Marriage cannot be saved by negotiating with an alcoholic

And what do you do when your spouse is an active alcoholic, refuses to admit that she is alcoholic, goes to AA to please others but hates the meeting because all they talk about is God. Lost her job because of drinking and is getting unemployment and refuses to seriously look for employment, probably because she’s drunk. Her husband has stood by her, supported her and has not been drinking for three months in support, even though he is not an alcoholic.

Her husband gave her three choices: You are active in a program and sober, and you can stay living in our home. Or, you are not in a program (or rehab), and you may live in the guest room and pay rent, but basically we’re roommates. Or, continue to drink, and you find another place to live.

Any suggestions for the spouse? He loves her and wants her well but can no longer live in this alcoholic drama. — A.W., Las Vegas

This husband has delivered an ultimatum that, technically, is toothless. I’m saying the wife might accede to the ultimatum. Might even be helped to sobriety and health by it. I’m not saying the ultimatum was a bad or wrong idea. But, technically, he has no legal right to evict her from her own home. He may implore her to leave, yes. Even scream and stamp his foot and demand her exit. But, strictly speaking, being an alcoholic does not take away her rights as co-owner of the domicile.

If he wants her out, and she refuses to leave, his only choice is to file for legal separation or divorce and ask the courts to decide who lives in the house, or to order the property summarily sold and divided.

That said ...

Suggestions for the spouse? Intervening with people married to addicts/alcoholics means, for me, getting past “the fog.” That’s what I call it. I mean by “the fog” the maddening, crazy-making state of mind that addicts/alcoholics tend to provoke in us. You’ve heard, of course, about addicts/alcoholics being “in denial.” Well, those of us who love them tend, for a while, to be in a denial every bit as powerful. We find ourselves frozen. Dumbfounded. We sit, blinking, feeling slightly addled, our rational mind feels less like a Swiss watch and more like a wood-burning stove.

We keep doing the normal things that would grow intimacy with a normal person. But the things we do don’t grow intimacy because what’s going on isn’t normal! We’re talking to, or arguing with, or screaming bloody murder, at an insanity. A “disease.” Not a regular person.

We have to get past “the fog.” We must surrender radically to the truth. And here’s the immutable truth: A practicing addict/alcoholic cannot be present to a vital intimacy like marriage. Ever. It’s a contradiction in terms.

One way to get past “the fog” is with a metaphor. Ask yourself what you would do if your spouse had a lover across town. Would you tolerate it indefinitely? How about for a while? Or maybe you’d immediately deliver an ultimatum, along the lines of, “Immediately sever all contact with your lover, and turn your full attention to repairing the damage of your betrayal.” Or maybe you’re one of those people who would immediately end your marriage and move on, however heartbroken.

I’m asking, would you spend weeks and months pleading, arguing, hoping, monitoring your spouse’s whereabouts and behavior? Likely not, right?

So, here’s the punch line: Addiction/alcoholism is a kind of marital infidelity, every bit as much as consorting with a lover across town. Until your spouse “breaks it off” with the addiction, I promise he/she can’t be faithful and present to a marriage. I guarantee it.

It’s an awful moral dilemma. On the one hand is your love for your spouse. Then there is the weight of the marriage vows, the covenant you made perhaps before God to love and cherish until death do you part. And then there is the addiction, which for as long as it is active, renders irrelevant Nos. 1 and 2 above. Because no one can pull off a marriage by themselves.

How many chances do you give? How long do you wait before you deliver the gripping ultimatum, “Get sober, or I’m leaving you”?

Answer: It’s different for everyone. In some ways even arbitrary. You just pick a date on the calendar and do it. If you have an ounce of self-respect, you do it.

Because there is no negotiating with addiction/alcoholism. None. Ever.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns also appear in the Las Vegas Review-Journal on Sundays. Contact him at 702-227-4165 or