Living with or loving someone who has a drinking problem can leave a person feeling helpless and incredibly isolated. Over time, friends and family can start to shy away from their alcoholic loved one to avoid the issues related to their extreme alcohol abuse.
Not wanting to share the realities of a loved one’s drinking issues furthers those feelings of isolation. However, there are millions of people in the United States struggling with an alcohol use disorder (AUD), or alcoholism, and many of these people have loved ones who care about them.
Knowing the nature of AUD can help those close to an alcoholic understand how alcohol addiction is affecting their loved one, and in turn how it is affecting them.
About Alcohol Abuse
Moderate alcohol use is not usually a call for concern. Moderate alcohol use is considered less than seven drinks in one week for women, or less than 14 drinks per week for men.
Based on the criteria for alcohol abuse, many people suffer from some form of AUD. Alcohol use disorder is characterized as a chronic brain disorder where an individual is unable to stop or control how much alcohol they consume, despite the consequences related to their health, relationships, work, or the law.
Symptoms of AUD include:
- substantial cravings for alcohol
- finding reasons or making excuses to drink
- refraining from participating in activities once enjoyed
- drinking more or longer than intended
- suffering from alcohol withdrawal symptoms
- being unable to stop or cut back on drinking
In addition, it can be helpful to know that most alcoholics are in denial about their drinking being an issue. Alcoholic denial manifests into gaslighting, avoidance, lying, and a number of other relationship-damaging behaviors.
In turn, denial can lead to codependency, blaming, mistrust, violation of boundaries, and lack of self-care between the alcoholic and their loved one. Understanding how the disease of alcoholism relates to these behaviors can open the eyes of everyone involved, and hopefully lead to a life of sobriety without sacrificing the relationship.
Setting Boundaries With Your Alcoholic Loved One
Establishing and maintaining boundaries are the cornerstone of most healthy relationships. Making it clear to others what will and will not be tolerated within the relationship will help keep people accountable for their behaviors.
Setting healthy boundaries with an active alcoholic can dramatically change the relationship for the better. Be clear about what your own needs are, what you won’t tolerate, what you condone, what you don’t like, and, most importantly, what you need from them.
The most important part of boundaries is sticking to them. Strong boundaries can be a healthy guide in a relationship, especially with an alcoholic. Boundaries also can work to help someone with an alcohol problem realize they could benefit from a substance abuse treatment facility.
Breaking Free From An Unhealthy Codependency
Codependency is common in relationships involving alcoholism. Children of alcoholic parents struggle with significant codependency issues in relationships.
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People become codependent on one another due to enabling and an unhealthy reliance on each other to provide a sense of identity.
Some examples of codependency include:
- unsteady, inconsistent boundaries
- setting one’s own needs aside to take on their partners
- needing constant reassurance of love, affection, commitment
- difficulties communicating feelings, specifically to avoid conflict<?li>
- allowing the other person’s mood to affect their day (for example, if one is having a bad day the other is having a bad day as well)
- feeling responsible for their well-being, how they behave or what they say
Avoid Enabling Your Alcoholic Loved One
Enabling is essentially taking care of the decision-making and responsibilities of the addicted person (even though they could do it themselves if they were sober). People also try to protect their loved ones from the consequences of their drunken behaviors.
Enabling people with an alcohol use disorder might seem like helping them, but it is harmful and further perpetuates their addiction. What initially seems harmless may actually contribute to increased alcohol consumption.
Denial can result in enabling and minimizing the behaviors of an alcoholic. Whether it is fear of being punished for calling them out or hiding their issues due to embarrassment, these behaviors are damaging to the relationship.
Examples of enabling are:
- giving them money
- calling into work for them
- drinking with them
- bailing them out of jail
- finding justifications for them to drink
- not letting them see the damage they are causing around them or to themselves
- giving them multiple chances
- driving them around while they are drunk or to go drink
While it can feel like you are abandoning your loved one at the exact moment they need you, the best thing you can do for someone with an alcohol use disorder is to let them feel the consequences of a crisis they set in motion.
When you stop enabling an alcoholic it forces them to see and deal with the consequences of their actions. Shining a light on the problem may also help them see the need for a substance abuse treatment program.
The Role Of Blame In Alcoholism
No matter how many times a loved one of an alcoholic hears “it’s not your fault”, they have likely been blamed or blame themselves for their partner’s drinking problem. The fact is that blaming a partner for the other’s alcohol addiction is a form of verbal abuse.
Regardless of those types of statements, the only person to blame for an alcoholic’s drinking problem is the alcoholic.
The longer a person abuses alcohol, the more likely they are to alter their brain chemistry. Once this happens, they are no longer in actual control of their drinking. The compulsion becomes so intense, they may find themselves shocked by their own behaviors.
Taking the things an addicted person does personally is another way people blame themselves, and it couldn’t be further from the truth.
Fostering Self-Care And Love
Making the commitment to love yourself, above all else, is not selfish, but a show of strength. Addiction has taken someone you love and turned them into someone you don’t recognize.
It is more than okay to love yourself. It does not mean that you don’t love for your partner, parent, child, or friend. Taking a step back and evaluating your role in the relationship is a good place to start.
Attending local Al-Anon support group meetings is a good way to surround yourself with people going through similar issues. Al-Anon groups offer support, multiple resources, and valuable information on how to cope with your loved one’s addiction.
Continuing To Love An Alcoholic
Loving an alcoholic is hard. Loving an alcoholic takes work. The disease of addiction can sometimes cripple relationships, but it doesn’t have to.
While it is true that the circumstances surrounding addiction can damage self-esteem, test boundaries, and make you question many things, there can be a silver lining.
If your loved one is willing to hear you, and you are willing to work with them as they get the help they need to manage their addiction and journey into recovery, your relationship doesn’t have to end.
Leaning on a support system of family members and friends, being honest about the reality of what alcoholism has done in your life, and admitting that you both need help to become well are all things that can help save your relationship.
Finding Addiction Treatment For Your Loved One
Substance use disorders are hard to treat or manage without the help of substance abuse treatment programs. Behavioral health treatment centers offer a number of different treatment options, such as detox, therapy, substance abuse counseling, aftercare, or outpatient services.
For someone who has had relationship issues due to addiction, family therapy is a good option to navigate having a healthy relationship.
Our helpline is open and we are available to discuss substance abuse treatment options for you or your loved one. Reach out to us today, so we can help.
Addiction Resource aims to provide only the most current, accurate information in regards to addiction and addiction treatment, which means we only reference the most credible sources available.
These include peer-reviewed journals, government entities and academic institutions, and leaders in addiction healthcare and advocacy. Learn more about how we safeguard our content by viewing our editorial policy.
- Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly — Treatment for Alcoholism: Older and Wiser?
- Bey & Bey — Loving the adult child of an alcoholic
- Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners — All in the Family: Resources and Referrals for Alcoholism
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism — Drinking Levels Defined
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism — Alcohol Use Disorder: A Comparison Between DSM-IV and DSM-5
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) — Resources for Families Coping with Mental and Substance Use Disorders