How to talk to a partner about their drinking

In the quest to help people quit or cut back on drinking, a lot of times people can forget that drinking affects other people beside the drinker.

The family members and partners of people in Alcoholics Anonymous can join Al-Anon, a companion organization for family members. But what do you do if you’re not yet at that point, and you want your partner to make changes for their health and your happiness?

Here are some tips for how to broach the topic without provoking a defensive response that makes things worse:

  1. Talk about how their drinking affects you, not how it affects them. This is important. How their drinking affects you is your feelings, so it can’t be denied or deflected. They can’t say “it isn’t so,” because you get to say whether something affects you or doesn’t. If you talk about how their drinking is hurting them, they can deny it.

  2. Invite them to do their own research on moderation limits, instead of telling them what they are. You can also invite them to check out online tests to determine if they have a drinking problem. The key is having them do their own research. If you try to inform them as to what the limits are, they might not believe you. They have to teach themselves. In the spirit of that, consider…

  3. Ask more questions, rather than making more statements. They need to reach their own conclusion about why their drinking might be problematic. Try to get them to talk about why they might want to quit, of their own volition. “What do you think? Is your drinking level normal?” “What do you think? Do you know how to have fun without drinking?”

  4. Make sure it’s clear you’re coming from a place of support, instead of making this into a threat. It might seem like a good idea to make it clear that if things don’t change, you’re outta there. But threats could just as easily lead someone to backslide into anxiety, depression, and of course further drinking. You need them to be receptive to what you’re saying, so make it clear you’re here for them no matter what, and your goal is to support them.

  5. After the conversation is over, don’t bail them out. If they stumble, and drink heavily one night, and come to you remorseful in the morning, this is not the time to reassure them they don’t have a problem. Revert to asking questions again. “What do you want to do about it?” If you reassure them in the moment, it will happen again.

  6. After the conversation is over, don’t nag. They have to make their own decision to quit or cut back on drinking. Nagging can really easily push them into defensiveness. They’ll want to justify their choices. This doesn’t mean you have to just put up with it. You can always have another conversation to talk about how their drinking is affecting you.

Finally, if a romantic partner is not responding to your concerns, over time this could be a reason to end a relationship. It’s not strictly speaking about the drinking, is it? It’s about failure to listen to how their behavior is affecting you, and make changes for your benefit.

If your partner has decided to quit or cut back on drinking, we definitely suggest they check out Drinker’s Helper! We help people quit or cut back on drinking with tracking, insights, exercises, and support groups.