Being clear with a reluctant alcoholic isn’t just a matter of knowing what we want to say. It’s more about knowing exactly what we hope to gain from an interaction, and moving steadily towards that goal.
Before you approach someone about their drinking, it helps to take three steps:
- Stop and think about what you want to accomplish.
- Make sure it’s something achievable.
- Avoid asking the alcoholic to do something you think he probably can’t.
Here’s Louise and her husband Bob, an alcoholic in his mid-sixties. His drinking problem is pretty well-established, to everyone but Bob. He’s promised to quit before, after serious incidents, but reneged each time. Her real goal is to get him professional help. She confronts him about his latest broken promise.
Louise: “You said you were going to quit drinking after New Year’s. “
Bob: “No I didn’t. I said I was going to quit drinking too much. And I did. “
Louise: “But you didn’t. “
Bob: “I disagree. I proved I can control it. “
Louise: “For a month or two, maybe. “
Bob: “Well, that counts, doesn’t it? “
Louise: “Just last weekend you came home from the VFW drunk. Drove home, even. “
Bob: “I was not drunk. I’d had a few. But I was perfectly safe to drive. “
Louise: “I didn’t think you were. “
Bob: “You think nobody should drink, ever. “
It’s a circular argument based on conflicting memories of what was said. No point to it, really. If Louise wanted Bob to see a professional, she should have said exactly that:
Louise: “Bob, I want us to go see a doctor for an assessment. “
Bob: “Why? You’re not on about the drinking again, are you? “
Louise: “I’ll go too. Let’s tell him what’s going on in our lives and see what he says. “
Bob: “I don’t need some stupid shrink to tell me how my life is going.”
Louise: “Maybe I need help, Bob. I’m asking you to come with me. “
Bob: “I won’t. Go yourself if you want to.”
Louise: “All right, I will. “
Bob: “I hope you’re not going to talk about me behind my back. “
Louise: “Only way to know is to come along, Bob. It’s up to you.”
Louise is very direct about her goal and it’s clearly one Bob could meet if willing. She knows her husband well enough to conclude that even if he doesn’t come along the first time, his curiosity will work overtime, and there’s a good chance he’ll join her on a later visit.