Many think that love is all that is you need to change an alcoholic, here we explain why you can’t love an alcoholic sober
When we first decided to create Bottled Up, we felt that there was a need for help and support for the partners’ of alcoholics. The prevailing advice was, and often still is, run, get out, throw him/her out, end the relationship now! Many who dispense this kind of advice tend to have no experience of the situation. No change there then, I’ve often said that the best place to hand down advice from, is my pinnacle of ignorance.
The real problem with such advice is that it misses the main fact – that these men and women are still in love with their drinker! They are looking for a way to live in harmony with their drinker, they are not looking for an exit strategy. Having said that, the Bottled Up strategy does not advocate ‘loving’ the behaviour of the drinker and just accepting everything that they do without a word. Absolutely not, we recommend developing a ‘healthy’ love that is rooted in respecting yourself and the drinker. But before we discuss how to do that, let’s look at the drinker first.
You can’t love an alcoholic sober – Black holes and shame
Many have pointed up the paradox of the alcoholic. On the one hand we have the intensely self-centred behaviour that steamrollers over anyone else’s needs, rights or wishes. Opposing, or maybe driving this behaviour is a deep, very deep, lack of self-esteem or even, as Lou has suggested of her husband, a profound self-loathing. It is a mistake to think that alcoholics are unaware of the things that they do, they are not. Most of them will experience huge guilt for their behaviour and confusion about why they do it.
The issue is that there is a hole at the centre of their being that should be filled with self-respect, self-esteem and self-love. However, the only thing that seems to fill that hole is alcohol, because alcohol is the solution to how the alcoholic feels. It is a friend; it may be a false friend but sometimes it feels like the only friend the alcoholic has. For it fills that hole where these feelings should be. The problem is that it provides counterfeit versions of these attributes. Instead of self-respect it fosters selfishness, instead of self-esteem it produces arrogance and instead of self-love we find callousness.
To some partners the solution seems obvious – love is the answer, love is all you need. It’s a great title for a song, very catchy, but a doomed strategy when dealing with an alcoholic. But you can’t love an alcoholic sober. Trying to love an alcoholic into sobriety is like trying to fill a swimming pool using a teaspoon. You may manage it, in time and with a lot of effort, but most people realise the futility and give up long before they succeed.
The core of the problem is that alcoholics need to begin to love themselves for change to happen. What exacerbates the problem is that without self-respect etc, it is extremely difficult to truly accept love from anyone else. In fact, instead it can produce intense feelings of shame – ‘because I do not deserve to be loved’. The shame in turn can heighten the craving for alcohol, to fill the hole with the false feelings again. And so the merry go round continues.
So, does that mean that it is useless to love an alcoholic or that you shouldn’t love an alcoholic? Absolutely not! The fact that you love them may be what ultimately saves them from themselves. However, what is important is that you love your alcoholic in a way that is healthy for both of you. We discuss this in more detail in the program in the members’ area, and we cover the topic extensively on the website. For now, let’s look at how you can care for and love yourself better.
You can’t love an alcoholic sober – Love the alcoholic, love yourself
It is too easy to be sucked into the life of an alcoholic in a way that their behaviour completely dominates your life. This is, unfortunately, very common. You can spend every hour waiting for them to come home, wondering if they will be on time, will they have been drinking, will they be drunk? You stop inviting people to socialise and even start turning down invitations to go to friends for dinner or to parties. One day you wake up and find that you have become a recluse.
Your mood can become dependent on whether your drinker has a drink today or maybe instead whether they drink to excess. When you eat, what you do of an evening, when you go to bed, whether you sleep, what time you get up, all of these things are now dependent on your drinker. It may be that your health is now beginning to suffer. However, you feel that there is nothing that you can do and, just to underline it, you have been told, over and over, that you are powerless and now you are beginning to believe it. If you identify with this state, then you are almost certainly not helping your drinker or yourself.
If it has not happened already, the love that you have for your drinker will start to erode and you will find it increasingly difficult to communicate, or maybe even be in the same room together. To protect yourself, and the love for your drinker, you need to detach. That is, you need to stop living your life emotionally through the drinker. This is not an easy thing to do and many people find it very difficult.
The easiest way to do it is to become active, make a life for yourself that does not depend on the drinker. Take up a hobby, attend a class, join a club it doesn’t really matter what it is, as long as you are doing it for you. If you have children who are upset by the drinker’s behaviour, try and change the experience. If, for example, Saturday is drinking day, then make that the day you all go to the cinema, or the park, or the beach. The point is that you take back control of your life and in being busy doing life you do not wait around for the drinker.
You may feel that detachment is at odds with a loving solution, some people do. However, ask yourself, do you identify with the description above of living your life according to the drinker’s drinking behaviour? Has it been a successful strategy in helping your drinker to change? Almost certainly not or you would not be reading this article.
If you love your drinker, and I would bet that you do (or, again, you would not be reading this article) then to help them you need to help yourself first.
Here are another couple of articles that may help.