You Can’t Love an Alcoholic Sober

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.

The best way to help an alcoholic

Supporting change in your drinker

7 Replies to “You Can’t Love an Alcoholic Sober”

  1. How does labelling our loved ones “Alcholics” and “Druggies” boost their self esteem? Language that was acceptable in the 1930’s around race and mental health would not be acceptable today. Why have we not had a corresponding improvement in the disrespectful and stigmatising language we use around people with substance use disorders? Whilst I agree with much of what you guys post, the language makes me feel like I’m in an AA meeting so I switch to a more modern website like The Center for Motivation and Change. I would happily recommend this site to our families if you would consider this in your future posts. Thank you for caring about families the isn’t much support for us in the UK, like you, we are doing our bit the best we can and learning all the time.

    1. Thanks to David for raising an interesting, and important, question. Firstly, can I say that I assume that his objection is to our use of the term “alcoholic”, as we have never used the term “Druggie”, neither do we use racist language and /or derogatory terms for mental illness. We just want to clarify that point, in case anyone is confused.

      When we created Bottled Up (over 12 years ago now) we decided to take a pragmatic approach to helping people. We are not a campaigning website and, being independent, we are free to make decisions based on what actually works rather than this year’s fashion. We know that many people, particularly in recovery, label themselves as alcoholics and, if that works for them then that’s ok by us. We are certainly not going to disabuse them of that label.

      The term alcoholic is not one that we find particularly useful, not because of any reasons of political correctness, but for the lack of precision when it comes to definition. Indeed, if you look at this article which we posted a couple of weeks back, we discuss this very issue.

      Our main reason we use the term is so that people can find the help that they need. As we know people use search engines (mainly Google) to find, well anything, including information, help and support for any issues they are facing. When we started up, we used terms such as alcohol dependent and problem drinker on the website. Unfortunately, very few people found us. So, we decided to help people by using the terminology that they actually use, rather than terms we would like them to use. To illustrate this point, here are some data of the monthly searches Google for three terms.
      Alcohol dependent 90
      Problem drinker 260
      Alcoholic 40,500
      We are not fans of the term alcoholic but to us the choice is obvious, we can either have an unPC website that people can find and get the help and support to change their lives, or we can have a PC one which nobody can find. What do you think? Leave us a comment below.

      1. A great response, John – I agree with you entirely. A word is just a word, and if people find it non-PC, too bad. “Alcoholic” is the widely-accepted word to describe someone who suffers from out-of-control drinking. Since, as I understand it, there are several types of out-of-control drinking, it makes sense to have a blanket word to describe the person suffering from any one of them. There is too much PC-ness these days. Why not just say it how it is? All the PC words in the world still come down to the same thing – they have a drink problem that needs to be addressed. Pussy-footing around is not going to change that. Words come and go in fashion, and today’s PC word will probably be non-PC before too long. If the word “Alcoholic” helps people access your website and thereby benefits people with a drink problem and their friends and family in being able to access it, then where is the harm? People are too ready to criticize these days. It is wonderful what you do, John and Lou. As the ex-girlfriend, but currently still long-suffering friend of a heavy drinker, I have found your wisdom very helpful. As you say, I love this man, I keep on keeping on hanging in there with love and support, in the hope that one day he will see the light. He has now also got cancer, and no real friends who care whether he lives or dies, so contrary to what most people would advise, I am still there for him, in spite of all the abuse he has hurled at me over the years. I also volunteer on a drug and alcohol helplline, as you may remember, John, so my experience in dealing with him and understanding the problem has not been wasted. I can reach out and help many, many more as a result. Keep up the good work. Love to you both, Lorna (All You Need is Love!!) xx

    2. This is my thinking on this….I have been enabling my husband for 33 years, allowing him to be drunk and “enjoying himself” as he puts it, without realizing how it has affected our relationship. After all this time, I now realize that hubby has gotten used to me allowing it..a big mistake on my part; no wonder he won’t change or doesn’t think he has to. I have begged, pleaded, name it…he still says he will not stop drinking because he likes it and it makes him happy, SO, that makes him a alcoholic and he is getting that title because he deserves it. I am not backing down anymore or sugar coating his addiction. HE IS AN ALCOHOLIC, plain and simple. The blame is on him, not me. I have been supportive, caring, hard working, and reasonable, until May rolled around and he fell asleep behind the wheel, drove threw two front lawns, and somehow ended up back on the road after hitting a mailbox that went threw the hood of his car and broke off his outside mirror. Miraculously, me made it home, but had no memory of how he got here. He then claimed it was MY fault because I told him to stay at his hide out as long as he wanted and had he came home at usual time, this wouldn’t have happened. He is an alcoholic who thinks I am the one with the problem. Sorry, not backing down or calling his addiction a nice, sweet name.

  2. It is a bitter sweet feeling getting my life back, part of me feels guilty about it.
    But I have to, for me and my daughter.
    I don’t mind at all making plans and not including my husband ( who’s been drinking for almost 10 years now ). But then part of me feels really sad for him. If I listen to that part of me, I will go back to not having anything exciting to look forward to, a isolated life, lack of energy and depression.
    It took me a lot of work on myself to learn how to detach, I think I improved and I am starting to feel a little bit of happiness again once in awhile.
    I have an 11 year old daughter who needs help. She won’t go to Al – Ateen meetings so I am looking for family counseling that specifically deal with addiction problems.
    I am hoping to find the right help for me and her.

    Thank you for all your wonderful work, please know it is helpful and precious to me.


    1. Hi Nicoletta,
      I am so sorry for your situation. If John and Lou do not mind, you could contact the organisation that I volunteer with. Surrey Drug and Alcohol Care. (SDAC) We have specially trained counsellors, who will give you advice and support for your specific situation. Although based in Surrey, we take calls from elsewhere. It is a 24-7 helpline, and the volunteers have all been trained and have their own experience of one sort or another related to alcohol and drugs. We are here for you for just a chat, if that is helpful, 24-7, and we can put you forward for counselling, if you feel that would be beneficial. Keep strong and take care of yourself. Lorna

      1. Hi agan John. When I was training with SDAC, one of the trainers said we would get the calls that are appropriate to us. (Synchronisity?). Although I was skeptical when he said it, I have found that to be the case. Is this another one? Lorna

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