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I Meant Well. Did My Words Make Him Start Drinking Again?

A recurrence never occurs for one reason alone. It’s rare that words of love are to blame. Yet as linsachacko31 recently discovered, even words meant to celebrate a Loved One’s accomplishments can be taken in a way we don’t intend. Laurie MacDougall reflects how easily this can happen, and some simple ways we can change our approach to those vital, if challenging, moments of connection.

During the New Year, my husband’s family gathered together and went around saying what we were grateful for. When it was my turn, I said I was grateful for my husband’s sobriety. Later on that evening, he made a comment saying, “That’s what you’re grateful for…of all things?”

I was confused that he was feeling some type of way and couldn’t understand why. It’s not like I told a secret. Everyone in his family knew about the drinking and was there to help and support him take the necessary steps. It was truly what I was grateful for, so him making that comment, I started to feel some type of way. The very next day, I could see signs of him that led me to believe he was drinking, and when I asked him he said he wasn’t. But then me being me, I went around the house and started looking and eventually found the bottle.

My question is: by me saying what I was grateful for, did I trigger my husband to start drinking again?


Hi linsachacko31,

Clearly your statement about being grateful for your husband’s abstinence from drinking was out of love and caring, and was intended to show how supportive you are of his efforts. Maybe it was also intended to be a reward for him, and you wanted him to understand how his abstinence had relieved you of the pressure and worry around his drinking.

You are so not alone in your confusion around his response. It can be a shock when the reaction to what we thought were kind words is one of sharp irritability from our Loved Ones (LOs). I have heard from many family members that a simple question of, “How are you today?” can result in their LO flying off the handle with retorts like, “Arghhh, leave me alone!” or “You always do that. Why do you have to be in my business all the time? You’re always trying to control me!”

What you mean is one thing. How they perceive it is what’s important.

But stepping back and taking a look at how heavily packed a question is can really shed some light on those sharp negative responses. “How are you today?” may seem an innocuous question on the surface but it often implies so much more, such as 1) your mood is going to determine how I am feeling today; if you feel good then I can relax and enjoy things; if you’re irritable then I have to be on guard and find ways to help you feel better; 2) I am going to wonder if you are having cravings or thinking about drinking/using again because I may need to be diligent in redirecting you away from those thoughts; 3) do I have to direct my attention to your issues and problems or can I work on my own stuff. And so on. Really, that question is often not as innocuous as it first appears.

How do our loving, well-meaning statements land? That’s what we have to try to imagine. Maybe your LO doesn’t want everyone to be focused solely on their struggles all the time. It must be quite a burden to be the one (or even to feel like the one) who determines how everyone’s day will go.

Let’s stick with that simple example a moment: “How are you today?” The speaker just wants to greet their LO in the morning and nothing more. But the reaction tells you how it’s being perceived. So in this case, the way to go is to switch it up, until you find something that meets with less resistance: “Good morning. I made some coffee. Would you like a cup?” or “Making pancakes, you want some?”

Neutral statements can be the easiest to accept

As you state, your husband is fully aware that his struggles with alcohol are out in the open for everyone to see. He has a lot on his plate. He is probably experiencing a lot of shame and embarrassment around his past behavior and inability to manage his drinking.

It sounds like he is in early recovery. He may feel like everyone is looking down on him because he is unable to manage his drinking. Or maybe he feels like he cannot connect as well with the group as he used to. Things have changed, and he may feel it’s because of some weakness on his part. On top of all that, he may be experiencing depression, anxiety, the fallout of broken relationships, and a whole host of other difficulties while he is trying to maintain his abstinence. That is a mountain of a task.

Keeping things neutral, especially when you two are with others, might result in a better response from him. Right now, because he is in early recovery, he may not feel like he is managing so well, and it may be difficult to accept any praise—or to accept that group focus on him. To be honest, no one wants to be talking about their struggles 24/7. What about keeping the focus on you a bit more? “I am grateful for being able to be here with everyone” or “I’m grateful to be having success at my job” or  “I’m thankful for my beautiful family.”

So were you the cause?

To answer your final question: Did your comment cause your husband to drink again? No, it did not. The struggles of life, and not yet having the coping skills to deal with his own difficult feelings, are what might result in a recurrence. They also might not. But a recurrence is an opportunity for both you and him to learn.

If there is a recurrence, there are ways to intervene early to mitigate a deep slide back. I know this is difficult, but trying not to go hunting for evidence is actually one of them. Being on the lookout is OK, but being frantic and returning to old habits can make the whole situation more daunting. If you see signs that he’s been drinking, observe the behavior and gently state the facts. It might sound something like this:  “Hey, I am concerned. I saw a whole bunch of bottles and smelled alcohol. I know you have been working hard and it is not easy. What’s going on? What changed?” Utilize open-ended questions: “If things stay on the same track, what do you think will happen?”  and/or “What are your thoughts on how to return to the good work you have already done?”

You’re finding your way too, and it’s good if he knows that

Also, consider talking to your husband about what happened at the New Year’s Eve gathering. What about apologizing and letting him know that you are still learning too? Let him know you may need his help in understanding, and that you are working on your end of things too. Let him know you will try to be more aware, but that both of you need to be forgiving of yourselves and each other.

As far as being hypervigilant for signs of a recurrence, there is help and support for that too. Again, you are so not alone: there are lots of families out there that will support you. Take advantage of the groups offered here on the Allies website (there are various groups every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings). Join us and get connected to others who truly understand and identify with your journey.

Wishing you both the very best.


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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"...)