  • castigating yourself for not knowing he had a problem and so letting him drive off with your child while under the influence
  • single-handedly managing your home and children
  • making friends with loneliness

There are more – many more bullets to add to this list. Why don’t you add your own in the comments below?


39 thoughts on “The truth about marriage to an alcoholic

  1. Knowing that it is pointless to try to plan family events…..or any event that might include people coming into your home……. or that might be preempted by an emergency call from the ____ (fill in the blank with hospital, police station, aggravated bar owner, etc). Basically you can’t make any plans at all…..ever. And you have to live with that guilt and loneliness. And you have to figure out how to explain this to your children. And you have to figure out how to impress upon them to not repeat the pattern ( do as I say, not as I do). And you have to live with THAT guilt.

  2. This is a wonderfully written blog. I love your writing. One question keeps coming up, as I make my way through your posts: Why stay? Why are you still married to him? Why put up with this shit? It’s not your responsibility. HE’s not your responsibility. Was he like this when you got married, or just starting to go downhill? These would all be great things to address in various posts, I might add–everyone could relate, and learn, I’m sure. -DDG

    • Hey, thanks, DDG. I address some of your questions on my about page. We are still married in law but currently separated. I cover this in my later posts post-rehab. And I guess once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. But you’ve given me some food for thought that I will expand on in the coming months.

  3. You turn off your phone because you’re past the point of caring and the thought of hearing his voice sickens you.

    You ask his boss not to send him out of town because every time he goes out of town you know he thinks he’s entitled to drink after a day of work.

    You have to make up reasons your step child’s father isn’t home yet.

    You resolve to make good on your ultimatum to leave if he drinks another drop. So far he has been completely sober for about two months and is the most kind and loving man you’d ever meet. I’m talking David Beckham gorgeous and soap opera star romantic but I promise I am done if he ever drinks a drop again. It’s just not worth it…

      • Thanks, I hope he does too.

        I’ve been quietly following you for a while now. A witness to the pain and struggle we face in our common position. You’re doing great work. It’s painful to see what you’re going through but healing to know I’m not alone.

        My step son is 12 now and the spitting image of his father. Sweet and loving though on the edge of being a teen he prefers texting to interacting with us these days. What is terrifying is I also see in him that sense of entitlement. The same sense of entitlement that tells my husband he deserves to drink and do what he wants to do without regard of consequence. My husband recognized it in his son recently when he recognized it in his own being. It was a pretty big breakthrough. My husband is frightened at what he sees but vows to never let his son go down the same road he has. We shall see…

      • Thank you for following my blog. I’m glad your husband made that breakthrough. But getting through to a boy who is about to be a teenager – that’s really not going to be easy. And how will you distinguish between normal experimentation and budding addiction (or an acted upon predilection). I’m relieved that my daughter is just five, but whenever I see signs of her dad in her behaviour, I think 10 years forward and see tragedy. Then I tell myself, I CANNOT go through that again. Never again. So I do my best to do the right thing, while failing time and again. Anyway, I hope you both get through to your son.

  4. I have to admit that this was a bit hard to read, as I was that husband. Not in every fashion, but in many. I can’t even imagine what it’s like. I can’t even pretend to know what it’s like. I am so sorry that it’s like this right now (and has been). Ugh. I am sure my wife could relate. (I was also chuckling a bit because I want to strangle my old self reading this list – how could you do all these things, Paul??)

    Thank you for sharing this.


    • I’m sorry to dredge up these memories for you. Fortunately, they are memories for me now, too. My husband has been in recovery for more than a year. But as you can see, it’s all still raw.

      • Oh it’s ok – it’s not so much a cringe as it is a wince these days. I get days like that sometimes – a flash of a memory, a vision, a spoken word that briefly brings me back to the “good ‘ol days” (severe tongue in cheek). It’s been 2 1/2 years, and unfortunately I am still dealing with some residue of the past (legal stuff). But it’s a good reminder for me to read stuff like this sometimes – not because of madulin reflection, but to keep my feet planted in the real and not forget how bad it got. Ego loves the rebuild and minimize.

        I am glad that your husband has been in recovery for a year now – I didn’t know that. I thought he was still active. But clearly is still raw for you – I am so sorry.

        Love and light,

      • Hi Paul – yes indeed. He’s been sober for a year. One of my posts was a letter to him (which he’s never seen) celebrating his year of sobriety. Christy of Running on Sober featured it in one of her posts a while back. We’re both in recovery really – which is what a lot of this blog has been about since he got out of rehab. But I still get flashbacks. He doesn’t like to talk about those days, even though I need to. I don’t think we’ll ever get to the point where we can really talk about it openly.
        So glad for you and your 2.5 years. That’s wonderful. I hope you keep clean for many years to come.

  5. It means worrying if the next person that you hear about freezing to death is her.
    It means the 20 awful phone calls in the middle of the night when you have school in the morning when shes calling you a bitch, or an asshole.
    It means having to accept collect calls from her begging for us to bring her money or clothes.
    Were kids so she uses us for a place to stay, for money, and for whatever else her selfish ass requires to live.
    It means waking up in the middle of the night to call the police because shes drunk and hollering in your house in the middle of the night for the 3rd time.
    It means constantly worrying every minute of every single day of your life until she is placed into the ground.
    Until then you are in state of constant grief, hope they may change, or fear they will die.

    • Do you have some kind of support – or anyone to speak to where you are? Being married to an alcoholic is one thing, quite another to have to deal with a parent who is one. I’m sorry you are going through this – that it is a persistent pain in your life. There is a community of people here who are ready to support you, whenever you need it. Thank you for sharing.

      • I have the best husband. He is supportive and understands me. I am very open about my life and my childhood. I am at a point in my life where I can openly share without choking up or breaking down which feels amazing. I am beginning to reach out to others. Thank you for your kind words.

  6. I needed to read this tonight – thank you – reminds me that everything I’m doing now to move forward is the right thing! Just wanted to add also – (from my own experience): receiving the early morning drunken phone calls slurring to be picked up, the effort to try and move a very drunk and drug induced comatose man mountain 4 weeks after having a caesarean! There is light at the end of the tunnel and reading this made me realise again “I’m not alone” xx

    • “comatose man mountain” – that would be funny if it wasn’t so damn tragic. Thank you for adding to the list. And I am SO glad you are moving on. Yes, it does get better, you know. But you have to set your boundaries and stick to them. My husband is in recovery now. We are separated, but … he’s in the kitchen right now, sober. Although we haven’t managed to repair our relationship, he has managed to reclaim fatherhood and is a great dad to our daughter. So, in this story, there is light, too. I am plagued by flashbacks, though. And this post, was triggered by my encounter with an itinerant drunk. It only takes a whiff of booze for it to come flooding back. You are not alone. Just reading the many, many experiences in the comments here is some comfort, at least. Take care, dear.Thank you for stopping by.

  7. ooph, yeah, I too felt this one in my gut. One of my best friends drank too, and the toughest for me was never knowing if she was telling me the truth or not–about anything. (Active) alcoholics lie about everything, including what time it is. Even today, though she is dry, I still wonder whether or not to believe everything she tells me; and sometimes I don’t. Which is such a hypocritical thing, I know, because I want others to believe *me*–but it doesn’t change the fact that once trust is broken, it’s a long slow process to rebuild it and any little misstep can send it sliding back down even further than before.

    • And that’s the thing. Trust. His lies are what have torn us apart. I can’t stop mistrusting him. How right you are – suspicion became (has become) a default position for me. I expect him to lie to me, even though he’s sober now. Sobriety hasn’t changed any of that for me.

      • My ex is still genuinely surprised that I don’t believe a word that he says. He has never acknowledged addiction. He thinks that I am making it up because his father was an alcoholic – projecting it on to him.
        Then the other day, he was once again trying to convince me that he is better now – responsible, has his life together. I pointed out that he has said that many times. His response, “Yes, but we both know I was lying then.”
        I guess I’m the only one that knows he’s lying now? Not fair, probably, because he really believes that he is doing better. For now.

      • At least my ex… I have to get used to saying that, because we really are, even though we are legally still married, acknowledges that there is a reason why I mistrust him. He’s been sober for over a year. Long may that continue. If he ever went back to the blanket denials, well, there would be no conversation to be had.

  8. The power of recovery can mean a new start, a new life. Problems do not go away, but they become easier to deal with. It is worth the work to let go of the old anger and resentments, and move on. This is my prayer for you. xo Joanne

      • It does take time and believe me it rare its ugly head from time to time and you deal with as it comes. Eventually you will live, married to am alcoholic is one of the hardest passages in life.

      • Now it is getting back to normal after a stay in hospital and new medication. Take care and remember you are the only one that can make decisions in life. An alcoholic knows how to play with your mind

  9. Today is my first time reading your blog. I went blog searching to possibly start my own blog about my own story of the love of my life and his alcoholism. Thank you for writing

  10. Good to know I wasn’t the only one imagining the whole scenario of telling the children that their father was killed in a car accident. I remember wondering if I would be grief stricken or just handle it as part of the business of being married to an alcoholic.
    What would I add?
    – Hating yourself for not giving up on him the last time. Why didn’t I end it when he came home at 4am last week? Here I am at 2am, waiting yet again.
    – Hating yourself for living a dual, isolated life. Avoiding eye contact with your friends. Pretending that things are fine to your family. Wondering if they really know what a fool you are.
    – Missing the man that you married. Clinging on to that one day when he is good and reminds you of him. Letting that be enough to carry you forward.
    – Feeling second best to the alcohol, the bars, his friends, a good time. You can tell yourself all day long that it’s a disease, but it still involves rejection and abandonment. I wonder if I will ever feel good enough again.

    • Ah, SM. Yes, rejection and abandonment. It is the same story over and over, and the damage that does feels virtually irreparable, doesn’t it? But you are good – better than good. Stay strong!

  11. Thank you for this post. I can relate. I have learned that I am married to an alcoholic. I am following you now and have a lot to catch up on. I would have to add that every holiday is ruined. These are the big days my husband loves to drink. I use to look forward to the holidays and now they usually get ruined because of his disease.

  12. 2 years ago (December 2011):

    Having to post $1000 bail to get him out of jail. I should have let him stay and saved the money.

    Being dropped from our car insurance due to said DUI and having to scramble to find one that would take us and pay more.

    Him being refused health insurance due to said DUI (though he should qualify for Obamacare…maybe).

    Last December (2012)

    Having to talk him down from using the gun on himself in a fit of irrational thinking and extreme self-loathing.

    It occurred to me that we have not had a drama-free year yet in our 17 year marriage.

    But…things have been a lot better than it was. We’ll see how long it stays that way. I am in Al-anon and Adult Child of Alcoholics and am in recovery from a whole lot of trauma. But I feel a great deal more empowered these days.

    • Thank you for sharing, Casey. And I’m relieved that you’re in a better place now. Keep attending those meetings and take care of yourself. You’ve been through enough. Focus on what you can control and the rest will follow. At least, that is the sage advice I have received from so many here. Happy new year.

  13. *Waking up before our children, just to clean up all of the bottles around the house. (In hopes of sheltering them from the mess he’s become)
    *Smiling through my heartache and pretending that everything is great, when family visits from out of state.
    *Slowly finding my voice to say ‘I will not take it anymore..this is not ok.’
    *Struggling with my bitterness that I carry after a binge night. We wake and he’s loving and all I feel is a great disgust for him. It makes me feel guilty and frustrated because I know what an incredible man he can be and I want to be able to love him like I used to. Sometimes, it doesn’t feel like enough to keep me here.
    *Wanting to husband.. feeling like I will never be more important than the booze. The remark you made about making friends with loneliness really resonated with me.

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