The secret tragedy of THE ALCOHOLIC'S WIFE
Most of Canada's hundreds of thousands of problem drinkers are heads of families. Do their wives—while wanting to help— often unconsciously sabotage a cure?
Two heartbreaking interviews are vividly etched in my memory from the many days spent reporting the tragic story of the alcoholic and his marriage. One was with a beautiful sixteen-year-old girl with copper-colored hair and a soft voice. After brushing the tears away from her eyes, she pointed to her new brown dress and stylish matching shoes.
“See these?” she asked. "Dad bought them for me a few days ago. It was to apologize for the way he humiliated me in front of all my friends. He was dead drunk when he staggered into my party and shouted crude off-color jokes and tried to dance with the girls. I keep telling him I don’t want presents from him. The only thing I want is for him to quit drinking and stop beating mother and wrecking the furniture and always embarrassing us in front of the neighbors. It’s a terrible thing to say — but my own father doesn’t love me. If he did — how could he go on making me so unhappy?”
The second interview was with a thirty-four-yearold woman who might have been extremely attractive had her face not borne the marks of chronic fatigue and anxiety. She had three children: the husband had been drinking excessively for eight of the twelve years they had been married.
"It’s like tottering on the edge of a high precipice, day after day, year after year,” she said. “Who knows what a drunk is liable to do next? He can be so cruel — like last Christmas. He didn't show up from the office until the middle of Christmas day. He was
sloppy, drunk and broke.
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The secret tragedy of the alcoholic’s wife continued from page 18
When he couldn’t find a drink, he cursed at me, kicked over the tree and left the house, slamming the door behind him. The kids were crying their hearts out. So was I — inside. I said to myself, ‘Oh God! I can’t stand this any longer.’ ”
These two agonizing fragments of memory — one from a child, the other from a wife — underline the bitter life led by the families of problem drinkers. It is an existence compounded of bewilderment, humiliation, anxiety, economic and emotional insecurity and the ever-present prospect of disaster.
The plight of the problem drinker’s family may add up to the most underestimated social tragedy of our times. Five in every six of Canada’s estimated 200,000-250,000 alcoholics are men, and most of them are heads of families. As in the case of the undetermined number of excessive drinkers who may or may not become alcoholics, each of them disrupts the lives of four or five people — wives, children or other close relatives. Thus, the secondary victims of intemperate drinking may include as many as two million people. The magnitude of this problem is suggested by the results of a recent poll taken by the Canadian Institute of Public Opinion. When asked, “Has alcohol ever been a cause of trouble in your home?” one in twelve Canadians replied in the affirmative. But the sad and unhappy story of this vast army of people has never been fully told because the alcoholic’s family, stung by shame, usually prefers to suffer in silence.
When I was gathering material about the situation, I learned from family service agencies in the ten provinces that a large proportion of the cases they handle arise from alcoholism, excessive drinking and problem drinking — three terms that, technically, have different shades of meaning but which, for the rest of this article. I’ll use as though they were interchangeable.
The Saskatoon Family Welfare Association reported that heavy drinking was, in part, responsible for “ninety percent of our family problems.” The Calgary Catholic Family Service Agency said that alcohol was a factor “in thirty percent of our cases,” and suggested that “this is well below the national average because / we have an alcoholism agency to refer cases to, rather than handle them ourselves.” According to the Victoria Family and Children's Service, "one in four families shows symptoms of excessive drinking . . . Things will get worse in the future before they get better.” The Montreal Society for the Protection of Women and Children estimated that alcohol figured in half of their problem families, while another large family agency in the same city estimated thirty percent.
Yet even these estimates do not reveal the true enormity of the problem. “People from middle and upper income brackets tend to avoid social agencies. They’ll drink excessively for years, at the same time maintaining a respectable front,” says Dr. J. D. Armstrong, medical director, Alcoholism Research Foundation, Toronto. Nearly everybody helps the alcoholic conceal his drinking. Rather than expose their husbands, wives will go on, year after year, tolerating abuses and beatings and hiding the situation from relatives, neighbors and employers. "They come to us only as a last resort,” says the Edmonton Family Service Bureau. Children tend to be silent about their fathers’ drinking. “They're deeply
ashamed,” says John Tapp of the Big Brothers Association, Toronto. "Besides, they desperately want to see their father (or mother, if she's the drinker) as a good person.” Even employers sometimes enter this conspiracy of concealment. A wife may phone her husband’s office or plant regularly each Monday and explain that he's in bed with "another asthma
attack." In many cases, the foreman, supervisor or manager is probably aware that the man is recovering from a weekend spree but wont penalize him. “They’re often amazingly tolerant," says Margaret Cork, chief psychiatric social worker of the Alcoholism Research Foundation. “They know the man's family will suffer if he's fired."
While concealment delays embarrassment, it condemns the alcoholic’s family to a life that is usually degrading and mentally and physically injurious. A Montreal family, with six children under the age of ten, were evicted from their home for non-payment of rent three times in less than a year. The father, customarily, gambled after he had been drinking. “1 do it to raise money for my kids,” he explained to a social worker.
But the most serious effects on the children are psychological. An eightyear-old Toronto boy, removed to a
foster home after a severe beating from a drunken father, would go into hysterics at the sight of his foster mother pouring ginger ale into a glass. Discussing the eight children of an alcoholic, the Regina Family Service Bureau reports. "They can’t seem to make friends with other children. They’ve been involved in rowdiness. theft and sex delinquency.” The early years of turmoil in the home as well as the absence of a satisfactory father to serve as a model figure, leads many children of alcoholics into disastrous marriages. The girls, anxious to escape from home, rush into marriage with men who are often weak and inadequate, "so he won’t push me around like my father." The boys, who growup clinging to their mothers, tend to marry dominating w'omen.
The final tragedy of the alcoholics’ children is that a high proportion of them turn out to be excessive drinkers themselves. Social agencies and alcoholic clinics have discovered that as many as forty or fifty percent of their problem drinkers had one or two parents who had a troubled history with alcohol. Dr. J. D. Armstrong of the Alcoholism Research Foundation, says. "The son of the alcoholic tends to become an alcoholic, the daughter of the alcoholic to marry one.”
Can the alcoholic’s family expect greater understanding of their problem in the future? There are at least three promising developments. The first is the creation of two new types of organization, based philosophically on the famous “Twelve Steps” of Alcoholics Anonymous: Al-Anon is for the wives of alcoholics, while Alateens is for their teenage children. Second, social agencies are gaining more skill in helping the drinkers’ wives (or husbands) and children to live with their situation. Besides offering individual counseling to wives, clinics such as Toronto’s Brookside Clinic (operated by the Alcoholism Research Foundation), conduct group discussions. Third, social scientists are taking a new and searching look at the problem drinker as a family man. To what extent is marriage responsible for his drinking? Does a certain type of woman deliberately marry an alcoholic because of a deeply ingrained “need to suffer"? Does this need eventually lead her to sabotage her husband’s efforts to stop drinking? How can the alcoholic's wife help her children to grow up as normally as possible in an abnormal atmosphere?
I he investigators have started their enquiry by examining, in detail, the reasons why the alcoholic groom and his "normar’ bride chose each other. Most people marry because they feel a need for companionship, love, sex, a home and children. They are also guided and inlluenced by needs they are unaware of — "unconscious needs.’’ "When these needs are positive and mature, the marriage is happy and satisfying," says Thelma Whalen, of the Texas Family Service. "When the needs are negative and immature, the marriage is a vehicle for unhappiness." Many investigators, such as Drs. Samuel Ci. Bullock and Fmily Mudd, of the University of Pennsylvania, have reached the conclusion that the needs of the alcoholic and his bride are usually negative and immature. The partners.” they say, "present a picture of difficult family backgrounds and emotional problems."
What is the nature of these “difficult family backgrounds?” Dr. Joan Jackson, a former McGill University sociologist now at the University of Washington, Seattle, notes that "the alcoholic is most likely to be the youngest or only child . . . he’s been the spoiled favorite and his childhood has been prolonged. He's had
affectionate nicknames such as Baby, Angel or Junior.” Dr. I,. Navatril, director of a large Austrian alcoholic clinic, observes that as the result of being his mother’s favorite boy, in future life "the alcoholic is filled with a deep longing for motherly love and care. Therefore, he often chooses a wife who is domineering hut motherly.”
As for the brides, the Neighborhood Workers Association of Toronto told me. “Most of them seem to have some psychological disturbance which led to the marriage in the first place.” According to the Halifax Family Service Bureau, The wives seem to gain satisfaction from their plight.” Margaret Lewis, of the Cleveland Family Service, states flatly: "The personality patterns shown by the wife are almost as familiar as the patterns of the alcoholic. She’s sexually immature and suffered emotional deprivation in childhood." Social workers and psychiatrists arc no longer surprised to meet women who have married two or three times, each time to an alcoholic. "It’s startling how often it happens,” says
Margaret Cork of the Alcoholism Research Foundation. Toronto.
After many years of observation in social agencies, Thelma Whalen, of the Family Service Agency. Dallas. Texas, recently set down a detailed account of the alcoholic’s wife. "The wife." she says, "is not an innocent bystander in the sordid sequence of marital misery. She’s an active participant and creator of problems which ensue." All the wives of problem drinkers, according to Miss Whalen, can be divided into four main types. The Süßerer: "She’s the picture of uncomplaining endurance . . . she chose the alcoholic so that she can always be miserable." The Controller: "She has to feel stronger than the man . . . she could just as well have married a cripple or a person socially or educationally her inferior . . . A more adequate man would be too threatening." The Waverer: "As long as the man can’t get along without her, she feels secure. She chose a weak husband who was unlikely to leave her. Drinking increases her husband’s need for her. Only when the drinking goes too far does she balk. But his pleas make her return.” The Punisher: "She’s like a boa constrictor with a rabbit. She doesn’t ask much of her husband — only that he stay swallowed. He can have everything except his manhood . . . She's aggressive, sees men as rivals ... is often a club or career woman. When her husband doesn’t need her, she punishes him . . . Since drinking is the only way he can assert himself, she’s never free from underlying feelings of being angry."
Not all authorities agree that the wives of alcoholics can be assigned to a few personality types. “They represent a wide variety of people,” says Deryck
Thomson, executive director. Vancouver Family Service Agency, while Dr. Gordon Bell,, a Toronto authority on alcoholism, says several controlled studies must be made "before we proclaim that these women are nearly all alike.”
At any rate, it's been established that most husbands had started drinking — many of them heavily—before marriage. "The majority of women knew they were marrying a drinker or a person who was insecure." says Margaret Cork. "Very few' of them were surprised by future developments.” During the courting period some drinkers have the discretion to abstain or drink moderately when out on dates. Friends may keep the girl in the dark about the man’s addiction because they are hoping that “marriage might straighten Bill out." However, even if the girl is aware of her suitor’s excessive drinking, she may minimize it or be confident of coping with it later. "I felt sure that I could cure him if I loved him enough,” explained one girl. Another woman was put at ease after her suitor, who frequently got drunk at parties, promised he would go on the wagon. Some husbands actually stick to this familiar promise. More often, if the man is a true alcoholic, he will begin drinking again.
Is the marriage itself responsible for this kind of post-nuptial backsliding? Many alcoholics insist, self-righteously, that "You can blame it all on my wife. She’s always nagging. Her attitudes are all wrong and she doesn't understand me." While a disagreeable wife can spark a drinking bout, she is seldom the only cause. If the husband happens to possess what has come to be known as “an alcoholic personality" — an undefined term which connotes feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, pent-up hostility and sexual selfdoubts—then various stresses and strains present in everyday living can lead to heavy drinking. He may resort to alcohol, for example, when his job is giving him a tough time. The birth of another child in the family may trigger him off. This means added inconveniences and, perhaps more important, less attention from his wife. "Love and affection are more important to the alcoholic than to most other people," says Margaret Cork.
Again, the alcoholic may be disappointed from the very beginning of his marriage because his voracious appetite for affection is not being met by his wife. He feels angry and hurt. (His wife may be feeling the same way and for the same reasons.) "He has a burning desire for vengeance,” says Margaret Lewis, of Cleveland. At the same time, dominated by his wife, he doesn't dare voice his resentment. After several drinks, however, the necessary courage comes to him. Thus, one woman complained, "He's a perfect gentleman when sober and a terrible devil when drunk. The last time he called me 'a fat pig' and told me 'go and shoot yourself.' He shouted at me that my breast operation was not a success and that I was going to die of cancer."
Ihe alcoholic who is concerned with love and affection is probably also concerned about his own sexual adjustment. After compiling psychiatric histories of eighty alcoholics. Dr. Jacob Levine, of Yale University, concluded that most alcoholics have a homosexual problem and that alcohol is one way of dealing with this problem. Levine noted that seventy percent of his patients were disinterested in heterosexual intercourse. Typical comments were: "Whenever I feel like that sort of stuff. I'd much rather go some place and get drunk." ... "I always think of women as mothers." . . . “$ex is a pretty minor matter with me;
I can get along without it all together.” One man was impotent, except with prostitutes. According to Dr. J. D. Armstrong, of the ARF, "The alcoholic, in many cases, is sexually inadequate. Drinking either helps him forget, or bolsters him to face his sexual role.”
Using alcohol to achieve the latter goal is not without hazards. “High doses of a nerve depressant like alcohol are not conducive to a satisfactory sexual performance," says Dr. Gordon Bell. Furthermore, while intoxicated, the advances of the alcoholic may be so crude that his wife recoils from him in horror and revulsion. Some women refuse their husbands, not because of distaste, but because they’re using sex as a weapon in the total war to get him to stop drinking. In either case, the results of sexual rejection produce a devastating effect. The man is less certain of himself than ever. He reacts by accusing his wife of giving her affection to others. One man charged his spouse with consorting with the milkman and the baker as well as his own brother. Some women, who are sexually indifferent, exploit the husband’s drinking as a reason for abstinence. “It’s easy to put the blame on the man and say that he has no appeal when he’s drunk,” says Margaret Lewis, of Cleveland.
“I tried drinking with him”
But, after five or ten years of marriage to a drinking husband, the woman has many other things to worry about besides her sex life. If he goes to work regularly, walking straight, and is not too noisy so that the neighbors can’t hear him, he appears — viewed from the outside, at least — to be normal. Yet he is now a confirmed alcoholic. Some women encourage their husbands to drink at home rather than stagger around strange taverns. “Family life is completely destroyed,” says Dr. Gordon Bell. “Friends don’t drop over because they don’t want to embarrass the family; the wife doesn't go out because she’s ashamed, broke and afraid to trust her husband with the children." One woman told me, “It’s like resigning from the human race."
The wife often tries everything to get her husband to quit drinking. One woman recalled, "I kept liquor out of the house so Tom wouldn't be tempted; then I kept a plentiful supply on hand to show that I trusted him. I used to search for his supply and pour it down the drain when 1 found it. At times, I drank with him. For about two weeks I used to call for him at the office and escort him home. I’ve pleaded with him, begged him, bawled him out and threatened to leave. Nothing worked.”
Why doesn't the alcoholic’s wife leave him? It’s easier said than done if a woman has children. Moving and setting up a new home requires money and the alcoholic's wife is generally without funds. Furthermore, it would be difficult for a woman in her late thirties or early forties
— the usual age of the alcoholic’s wife
— to obtain a job which would pay her enough to live on. So. although unhappy in her situation, she generally sticks it out.
As the husband's drinking gets worse, so do relationships within the family. The mother feels that she’s been a failure on many counts. She hasn't been able to help her husband. Furthermore, her husband's taunts that she's “frigid" because she rejects him make her wonder about her adequacy as a woman. At times, she loses her temper and curses at her husband and even uses violence against him. "Later." says Dr. Joan Jackson, "she's ashamed of it because it’s unwomanly.”
Most of all, she worries about what effect this harrowing home atmosphere is having on her children. When they were very young, she told her children that Daddy's strange behavior at times was caused by “painful headaches.” Now they know he hasn’t got a headache — he's drunk. They no longer respect or love their own father and she feels that she’s at least partly responsible for it. Recalling the days when her husband drank, one woman writes: “I enlisted the aid of my children in the war against their father. They sympathized with me and defended me in every argument. They joined in every stratagem to prevent him drinking. Whenever they expressed any love for him, I denounced them. They developed a feeling for their father far worse than hate. They developed a patronizing pity for him. I regarded him as a combination of clown and idiot and, unwittingly, encouraged them to feel the same way.” With the passage of time, in many homes the father is completely eased out of the family picture. Even the youngest children disobey and disregard him. To support the family, the wife may have to go out to work. In every sense, she becomes the mother and father of her family.
By now, the wife has cast discretion to the winds and she freely discusses her problem with relatives and friends. “The advice they give her is confusing and conflicting,” says Margaret Cork. “It often deters her from getting qualified help.” Relatives of the husband sometimes support him and urge her to “be a good wife and put up with it.” Her own friends tend to condemn her husband and urge her to leave him or haul him into court. Both these suggestions may be ill advised, from the point of view of helping the husband. Furthermore, they exclude the possibility of exploring more constructive approaches.
One constructive approach is to apply for counseling at a recognized clinic or social agency. Often, in the midst of a desperate crisis, the wife makes this move. It may mean the first step on the way to a new life. But just as likely she will abandon the agency after a few visits, feeling disappointed, threatened and even angry. The Windsor FamilyService Bureau explains: “The wife comes to us. hoping that we'll punish her husband and make him give up drinking. When she sees that our main aim is to help her understand herself and her husband and that she may have to change in some way, she balks.” The alcoholic's wife — perhaps even more than most other people — finds it hard and painful to look at herself frankly. She finds it even more difficult to change her attitudes or behavior. "Only about a third of the wives who come to us can use our help,” says the Halifax Family Bureau.
What is the nature of this help which the wives of the alcoholics find so threatening? No advice is given; no magic formulas are produced, guaranteed to change a heavy drinker into a teetotaler. In essence, the wife is helped to understand herself so that she may function more adequately as a woman, wife and mother. “If this can be done,” says Margaret Cork, “then everyone benefits —the woman herself, the alcoholic resisting treatment, the alcoholic taking treatment and, above all, the children in the family.” The alcoholic’s wife may achieve some self-understanding at an alcoholic clinic, a recognized social agency or perhaps at meetings of organizations for wives, such as Al-Anon. But whatever the source of help, there are certain things the wife must become aware of.
To start with, she must be convinced that her husband is not a wicked or weak
person, but a sick and unhappy one. The disease he's suffering from, alcoholism, won't yield to even the most persistent coaxing, nagging or belittling. On the contrary, heightened feelings of inferiority and guilt may send him rushing back to the bottle. Such is the disease that the husband won't give up drinking until, deep in his heart, he wants to. Until that time, there’s nothing the wife can do directly about her husband’s prinking problem.
But there’s an important way in which she can influence future events, indirectly. She can earnestly try to take an honest look at herself and ask. "Is there anything in my attitudes or behavior which makes it difficult for my husband to stop drinking?" After a period of selfexploration. many women are surprised to find that they have certain faults which aggravate their husband's drinking. At the Brookside Clinic, operated by the Alcoholism Research Foundation in Toronto, one woman discovered that she was a lazy and slovenly housekeeper. She would sleep late in the morning and let the family get its own breakfast; at night they’d return to a dirty house. It didn't bother her—but it was a constant aggravation to her husband. A second woman, after thirteen years of marriage, realized that she had consistently been bossing her husband around and nad refused to share their children with him. A third was able to admit to herself that she denied her husband her bed, not primarily because she objected to his drinking, but because of a distaste for sex. A fourth woman suddenly realized that hardly a day had passed, since her marriage, that she hadn’t criticized her husband about something.
A real cure brings new problems
In each of the cases cited above, when the woman altered her behavior, the home atmosphere improved tremendously. The husband usually expressed his appreciation. One man said, "I don t know how you’ve managed to change— but for God’s sake stay that way!” In this more relaxed environment, it’s possible for the wife to inform the husband, unemotionally, that she’s learning about alcoholism in order to understand him and help him. She does not suggest that “you must do something about your drinking.” That decision must come from him—an event which is now more likely. If he starts taking treatment at a clinic or goes to AA meetings, stays sober for two or three weeks and then goes on a binge, the wife mustn't berate him. This only deepens his feeling of guilt and suffering. It’s much more profitable to commend him for his effort and say, "Too bad—we'll have to try harder the next time.” At the same time, she should try to make the home as comfortable as possible and encourage him to take part in as many social and recreational activities as possible.
Since every marriage is different, every wife must learn, for herself, how to apply constructively what she has learned from her self-appraisal. The fact that it can be done is encouraging to people like Margaret Cork of the Brookside Clinic, who has counseled hundreds of wives, both on an individual and group basis. “New vistas have been opened up for those of us concerned with helping the wives of alcoholics,” she says.
Ironically, when the man quits drinking and becomes head of the family again, an entire new set of ticklish problems are created. The wife may now— consciously or unconsciously — try to woo him back to drink. This paradox
arises because she actually enjoyed her former role as a martyr or being abused or being the all-powerful leader of the family. “Many wives become anxious and depressed when their husbands remain sober.” says Dr. Gordon Bell. The Montreal Family Welfare Association describes one woman whose husband hadn't touched a drop for three months after being drunk for most of ten years. "She kept offering him a drink until he accepted. That was enough to start him off on a series of benders.” Social workers in a Maritimes family agency regarded one of their clients — an energetic small woman in her early forties—with mingled pity and admiration. Her alcoholic and unemployed husband would severely beat her, smash the furniture and incur debts. Despite this, she was able to keep her children and home in sparkling condition and go out to work besides. When her spouse reformed and went on the wagon, the woman became apathetic and listless. She abandoned her job and claimed that she hardly had enough energy to finish her housework. She also embarked on a campaign to sabotage her husband’s sobriety by daring him to resume drinking. One client frankly confessed to Margaret Cork that she wished her husband would drink again. "I feel upset, confused and useless,” she said. “Before—I used to be busy twenty-four hours a day. Now nobody needs me.”
The wife may be disturbed by the discovery that the man sitting quietly on the other side of the room is a complete stranger to her, despite fifteen years of marriage and five children. There had been no time to get to know him as a wife and companion. "Most of my time was spent acting as his nursemaid and mother,” explained one wife. Margaret Cork advises such couples, “Go back to courting each other.”
If the wife has a deeply felt need to dominate and control, she'll feel threatened in several ways by a sober husband. The father’s relationship to his children is a case in point. One such wife began to feel that the children were paying too much attention to their father and actually put roadblocks in their way. Once, when her husband wanted to lake their eight-year-old boy swimming, she forbade it. “Swimming-pool water will give him warts,” was the best excuse she could muster. If the father gave an order to one of the children that she disagreed with, she openly opposed him. “Who do you think you are?” she'd ask. “Fve been the one to look after them all these years.” Sometimes, the issue of domination hinges on the wife’s job. Should she—or should she not—give up the job she took to earn money while the husband was drinking? It’s a difficult decision for some women. Working gives them a feeling of importance and reassurance that they’re persons in their own right. “On the other hand,” says Dr. Gordon Bell, "it's a wise woman who makes it plain to her husband that she expects him to support her. I can't think of a better way a woman can show that she’s confident the man is going to remain sober.”
Perhaps the tremendous challenges that lie ahead for the wife as she faces marriage with a newly sober husband were best expressed by the Rev. P. B. O'Byrne, of the Calgary Family Service Bureau. "A tremendous change of life is necessary,” he says. "It is almost like a new family. Perhaps the marriage vows should be renewed in front of the family because a whole new set of disciplines, interests and spiritual values are necessary for the different members of the family to help them adjust to the new situation.” it