Alcohol and Divorce

Ran across this interesting piece this morning promoting Al-Anon as an alternative to divorce for people married to alcoholics.

Is this news? Not really, but I tell you about it for two reasons: first, because I admire and respect the wonderful work Al-Anon does; second, because my anecdotal experience offers reason for caution. Let’s take them in order.

Al-Anon is a 12-step program just like Alcoholics Anonymous. Here’s what the article says about the strength of Al-Anon for family members of alcoholics: “[T]he people you will find in the Al-Anon meeting rooms understand, as perhaps few others can, exactly how you feel. They have been there too, but they have discovered that they can find contentment and even happiness, whether the alcohoic is still drinking or not.”

Al-Anon recommends that you attend at least six meetings before you decide whether Al-Anon is approprate for you. As the group says, “There are no dues and fees in Al-Anon and, as an old saying goes, -If after six meetings you decide that Al-Anon is not for you, we will gladly refund your misery.'”

Now the caution. Al-Anon really isn’t focused on stopping your spouse from drinking. It’s more about achieving happiness independent of the behavior of others. And that’s probably the right focus. At least in my anecdotal experience, getting your alcoholic spouse to leave the bottle alone is no panacea for your marriage. In fact, if anything, it’s the opposite.

I am intrigued at the number of divorces I see occurring soon after one of the spouses has stopped drinking. One of the spouses has been hanging on and putting up with that alcoholic for years. Finally, their husband or wife, for whatever reason, stops. Dry. Hallelujah, right? A new chance for this troubled marriage, right?

Maybe so, but a lot of them come see me, and it’s usually the non-drinking spouse who is the leaver. How come? Here are my guesses:

1. Now the non-drinking spouse knows the (formerly) drinking spouse will be able to make it, so there’s not quite so much guilt attached to leaving.

2. In their former drinking days, the non-drinking spouse could blame all things wrong on the drinking. And in a curious way, there was always hope that things would get better if the drinking stopped. Now the drinking has stopped, there’s little or no relationship, and now there’s no hope.

3. I don’t understand as much as I need to about co-dependency, but there’s no question that it’s real. Sometimes the non-drinking spouse in a twisted way needs the drinking spouse to keep hitting the bottle. There’s an emptiness that settles in when the drinking spouse stops, because the main role of the non-drinking spouse had been to manage his or her spouse’s drinking. Now what?

Does all this mean that if you’re an alcoholic or married to one that you should do nothing about it? Of course not. However, it may mean you address the problem with a little different perspective about what it might mean if you’re able to stop the drinking.

Your thoughts?