Q: How can you tell when a person is an alcoholic and not just a social drinker? My partner (he’s French) drinks at least one bottle of wine every night at dinner, and I know he drinks at lunch, too, though he usually eats with business associates. It really bothers me, especially now that the holidays are coming up, and I wonder if there are any statistics about how much wine or hard liquor consumption qualifies one as an alcoholic? I’m sure there is something wrong, but whenever I try to make him see that, he gets angry and accuses me of being a puritanical American who doesn’t understand French culture.
A: I hear your distress, and have the impression you are starting down the well-worn, totally frustrating path taken by people whose loved ones have drinking problems – namely, getting them to see the light and to change. One hallmark of the condition we call alcoholism is a real inability to see that there is a problem – in other words, denial is a sine qua non of the disease. So my suggestion to you is to forget about trying to prove anything to your partner and attend to yourself. Essentially, this means 1) informing yourself about alcoholism by reading – there is a tremendous amount of material available free to the public; and 2) attending Al-Anon meetings, in which the emphasis is on the family members of alcoholics and how they unwittingly help the alcoholic maintain his or her condition.
You do not seem sure that your partner is in fact an alcoholic; taking these steps will perhaps enable you to make the distinction, and will in any case give you pointers on how to protect yourself against the effects of heavy drinking. It isn’t the quantity of alcohol consumed that matters so much as the impact that the drinking has on all aspects of life: work effectiveness, relationships of all kinds, ability to take responsibility, capacity for enjoyment, sexual performance, health, etc. When the drinker begins to experience a breakdown in one or more of these areas, then — and only then — does he or she become open to the idea that something must be done. Until then, the best you can do is take care of yourself and protect your children, if you have any. (Al-Anon: 01.42.29.83.75)
Jill Bourdais is a psychotherapist practicing in Paris both privately and in a hospital setting. A specialist in couple/family problems, she also teaches PAIRS, a skills-building course in intimate relationships.