While most adults in the United States consume alcohol at some point in their lives, for nearly 16 million American adults and about 623,000 adolescents, alcohol abuse leads to addiction, called alcohol use disorder (AUD). This chronic behavioral disease is characterized by a loss of control over how much one drinks; compulsive drinking despite social, physical, financial, or legal problems; cravings for alcohol; drinking more to get the same effects; and experiencing withdrawal symptoms like shaking, sweating, and mood disruptions when not drinking.
More men than women abuse alcohol, and for those in relationships with problem drinkers, emotions and behaviors may be unpredictable. Both men and women who date men who abuse alcohol may find themselves making excuses for their partner’s drinking or behavior while drinking, giving their boyfriend money to cover what he lost while drinking, going to the hospital if he is in an accident after drinking, or even suffering abuse at the hands of a drunk partner. It is important to understand the severity of this problem. A romantic partner can express concern for their boyfriend, and that concern may help him decide to get treatment.
How to Help Others Struggling with Alcohol
Excessive Drinking and Men
Standards of problem drinking are different for men and women. This is largely because men have more water weight and more muscle while women have more body fat; hormonal differences change how alcohol is processed; and women are more likely to have a diagnosed mental health condition, especially a mood disorder like anxiety or depression, compared to men, which increases the risk of self-medicating with alcohol. For men, excessive drinking levels are different than they are for women.
- Heavy drinking is 15 or more drinks per week, or about two drinks per day, for men.
- Binge drinking is five or more drinks in a two-hour period for men.
If a boyfriend drinks more than two drinks per day, or frequently binge drinks with friends, coworkers, or at meals, this could indicate that he has a problem with alcohol.
Identifying When a Few Drinks Becomes a Problem
Signs that a boyfriend may be drinking too much will likely be behavioral. He may be kind and considerate while he is sober, but becomes aggressive or sad while he is drunk. Communication often becomes difficult, as he will spend a lot of time feeling guilty about how he acted while he is drunk, which may cause emotional stress and trigger another bout of problem drinking. He may demand attention, help, or even sex from his partner while he is drunk, and then regret these actions in the morning. He may be the life of the party while he is drunk, but painfully introverted or anxious while sober. Alcohol changes brain chemistry, which changes his perception of reality and how he should act in response.
A person watching their boyfriend struggle with behavioral problems because of alcohol will naturally want to help. But what is the best approach? Generally, showing care and concern helps, but what if there is a serious problem? How should it be discussed?
- “I’m concerned about how you behave when you drink because [example].”
- “I’ve noticed that you seem to feel bad about yourself/life/your job/etc. when you drink too much.”
- “You seem to get sick a lot after you drink and I don’t want you to feel bad.”
- “I wonder if you may feel better if you drink less/stop drinking.”
- “Maybe we can do something without alcohol this weekend.”
In some senses, this is a small-scale intervention. Talking to him alone may be a good start to encouraging him to seek treatment or make healthier choices, like quitting use of alcohol. However, denial is one sign that a person struggles with AUD or problem drinking, so he may refuse help, deny that he has a problem, become angry, or lie about the problem. He may not know how serious his problem is.
This kind of one-on-one intervention only works if a person feels safe with their boyfriend. Unfortunately, alcohol abuse is a major contributor to intimate partner violence.
Alcohol and Intimate Partner Abuse
Intimate partner violence is a term encompassing abuse of many loved ones, including domestic violence against spouses or romantic partners. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), these abusive behaviors cause physical, sexual, or psychological harm within the relationship. They can include:
- Physical aggression like hitting, kicking, or slapping
- Psychological intimidation, belittling, or humiliation
- Forced sexual intercourse or activities
- Controlling behaviors like isolating the person from friends and family
- Restricting access to certain activities
- Monitoring their movements or conversations
Worldwide, problem drinking is linked to an increased risk of intimate partner abuse. The reduction in self-control, the more intense mood swings, and the potential for an underlying mental illness make people who drink excessively more likely to abuse their romantic partners and more likely to become the victims of this abuse. WHO found that, in the United States, 55 percent of victims of intimate partner violence believed that their partner drank too much before physically assaulting them. While men are victims of intimate partner abuse from both male and female partners, women are at much higher risk from male partners than other demographic groups (three in 10 women, or 29 percent, compared to one in 10 men, or about 10 percent).
If a woman does not feel safe because of her boyfriend’s drinking, she should find help from a trusted friend, family member, or law enforcement.
How to Help Him Stop Drinking
A one-on-one intervention can help men decide to seek treatment, especially if a spouse or girlfriend expresses concern. If she feels safe doing so, a woman should follow these steps to approach her boyfriend about his problem drinking:
- Learn about alcohol use disorder to talk knowledgably about the issues; this may include going to a physician or therapist to discuss symptoms.
- Practice what she will say to him.
- Pick the right time and place while he is sober.
- Listen to him with honesty and compassion.
- Do not enable his drinking. It is important for her to set clear boundaries on how she will help and when she will not support problem behaviors like drinking too much.
- Express love and concern.
- Find some treatment options that may be a good fit for his needs.
Discussing the acute and chronic consequences of excessive drinking may help. Men are socialized to be more independent and rational, and to view emotions as weaknesses; adding data to a discussion of treatment can help men feel more in control and understand that they have a problem.
Short-term, or acute, health consequences from drinking too much may include:
- Increased risk of physical injury from accidents like falling or car crashes
- Risk of becoming a victim of violence, including robbery or assault
- Risk of suicide due to associated mood and behavioral changes
- Risky sexual behaviors, including unprotected sex and infidelity, which could lead to contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STI)
Long-term, or chronic, health damage can include:
- High blood pressure
- Cardiovascular disease
- Mental illness
- Learning, cognition, and memory problems
- Loss of other relationships, including with family members
- Financial issues, including job loss
- Liver damage and failure
- Increased risk of mouth, esophageal, stomach, and liver cancer
- Other digestive problems, including ulcers
If He Doesn’t Accept Help
If expressing love, concern, support, and setting boundaries do not convince him to seek treatment, it is important to follow through on consequences. Maintain boundaries; for example, do not give him money when he spends too much on alcohol; don’t make excuses for his behavior to coworkers or other loved ones; and leave the house if he is unsafe to be around.
It may be time to enlist more help. If he does not respond to one person, he may respond to more loved ones. Gather trusted friends and family members who have also noticed that he has problems with alcohol. Stage an intervention, or hire a professional interventionist to plan and lead the meeting. Consider bringing a therapist or physician to the intervention to talk about the physical and mental consequences of drinking too much.
It may also be important, as the romantic partner of a man struggling with problem drinking, to get help for yourself. Consider finding a therapist who specializes in codependent behaviors or a family therapist who can understand the relationship between alcohol abuse and romantic dynamics. Self-care is just as important as your boyfriend getting treatment. It may also be important, as his partner, to consider your own alcohol consumption and control that behavior or stop drinking altogether. This example will improve your health and may model better behavior for your boyfriend.