People whose spouse or partner spends increasingly more time in a pub are often tormented by the question: Is he or she an alcoholic?
It's a real issue for many people, men and women alike. They live with alcohol as a third party in their relationship and are often completely overburdened by it. They feel the need to pull their partners away from their addiction and at the same time hide it from their mutual surroundings, and that can put a great deal of strain on the relationship.
When this agonising concern for a partner or other relative is finally expressed, it's usually quite legitimate, said Hartmut Grosse of an Essen, Germany-based Al-Anon group that focuses on family. Many would prefer to ignore alarm signals for as long as possible.
'When the suspicion finally emerges, the signs usually are so obvious that an alcohol problem, if not addiction, already exists,' said Grosse.
In such situations it's important to raise suspicions as quickly as possible and as often as possible.
'Every delay in spelling out scepticism about someone's behaviour smooth the path toward dependence on alcohol and in serious cases extends the addiction,' said Christa Merfert-Diete of the German centre for addiction questions in Hamm.
When there's no longer any doubt that there is a problem, relatives can't do much to help - but they can do many things wrong.
'Alcoholism is an illness for which there is no cure and it can only be stopped through abstinence, and that can occur only if the alcoholic has the will to do it,' said Grosse.
Relatives can provide details about self-help groups or addiction counsellors, said Marita Voelker-Albers of the German centre for health education in Cologne.
'You have to make this clear: 'I am ready to support you,'' said Merfert-Diete. But it's just as important from the beginning not to leave any doubt that the support has limits. Experts say this is where many people fall into a trap: they try with all their might to get their loved-one to stop drinking. The attempt nearly always runs aground.
'It can be a serious mistake to help an alcoholic with a problem caused solely by his drinking,' said Merfert-Diete. Someone who calls his or her drunken partner's office to lie about why he or she is absent cannot hope that in the future he will easily return to pulling his own weight. Many people do such things on behalf of their alcoholic partners, stretching their resilience beyond its limits and further enabling their partner's alcoholism.
Al-Anon is a possible place to turn to for assistance. The group helps the families and friends of alcoholics find themselves again, explained Grosse. Many relatives of alcoholics have forgotten how to think about their needs. And if there's no other way, they must leave their partner. At the same time they must consciously acknowledge that they are not guilty of causing their partner's addiction.
'For an alcoholic, it's always someone else's fault,' said Grosse.
Despite all the necessary consequences and all feelings of helplessness, relatives should not give up hope.
'Week in, week out people meet in self-help groups that have successfully fought together against alcohol,' said Merfert-Diete. And one thing that's cleared, according to the centre for health education, an alcoholic is not a bad, weak-willed person. He is simply addicted.