Dear Virginia, We've been married seven years and have two boys, aged three and four, but my husband has a drink problem. It's probably something to do with the terrible time he had as a member of the RUC – he saw dreadful things. At night he'd wake yelling about something he had remembered. Then he started gambling and I left home with the boys. But he keeps ringing and begging me to come back, saying he's changed. I do love him, but what shall I do?

Addicts always like to find a reason for their self-destructive behaviour. "Oh, my mother died when I was 10," they moan, as they reach out for the whisky bottle. "I don't feel understood at home"; "My child has cerebral palsy"; "I've been sacked." That's why, they argue, they either drink themselves into a stupor or gamble the family's fortunes away. But it just won't wash. I cannot think of a single person I know who hasn't suffered traumatic events in their lives, often far worse than the ones I've just mentioned, but they don't all drink and gamble.

So harden your heart and refuse even to dream of returning home until he's convinced you not only that he's going to change, but that he has already implemented a plan of change. It's no good believing him when he says he'll stop drinking and gambling. The tears may fall down his face as he falls to his knees, clasps his hands and pleads for your mercy, but he only seems convincing because he believes it himself. He's completely forgotten the strength of the pull of the bottle and the betting shop. But it's not fair on your two children even to give him a chance at this stage.

First, tell your husband if he wants you to return home, he must move out. Why should he be lording over the family nest like a king while you and your poor boys (who've done nothing wrong) perch, away from all your cosy things, on some uncomfortable and unfamiliar branch outside? He doesn't sound the most unselfish of blokes for a start.

Next, if you can get him out and move back in (a solicitor would help if he refuses) insist that he can't return unless he's proved he can remain drink and gambling-free for at least six months. He should also be going to at least a couple of AA meetings and a couple of Gamblers Anonymous meetings every week. He should visit his doctor to see if he can get any help for what might – and I say "might" very tentatively – be some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder after his time in the RUC. (An organisation such as Combat Stress, an ex-service mental welfare society – www.combatstress.org.uk – might help, too. There will people there who will speak a similar language as him and understand the culture he's been living.)

And if he manages to achieve all this, then you should tell him he can only move back in on condition that you run all the financial affairs just for the moment, and that the bank account is in your name only.

Obviously, he must have some money to spend, but each week you should both share with the other exactly what you've spent and on what, to try to build up an atmosphere of trust again. It really is important to share as much as possible because otherwise you risk turning into a petty tyrant yourself, and simply reversing the situation you've been living with for so long.

Then, with huge effort on both your parts, you might just manage to make a good life again, for the whole family.

Readers say

You can't save him on your own

Of course you love your husband. But your welfare and that of the children must come first. As the daughter of addict, I know there is nothing more destructive to a child's safety, self esteem and adult wellbeing than living in an atmosphere of tension, uncertainty and possible violence.

Your husband sounds as if he is suffering from post-traumatic stress. If he is serious about your being together, he must go for help with his problems. Only when he realises the extent of these, and the effect they are having on you, can you start to build a relationship. Please don't think you can save or help him on your own – your energy and efforts belong to your children, not managing the behaviours of an out-of-control adult who has a choice to seek assistance, or carry on the same destructive patterns.

Name and address supplied

This dilemma has two sides

No one can have anything but sympathy for this heart-rending problem. Those who have served in units such as the SAS and RUC, need support as much as the police and ambulance staff involved in the London bombings and the armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. And in all these cases there is the equal needs of their families.

This dilemma has two, equally demanding sides. The wife and children need a safe haven, which may mean separation, as your correspondent describes. But the husband also needs support. He begs her to return; she must tell him she will – but only if he accepts counselling for a problem no man, however strong, can deal with on his own.

The troubles he experienced will be – for a long time to come – an inevitable feature of the private lives of all who were involved in them.

John Pelling, Suffolk

Slow process

You say you love your husband but I'm sure it's the sober, non-gambling man you love. Your husband says he's changed, but before you make decisions, you have to know if it's true. It's unlikely he's been able to sort himself out without counselling or therapy. Drinking and gambling are his ways of dealing with the distressing events he's witnessed – but he can't be a supportive and loving husband until these things are resolved. So many women stay with men thinking they'll change and 20 years later they're still stuck in the same situation. Take things very slowly. Why not meet your husband once a week at a neutral location so you can talk things over? Your husband needs to seek help and must accept it will be a slow process regaining your trust.

Mrs A Mckeith, Aberdeenshire

Get evidence first

Ask him for evidence he has changed before uprooting your children again. If he can provide it, say you would return for a trial period. If he has changed, you can all become a happy family again.

Patricia McClymont, Edinburgh

Al-anon can help you both

Help is at hand at your nearest Al-Anon Family Group. The London office on 0207-403 0888 will be able to give you the name of your nearest group or go to www.al- anonuk.org.uk.

Audrey by email

Comments