Home Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy What Is Alcohol Behavioural Couple Therapy?

What Is Alcohol Behavioural Couple Therapy?

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Imagine this: it’s a Tuesday night. You and your partner have arrived home from work. The kids are running up and down the stairs, the dryer is buzzing, and all you can think about is how much you want a glass of wine. Everything settles just long enough for you to sneak away and pour yourself a glass. The wine feels wonderful as it slides down your throat and into your belly. You take a deep breath and close your eyes. You try to relax. You know when you open your eyes that your partner is going to be judging you for drinking. You take another deep breath before opening your eyes, and like every other day this past month, prepare yourself for an argument about how you have a drinking problem.

Does any of that sound familiar? If so, have you considered therapy to understand your drinking patterns or couple therapy to work on communication in your relationship? Have you and your partner ever considered alcohol-focused couple therapy?

Cognitive behavioural therapy

Many evidence-based individual therapies to help people cut back on drinking are based on a cognitive-behavioural framework. Cognitive-behavioural therapy can help individuals understand how their thoughts and behaviours are connected. This type of therapy helps people identify drinking triggers and teaches skills to help them meet and maintain their goals.

There are also several options for general couple therapy that have been designed to help partners improve their relationship. These therapies cover many different topics, like communication problems, infidelity, and intimacy. The therapist offers plenty of ways to explore the reasons that brought the couple to therapy. The goals of couple therapy can be wide-ranging, from improving relationship satisfaction and parenting to helping couples decide whether it may be a healthier choice to end their relationship.

Alcohol behavioural couple therapy

Unlike general couple therapy, alcohol behavioural couple therapy (or ABCT for short) helps partners understand how alcohol use is related to relationship problems and vice versa.

There are five foundational pieces of ABCT:

  1. The events happening around us before drinking influence how likely we are to drink. The connection between external factors, like having an argument, and drinking develops when drinking repeatedly results in positive outcomes.
  2. A person’s genetics and family history, thoughts, beliefs, and moods can affect how strongly they are influenced by external factors that can lead to drinking.
  3. When a person expects to experience positive benefits from drinking, the desire for those benefits plays an important role in deciding to drink.
  4. Immediate positive consequences of drinking, like feeling more relaxed or less nervous in social situations, help to reinforce continued drinking.
  5. Disadvantages of drinking, like hangovers and relationship problems, do not happen as quickly as advantages of drinking, so they can play a smaller role in our decisions to drink again.

Goals of alcohol behavioural couple therapy

Some of the goals of ABCT include reducing one or both partners’ drinking, teaching the non-drinking (or lighter-drinking) partner support and coping skills, and improving relationship functioning and satisfaction. This therapy also helps couples understand alcohol’s role in creating, maintaining, and worsening relationship problems.

ABCT might be a good fit for you and your partner if: 

  • You frequently argue about drinking
  • Your partner wants to support you in meeting your goals
  • You think that your relationship might benefit from learning about tools to support alcohol-related goals

And if you want to: 

  • Reduce your alcohol use or stop drinking altogether
  • Learn how to support your partner in meeting their alcohol-related goals
  • Understand how your drinking behaviours impact your partner
  • Understand how your behaviours might be contributing to your partner’s drinking
  • Learn how to better communicate about alcohol-related problems

For more information on how to seek alcohol treatment in your area, visit the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

Charli Kirby is a research assistant at a large academic medical centre in the Southeastern US. You can connect with her on Twitter @HelpPTSDAlcohol.

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