Recently many studies have emerged citing that Americans are drinking more than ever. Beer, wine, and spirits are becoming part of everyday home-life and not just for restaurants, weekends, or parties. Many people still maintain the image of an alcoholic as someone unable to function at work, or passed out on the couch, or in the street. Although those images are not wrong, they do not portray the most common alcoholic; men and women who hold jobs and raise families under the radar of family, friends, and colleagues. Many couples have made alcohol a significant part of their relationship. Cocktails after work, wine with dinner, beer at social and sporting events. And although for most medically healthy people, alcohol in moderation should not be an issue, over time quantity and frequency can increase, and mood and behavior are often affected.
Currently, the problematic use of alcohol is diagnosed as Alcohol Use Disorder. It encompasses the daily or regular use of alcohol, as well as the occasional drinker that gets drunk when they drink. There are several criteria cited for the purposes of identifying and diagnosing this disorder in the mental health field. The number of the criteria that are met indicates the severity of the disorder. However, even without a diagnosis many couples may recognize that they have fallen into a pattern of unhealthy drinking.
The glass of wine while eating dinner has become a bottle, or two. A beer or two has become a six pack or more. Having a drink will mean getting drunk. And although some people think they can drink more than others can without visibly displaying signs of impairment, their partner or friends may strongly feel otherwise.
Sloppy, angry, over-emotional, loud, aggressive, mean, and careless are ways that other people describe the negative effects of alcohol on their loved ones. It is very common that people who do have a problem with alcohol are the most defensive of their drinking behavior. Someone who may be experiencing an increase in their consumption due to a stressful life situation or trauma may quickly recognize that they are drinking more than they used to or are comfortable with. While other people who have more of an addictive relationship with alcohol will justify, diminish, or discount someone else’s observation, and will defend their drinking even to the point of relinquishing a relationship before addressing their own drinking. When couples are drinking together there is often the unspoken code of protecting their use of alcohol, and this denial further reinforces their behavior – “If I recognize that you have a problem then I have to acknowledge that I might also have a problem.”
Some important questions to consider is whether your ‘relationship’ with alcohol is problematic to the people who love you (or employ you)? Whether your personality changes in a way you don’t like when you see it in other people when you are sober? Are you finding more time for drinking than other healthier activities, such as working out, being intimate with your partner, spending time with your children? Does alcohol impair your judgment or has it resulted in legal problems, like a DUI offense? Some people recognize that they are getting drunk but are still in denial about whether it is a problem.
Even if you and your partner can justify the amount of alcohol you are consuming and are rationalizing with the “not hurting anyone’ defense, you should still be aware of the unhealthy aspects of excessive drinking. Try to remember that alcohol can negatively affect your health, from excessive weight gain, to undernourished weight loss, toxicity to your liver, strain on your heart, and accidental injury or death from falls. Although we know that we shouldn’t drink and drive, alcohol may distort the ability to make that decision. At home, people may not take into consideration the impact that drinking has on their children’s sense of safety and well-being.
Alcohol is a poor replacement for medication. Depression is exacerbated by alcohol, anxiety is increased by alcohol, and self-esteem is deflated with excessive use. Alcohol is not an antidote to social anxiety, or hyperactivity, or boredom. It is ironic how many people will refuse to take prescribed medication, but will drink in excess. Recognizing your own patterns of drinking and being honest with yourself and your partner is the first step toward improved physical and emotional health.
Leslie Fabian is a NYS licensed Individuals and Couples Psychotherapist with over 22 years of private practice. Leslie Fabian, MSW, LCSW, The Lighthouse Retreat and Wellness Center in Croton on Hudson, 24 East 12th St., New York, NY, [email protected], 917-620-0524.