How to analyze a drinking problem

Stanton Peele By: Dr. Stanton Peele

Posted on April 30th, 2008 - Last updated: February 5th, 2014
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I have always been aware that my boyfriend of 5 years has “a problem with alcohol.” I have put the previous phrase in quotes because I am having a tough time classifying his problem. He does not have a problem in that he needs a drink all of the time, or that he drinks every day. In fact, he might engage in social drinking about three times per month. His problem is the way he gets when he is drunk, or even if he has had only two drinks. He develops a very bad temper, which has lead to trouble on a number of instances, and/or he will do other things that he would never ever do if he were sober.

He and I are both aware of his problem, and we are also aware that it most likely has stemmed from his father who also has a drinking problem. Many times we have tried to limit the number of drinks per occasion: this worked for the first few times, but of course it never stuck. He has even stopped drinking for a few months at a time, but to no avail. We now have decided that he must stop drinking altogether, because he just cannot handle his alcohol.

The main reason for writing is because I have been trying to find information that may pertain to his individual problem, and I have either came up with information about those who cannot live without a drink, for example, or about those that just want to “control and monitor their drinking.” Anything you can give me or direct me to about my particular situation would be a big help.

Thank you for your time.



Dear J.J.:

Well, I can say the following:

  1. You’re doing the best thing possible by carefully monitoring your boyfriend’s behavior in drinking situations (with his active participation, needless to say!);
  2. Caring enough about him to (a) help him change, (b) insist he changes;
  3. Trying alternative strategies for change until settling on the one which fits best.

Beyond that, you find that your boyfriend neither falls into the category of a person who has a craving for alcohol, nor one who can monitor and control his drinking behavior. So you seek abstinence as his only appropriate drinking style. Your goal is pretty clear, you and he have arrived at it empirically, and you seem to be mutually committed to it (although I only have your word for that — after all, he could be searching for information and he could have written me).

There is no better information than that you arrive at on your own (or, in this case, together). What could someone tell you that would make his/your job clearer? If boyfriend truly agrees with you that it is in his and your best interest that he avoid all alcohol, go for it. He could join an abstinence support group, but he would be so atypical at an AA group meeting that he might encounter a lot of flack (RR might be better).

If you are seeking confirmation that a drinking problem exists in which people do not crave alcohol but drink too much whenever they do drink (or, in this case, act inappropriately whenever they drink), this is a type of alcoholism noted by Jellinek and really, throughout history.

In addition, since you feel it is not a question of “loss of control,” you can be somewhat relaxed about the occasional drink — the wedding toast, for instance — while maintaining an overall commitment to abstinence.

Best wishes,

Stanton Peele

Dr. Stanton Peele, recognized as one of the world's leading addiction experts, developed the Life Process Program after decades of research, writing, and treatment about and for people with addictions. Dr. Peele is the author of 14 books. His work has been published in leading professional journals and popular publications around the globe.

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