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Does Your Partner Have a Drinking Problem?

Does Your Partner Have a Drinking Problem?
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By Nina Malkin

A widower, Pete Brown didn’t expect to find love again, but Jenny bowled him over with her lively charm and bright smile. Early in their relationship, Jenny told Pete that alcohol didn’t agree with her, so after they married, Pete was confused when he smelled liquor on her breath.  He’d ask if she’d been drinking and she’d always say no, remembers Pete, 58. Soon, though, Jenny began imbibing openly. At first it was fun; then everything changed. Our world was turned upside down by booze.

Jenny became increasingly irritable and belligerent. Then came the night she totally lost it. She just went nuts, Pete says. Yelling, breaking things, attacking me. I was shocked and very scared. Once she sobered up, Jenny apologized, professed her love for Pete and promised nothing like that would ever happen again.

Until the next time. And the next. And so it went over the course of the Browns eight-year marriage.

Partners in Problems

Alcoholics rarely suffer alone. Consider these findings from the 10th Triennial Member Survey conducted by Al-Anon (, a support organization for the loved ones of problem drinkers: Fifty percent of Al-Anon members have feared for their physical safety in the presence of a problem drinker; and 59 percent have experienced abuse from the problem drinker in their lives. Intimate partners age 50 and up may endure the brunt of a second hand drinking. The average age of Al-Anon members is 57, and 84 percent are in a romantic relationship with a problem drinker.

Yet it can be difficult for those 50-plus to even realize that their partner abuses booze. Excessive alcohol consumption is often characterized as a younger behavior explains marriage and family therapist Denee Jordan, Psy.D., founder of Already Well ( Often, excessive drinking among mature adults is associated with depression, which in turn can be related to illness, loneliness, grief, regret and feeling no longer valuable. No wonder the mate of such a person would be unsure of what, exactly, he or she is observing. After all, memory loss, balance issues and sudden angry outbursts can be signs of other age-related disorders. A partner may be reluctant to question a spouse or significant other for fear of setting them off, and this creates tremendous tension in the relationship, says Jordan.

Alcoholism is a progressive illness, adds Heather Nolan, LMSW, a counselor at Dallas-based drug and alcohol treatment center Caron Texas ( The progression can be quick or happen slowly; some people can drink for years before serious problems occur. Whats more, alcoholics over 50 can be adept at hiding their disease, appearing to function normally and fooling loved ones.

So how can you tell? You can read further about specific signs here, but know that it basically boils down to this: If your partner seems miserable without a drink and out of control when drinking, the situation is serious, possibly life-threatening.

Help for Both Halves

It took Gail Johnson quite a while to accept that Tom, her husband of twenty years, was an alcoholic. He always drank, so did I, but about four years ago it started getting out of hand. He’d have a drink the second he returned home from work and wouldn’t stop till he passed out, then wouldn’t remember what happened the next day, says Gail, 56. Rather than confront him I’d watch him like a hawk to make sure he wouldn’t make a fool of himself. I would cover for him at work and with family. But mostly I lied to myself, telling myself everything was okay.

Gail would cancel plans with friends at the last minute if Tom was slurring his speech and unable to walk straight. This caused profound feelings of isolation and, ultimately, led her to resent him. Though she never felt physically unsafe around him, she lived in fear that he would get a DUI, leading him to lose his job, suffer legal consequences or worst of all accidentally hurt himself or others. So it was almost a blessing when the Johnsons family doctor detected the early signs of liver disease in Tom.

Which should have come as no surprise, since alcoholic drinking is a lot harder on the body after age 50. In addition to liver disease, it can lead to or exacerbate such age-related medical conditions as diabetes, high blood pressure, congestive heart disease and osteoporosis. Alcohol can also interact negatively with many drugs, including aspirin, acetaminophen, allergy and heart medications.

Fortunately for the Johnsons, Tom’s diagnosis served as a wakeup call. Both partners entered treatment, Tom undergoing 30-day in-patient detox and Gail taking a week long out-patient course. It saved their marriage and then some. We want to be healthy together for the rest of our lives,Gail says. We work our program today and every day.

The outcome wasn’t as happy for Pete Brown, who was unable to convince his wife that she needed treatment. It was awful telling her we were over; I really did love her and think I still do, he says. Pete did seek help for himself, however through therapy, Al-Anon meetings and talking to trusted friends and he advises other partners of alcoholics to do the same. According to the Al-Anon survey, 94 percent of members report that their lives are very positively affected by membership. If your partner won’t get help, you have to take care of yourself, Pete says. You can’t expect other people to respect you more than you respect yourself. There comes a time to put yourself first.

* Names and some identifying details have been changed.

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