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How to talk to a partner about their drinking

‘Drinking is a problem for a person if it’s affecting the important people in their life’

My partner is drinking more, is that a problem?

Lockdown changed our alcohol consumption patterns. While overall we drank less, we drank more at home and drank more wine and spirits, according to Revenue figures.

“Drinking is a problem for a person if it’s affecting the important people in their life, or if it’s impacting their work, their health, their finances, their dreams or their goals,” says Gerry Cooney, senior addiction counsellor at the Rutland Centre

Where do I begin?

Highlight your concerns, and do it from a supportive place. “You could say, ‘I’m really uncomfortable about your drinking’, says Cooney. “Reflect back the consequences you are seeing. It’s reasonable to suggest the person is not spending enough time with the kids, or isn’t helping as much as you need them to.” Always focus on the effects, not the amount, he says.

“Saying to someone, ‘you’re always drinking’, only invites the response, ‘well, I’m not always drinking,’ ” says Cooney “It’s better to name times, incidents or family occasions when you felt their drinking was problematic.”

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You could ask them to cut back in the first instance. “Ask them, ‘would you try to keep it to a Friday or Saturday?’ Sometimes the person is happy enough to try to do that.”

What if they don’t want to know?

That’s common, says Cooney. Problem drinkers are astute at keeping people away from their drinking. “You could be fobbed off, told you are too sensitive, that you have a low tolerance, or that ‘all my friends are drinking the same’. People are very good at rationalising it and minimising it. These are all defences to keep you away from the problem.”

It might be time for an intervention. “Involve other family members, a friend, those the person is most likely to listen to,” says Cooney. “If you all share your concerns, and everyone is saying the same thing, it can be hard to ignore.”

What if things get worse?

They might. Sometimes a person is not satisfied with cutting back. “They may get irritable and moody . . . they might get more secretive about it or get very clever at hiding it, at getting away with it. But it’s impossible to hide it; no matter how clever or diligent you are because it’s a progressive problem. When someone is drinking problematically, typically it will accelerate and it will become an even bigger problem.”

What about rehab?

Rehab isn’t necessarily the first step. “If your partner is drinking destructively and still not acknowledging it, it is reasonable for you to say, ‘look I’m struggling with this, it’s not going away, we need to find a solution,’ ” says Cooney. That could mean seeing a therapist first, who may recommend one-to-one support, outpatient support or residential support.

“People do change their relationship with alcohol all the time, with a little bit of help. It’s very possible. People have choices. With the right support, people can change their relationship with alcohol very effectively.”

It’s a hard conversation

It is hard and it may take time for your words to resonate. “If you take it upon yourself to speak, it’s kind of your word against theirs. A lot of the time it doesn’t go anywhere. But we would encourage it. The intervention is always helpful because it typically brings the day forward when the person will go and get the help they need.”