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“I Can’t Seem to Get Out of the Negative Talk”

couple tension woman's fists clenched

“It's so hard to have positive talk when I know my husband has been drinking. I can't seem to get out of the negative talk while he's drinking or when he's not (cause I know it won't last long). I have a wall up when it comes to trying to bridge us together. I feel that being nice will make it seem like it's ok for him to drink. I seem to be stuck. I guess I'm most concerned that I talk so negatively when I suspect he's drinking, even if he's not acting drunk.” — AiR member kpeters

Well, you’ve hit the nail right on the head. Getting a handle on how you react when your husband is or is not drinking is at the core of any relationship where someone has a drug or drinking problem.

I don’t need to tell you that your feelings about your husband’s drinking and your response are an accumulation of all that has gone on before, all the times you’ve been disappointed because you found him drinking, all the times he’s angered you. You’re going to be lightening quick in your reactions when you suspect he’s been drinking because knowing he’s been drinking again drags forward all the disappointment and anger of past episodes.

It’s unfortunate but completely understandable that your disappointment and anger continue even during those brief moments when your husband hasn’t been drinking. You’re deeply upset at him, at how your life is being affected. You’re upset by the broken promises and his inability to stop drinking. You don’t believe he can stop so why be nice in a moment when he is not drinking, after all it’s fleeting.

So then how do you slow down your mind and find a different way to react when your husband drinks again, because, let’s face it: it will happen again.  (By the way, moments when he’s not drinking will also happen again).

Let me interject here to say that there is every reason to believe that your husband can stop drinking and get his life back on track. You’re on this site because you’re looking for a better way to help him and to help yourself. What I write below is what has been shown to work best to help the both of you. You're going to focus on the part of the relationship that is under your control. By improving how you respond you can alter the course of your husband’s drinking going forward.

In this post, let’s address an episode when he has been drinking

(In the next post, we’ll talk about the difficulty of negative talk when he has not been drinking):

The first step is to build your awareness around the signs that he has been drinking.  To do this, answer the questions in Key Observation Exercise #4, part of Module 3 .

My guess is you know many of the signs of his drinking, but stepping back and looking at it with fresh eyes will buy you that fraction of a second to consider how you want to respond. Seeing your answers to the signs of his drinking in black and white will help crystalize what is happening. It will feel like time is slowing down during one of these episodes and you will be able to think, to think of a different response.

You’re not going to ask him whether he has been drinking.  Rather, you’re going to take the sum total of the signs and what your gut is telling you and you’re going to answer the question:

Has my husband been drinking or not? (Asking him will almost certainly trigger a bad conversation).

You won’t be 100% sure, but you need to decide given the evidence in front of you.  You need to have both feet in one camp or the other: is he drinking or not.  How you respond has to reflect a clear answer. If it’s anything in the middle, your actions and communication will likely be mixed and muddled.

There’s a reason that Module #4 on Communication starts with “stopping the negative talk.” It’s not surprising to be really upset. But what we say when we’re upset is often not great. Go down that list of negative talk in Key Observations Exercise #14 and choose the types of negative talk you use.  Again, this will build your awareness of your talk habits and buy you time to think of another way. Your aim here is to silence the negative talk. This isn’t easy at all. But even cutting back by just one comment is going to feel like a huge success.

I would guess you and your husband have been going through some version of this dance for a long time. He drinks, you plead, reason, threaten.  Guess what: your husband is secretly happy to hear you plead, reason, threaten. It signals to him that you still care and that nothing has changed, you’re still in his pocket.

Now imagine you say nothing, nothing more than: “I’m glad you’re home safe” or “Something is not right, I’m going to go out and visit my sister” or you simply walk into another room or you go for a walk.

Avoiding the negative talk is a huge shift.  Your husband will notice the change. He will wonder what’s afoot. Is my wife still in my pocket?

This is about doing what’s in your control to change the dynamic caused by alcohol abuse in your home. Changing the environment that surrounds your husband.  Leaving your husband alone with his thoughts, wondering what’s going on.

At this point, you’ve done 1 of the 3 critical actions we suggest when a loved one is using/drinking: you’ve disengaged yourself.  The second action: removing rewards follows from the first: you’ve left the scene, so you’re not going to go through the day with your husband like nothing is wrong. You’re not going to fix dinner, sit on the couch and watch TV together, or even fight.

The third action is allowing natural consequences when a loved one has been using/drinking. This means you’re not around; you don’t tell him it will get better when he’s sick with a hangover; you leave him sleeping on the floor; you let him oversleep, etc.

Letting Go of Negative Talk is First & Foremost For YOU

One final important point about negative talk: negative talk is also about how you feel when your talk is negative; how much more upset it makes you. The opposite is also true: adding in positive talk in those moments when your husband is not drinking, will make you feel better.

All of what I’ve described thus far surely makes a lot of sense but you may be quick to tell me it still feels impossible to do. That’s why in Module #7 we take apart hard feelings and thoughts to show you how our minds can function to pull us down, to make things look worse than they really are. What you tell yourself about your husband in those moments you suspect he’s been drinking may be adding to your disappointment or your anger (“He’s never going to stop,” or “He wouldn’t do this if he really cared for me”…). It’s worth looking at Module #7 to see if any of this is true for you.  

There’s nothing easy about what I describe, but it is possible and it works.  So, bite down hard on that lower lip when you see the situation unfolding, maybe he’s not drunk but you’re pretty sure he’s been drinking: don’t engage with him – have a plan for where to back out to: your sister’s, the garden, or even the bathroom.

It’s time to leave him isolated with his thoughts. It’s time to learn a new dance. 



In your comments, please show respect for each other and do not give advice. Please consider that your choice of words has the power to reduce stigma and change opinions (ie, "person struggling with substance use" vs. "addict", "use" vs. "abuse"...)

  1. Thank you for directing me to these other posts on positive talk when he’s not drinking. Rereading them is giving me increased confidence and peace.
    I think I’m starting to understand positive talk as I’ve been working on stopping negative talk. For me saying less is really helping, both negative and positive.

    These few sentences are so very clear. “Instead, I could calmly realize that if things are not adding up, something is wrong and I should remove myself from the chaos rather than being caught in it. I need to instead set consistent, firm, healthy boundaries and settle on the fact that if I am right, the truth will expose itself eventually.” The good progress will be exposed too. I can relax a bit in my own brain.

    He hasn’t been drinking recently. But I am finally releasing myself from “this is too ___ to be true” and the anxiety it was producing. Brief positive talk is really helping me and my husband. Thanking him for a kind word or a thoughtful action. And praising quietly his recovery. And not loading him with other things to figure out. He’s healing, but so am I. And both of us have only so much capacity right now. I’m glad to be spending it on what’s most important and just let all the other unsolved details wait in line for when they become as wish or a dip.

    Thank you.

  2. I really appreciate everything you have written here. It has totally hit home and helped me with what I’m going through. Your message coincides with what my therapist is working with me on.

    I feel that I am finally at a point (this week atleast) that I am not so negative when he is sober. I understand the importance of bridging our relationship as much as possible while he’s sober. I am relishing in those times and that is good. But, Its soooo hard not to be angry or not talk negatively WHILE he’s drunk. WHILE he’s not doing the things he said he would – like dishes, feeding cats, etc. , WHILE he’s being inconsistent and angry, raging, irrational, and overly excitable and goofy with the kids. I feel he won’t remember my anger WHILE he is drunk so why not express my feelings? And sometimes I have to step in because he’s being irrational with the kids (and sober he’s a great dad). Thank you for all you do AiR!