Alcohol: demonized by some, idolized by others. While the Bible does not strictly forbid the moderate use of alcoholic beverages, it does include ominous warnings about our propensity to be deceived by strong drink (Proverbs 20:1). Alcoholics have been deceived by the promises of alcohol and have become trapped inside the bottle. When an alcoholic is married, the whole family is also trapped in a web against their choice. Since the Bible does not include alcoholism as an acceptable reason for divorce, what should the spouse of an alcoholic do?
Someone married to an active alcoholic understands this proverb well:
“Who has anguish? Who has sorrow? Who is always fighting? Who is always complaining? Who has unnecessary bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes? It is the one who spends long hours in the taverns, trying out new drinks. Don’t gaze at the wine, seeing how red it is, how it sparkles in the cup, how smoothly it goes down. For in the end it bites like a poisonous snake; it stings like a viper” (Proverbs 23:29–32, NLT).
One problem is that spouses of alcoholics may have adopted some dysfunctional patterns of their own, contributing to the alcoholic’s ongoing addiction. In a sense, spouses are also codependent on the alcohol because it has become the third member of their union. Before a husband can help an addicted wife, he must get healthy himself, and the same is true for the wife of an addicted husband. The spouse may need to seek professional help to see the areas where he or she is enabling the alcoholism.
One trait that may hinder an alcoholic’s desire to break free is a spouse’s tolerance. Tolerating a deadly habit in one’s spouse is not exercising love. Real love seeks the best interest of another (1 Corinthians 13:4–8). It is not in a person’s best interest to be controlled by alcohol. Tolerance looks the other way when the spouse comes home drunk. Tolerance gets angry over repeated lies but does nothing about them. Tolerance may fight and scream over missing money, unexplained absences, or car wrecks but does not take action to remedy the situation. Tolerance of alcoholic behavior has the same effect as overt approval.
Sometimes sober spouses keep the alcoholic in bondage by minimizing consequences. Some people believe that minimizing the consequences of someone else’s sin is showing love. Bailing a spouse out of jail, calling a boss and lying about why the alcoholic is late, or covering up the drunken binges to save face are all ways a spouse might seek to minimize the consequences the alcoholic behavior has earned. But God uses consequences to teach us. When we take consequences away from someone who has earned them, we may be removing a tool God wants to use to teach them an important lesson. It is hard to watch someone we love suffer negative consequences, but it may be the most loving thing we can do.
When a Christian spouse is ready to change an unbearable situation, he or she must first seek wisdom from the Lord (James 1:5). Every home situation is different, so a spouse should seek godly counsel and the word of the Lord because it will take courage and support to follow through. Jesus wants His church to help bear each other’s burdens (Galatians 6:2). A sober spouse who is serious about making a change within the family will involve trustworthy counselors and seek pastoral guidance (John 10:10).
An important step is recognizing that this battle is not yours; it is the Lord’s (2 Chronicles 20:15). The alcoholic spouse is not the enemy. He or she is in bondage to the real enemy, Satan (Romans 6:16). Alcohol is merely the lure Satan uses to ensnare a careless person. As a fish bites at a fat worm dangling in the water, humans bite at the enticing promises Satan dangles before us. Neither realizes that enticement was not the real goal. The hook was the reason for the lure. When Satan can hook our minds by distorting them with drugs or alcohol, he can control our actions. Ephesians 6:18 warns us not to be drunk with wine but to be filled with the Holy Spirit. He must have control. Ephesians 6:12 reminds us that the battle is against the powers of darkness not the person controlled by them.
Setting healthy boundaries for the home comes next. A Christian spouse can let the alcoholic know he or she is loved but that the destructive behavior will no longer be tolerated. Ultimatums are difficult but are sometimes necessary to help the addicted spouse understand what is about to happen. The pending threat of losing what he or she loves may finally motivate an alcoholic to seek help. Boundaries are not selfish personal agendas. They are not nitpicky preferences. They are healthy, wise house rules that create an atmosphere of peace, love, and joy. For example, a Christian spouse can lovingly inform the family that, since drunkenness is a sin, no one will be drunk in the house (1 Corinthians 6:10). All members of the family should adhere to these rules, and if the alcoholic refuses, he or she is free to leave.
While divorce is a last resort, physical separation is not. First Corinthians 7:15 may apply in this situation. After instructing husbands and wives not to divorce, Paul wrote, “But if the husband or wife who isn’t a believer insists on leaving, let them go. In such cases, the believing husband or wife is no longer bound to the other, for God has called you to live in peace.” When a Christian spouse sets reasonable boundaries for the home that prohibit drunkenness, the alcoholic is free to leave if he or she will not adhere to those boundaries. If the situation becomes volatile, the sober spouse should not be afraid to call 9-1-1. Sometimes some time in jail shakes sense into a person.
If the alcoholic spouse stays in the home, he or she must get involved in a sobriety program such as AA or Celebrate Recovery. If possible, the sober spouse should also attend to support and encourage. Marriage counseling may also be helpful as the couple builds a future free from the effects of alcoholism. Both will need to change the destructive patterns that kept them in bondage. If the sober spouse was used to drinking in moderation, then it would be wise to eliminate all alcohol consumption from both their lives. First Corinthians 8:12–13 gives Christians a foundation for self-denial for the sake of others: “When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.”
There is no one-size-fits-all solution for families of alcoholics, so a spouse needs to stay in a spirit of prayer through the difficult decisions. The goal should be to create a godly atmosphere in the home. This applies to more than just alcohol. Our music, movies, magazines, and other forms of entertainment also contribute to a home’s atmosphere. We should walk through our homes, carefully considering areas we may have kept off-limits to God. If we create boundaries for the alcoholic, we need to also apply those boundaries to ourselves. Does the idea of Jesus showing up at your door produce panic or delight? The goal of Christian discipleship is to live every day in such a way that, if Jesus showed up unexpectedly, our first reaction would be to say, “I’m so glad you’re here! Come on in and stay a while!”