As my sister-in-law’s ex-military husband sank into his confined world of alcoholism, she refused to shrink along with him. She was very clear she would not go through another divorce. Instead, she vigorously pursued her garden, bridge, and investment club activities. She maintained a strong bond with her middle-aged daughter and many friends…until cancer ended her life.
Her approach was not typical. To her credit, she chose to look after herself, rather than adjusting her behavior to keep the marriage in balance.
Generally, if one party to the marriage changes, the other adjusts to keep things in balance. If either of them refuses to adjust, the other one may readjust to regain balance. When both refuse to adjust, typically they eventually end the marriage, but they may just lead separate lives within the marriage framework.
Far more frequently as one partner to a marriage increasingly abuses alcohol, the other adjusts to keep the marriage in balance. And that is what happens to a couple when one becomes addicted to alcohol and the other becomes codependent.
I’ll use the example of the alcoholic male and co-dependent female. It could be the other way around of course. They both drank when they married, but when they started to have children she curtailed her drinking to just the occasional drink. Their children are now in their teens.
He gradually increased the frequency and amount of his alcohol consumption. Now he is never without a drink in his hand when he is at home after work, and he often gets drunk on weekends. He denies vehemently that he has a problem, arguing that he is functioning, that is, he works and continues to be their primary breadwinner. He insists that the few health problems he has have nothing to do with his drinking.
How does this play out?
- He gets grumpy when he drinks; she is extra careful of what she says when he’s drinking.
- He criticizes her for just about everything; she apologizes to keep the peace.
- He demands secrecy about what goes on at home; both she and the kids never tell their friends about his drinking. The kids never have friends over.
- Increasingly he demands exclusive attention from her; her friends have drifted away and her outside interests have dwindled to almost nothing.
- To his credit, he will not drink and drive; she takes full responsibility for errands, taking the kids to their events and picking them up.
- He often feels sick (hangover); she calls his employer to say he is too ill to work today.
- He denies he is an alcoholic; she denies her sense of hopelessness.
- He is addicted to alcohol; she is addicted to the care of an alcoholic.
- He sees himself as a victim of life; she sees herself as a victim of his alcoholism.
If either the alcohol abuse or the codependent is you, nothing will change because your marriage is well-balanced. Nothing will change, that is, unless one of you chooses to step out of your addiction and create a life for yourself…and then does it.
You may ask, “What will happen to my marriage?” In my case, when I overcame my alcohol addiction, my wife left me. There are no guarantees. But if you want a life, you’ll have to rock the boat. It starts with you.