In the 90s, Meg Ryan was the biggest rom-com queen of all time. She was known for starring in myriad iconic movies, including You’ve Got Mail, Sleepless in Seattle, and When Harry Met Sally. At the time, the twenty-eight-year-old made headlines for reenacting a feigned orgasm on screen, which even now is an ongoing trope to describe how far women will go to please a man over themselves. However, beyond that progressive scene, there was one overlooked movie she starred in that rivaled social norms in ways that generations before never had.
To the naked eye, When a Man Loves a Woman’s title lures in first-time viewers who are looking to watch another one of Ryan’s romantic comedies. But it’s less about how a man loves a woman and more about how a woman grapples with alcohol use disorder in an age when women with alcohol use disorder, in particular, were stigmatized in pop culture, let alone in real life. It’s also about how Andy Garcia’s character, Michael, and her young children are affected by her disease.
When Meg Ryan’s character, Alice, marries Michael, she had two girls under the age of 10 from a previous marriage. As viewers, we aren’t privy to why her first marriage ended or how her second husband came into the picture. All we know is that in the 90s, divorce was not as common.
Right off the bat, it’s understood that Michael loves his wife despite her “baggage” (as some masochists would call it) and equally loves her children like they’re his own. Like most men, though, he wanted to be the savior to Alice’s damsel in distress persona. In the early days of their relationship, her drinking was deemed “silly” or “cute.” In one scene, she got a little too drunk on vacation and had to be carried back to their hotel room in her husband’s strong arms.
Being a savior isn’t necessarily a bad thing — unless your wife has alcohol use disorder.
“I know we have pressures, and we need to have fun,” he says, “but wringing you out at the end of an evening is less fun than it used to be.” Being a savior isn’t necessarily a bad thing — unless your wife has alcohol use disorder.
According to Isaac Setton, LMHC, CASAC, “When a spouse believes they are a savior, they think that the person with alcohol use disorder will get better for them. They believe they can change the person with alcohol use disorder by giving in to their needs, covering up their lies, and not allowing them to face the consequences for their actions.” This behavior enables their spouse to continue self-destructing.
To be fair, Michael didn’t understand the extent of his wife’s drinking problem. Like someone with a substance use disorder tend to do, Alice covered up her actions by hiding bottles in brown paper bags, drinking outside after everyone was asleep, and showing up to work as a high school guidance counselor hungover. But, at one point, she runs outside and starts pelting a car with eggs while Michael acts as an enabler by joining in.
“A disappointing truth is that often, husbands just aren’t present enough in the marriage to notice that their wife is under the influence, just as long as the wife’s duties are taken care of,” Kevin Barry Heaney, LCSW of The Safe Foundation explains. Even though Michael worked long hours, he was eventually privy to how severe her problem became.
At her lowest point, Alice came home drunk, told her children’s nanny to go home, and slapped her eldest daughter across the face in a drunken daze. She then tumbled into the shower door which shattered into a million glass particles. That scenario urged her to seek help, and Michael was completely on board. Later on, in AA, Alice even admits to driving drunk with her babies in tow and sometimes forgetting them when she was out running errands.
Nowadays, parents are more open with their children about their mother or father’s addiction and recovery. In the 90s, that was much less common. But Michael and Alice didn’t leave their young children in the dark and even brought them to visit Alice while she was in rehab.
“More and more children these days are being informed of their parent’s issue with addiction. When parents are open with their children about addictions, it helps the children get a better understanding of the situation and allow for the children to realize that they are not the cause or to blame for their mother’s addiction,” Setton explains.
When Alice is in rehab, the children don’t have a mother figure around. Since Michael works as a pilot, he hires their babysitter full-time to help out. Nannies are a luxury and show how privileged women with alcohol use disorder have better access to child care than those who can’t afford it.
When mothers — who are typically the primary caretakers — go to rehab, they’re shamed not only for their substance use disorder but even more for leaving their children behind. They also fear going into recovery will result in social service involvement.
“We are definitely behind the times when it comes to addressing these issues and resources available. For example, women never exceed 30% of the beds at one of New York’s most celebrated inpatient rehabilitation facility [because they can’t leave their children],” Leigh Wolfsthal, LCSW of The Safe Foundation, says even though 70% of women entering treatment have children.
When mothers — who are typically the primary caretakers — go to rehab, they’re shamed not only for their substance use disorder but even more for leaving their children behind.
Equal domestic labor was not a topic of conversation like it is now. But, in When a Man Loves a Woman, Michael actually cared for the kids when he came home from work and patiently answered questions they had about their mom. Beyond that, he takes it upon himself to attend regular Al-Anon meetings.
In the 90s, there weren’t commercials or initiatives to break down toxic masculinity. And yet, Michael put in the effort to understand his wife and openly breaks down to cry.
According to Heaney and Wolfsthal, he was taking steps in the right direction. “The most important way for a husband to help his wife with alcohol use disorder is to acknowledge the problem. The next step is to provide love and support for her efforts to get help. It’s also extremely important for husbands to get help to sort through their own feelings about their wives’ drinking.” Ultimately, he gives her the space she needs to feel independent before they get back together.
Today, it’s more acceptable for women to drink, therefore they don’t feel as much of a need to hide their addiction. Because it is more widely accepted, they can hide it differently than they did before. “Women can ‘hide’ their addiction through what would seem like ‘normal behavior.’ Having 2-3 glasses of wine with dinner may be considered normal but when it adds up to about 14-16 drinks per week, that’s typically the sign of a problem,” Setton explains.
“Having 2-3 glasses of wine with dinner may be considered normal but when it adds up to about 14-16 drinks per week, that’s typically the sign of a problem.”
Even though women with alcohol use disorder ranks have grown since the 90s, stigma is still the most common barrier to treatment seeking.
Historically, substance abuse in women was considered selfish and seen as intentionally harmful to the children and a burden to society. Women living in poverty have it worse because they’re limited to financial resources and have lower employment and education rates than their male counterparts to begin with.
When a Man Loves a Woman changed how people viewed women with alcohol use disorder (i.e you can be a beautiful middle-class woman and still be a person with substance abuse disorder, like Alice) but they didn’t address the hurdles women in poverty face, where the barriers are more difficult to overcome. However, a study conducted by NCBI shows that wealthier women were found to drink more than impoverished women due in part to their easier access to alcohol. Regardless of neighborhood poverty, the authors agreed that stigma around women with alcohol use disorder is prevalent no matter your socioeconomic background.
Although more work needs to be done in order to continue to destigmatize women in recovery, it’s incredible to look back 25 years to When a Man Loves a Woman and how truly revolutionary this movie was in terms of how it discussed women and alcohol use disorder.