Reader Mailbag: How Can I Encourage my Spouse to Seek Treatment for...

Reader Mailbag: How Can I Encourage my Spouse to Seek Treatment for their Drug Addiction?


One of the most common questions that I receive here on Spiritual River is some variation of the following:

“How can I encourage my spouse to seek treatment for their drug or alcohol addiction?”

It is not an easy question to answer as their are a few different approaches that might be tried.

For example, there is the confrontational approach where you might confront the person and try to convince them directly that they need help. This is one of the older techniques and a lot of professionals do not think that it works very well. Of course that will vary on a case by case basis and for some people this is what they might need: For someone to get in their face and tell them that they need serious help. But I would not bet on it as being the best approach in most cases.

There is another approach that has been championed by the interventionist industry in which you confront the alcoholic in a more loving and caring manner. For example, a family might organize and intervention and everyone would tell the alcoholic how much they mean to them, how they are important, how they want to see them get help. So it is an attempt to take the confrontational approach and put a more loving spin on it, so to speak.

And finally there are some other approaches such as the CRAFT approach as outlined by Dr. Jeff Foote, which attempts to reinforce positive behaviors and also emphasizes the self care of the family members.

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So there are certainly different approaches available when it comes to this problem, but none of them are generally what people want to hear when they first start to investigate their options.

Usually what family members want to hear is that there is a magic wand that they can wave that will make someone want to instantly go to treatment and get help. And no such magic wand exists, unfortunately.

And yet there are still things that can be done.

Setting boundaries and limits with a spouse who is out of control

One of the key principles that everyone should learn in this situation is about setting boundaries.

This is not necessarily for the benefit of the alcoholic or addict in your life, it is for YOU.

We set boundaries in order to take care of ourselves. If those boundaries also help the alcoholic move closer to surrender, then so much the better. But the real point and the real motivation behind setting a boundary in your life is for the sake of self care.

You don’t save the passengers on a sinking ship first. No, you save yourself first. Then you can worry about helping others.

The same principle should apply to your life if you are dealing with a spouse who has an addiction. You are essentially on a sinking ship. Addiction destroys everything. So you need to save yourself first, and worry about saving your spouse second.

This runs contrary to the way that most of us think in such a situation. Because we almost always take the focus off of ourselves and look at the alcoholic and say “if they would just stop drinking so much then everything would be so much better!”

Well, reality doesn’t work that way. And we cannot just wish away someone else’s drinking.

And this is why you need to learn to set healthy boundaries.

Your boundaries state what you are willing to do and what you are willing to tolerate.

For example, if your spouse has gone to jail for drunk driving in the past, you might set a new boundary: “I will not bail you out of jail for drunk driving again.”

That is a boundary. You are setting that boundary to preserve your own sanity. You are not doing it to punish the person or to try to change their behavior. You are merely drawing a line in the sand so that you don’t go crazy.

When people talk about “detaching with love” they are talking about setting healthy boundaries.

If your spouse gets drunk and physically abuses you, for example, you should definitely be setting a boundary in that situation. A healthy boundary might be: “If you ever hit me I will leave and not come back.” Your boundary might be slightly different from that. But we all have to decide what behavior we will tolerate from the alcoholic in our lives.

At some point, every spouse of an alcoholic might have to face a decision. They might get to the point where they say “I love my spouse but they are not going to change for me, and I have to either accept them as they are now, or move on.” You should not waste the rest of your life living in misery with the hope that they will some day change. Because they might never change.

If you love an alcoholic and you are hoping that they quit drinking some day, you need to get real with the fact that they might never, ever stop drinking.

And therefore you have to do some serious soul searching, find some support (likely at Al-anon meetings), and be ready to set your own boundaries in relation to their drinking. Are you willing to live with your spouse if they never stop drinking and things slowly get progressively worse for the next few decades? Are you prepared to live with that? That is the kind of reality that you have to confront when you do this soul searching and start setting healthy boundaries. You have to decide what is best for your own health and your own peace of mind and then set your boundaries accordingly.

This is not an easy thing to do, which is why the spouse of an alcoholic or drug addict should definitely seek help and support.

Should you do a formal intervention?

I am not a big fan of the formal intervention but there are times when it can be appropriate.

As a recovering alcoholic who once had a formal intervention “sprung” on him, I would make the argument that no one is going to surrender and change their life based on a formal intervention. That said, there may be other benefits to doing one, even if they cannot produce sobriety directly in a person. Meaning that if I had never gone through the intervention that I went through, perhaps I would not have had the same journey that led to eventual sobriety (even though I did not stay sober after the intervention).

And it may be the case that a family member is so out of control that you feel like you have no options left other than to confront the person.

If they are in immediate danger of losing complete control or hurting themselves or others then a formal intervention is more appropriate. But I am not convinced that they can produce better results than alternative approaches. Some agree with this and others do not.

Getting support for yourself at Al-anon meetings

One of the most important things that you can do for yourself is to get to an Al-anon meeting.

Perhaps even more important is that you try to find a variety of Al-anon meetings and visit all of them.

Be honest, be open, and share your story. Listen to the advice that you are given and see what you can learn.

These are the people who are experts at dealing with addiction in family members. This is what the whole point of Al-anon is, to help and support you in what you are going through.

To not take advantage of this resource would be crazy in my opinion.

If you go to Al-anon they can also help you with setting healthy boundaries. This is important because we will often second guess ourselves when it comes to this. Many people feel like they are being mean if they are simply putting their foot down and no longer enabling someone. In order to find the strength to set healthy boundaries you will probably need help and support. You will need people who know your situation and who know your story and who can tell you that you are not crazy and that you are doing the right thing. Without this level of support you will waste all kinds of mental energy wondering if you are doing the right things or if you are just being mean or unreasonable.

Therefore I would urge you to go find an Al-anon meeting and find some support. This is really the number one tip that I can give you and therefore it is also the most important thing that you can do in order to encourage your spouse to get help.

Most spouse’s will not get help and go to treatment unless their enablers stop enabling them.

Therefore you will need to learn how to do that.

How to stop enabling

Setting healthy boundaries is another way of saying that you are no longer going to enable someone.

You don’t have to do anything direct in order to be an enabler. For example, you don’t have to go out and buy the booze and pour it down the throat of your spouse in order to be considered an enabler.

It can be much more subtle than that.

For example, say that your spouse has a job and pays most of the bills. They were drunk last night and they are so hung over this morning that they cannot even call in sick to work. They are at risk of losing their job. So you call in sick for them and manage to help them keep their job.

This is classic enabling. You are helping them to avoid the natural consequences of their drinking.

Had you not intervened, their drinking might very well have lost them their job.

And the point is just this: The alcoholic is not likely to quit drinking unless they have consequences.

Think about that for a second:

Why would someone make a really tough change in their life if there was no reason to do so?

Why would an alcoholic bother to quit drinking if they can keep their job while still getting drunk all the time?

Why would an alcoholic face their greatest fears and go to rehab when their spouse stands by their side no matter what?

These are the sort of questions that can reveal the true nature of change.

The alcoholic does not get sober in order to “be happier.”

No, the only get sober in order to avoid pain and misery. The alcoholic has to be really sick and tired of living in misery before they are willing to make drastic changes. And getting sober is a really, really drastic change. It is hard work for any alcoholic. And it is scary.

So no one wants to face that if they can avoid it. No alcoholic will take it up lightly. If they do decide to change, it is only after they have hit what they consider to be “rock bottom.”

Do they still have their job? Their car? Their spouse and family?

If so, then they may not be at their bottom yet. In fact, they may be a long way from hitting bottom.

The truth is that we never really know, and can never be sure of just how low that bottom might be.

Maybe they will hit their bottom tonight and check into rehab tomorrow.

Or maybe they will lose everything, hit the streets, beg for drinking money, and never decide to change.

We just never know. And so therefore you need to plan accordingly, based on the fact that you don’t get to choose.

You don’t get to decide when an alcoholic sobers up.

You don’t get to decide what their bottom is. Or when they will finally surrender and ask for help.

And so you need to live your life in such a way that you are happy and sane regardless of what they decide to do. Regardless of how long their alcoholic madness continues. You have to protect yourself first, your own sanity, your own happiness.

And you can do that without wishing for a miracle, without hoping against hope that they will someday wake up and get the help that they need.

The truly baffling thing is that when you make this leap of faith and detach, when you stop enabling them completely and become stronger and more independent, it often will force the alcoholic to realize just how serious the situation is. Sometimes this is the wake up call that they need. Sometimes this is how an alcoholic hits bottom–not when the spouse threatens to leave, but when they come home one day and the spouse is actually GONE. And suddenly they have hit their bottom and they realize that it is time to make a serious change.

But you can’t fake this, unfortunately. As the spouse, you can’t fool someone into thinking that this is your (false) intention. Instead, you have to actually set a boundary (maybe not this one I am outlining exactly, but some boundary nonetheless) and you have really stick to it.

You can’t make idle threats when dealing with an alcoholic. That will never work. Never make a threat that you don’t intend to carry out. Therefore, your “threats” are not really threats at all, they are real boundaries. You say what you mean. You draw a line in the sand, and if they cross that line, you do exactly what you told them you would do. Which may be leaving the relationship, it may be something else entirely.

But in order to stop enabling them you need to get really clear on what you will and will not do in order to help them.

Because most of the time when an alcoholic wants “help,” they are really just manipulating people.

Making an offer to get them the help that they need

You can still offer to help an alcoholic.

Here is what your offer should consist of:

Offer to get them to professional treatment. Offer to take them to rehab. Offer to get on the phone and call a rehab and get it lined up for them. Offer to drive them there.

And then, once you make these offers, you might let them know that you won’t do anything else in terms of “help.” This is another boundary. You will help get them to professional treatment, but you won’t help them with anything else.

Most alcoholics will have lots of excuses as to why they shouldn’t go to treatment. I had dozens of them myself. They were all complete crap though. In reality I was just afraid to get sober, to face life without the crutch of alcohol. And I was not willing to admit to this fear.

So you can ignore those excuses for now and just let the person know that your offer stands. If they come to you and want professional treatment, you will help them. Otherwise, don’t bother looking for any sort of help from you. That is a good position to take because it creates a healthy boundary.

Normally what an alcoholic will do is to try to manipulate people to get “help.” But in reality they are not really looking to get healthy or stop drinking, they are just trying to keep the cycle going in which they continue to self medicate. They might come to you and say that they want “help,” but unless they are talking about inpatient rehab, I would just ignore them and tell them your boundary again.

If you do this consistently and stop enabling the person then eventually they will hopefully reach a point of misery. This is the point where they are so sick and tired of it all that they just want it to stop. You cannot talk someone into this sort of surrender. They have to achieve this state of misery on their own. And you can only help them by not enabling them. When you enable them you rob them of this potential misery. You take away their natural consequences. And we don’t want to do that so eventually they will reach a point of true surrender and seek out the help that they need.

So that is my advice: Go to Al-anon meetings, learn how to set healthy boundaries, stop enabling the person, and make them a standing offer to get them professional treatment. Your first priority though should be self care, which feels counter-intuitive to most people.

Do you have a question for Spiritual River? Contact us and let us know your question and we will try to answer it in a future post.

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