Lisa's husband is back on the bottle again. Richard spends most of his off-duty hours drinking with other expatriates. His drinking habit often affects his work, and at home he can get quite abusive. Lisa has tried everything to help him and to encourage him to seek treatment. Last year Richard finally joined a program and stayed off the bottle for several months. However, eventually he went back to drinking again. Lisa feels disgusted and angry, unable to trust him anymore.
“I can't see myself spending the rest of my life trying to support him and to convince him to do something about his drinking problem,” Lisa says.
She has considered leaving him, but she feels torn because she still thinks of Richard as a good husband and father. She wants to change the situation, but she has no idea what to do.
Lisa is experiencing something quite common to families with an alcoholic member: that is, a relapse after a seemingly complete recovery.
Many families assume that once the alcoholic member gives up the bottle, everything will be all right, they'll once again be one big happy family. But one thing many families fail to recognise is that a loved one's drinking often serves as an outlet for some deeper issue. Drinking itself might be only a symptom of a personal or family problem that has been left unresolved. Once this symptom (drinking) is removed, the root problem, which led that person into drinking in the first place, may surface again and manifest itself in other ways. During the period he or she is off the bottle, the family probably will notice an increase in petty squabbles, disagreements over disciplining the children, changes in sexual patterns, and so on. Unless these conflicts are resolved, the now-sober alcoholic would go back to the bottle in order to avoid the agony. Instead of viewing the alcoholism as an individual problem, others in the household have to start looking at it as a family issue to see whether they also in some way contribute to its cause.
Treating the addiction is just one part of the cure. The real therapeutic work must involve much more than merely weaning the alcoholic of his habit. The whole family needs to be restructured, the role of each family member re-defined, and everyone together must work through the “family” problem which has existed all along.
Within a family, each member has a defined role which he/she is comfortable with. Families have built-in mechanisms which work to restore a sense of balance, or homeostasis, whenever it is disrupted.
Unfortunately, chronic alcohol abuse can represent a primary, yet unhealthy, component of a family's sense of balance. In Lisa's family they all have adapted to Richard's alcoholism and see the family pain to be a result of Richard's drinking problem. But once he gives up drinking, they are forced to readapt to the non-drinking Richard. The established patterns of behaviour within the family are thrown off balance. During his recovery, they may be confronted with the real problem within the family, which may be more difficult to solve. Inevitably, resistance arises, working against all the changes of a rehabilitating alcoholic, and possibly sabotaging his recovery.
Lisa, meanwhile, is a good example of a co-alcoholic. This is a family member who, in trying to help the alcoholic, unknowingly supports him in his habit. The co-alcoholic, for example, may help to maintain the alcoholic's drinking by nagging and belittling, then rescuing him. The non-drinking spouse may unconsciously encourage drinking in order to feel superior to or needed by the alcoholic. In Lisa's case, her support for Richard could be out of genuine good will and yet could be in some way taking away his responsibility. She may have gone so far as to cover for him by denying his drinking problem to outsiders. She inevitably became his rescuer. In order to help deal with the alcoholism, each family member also needs to examine his/her role as co-alcoholic and work through his/her own need of being the caretaker.
People living with alcoholics are encouraged to join Al-Anon, a support group for spouses and families of alcoholics, through which they will gain some support and learn how to live with their afflicted loved ones more effectively. A wife such as Lisa should also be concerned about the spouse's abusive behaviour while drunk, which could pose a danger to others in the household. In such cases, they should look out for women's shelters in case the need arises.
Simply leaving an alcoholic spouse after a relapse is not the best solution. The family needs outside help to uncover the problems that led to alcohol abuse. Then both must make choices: he, to stop his drinking habit for good, and she, which direction she really wants to go in the marriage.
Dr. Cathy Tsang-Feign is a Hong Kong-based psychologist and author of the book Keep Your Life, Family and Career Intact While Living Abroad. She is the former columnist for the South China Morning Post and American in Britain on topics of psychology and adjustment for expatriates and their families.