Drinking is a large part of Australian culture, with alcohol playing a significant role in many social settings. With many people taking a casual approach to their relationship with alcohol, it’s common for individuals with a developing or existing dependence on alcohol to go undiagnosed, or be able to disguise this dependency from their friends and family.


It’s often the partner or spouse who is first to notice an unhealthy reliance on alcohol. This can raise feelings of fear or concern for the drinking habits of a loved one, which can have a negative impact on the relationship itself. The loved one may play down their relationship to alcohol, or the concerned partner may believe they’re overreacting, thereby minimising their natural response or the urge to support their loved one in seeking treatment.

However, if you believe your loved one may have a problem with drinking, ignoring it will ultimately only lead to further potential for pain and disruption. By addressing the issue directly with your loved one, you can work together in a united and respectful manner to find the external support needed in overcoming substance dependency.

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How to identify if a loved one has a drinking problem 

Drinking problems aren’t just about having one too many at a social event. While approximately 50% of marriages end in divorce, alcohol abuse has been found to lead to an increase in the divorce risk rate that’s nearly triple that of a marriage without alcohol abuse. Alcohol use can create problems in the family unit such as legal issues, financial distress, unemployment, and serious health issues. Daily exposure to a drinking spouse can trigger anxiety, stress, concern and depression for the sober partner. With so much on the line, identifying issues with alcohol is the first step towards healing and recovery.

There are a number of signs your loved one may have a drinking problem, these include:


    • An increase in drinking habits – if your partner starts to drink earlier in the day, or is drinking in a manner that results in drunkenness more than they used to, this may be a sign of growing alcohol dependency.
    • Avoidance of non-alcohol related activities – if your loved one is changing plans in order to dedicate more time to drinking, this is a sign of a drinking problem.
    • Using alcohol as their primary coping strategy – how does your partner relax? If it’s with a bottle of wine each evening or a six-pack, this may be a sign that their drinking habits are becoming unmanageable.
    • Dishonesty around alcohol – if your partner feels the need to lie about where, when and how much they’re drinking, or is hiding alcohol, this may highlight a sense that their relationship with it is no longer within their control.

    • A high tolerance for alcohol – a growing tolerance for high levels of consumption can signify a developing tolerance due to regular and excessive drinking.
    • Mood swings and irritability – as alcohol is a depressant, its ongoing use can lead to dramatic impacts on an individual’s mental and physical health. If you’re noticing increases in anger, depression, irritability, frustration or rage in your partner, the link back to their alcohol consumption is worth investigating.
    • Issues at work – High levels of drinking can have a negative impact on work performance and punctuality.
    • Isolation – if your partner has started to pull away from friends or family, this may be related to guilt or shame around their alcohol use and reliance. An increase in social isolation can point to an over-dependence on alcohol as a coping mechanism.
    • An inability to stop drinking – ultimately, if your partner is unable to stop drinking even when they intend to, this is a sign of alcoholism. Withdrawal symptoms, including headaches, anxiety and irritability can also signify a substance dependence issue.

Related: Rethink your Relationship with Alcohol


How to navigate substance abuse with your partner 

The thought of sitting down with someone we love and having a hard conversation probably isn’t at the top of each of our lists of things we enjoy. Confronting the issue at hand may feel overwhelming, but with some careful thought and preparation, you can find a way to talk to your partner in a loving and supportive manner, while acknowledging how important it is to seek help for sobriety.

Firstly, acknowledge that this is a courageous thing for you to do. It’s normal to feel nervous – that alone isn’t a reason to avoid the conversation. Spend some time preparing by understanding what alcohol abuse is. The Australian Alcohol and Drug Foundation notes that ‘alcohol is the most widely used psychoactive drug in Australia and one of the most harmful. Alcohol causes more chronic diseases and is linked to more deaths than any other illicit drug.’ Alcohol use disorder is a medical condition caused by a brain function disease, which requires medical and psychological treatments. Alcohol use disorder can range in severeness from mild to severe. It’s not uncommon for people to believe that any kind of substance addiction is always related to personal choice. In reality, addiction has been classed by the American Medical Association as a disease since 1987, with alcoholism itself classed as a disease since 1956. This understanding can help you to approach your partner with grace and patience, rather than shame and judgment. Like any other disease, expert help is needed in order to find a cure or to implement a management plan.

Choose the time and place when you bring this up with your loved one carefully. Look for a time where they’re in a good headspace, and not in the midst of a drinking session or a hangover. Prepare a couple of questions you can ask to open the conversation up, and let your loved one know that you’re there for them as they process and consider this. By remaining calm throughout the conversation, you can support its potential for a positive, future-focused outcome. You may find that this area requires multiple conversations before your loved one is open to exploring the many effective treatment options that exist. Be patient, and ask them to keep considering your concerns, leaving the door open for future conversations.

Related: Codependency & Substance Dependency


Believe in the future 

While it may feel impossible to see a future without alcohol in your loved one’s life, many people do find freedom and full recovery from alcoholism. Stay hopeful as you navigate with your partner, and make sure you’re looking after yourself in the process, seeking your own support from professionals as needed.

If you or a loved one are suffering from alcohol dependence, it may be time to take the next step. Reach out today and find out how The Banyans’ programs are individually tailored and designed for your circumstances and experience. Our offerings of day programs, online and residential options means more people than ever can get the tailored help and support they need.

This page was reviewed by Peter Hayton (BPsych (Hons), MEd), Clinical Director at The Banyans Healthcare Group.

To hear more from Peter Hayton on this topic: follow the link and watch the full video